Smile Politely

A look at Illinois in the War of 1812

Cover art of Illinois in the War of 1812Even if you were paying attention in American History class in high school, you might not know a whole lot about what was going on in Illinois during the War of 1812. If that’s the case — and you want to remedy it — the recent UI Press book Illinois in the War of 1812 by Gillum Ferguson can help.

The War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain was basically a sideshow to England’s ongoing war against Napoleonic France. On the eve of the War of 1812, Illinois was still a territory, and immigrants from the eastern United States were settling. A confederacy of Indian groups united against the Americans, and allied themselves with the British — the enemy of their enemy. The British wanted the Indians in to remain where they were to create a buffer between the aggressively expanding United States and their Canadian colonies.

Ferguson’s book chronicles the battles, atrocities, and ever-shifting tensions and alliances among the Americans, Indians, and British. It takes the reader from the eve of the war to beyond  its official end at the Treaty of Ghent in 1817, and examines the roots of the Black Hawk War in 1832 along the way. Carefully written, exhaustively researched, and including helpful maps, Illinois in the War of 1812 is a book I’d recommend to anyone serious about learning more about how Illinois became what it is today.

Ferguson will be speaking about his book on May 6th at the Museum of the Grand Prairie.

He responded to my questions by email.

Mark Laughlin:

On the evening of April 11, 1812, Hutson returned home from a nearby horse mill to find his cabin collapsed in flames. In the yard lay the body of Dixon, a young man who lived with the family, mutilated beyond recognition, his heart impaled on a branch stuck into the ground nearby. The next day, the bones of Mrs. Hutson and her four children were found in the smoking ruins.

– from Illinois in the War of 1812

The quote above describes one of the many back and forth atrocities between the Indians and the American settlers. Reading your book, I was struck by how many of the conflicts were solely between the Americans and the Indians, without the British present. It seems as if many of these would have happened anyway, even if the War of 1812 hadn’t occurred. Is it safe to say that the conflict between the British and the Americans in Illinois was something of a sideshow to the inevitable conflict between the Americans advancing west and the Indians already there?

Gillum Ferguson: The term “sideshow” is not one that I myself would have chosen. Also, one point I try to make in the book, especially in Chapter 2, is that in Illinois the conflict of 1812 was not one between “Americans advancing west and the Indians already there.” The tribes that fought for the British were relatively new arrivals who, as they forced their way in from the north, collided with Americans moving in from the south and southeast. Conflict between the Americans and the Indians was probably inevitable, but it was because they both coveted the same relatively empty territory, rather than being a simple matter of one side dispossessing the other. (Indeed, the only tribe which had been resident in Illinois for more than a couple of generations were the Kaskaskia, who sided with the Americans). But although I say conflict was inevitable, it was by no means inevitable that it take the form of a relatively large-scale war, involving multiple tribes and embracing most of the territory. Despite their genuine grievances, the tribes were well aware of the risks involved in a war with the United States. Their economy was collapsing, based on a number of factors, and they themselves were incapable of producing the arms and powder that they needed not only to make war, but to hunt to feed their families. Without the British alliance, I doubt that there would have been a “war,” as opposed to the sort of isolated and deniable atrocities that had occurred in the years immediately preceding the war. The tribes clearly waited for a sign from the British before going to war, and to some extent the British did support them with ammunition, supplies, and, very occasionally, personnel. Ironically, however, once war was declared, the British led most of the fighting Indians of Illinois east to defend Canada, an objective in which those Indians were only tangentially interested.


The British were deeply ambivalent about using the Indians as allies and unleashing the horrors of an Indian war. In fact, at one point the British ambassador at Washington had even warned the Americans about the danger of an Indian uprising. Nevertheless, the British knew that in the event of war between the two powers there was no chance the high-spirited tribesman would remain quietly neutral, that if they failed to embrace the Indians as friends they might possibly have to confront them as enemies.

– from Illinois in the War of 1812

The above quote describes the shaky nature of the alliance between the British and some of the Native Americans in the Illinois Territory before the war. For their own part, Indian leaders like Tecumseh were under no illusions that their alliance with the British was anything more than a marriage of convenience, but to what extent did Indian leaders such as Tecumseh and Gomo truly understand the power of the Americans they were going to war against? Were they simply trying to go out fighting, or did they feel that they had a realistic chance of keeping some degree of autonomy in what is now the state of Illinois?

Ferguson: This is a good question, but one that it is difficult to answer definitively, because of the frustrating paucity of source material that truly reflects an authentic Indian voice. We really can only make assumptions based on the actions of Indian leaders, as well as a few other sources such as speeches at councils between Indians and American authorities. Even with regard to the latter, it would obviously be unrealistic to expect complete candor from Indian negotiators. Nevertheless, I think it safe to assume that both Tecumseh and Gomo understood the disproportion between the strength of the Americans and that of the tribes. In his public remarks, Tecumseh always denounced the idea of any but a defensive war with the United States and he is reputed to have been furious at his brother the Prophet for launching a preemptive attack on Harrison’s army at Tippecanoe. It is probably significant that Tecumseh himself did not take up the tomahawk until the alliance with the British was secure and the British themselves were at war. One of the explicit British war aims was creation of an Indian buffer state north of the Ohio River and it seems more than plausible that this was a key factor in maintaining the British-Indian alliance. As for Gomo, he was even less eager for war than Tecumseh. In the 1790s he had toured the cities of the East and had even met President Washington. This was a common American tactic for impressing Indian leaders with the disparity in the strength and numbers of the two peoples. The tactic seems to have worked with Gomo, who was dragged into the war against his wishes and got out of it as soon as he could.


