William Henry Harrison: Shady Treaty Maker and Indian Land Taker
This is the ninth in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
William Henry Harrison was president of the United States for only 32 days.
The ninth president, Harrison took office in March 1841. He died a month later, leaving the office to Vice President John Tyler. Harrison’s tenure as president was the shortest in history, but as an Army general, governor of the Indiana Territory and federal Indian commissioner, he left a long legacy regarding Native American affairs.
“For Harrison, there was a very strong streak for opportunism with Indian policy,” said Robert Owens, associate professor of history at Wichita State University and author of the 2007 book “Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy.”
“Harrison figured out how effective he was at making these shady treaties with Indians, and he used that to his benefit,” Owens said. “One thing white Americans agreed on was Indian policy, so he pushed it aggressively.”
Born in Virginia in 1773, Harrison studied medicine before joining the army at age 18. He served as an ensign during the Old Northwest Indian wars, from 1791 to 1794, and secretary of the Northwest Territory from 1798 to 1799. President John Adams appointed Harrison as governor of the Indiana Territory in 1800.
One of Harrison’s primary responsibilities as governor was to acquire as much Indian land as possible. Between 1801 and 1809—serving under President Thomas Jefferson—Harrison was responsible for the acquisition of most of present-day Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.
“Harrison saw the rapid and cheap purchase of Indian lands as both his duty, and the key to President Jefferson’s political favor,” Owens said. “To do so, he skillfully and ruthlessly exploited intertribal rivalries and played Indian peoples against each other. With a mix of bribes and threats, he knowingly purchased land from Indians who had little claim to them, and then publicly denied such knowledge.”
In an “unofficial and private” letter sent to Harrison in 1803, Jefferson outlined his view of federal Indian policy, which included the use of trading posts to drive Indians into debt, forcing them to relinquish land to pay their bills. In time, Indians would either incorporate as U.S. citizens or “remove beyond the Mississippi,” Jefferson wrote.
“We presume that our strength and their weakness is now so visible that they must see we have only to shut our hand to crush them, and that all our liberalities to them proceed from motives of pure humanity only,” he wrote. “Should any tribe be foolhardy enough to take up the hatchet at any time, the seizing the whole country of that tribe, and driving them across the Mississippi, as the only condition of peace, would be an example to others, and a furtherance of our final consolidation.”
Following Jefferson’s orders, Harrison became the driving force behind land cession treaties with the Delaware, Shawnee, Miami, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Wea and Eel River, often paying as little as one penny for 200 acres of land. In late 1804, he negotiated a largely fraudulent treaty with the Sac and Fox, in which he served chiefs alcohol then persuaded them to exchange 50 million acres for an annual payment of $1,000 in goods.
He also negotiated the 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne, which acquired nearly 3 million acres of Indian land and antagonized Shawnee leaders Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa (also known as The Prophet), who started organizing a confederacy of Native allies near the Tippecanoe River in present-day Indiana.
Fearing a resurgence of Indian power, Harrison in November 1811 ordered his army to march on Tecumseh’s village, allegedly to hold a council with Tenskwatawa. When the Shawnee launched a pre-dawn attack on November 7, Harrison’s troops fought back, defeating Tenskwatawa and wiping out the village of Tippecanoe.
Harrison’s victory earned him the nickname “Old Tippecanoe” which three decades later gave rise to his presidential campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.”
Harrison continued to fight the Indians during the War of 1812. He erected the 10-acre Fort Meigs along the rapids of the Maumee River to prevent the combined forces of the British and Indians from approaching Ohio Country. In 1813, Harrison led a victorious attack in the Battle of the Thames and defeated Tecumseh’s Indian confederacy.
After the battle, Harrison signed an armistice with the tribes, which called for them to “retire to their usual hunting grounds” and “behave themselves peaceably.”
Twenty-two years later, in 1836, Harrison made an unsuccessful run for president. A member of the Whig Party, he campaigned again four years later, presenting himself as a “simple frontier Indian fighter, living in a log cabin and drinking cider.”
Harrison beat incumbent Martin Van Buren in the 1840 election.
Harrison delivered the longest inaugural address in history—a speech that lasted nearly two hours. He never mentioned Indians.
Harrison was the first president to die in office. He was 68.