[Editor’s Note: Over the course of 2022 and 2023, New American History Executive Director Ed Ayers is visiting places where significant history happened, and exploring what has happened to that history since. He is focusing on the decades between 1800 and 1860, filing dispatches about the stories being told at sites both famous and forgotten. This is the 15th installment in the series.]
The War of 1812 gets little respect. Its very name is both a gift and a curse, locating the conflict in time — always helpful at exam time — but implying that it lasted only a year. A clever trailer for a fake movie about the war, produced by College Humor, uses the visual vocabulary of war movies to parody our ignorance about the war. A wife asks her husband why he must fight against the British and he replies, with appropriate condescension, “For honor, Sarah, for honor.” She responds with spousal skepticism, “No, really, why?” He concedes that “honor was vague, right? It might have something to do with taxes.” Sarah agrees that “Yeah, that makes sense.”
The parody, it turns out, reflects much that was true about the War of 1812. American soldiers did indeed fight in the west, in Canada, in the south, and on the seas. Anglo-Americans did indeed fight with, and against, Native Americans. Taxes had something to do with war, although they were unpopular taxes levied by the strapped and fledgling United States against its own citizens. Honor, vague though it may have been, did in fact motivate American leaders: if the United States did not fight the most powerful empire in the world, they told themselves, the new nation could claim no international respect.
Seeing the sites of such a far-flung war requires considerable travel today. Abby and I had visited Fort McHenry in Baltimore, where “The Star-Spangled Banner” was composed, but seeing where the boundaries between the United States were actually contested required a journey to today’s Midwest. The first place was Prophetstown, in northern Indiana, otherwise known as Tippecanoe. Beginning in 1808, a Shawnee prophet named Tenskwatawa had been welcoming Native people to a place there that they called the “House of the Stranger,” where he told them of his visions. People of all the nations that white people called Indians must join together, he told them, to drive back the Americans. They must abandon all that the white people had brought, from domestic animals to alcohol and Christianity. The Prophet’s brother, Tecumseh, traveled to towns in Alabama and Georgia to spread the vision, and to recruit allies in a war against the white Americans. The Native people would fight alongside the British, who sought to contain the spread of the new United States. While the British were also white men, they did not overrun the land as the Americans did.
For a few years, Prophetstown grew in size and importance, with fields of crops stretching a mile from its center. The governor of the Indiana Territory, William Henry Harrison, warned President Madison that Tecumseh, in particular, posed a great threat to the settlers moving into Indiana, for he was shrewd, brave, and contemptuous of white people. Harrison, a former Army captain, convinced military leaders to allow him to lead an invasion, and while Tecumseh was traveling in 1811, Harrison attacked Prophetstown and burned it to the ground. The battle was no great military achievement, and the Native people quickly rebuilt the wooden structures, but Harrison inflated its importance. More than 25 years later, Harrison would ride the motto of “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” into the White House.
When the United States went to war with Britain in 1812, Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa joined with the British in battles near Lake Erie. Tecumseh was killed by American militia and Tenskwatawa fled behind British lines. The war did, as the 1812 movie trailer declared, “protect the frontier” for the United States: it broke the power of Native people in the Great Lakes and shattered the dream of a pan-Indian alliance.
Today, the state park at Prophetstown, Indiana, reveals little of the Prophet’s extensive village. There are a few structures in place, the largest of which — a council house — was built for a documentary film, according to a park ranger we encountered. The building is no longer used and there is little interpretation of the site beyond two signs, one with a period map. Instead, the park focuses on restoring the prairie itself. Greenhouses nurture plants that once grew wild. Their work has made the prairie around the Prophetstown site a rich and beautiful place, eloquently evocative in its own right. White settlers moving west would first have encountered the prairie in this part of Indiana, its surprising fertility interspersed among trees with which settlers would have been familiar. The struggles of more than two centuries before left no mark other than the name of the nearby elementary school: Battle Ground.
