How the Presidency Sort of, Maybe, Almost Might Have Gotten Cursed

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William Henry Harrison, Tecumseh, and Tenskwatawa.

In 1809, William Henry Harrison, then governor of the Indiana Territories, was negotiating the Fort Wayne Treaty to secure native lands for white settlers in Indiana and Illinois. He was buying the land from the Delaware, Eel River, Miami and Potawatomi tribes, but these weren’t the only people actually living on the land. The Shawnee had a few settlements in the region, and, despite the fact that they had previously been asked to leave by other tribes, Tecumseh, chief of the Shawnee, took it upon himself to protest the sale.

Tecumseh claimed that the American Indian nation was one big tribe, and that no single tribe had the right to sell their land without the approval of rest of the tribes. He began traveling to the lands of the different tribes to promote this idea, as well as his brother Tenskwatawa’s ("The Prophet") religious teachings. He called for warriors to abandon the chiefs that would cede their land, return to their ancestral ways, and join his resistant pan-tribal confederacy at Prophetstown, near the Tippecanoe River.

With hundreds of armed warriors from different tribes, he went to meet with Harrison to claim the treaty as illegitimate and ask the governor to nullify it. Harrison rejected Tecumseh’s request. Before the chief left, he promised that he would form an alliance with the British unless the treaty was undone.

Hostilities broke out here and there between Tecumseh’s followers and white settlers, and the tension escalated through the year. Harrison denounced Tenskwatawa as a fraud, and Tecumseh and his brother allied with more tribes and procured firearms from the British in Canada. White settlers in the region finally demanded that the government take action.

Tippecanoe: The Battle and The Curse

Harrison received permission from Washington to take the territorial militia and a small force of army regulars to Prophetstown in November 1811 and make a show of force, in hopes that the Indian confederacy would back down. Unfortunately for both sides, Tecumseh was away from his camp and seeking more supporters for his alliance when Harrison arrived, and Tenskwatawa was left in charge. The two sides agreed to a ceasefire through the night and to meet in the morning to negotiate a truce, but the Prophet had less military experience and grace under pressure than his brother, and appears to have cracked under the pressure of having an army camped so close to Prophetstown.

There are different accounts of what happened next. Tenskwatawa may have given orders to attack. A few warriors may have encouraged an attack against Tenskwatawa’s orders and led the charge. Tenskwatawa may have sent a small group of warriors, protected by a spell he cast on them, to kill Harrison while he slept in his tent. However things started, Harrison's sentinels spotted advancing Indian warriors just before dawn the next morning and soon discovered they were surrounded. The Indians made two charges at the camp, each of which Harrison’s forces countered, forcing the Indians to flee.

Harrison feared that Tecumseh would return with reinforcements, so he ordered his men to fortify their camp for the rest of the day. The next day, scouts moved down into Prophetstown and found the town completely deserted except for one elderly woman. The woman was spared, but the town was razed and all the equipment in it destroyed. After Harrison's troops left the area, Tenskwatawa returned with some warriors to find the town in ruins.

According to legend, The Prophet, seeing his tribesmen’s graves desecrated, became enraged and placed a curse upon his nemesis, saying:

“If Harrison becomes the Great Chief, he will not finish his term. He will die in his office. You think that I have lost my powers. I who caused the Sun to darken and Red Men to give up firewater, I tell you Harrison will die. And after him every Great Chief chosen every 20 years thereafter will die. And when each one dies, let everyone remember the death of our people.”

(Alternate versions of the story say that Tecumseh himself placed the curse a few years after the battle).

Dead Presidents

Sure enough, William Henry Harrison was elected ninth President of the United States a few decades later, in 1840. He soon fell ill with a cold, which turned into pneumonia. His schedule, and the throngs of people arriving at the White House seeking political jobs, kept him from getting much rest, and his condition rapidly worsened. He died on April 4, 1841, 30 days into his presidency.

For the next 120 years, no president elected in the curse's 20-year cycle would leave the White House alive.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected, and was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.

In 1880, James Garfield was elected, and was shot and killed by Charles Guiteau in 1881.

In 1900, William McKinley was elected to his second term, and was shot and killed by Leon Czolgosz in 1901.

In 1920, Warren Harding was elected, and suffered a stroke and died in 1923.

In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt was elected to a third term, and died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1945.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected, and was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected, and survived an assassination attempt by John Hinckley. The President as injured but made a full recovery, suggesting that the Curse of Tippecanoe, or a streak of coincidences, had been beaten.

George W. Bush, elected in 2000, also tested the "curse" and won, surviving assassination plots and a pretzel-induced choking fit. Skeptics saw the breaking of the line as proof that the curse was nonsense, while believers insisted the Gipper and Dubya were just very lucky.

This makes a great story, a layer of mystique that covers decades of American history, but there's one catch: a lack of reliable historical evidence that Tenskwatawa actually proclaimed a curse on the presidents. The curse doesn’t appear to have been documented at any time in between the Battle of Tippecanoe and Harrison’s death, and received no national attention until Ripley's Believe It or Not mentioned it in 1931. Given that, it seems more likely—to me, anyway—that the 20-year death cycle was a strange coincidence and that someone took note of it in the early 20th century, and publicized with the tale of the curse to mythologize the presidency. What do you think?

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November 6, 2012 - 7:10am
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