Monthly Archives: June 2016

Social Layering in Prophetstown

Written October 1, 2015

In the story of Prophetstown and Tecumseh’s Uprising, the number of actors who influenced events can make crafting a clear explanation unwieldy. At times, there seem to be as many ‘sides’ as there are actors. Yet there are patterns of behavior that become more distinct through the division of actors into social layers. Through this lens, it becomes apparent that there were four primary struggles leading up to Tecumseh’s Uprising. The struggle between the fledgling government of the United States and the Native Americans who inhabited the continent and the struggle between American settlers and Native Americans are both commonly known; less known are the struggles between that government and its westward-moving population of settlers, and the struggle between the leaders and warriors of the various Native American communities in that region. To understand how these four struggles climaxed in the Battle of Prophetstown, we will look at the influence of two social layers: a strategic layer populated by government officials and recorded through treaties and official records, and a tactical layer of individual actors who frequently chose a route contrary to the guidance of their official leaders.

To be concise, the strategic layer in this series of events consists of the United States government and the Algonquian Confederacy[1] as entities. On the United States’ side, this includes the workings of government officials such as they are represented in the treaties, policies, and other official records. President Thomas Jefferson was a strategic actor in his purchase of Louisiana on the country’s behalf, and in his hiring of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the same land.

It’s important to note that by the end of 1789, the US government presumed single ownership of all land east of the Mississippi, which included the land that would later become Prophetstown[2]. This was a tenuous sort of ownership that lacked possession as a support. It depended on the cooperation or annihilation of the Native American, who did possess the land through inhabitance. The US ownership of the land was challenged – mocked, even – by that land’s occupation by other people. That is, unless the US government considered the Native Americans as part of the land, something less human and more a part of the landscape to be cleared for farming. Lewis’ speech to the Otos tribe[3] reflects the awkwardness of his country’s position. President Jefferson wasn’t quite sure what to do with these “children” his country had inherited from the British, but he thought commerce, not violence, was the best option for clearing the land of Native Americans[4]. Regardless, the US government undertook a process of accumulating land through treaties with the inhabiting Native Americans[5]. While the young government lacked the power to enforce its ownership of the land[6], the expedition of Lewis and Clark was a strong movement toward possession of that vaguely owned land.

Meanwhile, Tenskwatawa the Prophet, and his brother Tecumseh were strategic actors as the leaders of the Algonquian Confederacy, but lacked authoritative intent of a type and degree that could have resulted in a more unified force[7]. More detrimental to their cause, though, was that their cause lacked a consensus. Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh came into this layered pseudo-war with, perhaps, a certain degree of naiveté, which cost them a firm connection with their tactical counterparts: the other Native Americans in the region, primarily the Miamis, many of whose families included French traders. As Shawnees, the brothers were culturally enabled to separate their sense of self from the land they inhabited. Shawnees were accustomed to an itinerant lifestyle, and were culturally untroubled by moving to a new land. The Miamis and the French who cohabited in the region were not so flexible. The Miamis, whose cultural sense of self was tethered more solidly to their specific land, opposed Prophetstown at the outset because of the existential threat posed by the idea of moving their settlement [8]. Furthermore, the French-Miami community had been created by trade between Native Americans and Europeans and still relied on the same for its livelihood. Tenskwatawa’s ban of trade between Native Americans and Europeans or European-Americans[9] would have been both insulting and financially disastrous for that community.

The French and Miamis would have lost something, whether trade or land, under either side of the strategic layer, and it may be that Tecumseh’s Confederacy represented the lesser evil. The French-Miami community would have lost trade under the rules of the Pan-Indian Alliance, but the Miamis, and their French family members, at least could expect to lose their ancestral homes to the expanding United States. So while the Miamis and French living there could be considered part of the Algonquian Confederacy, their goals were not aligned with that of the strategic actors of the Confederacy. The difference in their goals meant that the tactical and strategic layers of Tecumseh’s Confederacy never connected, and that coupled with the confederacy’s lack of authority meant the two layers did not act in unison. In fact, so far was the political distance between the French-Miami community and the Algonquian Confederacy, the French and Miamis might be better considered tactical actors who occupied the space between sides, though they held closer social allegiance to the Algonquian Confederacy.

