On This Day: U.S. Defeated British & Killed Their Ally Tecumseh

An early – and embarrassing – loss for America during the War of 1812 was the British capture of Detroit on 16 August 1812, just two months after the war began. With British ships ruling Lake Erie, the U.S. knew it needed a naval victory before it could achieve success on land. That major accomplishment came a year later, on 10 September 1813, when the fledgling U.S. Navy defeated the mighty British fleet at the Battle of Lake Erie.

After securing his triumph, American Commodore Oliver Perry sent General William Henry Harrison his famous message: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” This was the good news Harrison had been waiting for. He immediately set out with a large force of nearly 3,800 men to destroy British General Henry Proctor’s force and recapture Detroit.

Illustration: William Henry Harrison, by Rembrandt Peale, c. 1813
Illustration: William Henry Harrison, by Rembrandt Peale, c. 1813. Credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Wikimedia Commons.

At the same time, Proctor realized he could no longer supply his troops and decided to retreat back to the western shores of Lake Ontario, abandoning Detroit. This decision infuriated his powerful Indian ally, the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, who had spent a decade organizing a large Indian confederation to oppose the Americans and their land-hungry expansion into tribal lands.

Although Tecumseh’s confederation had been badly weakened at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, he still led a considerable force of Indian warriors. Tecumseh pleaded with Proctor not to abandon Detroit, since the Indian lands lay west of that area and would be vulnerable to American attack, but Proctor was determined to withdraw his 800 men.

Illustration: Shawnee chief Tecumseh, an engraving by Benson John Lossing after a pencil sketch by French trader Pierre Le Dru at Vincennes, taken from life about 1808
Illustration: Shawnee chief Tecumseh, an engraving by Benson John Lossing after a pencil sketch by French trader Pierre Le Dru at Vincennes, taken from life about 1808. Credit: Toronto Public Library; Wikimedia Commons.

On 27 September 1813, Proctor abandoned Detroit and began his retreat. Reluctantly, Tecumseh and 500 warriors went with him, insisting all along that the British turn and face their enemy. Proctor spent most of his time at the front of the column with his family and personal baggage, turning management of the retreat over to his subordinate, Colonel Augustus Warburton. Harrison left a garrison at Detroit and set off after the British on October 2. On the late afternoon of October 4, he caught up with them, and attacked the next morning.

On 5 October 1813, the Battle of the Thames was fought, resulting in a decisive American victory. After the initial fighting, Proctor and about 250 of his men ran away, leaving the rest of the discouraged British troops to surrender. Disgusted with the British weakness, Tecumseh rallied his followers and they put up a fierce resistance, but when their great leader was killed the Indians’ determination wilted and they abandoned the fight.

Illustration: Col. Richard Mentor Johnson shooting Tecumseh during the Battle of the Thames
Illustration: Col. Richard Mentor Johnson shooting Tecumseh during the Battle of the Thames. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Detroit would remain in American hands for the rest of the war. Harrison had given the nation an uplifting victory, Tecumseh was killed, and the Indian confederation was broken. For his cowardice, Proctor was court-martialed the next year and sentenced to a six-month suspension without pay.

The following newspaper articles show how the news was reported to a jubilant American public.

An article about the Battle of the Thames during the War of 1812, American and Commercial Daily Advertiser newspaper article 18 October 1813
American and Commercial Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, Maryland), 18 October 1813, page 2

Here is a transcription of this article:

A GLORIOUS VICTORY ON LAND.

In our last, we informed our readers “that the most important intelligence might be daily expected from the Lakes and Upper Canada.” Our expectations have been quickly gratified beyond what we imagined – Com. Chauncey’s success has been confirmed, and to a greater extent than at first reported.

The success of our gallant seamen on the Lakes has led to a most important victory on land – no less than the defeat of the British and their red allies, about 80 miles from Detroit. This happy event is authenticated by a short but emphatic letter from Gen. Harrison, which came to us via Washington City.

Gen. Harrison has nobly performed his duty. This victory shews that we are now able to combat and to conquer “the combined enemy” on land as well as on water.

We have to regret, that Proctor the cruel Englishman, and his worthy compeer the bloody Indian Tecumseh, are not among the prisoners. But we have hopes that Harrison’s horsemen will be able to overtake this “pair of capital Savages” before they reach a place of shelter.

An article about the Battle of the Thames during the War of 1812, American and Commercial Daily Advertiser newspaper article 18 October 1813
American and Commercial Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, Maryland), 18 October 1813, page 2

Here is a transcription of this article:

HEAD QUARTERS.
Near Moravian Town, Thames,
80 miles from Detroit,
October 5, 1813.