To understand what happened in the War of 1812, and why it mattered so much, we would need to travel to Lake Erie. There, naval battles, far from any sea, would turn the war in surprising directions. A slogan from the era — “Don’t Give Up the Ship” — still occupies a faint place in many Americans’ memories, but most would be hard-pressed to know which ship should not be given up to whom. We traveled to Put-In-Bay in Lake Erie to learn more about these mysteries. There, a National Park Service site and a memorial tower celebrated peace among the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.
Our RV, Bertha, would not supply directions on her GPS, however, and we could not figure out why until we arrived at the supposed location. There, our phone’s GPS informed us, abruptly, to get in line for a ferry. There had been no mention of a ferry in anything we had read, though the memorial’s location on an island might have been a clue. There were plenty of other RVs already in line, but we had no intention of joining them for our brief stay. We parked Bertha, handing over ten dollars in cash that we had been saving, and rushed to the ticket office as mere pedestrians. Put-In-Bay proved to be a popular tourist spot for the great Midwestern hinterland. We learned that the ferry landing would leave us too far to walk to the memorial, so we handed over the last cash that we had for bus fare.
At the NPS site, we found helpful exhibits. One map, in particular, explained the connections between the war on the water and the war on the prairies. The displays of cannon and cannonballs helped give a sense of scale, but it was not until the park ranger started the film for us — the only visitors by this time late in the afternoon — that the scale, desperation, and heroism of the Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813 became clear. Naval battle on sailing ships proved to be horrifying, with iron balls fired at close range shattering wooden hulls and human bodies indiscriminately.
The commander of the American fleet of just a few ships, hastily constructed in Erie, Pennsylvania, was only 26 years old. Oliver Hazard Perry, captaining many men who had never before been on a ship, confronted vessels and sailors from the most powerful navy in the world. Through shrewd maneuvering, fortunate shifts in the wind, and sheer personal bravery, Perry managed to defeat the British. The three top officers of the British fleet were killed in battle, and their subordinates struggled to counter Perry’s actions.
Portrait of Oliver Hazard Perry, 1818. [Toledo Museum of Art]
The story of “DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP” turned out to be touching. A close friend of Perry’s had been wounded in a previous battle. As he lay below-decks, dying, his last words were allegedly the plea to protect the ship. As Perry prepared for the fight on Lake Erie, he asked a local seamstress to make a flag bearing those words. In their haste, the women neglected the apostrophe in “don’t,” and the hand-cut letters bore irregular shapes. When Perry unfurled the flag in a critical point in the battle, it inspired the American sailors to continue fighting. Today, it inspires cadets at the United States Naval Academy.
Perry’s victory cut off the British supply lines for their troops on land, effectively ending their ability to aid their Native allies. Few had expected the Americans to prevail on water; a war that had been going badly for the United States began to pivot. Perry’s quietly triumphant message to William Henry Harrison — “We have met the enemy and they are ours” — immediately entered American memory. Perry received medals from Congress and celebrations across the young nation. His death a few years later, in Venezuela of yellow fever, deprived the United States of an enduring national hero. Instead, Andrew Jackson would ride his equally improbable victory in New Orleans 15 months later to glory and eventually, the presidency.
Inspired by the exhibit and the film, we set off to find cash to return to the ferry. Our credit cards failed at an ATM machine, and so we had to try another strategy. When I asked a young waitress at a tented bar if I could pay extra for a beer on my credit card and receive cash in return, she instead reached into her tip jar and insisted we take the money. A storm was coming, she said, and she didn’t want us to get caught. I was able to add the tip to the receipt, but appreciated her kindness and generosity nonetheless.
Today, Americans take the Midwest for granted. It seems the most American of places, with no distinctive accent or history. Prophetstown and the War of 1812, however, remind us how different the shape and nature of the United States could have been had events there taken a different turn. A triumphant alliance between Native Americans and the British Empire could have resulted in a nation much smaller and more vulnerable than the one that emerged from the battles around the Great Lakes. A defeated United States, constrained in the west by the most powerful empire on earth, and by Native peoples able to resist the encroachment of white American settlers, would not have been empowered to wage war against Mexico and thus expand to the Pacific just a few decades later.