The Gods of Prophetstown: Interview with Adam Jortner
By Danielle Raub
Adam Jortner, Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Auburn University, recently released a book called The Gods of Prophetstown. The Ohio Historical Society sat down with Dr. Jortner and discussed his recent publication and his perspective on the War of 1812. Before delving into the interview, please read a brief synopsis on The Gods of Prophetstown here.
OHS: So can you tell us a little about what inspired you to write The Gods of Prophetstown?
Adam Jortner: Well, most texts focus on Britain, Canada, and the United States and then add the Native Americans in at the end. That being said, I didn’t set out to write a Native American history. I began by looking into Native religion and then how Tenskwatawa is deeply intertwined in this spiritual struggle. This is a story that builds over time; you can see the pressure building.
OHS: What inspired a focus on the War of 1812?
Adam Jortner: If you look at the national narrative, wars we lost are often overlooked. We glorify World War II because we won that war. But we often gloss over those wars we lost.
OHS: It’s interesting that you say that. Now that I think about it, in high school, I remember being on the subject of WWII for weeks while I can’t remember reading more than a paragraph on 1812.
Adam Jortner: Exactly. We did not win the War of 1812 so quite often it falls under the category of wars we aren’t too keen on discussing.
OHS: While researching I’ve found many different perspectives on the cause of the war with a general consensus on a few select facts. Can you talk a little about the causes of 1812?
Adam Jortner: Two models are pretty apparent in the study of the War of 1812. The first model centers on the idea that the natives were savages and there was a need for white expansion. The second is the revisionist model or the idea that the natives were victims of white racism. So really, American history wants Native Americans to be savages or faceless victims. Primarily, it was just political.
There was a certain ongoing political pressure; the pressure to get more and more land. We weren’t forced into this war. It was a war of choice, which is what makes things interesting. What were some of the reasons you found in your research for why the United States declared war?
OHS: There were 3 main reasons that were pretty much consistent across the board: the British implementing the trade blockade [between the US and France], Britain supporting the Native American tribes [against US expansion], and the impressment of soldiers [into the British Royal Navy].
Adam Jortner: Have you ever heard of the Chesapeake Leopard Affair in 1807?
OHS: No, I have not.
Adam Jortner: Well, basically there was a British ship within site of the US coast. An American ship was accosted by this British ship. They took some supplies and impressed 4 people. This is considered an inciting incident but Jefferson did not want to go to war. Four years after the inciting incident, war is declared. The British were dumbfounded and even tried to negotiate but the US would not back down. What we really wanted was Canada and all those other reasons (the trade blockade, impressment etc.) were, for the most part, just excuses to try and take it. This idea of a war of choice centers on the concept that America is not always right. We need to remove this idea that America is always right. The government does not always do the right thing. The people did not want this war, but political parties have an agenda.
OHS: As a world literature major, I often look at stories and instinctually try to find the hero and the villain. People want to know about the good guy and the bad guy. Would you say there’s a hero and villain in the story of Harrison and Tenskwatawa?
Adam Jortner: Good question. Too often people look at a war in connection with morality. But war is political. Neither of these two men were heroes. Tenskwatawa was arrogant; Harrison was conniving. I make no effort in Gods of Prophetstown to cover them in a veil of righteousness. Eliminating heroes allows for more objectivity. It is okay to make heroes, but we must not lose touch with reality. War is a political force.