The Gods of Prophetstown: Review and Interview

Melvin Jordan
4/8/12

Chronicle of a Takeover Foretold: Book Review

What began as Adam Jortner’s doctoral dissertation became instead an in-depth look at the complexities of religion and politics and their impact on the nations of 19th century America. As such, The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier (Oxford University Press, 2011) is not a casual read. Nonetheless, it is both an entertaining and informative one.

Jortner, a history teacher at Auburn University, confronts the long-held misconceptions and hypocrisies of white history; he is especially good at shooting holes in the belief in God’s divine plan for whites to subjugate the so-called inferior Indians. Any number of tweaks in our country’s time line, he demonstrates, could quite literally have changed the face of present-day America and seated an Indian nation as the dominant force on the continent. In lurid detail, he lays out the various world events that aligned and culminated in the epic confrontation between William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory, and Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee prophet. Jortner also shows how multiple incidents across several nations, determined even by the weather, combined to bring about the present.

Tenskwatawa started out as Lalawauthika, a drunkard among the Shawnee. But a vision from the Maker of Life changed all that, and he began evangelizing against the evils of alcohol and the white man’s way. Morphing into the prophet Tenskwatawa, he started a push to unite all American Indian tribes through religion and commonality of cause to end land sales to the encroaching whites.

Many whites, including Old Tippecanoe (Harrison), thought Tenskwatawa a fraud backed by British agents to agitate the tribes into open war against the fledgling United States. If not for Tenskwatawa’s prophetic announcement of the solar eclipse of June 16, 1806, his power among the tribes might never have grown to the point where he became a leader strong enough to threaten Manifest Destiny.

With each side claiming divine right, the politics of religion turned westward expansion into a holy war. One faction tried to preserve its way of life. The other fought to force assimilation. The result was devastating.

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Prophets and the Present: A Chat with Adam Jortner

A chat with author Adam Jortner reveals fascinating parallels between the evangelical mind-set behind the War of 1812 and today, 200 years later.

Jortner_Author Photo

Is there a correlation between religious/political views and conflicts of 200 years ago and today?

Both 2012 and 1812 have seen a certain number of Americans who believe that the U.S. has a divine destiny…and [that] therefore whatever the U.S. does is by definition holy. In 1812 some Americans believed that their form of government was divinely warranted and [that] they had a divine duty to spread it across the continent. They also believed that God would protect them—supernaturally—so they rarely considered the practical results of these plans (as when God failed to favor their repeated efforts to invade Canada).

In 2012 there are important differences in the politics of America’s divine mission. Some people do, in fact, think that America is divinely ordained to convert the world to Christianity, and actively seek to enact this policy worldwide. More common, however, is the same failure to plan as in 1812: Many Americans believe that if the American state were more godly, and enacted their policies, God would supernaturally help the nation. These policy suggestions are very different from the decision to invade Canada in 1812, but the magical thinking is the same.

Do you think politicians today have failed to learn from history, especially regarding the necessity of open war?

In 1812, as in recent days, politicians chose war as a means of winning election. The problem is, those wars aren’t as tidy as American elections; they are good for political careers but bad for the nations that fight them. Also, I think politicians in 1812 (and now) trot out war as a policy alternative without considering how difficult the war might actually be to fight. In 1812 the U.S. government chose war over negotiation, and only after attacking discovered how formidable the Native Americans and the British really were. The American experiment was almost scuttled so that a few politicians could win an election.

You point out historical misconceptions about the “inferiority” of Native civilizations. Why is it taking so long for these to be challenged?

The effort to correct those misconceptions began a long time ago, in terms of the historical reevaluation of Native America—writing Native Americans back into the U.S. history books as well as histories of particular Native American tribes and leaders written for a general U.S. audience.

Still, the process has been slow. There is a popular stereotype that Native Americans are “a people out of time.” This stereotype is as old as Columbus and about as accurate as most of the things Columbus claimed. But the idea is a pernicious one that makes it easy for some historians (and politicians) to think of Indian culture as something closer to the original condition of all humankind—and therefore, something that would “naturally” collapse the superior technology of the 19th and 20th centuries.

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