The French-Miami community wasn’t the only tactical counterpart to Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa; the war chiefs in other Native American villages chaffed against their restrictions, too. Before the American Revolution, the Algonquian Confederacy had accomplished a unification of purpose with the British. They shared and mutually defended the land in a “common ownership”[10]. The Revolution changed the power dynamic as the British-Native American alliances began to break down, and the Algonquian Confederacy found itself forced to deal more and more with the United States, but the Revolution also shifted the balance of power within Native American communities so that chiefs lost power to war chiefs and warriors. The war chiefs, who were essentially the lead warriors of their groups of warriors, were tactical actors, and they often had their own personal goals that had little to do with the Prophet’s grand plan. White notes that “The chiefs could not control most Shawnee Wyandot, Mingo, and refugee Cherokee warriors.”[11]

Not that all the chiefs were falling into step with Tecumseh’s Confederacy, either. Main Poc was a Potawatomi chief that might be considered the brothers’ most logistically valuable ally[12] because he allowed them to create Prophetstown at his settlement. As such he was a tactical actor in their confederacy. Yet Main Poc did not agree with the Prophet’s ban on alcohol trade or trading with non-Native Americans, and he continued to do both throughout his association with the brothers[13]. Shawnee chiefs Captain Pipe and Half King were similarly unaligned with their confederacy. Each had become disenchanted with the confederacy as a whole after their villages suffered from disease and war casualties (in the Revolutionary War, during which they sided with the British), and was concerned only for his own village. These two men, whose status as chiefs was circumstantial and tenuous at best, lacked authority within the Algonquian Confederacy. Nevertheless, they acted as signatories on a treaty that gave away land which was not theirs to give. “In the view of the general council of the fledgling confederacy, which rejected the treaties as invalid,” White says, “these men had betrayed the confederacy to which they belonged.”[14]

The US government had a different problem with its tactical counterparts. The two layers of the US side had similar goals: they wanted the Native Americans’ land. The new Americans, especially as represented by men like William Henry Harrison, the Governor of the Indian Territory, opposed the Prophetstown agenda for the unambiguous reason that it blocked – philosophically and physically – their accumulation of Indian lands[15]. The two layers had different ways of going about it, though, and their disparate methods encouraged a broadening gap between them.

The tactical layer of each side was more likely to make decisions based on local, anecdotal experience than on strategically beneficial, longer range goals. This was evident in Main Poc’s behavior and that of Captain Pipe and Half King, but it was clear too in the behavior of the European-American settlers. While Presidents Adams and Jefferson hoped to acquire the Native Americans’ lands through trade and treaties, brokered by Governor Harrison, the settlers had no interest in sharing that land with anyone, including their government. “Ignoring the government’s land laws, the backcountry people ignored, too, its Indian policy.”[16] The settlers and the war chiefs began an escalation of violence based on invasions and retaliations that violated the strategic aims of both confederacies, Algonquian and American.

Between the two sides the third group of tactical actors, the French-Miami community within the Algonquian Confederacy, fought a war of misinformation. They passed exaggerations and sometimes complete falsehoods concerning the military strength and intent of the Prophet to Governor Harrison, indicating that the Pan-Indian Alliance was aggressive and martially capable. The increasing violence between war chiefs and settlers gave weight to their accusations, despite the lack of authoritative control over either the war chiefs or the settlers. Conveniently, both of these opposing groups (French-Miamis and settlers) found Prophetstown to be “the root of regional instability”[17] in their exchanges with Governor Harrison and his representatives, and eventually they worked themselves up in a steady progression of violence and manipulation that allowed Harrison to attack Prophetstown with righteous conviction.

Had the strategic and tactical layers of either side been unified, the result would have been very different, though it’s hard to predict what those differences would amount to. The division between layers stymied both sides in their goals and allowed for misinformation to become a catalyst of war. Looking back, the ultimate success of the new Americans seems inevitable, but one has to wonder what might have happened if either confederacy had been unified.



Ambrose, Stephen. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. New York: Touchstone, 1996.

