News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 5, 2012

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: The siege at Fort Harrison in 1812

Mike McCormick
The Tribune-Star


The night was pitch black. Rain clouds threatened.

It was a few minutes after 10 o’clock.

A sole Kickapoo Indian stood at the edge of a clearing. The Wabash River was but a stone’s throw away, its waters quietly rippling around an abrupt bend.

The date: Sept. 4, 1812, nearly 200 years ago.

The Kickapoo closed his eyes. Fort Harrison was about 100 yards in front of him but, in the darkness, he could not see its 150-foot square dimensions.

He knew that the fort housed about 50 people, comprising a company of soldiers of the 7th U.S. Infantry headed by Capt. Zachary Taylor and several civilians, including  some women and children. He also knew that many residents were ill, suffering from a fever that frequently plagued white men unfamiliar with river mosquitoes.

Concealed among the trees surrounding the stockade were more than 500 warriors from several nations. Many were his fellow Kickapoos but there were others: Weas,  Potawatomis, Winnebagoes, Delawares and some Shawnees. They awaited his signal.

The Indians were antagonized by the Americans. “Long Knives,” they were called.

Not long ago, Pakoisheecan recalled, the blue-green grass surrounding the fort belonged to the Indians. There was no such thing as land ownership. Land was a gift of the spirits. It produced fruit, maize and beans so the natives could survive.

It was the home of the buffalo, bear, deer and honey bee trees.

The Long Knives were changing all that. They were stealing the land, claiming it was theirs through treaties with Indian nations that never resided there. Pakoisheecan wanted to do his part to stop them.

Pakoisheecan’s village on the Vermillion River was a participant in a confederation  organized by the great Shawnee, Tecumseh. Even the  Long Knives respected him. “Only if we work together,” Tecumseh counseled, could Indians survive.

Paskoisheecan believed him.

Tecumseh also sought revenge. While he was forming his federation in the south 10 months earlier, his brother’s village at Tippecanoe, 60 miles up the river, was the site of a bloody battle where many Native Americans were slain.

Fort Harrison was built by Indiana Territorial Gov. William Henry Harrison and his army during October 1811 to house troops going to that confrontation.

Tecumseh and his one-eyed brother, Tenkswatawa, a self-proclaimed prophet, had forged an alliance with the British, once the Kickapoos’ dreaded foe. After relinquishing control of the colonies as the result of the Revolutionary War, Britain opposed the victor’s expansion into western America.

The British supplied the Native Americans with food, supplies, guns and ammunition in exchange for active opposition to the Long Knives’ occupancy.

President James Madison officially declared war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812, but. in July and August, the Americans were beaten soundly at every turn. Largely due to incompetence, the forts at Mackinac, Detroit and Dearborn (in Chicago) were surrendered to the British.

As Pakoisheecan stood on the eastern shore of the Wabash, the Shawnee Prophet and chief Winamac were organizing an attack on the American garrison at Fort Wayne. On Sept. 3, a Shawnee marauding party killed 24 residents of the Pigeon Roost settlement in present Scott Country and kidnapped two children.

Pakoisheecan shared the responsibility for Fort Harrison’s demise with aging Kickapoo chief Namahtoha, who the Americans called Joseph Lennar or Jose “Renard.” Renard was the French word for “Fox.”

Earlier in the day, Namahtoha and about 35 Indians, including a few women and children, landed at a clearing on the eastern bank of the Wabash adjacent to the fort. For about an hour, they played children’s games with the shadows of the garrison’s walls.

Finally, a few Indians bearing a flag of truce approached the main gate on the east side of the fort. A woman asked soldiers manning the bastions at the fort’s corners for some food to share with the children. Namahtoha, through an interpreter, sought to meet in peace with the commander.

The guards notified Capt. Taylor about Namahtoha’s request but Taylor, ill with fever, refused, offering to parley the next morning. Taylor had reason to be cautious. He had just received alarming news from a friendly Wea scout that 600 hostile Indians from Prophet’s Town were secretly planning to attack Fort Harrison.

While waiting for a response, Namahtoha strolled around the fort, examining its walls and the blockhouses on its western corners. He told Pakoisheecan what he saw.

The men shared their intelligence with other Wea chiefs, particularly Sonamahougy (known as Stone Eater) and Mukwahkononga (Bear Marks). The four men, and perhaps others, mapped a battle plan.

Near dusk, an Indian army of more than 500 warriors, manned with British arms and ammunition, moved in small groups at intervals over a two-hour period. Secreting themselves among honey locusts 200 yards away, the combatants spoke nary a word.

At 10:15 p.m., the hoot of an owl penetrated the night air from the north; a moment later a turkey gobble was heard in the east. The warriors were ready.

Taking a deep breath, Pakoisheecan – who the French called “La Farine,” meaning “The Flour” — took several strides into a clearing south of Fort Harrison, avoiding contact with about 65 head of cattle and several dozen pigs which roamed the military grounds and provided the occupants with protein.

He squinted to find silhouettes of the fort’s two-story blockhouses. He knew each  had observation portholes.

With a long knife in each hand, a bag of tinder and flint strapped to his side and a blanket sack on his back containing dry grass, woodchips and bear grease, Pakoisheecan stealthily approached the fort.

Continued next week