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.


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