Sir – I have the honor to inform you, that by the blessing of Providence, the army under my command has obtained a complete victory over the combined Indian and British forces under the command of General Proctor.

I believe that nearly the whole of the enemy’s regulars are taken or killed; amongst the former are all the superior officers, excepting General Proctor. My mounted men are now in pursuit of him. Our loss is very trifling. The brave Colonel R. M. Johnson is the only officer of note whom I have heard of wounded; he badly, but I hope not dangerously.

I have the honor to be, &c.
William H. Harrison.

(To) Gen. John Armstrong,
Secretary of War.

An article about the Battle of the Thames during the War of 1812, Essex Register newspaper article 23 October 1813
Essex Register (Salem, Massachusetts), 23 October 1813, page 3

Here is a transcription of this article:

HARRISON’S VICTORY!

The shameful manner in which the Gazette introduces the late glorious news from Upper Canada, is deserving of notice:

“At length the handful of British troops which for more than a year had baffled the numerous armies of the United States in the invasion of Canada, deprived of the genius of the immortal Brock, have been obliged to yield to superior power and numbers.”

This attempt to lessen the importance of the late victory is degrading to an American. The forces under Gen. Harrison, which have consisted principally of undisciplined but brave militia and volunteers, have had to contend not only with the disciplined troops of Britain, but with thousands of savages who have been hired to butcher American women, children, and prisoners. The contest has been maintained by the States of Ohio and Kentucky with a perseverance highly honorable to them, and notwithstanding they have experienced several severe checks, they have finally triumphed. The consequences of this victory are of the utmost importance. The inhabitants of the frontiers are relieved from their unparalleled distresses; the Savages instigated by the brutal Proctor will no longer be a terror to them; the best part of Canada is in our possession; and the fur trade which is of immense value must fall into our hands. The suffering inhabitants of the frontiers may truly say, “had it not been for the Lord who was on our side, the enemy would have swallowed us up.”

An article about the Battle of the Thames during the War of 1812, Baltimore Patriot newspaper article 18 October 1813
Baltimore Patriot (Baltimore, Maryland), 18 October 1813, page 2

Here is a transcription of the end of this article:

Extract of a letter from Gen. McArthur to the Secretary of War.

Detroit, Oct. 6, 1813.

I have just received a note from Gen. Harrison, advising that he had last evening overtaken Gen. Proctor’s force, and had gained a complete victory; that all the principal officers, General Proctor excepted, were in his possession, which no doubt ends the war in this quarter.

I have the honor, &c.
Duncan McArthur,
Brig. Gen. U.S. Army

An article about the Battle of the Thames during the War of 1812, Columbian newspaper article 19 October 1813
Columbian (New York, New York), 19 October 1813, page 3

Here is a transcription of the end of this article:

Gen. Proctor was on his way to London [Canada], on the [Canadian river] Thames, when he was overtaken and defeated by Gen. Harrison. It is at London [England] the impression will be felt, and on the [English river] Thames where our victories will have their effect, in reducing to reason and justice the tyrants of the ocean.

Many cities reacted to the happy news with a show of light to demonstrate their joy, such as this example published by The Democratic Press in Philadelphia.

An article about the Battle of the Thames during the War of 1812, Democratic Press newspaper article 19 October 1813
Democratic Press (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 19 October 1813, page 2

Here is a transcription of the end of this article:

PROCLAMATION.

Whereas, it has pleased Divine Providence to give success to our arms by land as well as sea, in the defeat or capture of the British army under General Proctor and his Indian allies, by the Army commanded by Major General Harrison. – And, whereas by this victory the Wives, Maids, and Infants on our frontiers will be preserved from British and Indian scalping knives and tomahawks. – And whereas, a great number of my fellow citizens have called on me for permission to ILLUMINATE the City of Philadelphia on the joyful occasion. I have, therefore, thought proper to issue this my proclamation, giving and granting permission to every person within the limits of the city, to light up or ILLUMINATE their houses as they think proper, on THURSDAY EVENING, the 21st inst. But strictly forbidding all bonfires, squibs, or any kind of fireworks on that evening; and I do further, in the most peremptory manner, forbid any person or persons, from offering any insult or injury to any person or their property who may not think proper to join in the general joy. And I do seriously call upon all constables, watchmen and police officers, and every good citizen, to aid and assist the mayor in preserving order and peace, and maintain the high character of the citizens of Philadelphia, which they are so eminently entitled to.

Given under my hand and seal this 18th day of October, A.D. 1813.

John Barker, Mayor.

N.B. Lights out at 10 o’clock.

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Did any of your ancestors serve in the War of 1812? Please share your stories with us in the comments section.

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