Bottiger, Patrick. “Prophetstown for Their Own Purposes: The French, Miamis, and Cultural Identities in the Wabash-Maumee Valley.” Journal of the Early Republic 33 (Spring 2013): 29-60.

Fritz, Scott. “The West in the Early National Period.” Course Literature for History 551: The West in American History, Western New Mexico University, NM, September 22, 2014.

White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.



[1] White, Middle Ground, describes the Prophet’s Pan-Indian Alliance as the Algonquian Confederacy; see Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), XV. Bottiger, Prophetstown for Their Own Purposes, describes the same as Tecumseh’s Confederacy; see Patrick Bottiger, Prophetstown for Their Own Purposes: The French, Miamis, and Cultural Identities in the Wabash-Maumee Valley, Journal of the Early Republic 33 (Spring 2013).

[2] In 1783 the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War, and ownership of the land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River was passed from Great Britain to the American colonies; the land due west of each colony was ‘owned’ by that colony until 1789, when the Articles of Confederation were replaced with the Constitution, and the federal government bought the colonies’ western lands to play the colonies’ war debts. See: Scott Fritz, “The West in the Early National Period” (Course Literature for History 551: The West in American History, Western New Mexico University, NM, September 22, 2014).

[3] Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 156.

[4] Ibid., 348.

[5] Bottiger, Prophetstown, 43.

[6] This was because the US government was physically distant and lacked the resources to extend meaningfully into the region around Prophetstown (White, Middle Ground, 416-17).

[7] Ibid., 416-421.

[8] Bottiger, Prophetstown, 39.

[9] Ibid., 41.

[10] White, Middle Ground, 435.

[11] White, Middle Ground, 435.

[12] Main Poc allowed Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh to build Prophetstown at his settlement (Bottiger, Prophetstown, 29).

[13] Ibid., 39.

[14] White, Middle Ground, 436.

[15] Bottiger, Prophetstown, 43.

[16] White, Middle Ground, 418-419.

[17] Bottiger, Prophetstown, 31.

French and Algonquian Approaches to the Middle Ground: 1650 to 1700 on the Great Plains

Written September 6, 2015

Richard White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 describes the creation of a new reality for the North American continent that came forth through the interaction of Native American, French, English, and Spanish cultures. White tells readers that “The American Republic succeeded in doing what the French and English empires could not do.”[1] That is, the Americans – immigrants from Europe and their very recent descendants – created a new reality, sans sovereign Native Americans, for the section of North America that would one day become the United States of America. This story echoes in every history book, but less known is the behavior of the French frontiersmen that interacted on France’s behalf with the tribes of the Great Lakes region, between 1650 and 1700. They were doing something neither of the other imperialist empires were doing: entering the middle ground in such a way that their Native American counterparts were not reduced in their humanity.

The French came in smaller numbers – and with different goals – than the other Europeans. They sought trade and secure routes for trade, and while they did build settlements, their settlements were sparsely distributed and hardly defended. They were not there for war; they were not there to remove Native Americans from the land France claimed.

Those Frenchmen who came to the Upper Country between 1650 and 1700 came into the aftermath of a war between Native American peoples that decimated and displaced nearly all the Algonquian[2] peoples living just west of the victorious Iroquois[3], but the survivors’ desire to thrive was not lessened by displacement. Perceived marginalization increases individuals’ stress, and can drive efforts to negate marginalization[4], and this was a world driven by individuals, not institutions. “This was a village world,” as White explains in The Middle Ground[5]. Any negotiations, any lasting peace that could be made, had to be done in small scale, by the local players. So when the French frontiersmen met these small groups of marginalized Algonquians, the circumstances created by the Iroquois Wars may have made the Algonquians more amenable to potential allies and traders than they might have been otherwise because the accumulation of both allies and trade held the potential to reverse the marginalization they had experienced at the hands of the Iroquois.

