By Karen Owen-Phelps
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Was William Henry Harrison a hero, a villain or something in between?
Historians will be examining his record anew this summer with the dedication of a new park in Vincennes, Ind.
American culture and education have changed a lot since the Daughters of the American Revolution acquired the home of the nation’s ninth president in 1909.
Grouseland was Harrison’s headquarters when he was governor of the Indiana Territory from 1800 to 1812. Harrison was a pivotal figure in opening up much of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota to white settlers.
The foundation that manages the property will be examining Harrison’s track record from the viewpoint of Native Americans.
“We promote an honest evaluation using good research and also placing history in context,” said Dan Sarell, executive director of the Grouseland Foundation. “What we reject is revisionist history,” where modern scholars impose modern values and mores on historical figures “as if they share the same values.”
“I think the record with Harrison is fairly mixed,” he said. “There were inconsistencies.”
Harrison was 27 when he was appointed territorial governor, a role that put him in charge of negotiating treaties with Indians across the Midwest.
National policy at the time was to open the West while incorporating Indians into American society and teaching them to raise animals and crops. Leaders such as Harrison were “fairly pragmatic,” Sarell said. “There were tricks of the trade.”
Treaty negotiations “always included tribes and chiefs that signed away land that wasn’t theirs,” he said.
“When peaceful means didn’t work, they would go to war. Ultimately, when they met enough resistance,” removal of Native Americans from the territory “was seen as the only option.”
The beginning of the end for the Indians came in 1811, when Harrison crippled a resistance movement at the Battle of Tippecanoe near what is Lafayette, Ind.
During the War of 1812, he recaptured Detroit, invaded Canada and defeated the British at the Battle of the Thames. Harrison was “as popular a military and political figure of his day as George Washington was,” Sarell said.
Harrison’s 1840 campaign for president spawned many modern political traditions, including nominating conventions, stump speeches, campaign buttons and campaign tours.
When “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” won, Harrison became the oldest man elected U.S. president until Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Harrison’s was also the shortest presidency. The 69-year-old served only one month.
Tradition says Harrison caught pneumonia delivering our nation’s longest inaugural speech — two hours — without a hat on a cold, drizzly day.
Sarell doubts that interpretation. Harrison actually had three vigorous weeks in office before he took to his bed, only a week before he died, Sarell said.
Today, Harrison’s former home, adjacent to Vincennes University, is open to the public. Named for the grouse, or greater prairie chicken, the 6,500-square-foot, Federal-style residence was the first brick house in Indiana.
Former Vice President Aaron Burr and Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame, both dined in the formal dining room there.
The new park next door, Walnut Grove, will be dedicated at 1 p.m. on Aug. 21.
The dedication will include the re-enactment of an encounter between Harrison and the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who tried to organize Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River to resist the whites. The event will feature soldier, militia and Native American re-enactors.
Visitors also can experience American military camp life of the time and see demonstrations of frontier skills at the “Council at the Grove” later in the day.
Vincennes dates back to 1732, and the community has plenty of other attractions for history buffs, including the Indiana Military Museum, which has exhibits dating from the Civil War up to Desert Storm, and the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park, which has the largest national monument outside of Washington, D.C.
If you go
What: Grouseland, home of William Henry Harrison when he was governor of the Indiana Territory
Where: 3 W. Scott St. in downtown Vincennes, Ind.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Cost: $2 to $5 a person
Information: Visit Grouselandfoundation.org or call (812) 882-2096
What: Dedication of Walnut Grove Park, next to Grouseland
When: 1 p.m. Aug. 21
n George Rogers Clark National Historic Park, 401 S. Second St.; (812) 882-1776
n Old Cathedral: Basilica of St. Francis Xavier and French & Indian Cemetery, 205 Church St.; (812) 882-5638
n Old French House & Indiana Museum, First and Seminary streets; (812) 882-7422
n Indiana Military Museum, 2074 N. Old Bruceville Road; (812) 882-8668
For more information on Vincennes: http://www.vincennescvb.org/