With the Indians whooping and firing behind them, the soldiers ran for the armed boats, but the boats had pushed off from the bank when the firing began. Fortunately for Davenport and his companions, one of the boats ran aground. The three soldiers hurried to push it off and jump aboard. The Indians fired on the boats, whose guns returned fire from the river, although a ball fired by a too-hastily-aimed cannon tore the side off one of the boats. Nicholas also opened fire with blasts of grapeshot from the partially completed blockhouses, and the attackers slipped away.

– from Illinois in the War of 1812

The description above — of a pitched battle between Indians and Americans at Peoria – is like something out of a “Wild West” movie. Yet, people today generally don’t think of Illinois as being a battleground of westward expansion — we thing more of the states on the other side of the Mississippi like Montana and Arizona. Why is that?

Ferguson: Several factors are at work, I think. The first is that in terms of number of casualties and number of significant engagements, the Illinois War of 1812 was fought on a much smaller scale than either the war in the eastern United States or the later more dramatic and far bloodier campaigns on the Great Plains. A second is that there was a certain discontinuity between the Illinois generation of 1812 and the newcomers who came after them. The pioneers who fought the war in Illinois were only a relative handful, and many of them afterwards moved west with the frontier. The population of Illinois ballooned after the war: from 12,000 in 1812 to 40,000 in 1818, and thereafter tripled every ten years. The remaining 1812 pioneers were soon a few drops in the ocean. As a result, there was, if not a break in the historical memory, at least an attenuation of it. Third, for whatever reason, aside from a long journal article in 1904, nobody has ever undertaken to tell the story in a comprehensive way until now. That is one of the most surprising things I learned in researching and writing my book, for the event was an important one in opening early Illinois to settlement and there was plenty of good material to be found.


Inseparably intertwined with the religious revival represented by the Prophet was a political project of which the ruling spirit was his older brother Tecumseh, one of the great men of American history. Already known as a distinguished warrior who had fought against the armies of St. Clair and Wayne, Tecumseh emerged as the architect of a grand plan to unite the western tribes in defense of their heritage.

– from Illinois in the War of 1812

You clearly have great regard for the Indian leader Tecumseh. How was it that this one individual was so successful in uniting so many Native Americans in pan-tribal resistance?

Ferguson: In my book I think I called Tecumseh “one of the great men of American history,” and I stand by that statement. It would be mistaken, however, to regard him as unique. Something similar was attempted in the 1760s by Pontiac, and in the 1790s by Blue Jacket and Little Turtle. Those leaders, at least at first, enjoyed greater success than Tecumseh ever achieved. On the other hand, in their time the position of the northwestern Indians was far stronger and that of the Americans much weaker, than was the case in the time of Tecumseh. As I describe in my book, by 1812 Indian society was in crisis. Aside from personal qualities, what I think gave Tecumseh and the Prophet their appeal was that they diagnosed the reasons for that crisis with reasonable accuracy and addressed them in a multi-faceted revival movement that was not only military, but also social, religious, and economic.


What happened to the Indians was tragic, to be sure, but it was also inevitable, and the heroism of the generation of pioneers that subdued them must not be overshadowed by the darker aspects of the story. Where the hard-handed men and women of 1812 had destroyed, they also planted and built. It is all too easy, two hundred years later, for those who enjoy the wealth of and security of the state they made, to condemn them for doing what they had to do to make it. It is also unbecoming. Were they able to speak they might reply in the words of Edgar Lee Masters:

                         We cut the buffalo grass,
                           We felled the forests,
            We built the school houses, built the bridges,
                 Leveled the roads and tilled the fields
                  Alone with poverty, scourges, death.

– the final lines of Illinois in the War of 1812

Your words above struck me as the most “big picture” type of statement in the book. Why did you choose to end Illinois in the War of 1812 the way you did?

Ferguson: You are very observant. For the most part I tried to stay away from “big picture” generalizations, believing that my true role, as essentially the first historian in the field, lay in simply trying to establish what in fact happened, trusting that in my wake will come plenty of twenty-something graduate students far better qualified than I to tell us what it all meant! In light, however, of the darkness and brutality of much of the story, I did want to end with a gentle reminder both to those students and to my other readers that it might be unfair and unhistorical to sit in facile judgment on our forebears, measuring them solely by the hard-won cumulative moral standards of a world they helped make, but never lived to enjoy, and by the passing political fashions of our own day. Our forebears were hard men and women, no doubt about it, but they were also capable of great courage and sacrifice. Perhaps we can show them a little charity.

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