The French, also constrained to the small scale approach by their own numbers, entered negotiations with the Native groups they contacted in such a way that fostered intimate personal relationships. Often this took the form of intermarriages, but these were symptomatic rather than causal. More generally the French frontiersmen’s tendency to assimilate into the Native’s style of negotiation allowed the Native peoples to lead the shaping of their shared middle ground. We see this in the adaptation of the calumet ceremony and the lack of written contracts (such as one would find in European negotiations of any sort) in French-Algonquian negotiations[6]. This created a situation that empowered the French-allied Algonquian peoples and reversed the psychological effects of marginalization, effectively creating a positive feedback loop. This loop would have been continuously fed by the more practical benefits of the Native Americans’ and Frenchmen’s negotiations. These benefits were several. The enlargement of both groups through intermarriage and extended kinships gave them the greater numbers they needed to avoid extinction and to be a meaningful force in the contemporary social climate of the Upper Country[7]. Further, both groups gained greater access to wealth through the fur trade[8].

What led the French to take this ‘following’ approach to negotiations with the Native American groups they encountered? Practically speaking, there was more to it than just the potential benefits. The Frenchmen that met with Native Americans in the Upper Country were grossly outnumbered, despite the decimation the Algonquian population had recently experienced in the war with the Iroquois. One imagines a conquering, take-charge approach such as the Spanish conquistadors and their armies took might have been laughed into oblivion had the small groups of Frenchmen and their Jesuit priests tried it. One must also wonder whether the Spanish would have found themselves in a situation where they were so outnumbered, and whether they would have reacted in the same way, with the same success, as the French did.

It seems unlikely that the French frontiersmen could have acted any other way. They were not just French; they were of the small class of young Frenchmen who had been raised in wealthy families, were well educated and versed in the Enlightenment philosophies of the day, and who weren’t needed at home to maintain their family estates. They lived on allowances from their families, were nobility or vendors to royalty, and might have received patents of nobility during their lifetimes[9]. René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, for example, was from a wealthy family that afforded him an education and, in adulthood, an allowance to live on during his travels. He claimed great swaths of land for France, naming the land after his monarch, King Louis XIV, and was given a patent of royalty and royal support for his continued explorations[10]. La Salle was a member of a privileged class; the men who could afford to travel to the New World, who could afford to leave their families behind in search of more wealth, were not of the general public that were ground down by Louis XIV’s rule. These men were the result of prosperity and they gleaned the philosophies of the salons.

This was the subculture that produced and celebrated humanist philosophers like René Descartes and François de la Rochefoucauld. From these early humanists men like La Salle learned to question the supremacy of any man, and in the place of assumed supremacy they raised the importance of thoughtful reflection. La Rochefoucauld was hugely influential, and he challenged self-flattery, which he thought of as humans’ primary motivator and primary fault[11]. Descartes contributed a tendency toward moderation over extremes with happiness as the ultimate goal[12]. Each of these themes – challenging self-flattery as a personal goal, seeking happiness, acting thoughtfully and in moderation – contribute to a reduction in a philosophical foundation that would support assumed ethnic superiority.

Did that really influence the behavior of the French frontiersmen toward the Native American groups they encountered? In comparison, one might look at the comparable British philosophers of the day, such as John Locke. Also a humanist, Locke’s Treatise is well-known in modern America for its influence on Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, which emphasized the “pursuit of happiness.” But Locke did not become widely read until after his death in the earliest years of the eighteenth century. The leading philosophers in Britain in the late seventeenth century were more concerned with the validity and nature of government than the morality of individual men. Even so, the cynicism of Thomas Hobbes had greater popularity in those years, despite his time in exile[13], which implies that the educated young men of Britain were more likely to support the idea of their own assumed superiority, as it would place them in the authoritative position of the social contract necessary for an orderly state. More importantly, though, was the purpose of British exploration in the Americas. The British weren’t looking to simply secure trade routes and sources; they wanted land for settlers[14], and they weren’t willing to share with the people they seemed to see as being inherently inferior in both nature and authority.

