In The Gods of Prophetstown, Adam Jortner asserts that it is necessary to view the conflict between Americans and American Indians over the Old Northwest Territory in the early nineteenth century within a religious framework. First, he emphasizes that religious movements, like that led by the Shawnee Prophet in the early 1800s, were driving forces for change and not simply products of historical events. Second, he proposes that the conflicts between American Indians and the United States in the Old Northwest culminating in the War of 1812 were, in fact, part of a religious war “with the vast expanse of the western frontier, a holy land, as the prize” (p. 11). Therefore, even though political factors played a role in the creation of and battle over this particular frontier, the gods shaped the contest. In The Gods of Prophetstown, the persons of Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet, and William Henry Harrison represent these competing religious worldviews.
The strong prologue of the book begins by dissecting the various explanations given over time for the Shawnee Prophet’s prediction of the solar eclipse of June 16, 1806. Rather than focusing on the source or validity of that prediction, however, Jortner stresses that to understand the nature of this religious war it is necessary to take seriously the religious values of the parties involved. The Shawnee Prophet and his followers believed in the power and truth of the celestial sign, and that faith in the supernatural strengthened their resolve to resist American expansion. Even when Tecumseh became an influential figure in the development and maintenance of this pan-Indian confederacy, then, the religious message of the Prophet provided the firm foundation.
The case for religion as a driving force in the actions taken by William Henry Harrison during the same period of time is not made as effectively. Harrison’s political ambitions are evident, and the book does well to provide insight into the territorial governor’s approach to handling the pan-Indian confederacy that arose in his jurisdiction. Yet in that process Jortner also weakens the notion that Harrison viewed this as a religious war. When Jortner writes that “Congress [End Page 200] retroactively approved Harrison’s decisions [to attack the Prophet at Tippecanoe] because it accepted his contention of a British plot,” he accomplishes two things (p. 199). First, he reveals the strength of his intricate explanation of the battle and its geopolitical context. Second, he dilutes his view of the conflict as a religious war. Even the observation that Congress believed God was on the side of the Americans is not enough to support the argument that the war was an uncommonly religious conflict.
Over the course of seventeen chapters, including the prologue and epilogue, Jortner provides a well-crafted narrative that explains in great detail the events that framed the conflicts that consumed the Great Lakes region in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. The Gods of Prophetstown is therefore a welcome addition to the historiography. Ultimately, however, although religion provides a framework for the narrative, it is not the heart of this analysis. In that respect, the book appears not to fulfill the promise of the prologue. Jortner is at his best when he is unraveling the assumptions that have long framed conclusions about events like the Shawnee Prophet’s prediction and the Battle of Tippecanoe. But religion serves more as a bookend, showing up most effectively in the prologue and the epilogue.
John P. Bowes is an associate professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky. He is the author of Exiles and Pioneers: Eastern Indians in the Trans-Mississippi West (2007) and is currently writing a book titled, Northern Indian Removal: An Unfamiliar History.