When the French and the Algonquians met, the Algonquians were perhaps as far from having orderly lives as they had ever been. It was after the peak of the Iroquois War, which had turned the Algonquian peoples into refugees. They gathered in the Upper Country of the Great Plains, in heterogeneous groups. These groups were forced into close proximity by circumstance, and violence between the groups rose as they were forced into narrower confines. A new economy of interaction became necessary to prevent intergroup violence from further reducing their numbers, and fictive kinships – whether through intermarriage, adoption, or calumet ceremonies – filled that need.[15] These new kinship ties and responsibilities eased the violence of the refugee encampments and allowed villages to thrive. As White notes in Middle Ground, “At their most enduring, the connections between groups were not so much diplomatic… as social.”[16] Treaties among such fluid groups could not have been so successful as creating new bonds of kinship at stopping the intergroup violence. In this way, flexibility in kinship was profitable for the Algonquians, and there’s no reason to suspect they would not have utilized this flexibility again to ease their negotiations with the Frenchmen.

The result of the upper-class Frenchmen’s humanist-influenced approach, combined with the tenuous refugee positions and cultural amenableness to expedient kinships of the Algonquian people, was a middle ground that was effectively a negotiation of equals – ripe ground for an alliance. The unequivocal success of that early French-Algonquian alliance is captured by White when he says, “[The alliance] transformed the Algonquians from a terrified people confined to a few crowded and impoverished settlements to a confident and expanding people reoccupying country long denied them by the Iroquois.”[17] ‘Confident and expanding’ does not describe a marginalized people. The Algonquians appeared at that point to be a people bolstered by circumstance and primed to be a competent trading partner for the French. This was almost a success story.



Abrams, Dominic. Social Psychology of Inclusion and Exclusion. New York: Psychology Press, 2005.

Brislin, Richard W. “Psychology of Acculturation: Understanding Individuals Moving Between Cultures.” Applied Cross-cultural Psychology. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1990.

La Rochefoucauld, Francois. The Maxims of La Rochefoucauld. Trans. Louis Kronenberger. New York: Random House, 1959.

Rutherford, Donald. “Descartes’ Ethics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. (accessed September 3, 2015).

Smith, Steven. “PLSC 114 – Lecture 12 – The Sovereign State: Hobbes, Leviathan.” Open Yale Courses. University of Adelaide Library Electronic Texts Collection. (accessed September 3, 2015).

Spielvogel, Jackson J. “State Building and the Search for Order in the Seventeenth Century.” Western Civilization. 8th ed. 2012. 456-460.

Weddle, Robert S. “LA SALLE, RENE ROBERT CAVELIER, SIEUR DE.” Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association. (accessed September 4, 2015).

White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.



[1] Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), XV.

[2] For this essay, I chose to use White’s working definition of the label ‘Algonquian,’ as explained in Middle Ground, on page XI of the Introduction.

[3] White, Middle Ground, 1.

[4] Dominic Abrams, Social Psychology of Inclusion and Exclusion (New York: Psychology Press, 2005), 293-316.

[5] White, Middle Ground, 16.

[6] White, Middle Ground, 20.

[7] White, Middle Ground, 1-49.

[8] White, Middle Ground, 94-141.

[9] This was a good time for young, not-quite noble men in Louis XIV’s court because the King preferred to elevate new nobles – who would then owe their titles and privileges to him – rather than rely on established nobles; Jackson Spielvogel, Western Civilization (Boston: Wadsworth, 2012), 456-460.

[10] Robert S. Weddle, “LA SALLE, RENE ROBERT CAVELIER, SIEUR DE,” Handbook of Texas Online, (accessed September 4, 2015).

[11] François de la Rochefoucauld, The Maxims of La Rochefoucauld, trans. Louis Kronenberger (New York: Random House, 1959).

[12] Donald Rutherford, “Descartes’ Ethics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (accessed September 3, 2015).

[13] Steven Smith, “PLSC 114 – Lecture 12 – The Sovereign State: Hobbes, Leviathan,” University of Adelaide Library Electronic Texts Collection. (accessed September 3, 2015).

[14] The settlers themselves, who would become Americans and who would be from several countries, were altogether different from the educated men with government connections who had been sent to explore and claim land. The settlers were more often from lower than upper classes, and tended to be undereducated. The “white savages” who pushed westward didn’t care about Hobbes’ work, even as they exemplified it (White, 1991, p.419).

[15] White, Middle Ground, 1-49.

[16] White, Middle Ground, 16.

[17] White, Middle Ground, 34.