Believe It or Not

I have often wondered whether the early newspapers, like those housed by the University of Texas at Austin, contained more letters than held in all the manuscript archives of the United States.  Local editors could gain news of the faraway by two means:  exchange newspapers or exchange letters received by their readers from faraway acquaintances.  The following letter is an example, and it illustrates the beauty of the exchange of newspapers.  The letter I found was in the Raleigh Register, but it originally appeared in the New York Shamrock, or Hibernian Chronicle, on January 25, 1812. On first reading, it seems to be a tall tale of bravado.

The letter is by Robert Thompson, of the U.S. 4th regiment, to his brother in New York, dated Vincennes, January 1, 1812.  The editor of the Shamrock provided the following information about Robert Thomson: “Mr. Thompson is a native of Dublin, and in the 23d year of his age. Having received a liberal education, he studied law under a very eminent professional gentleman in that city, visited this country in the year 1807, and being disappointed in the line of his profession, he voluntarily entered the United States army sooner than be of any expence to his relations.” Here follows Robert Thompson’s letter.

“Vincennes, January 1, 1812
My Dear Brother,

It is with the greatest joy I have to inform you of the late brilliant and glorious battle with the Indians.  Being over-hasty in the battle, night amazing dark and not seeing well at the best of times, I found myself before I knew of it in the midst of the Savages.  I shot one and bayoneted another, and in the act of taking his scalp I was completely overpowered by numbers.  They were bringing me off (as I supposed) to roast me alive;–judge what must have been the situation of my mind!  I struggled and cried out for help; fortunately disengaging my right hand, I drew out my knife and stabbed the Indian that was bringing me off to the heart–he fell, and with my left I struck another near the temple, he fell to the ground, and one blow with my knife ended his days. I seized his rifle (for in the scuffle they got away my gun) and shot another through the head; I was then in a very perilous situation; they all came round me–I kept them off with the butt end of the rifle–in a few minutes all would have been over with me, for I began to grow faint with the loss of blood, when I was relieved by a party of Dragoons with the valiant Major Daviess at their head–they carried me off. During the well-contested fight, I received a severe wound through my thigh and lost part of my finger by a cut.–I have also received several severe wounds from the tomahawk and scalping knife, but the Doctor says there is no kind of danger.”

The letter, as published by the Register, ends here.  The letter, as published by the Shamrock gives us this continuation:

 “…and advises me to nourish myself with chicken, &c.  My dear brother I should have wrote you an account of my situation before this, but was not able to do so.  Do not mention a syllable of the affair to parents–when you write inform them I am well and hearty.  I have taken some wine, which has been of great help to me.  As you are fond of drawing you could not form a more interesting subject than a representation of me in the above conflict, surrounded by savages and darkness, fighting as described, dealing destruction around me, and the horse rescuing me, where fell the immortal Davies and other brave brothers in arms.   To say more of myself might be considered egotism, for as soldiers are never mentioned individually, it takes from the credit of the officers–they alone report for themselves, and engross all the praise, while mine and some of my brave companions who fell by my side gloriously fighting are left to sink into oblivion.  Write by return of post, and kindly mention to me o all my friends.”

If this is “real,” it is one of the few first-hand accounts of the battle of Tippecanoe, which occurred on November 7, 1811.  The 4th U.S. Infantry was indeed at Tippecanoe, serving under William H. Harrison.  The 4th, the Indiana militia, and friendly Indians were surprised at four in the morning (it was dark) by the hostile Indians.  According to the website of the Upper Mississippi Brigade, Major Joseph Daviess “was persistent in his request of Harrison to let him make a charge.  Daviess apparently was too excited and charged without waiting for the bulk of his command.” According to Adam Walker, who was also present, “The hasty charge made by major Daviess to dislodge the Indians from behind the trees on the left of the front line, was made with only 20 of his dragoons, dismounted . . . .”   At some point, Daviess was wounded, mortally, but his charge gained him fame.  A poem, entitled “Indian Warfare,” was published by the New York Mercantile Advertiser, with this conclusion:  “There should you meet untimely death, / And for your country yield your breath, / On Daviess’ tomb, with Daviess’ name,/ Be yours enroll’d for endless fame.” The wounded of Harrison’s force were taken by boat back to Vincennes, where they were taken care of.  According to Walker, the wounded arrived back at Vincennes on November 19, “and immediately after were placed in excellent quarters, and every possible attention paid to the sick and wounded.”

Again, if this account is true, it is yet another reason to preserve and to scan these old newspapers.  They hold so much of our history.

If you are interested in contributing funds to speed The University of Texas’ massive project of scanning and putting on-line historic newspapers online, please contact Linda Abbey, of UT’s General Libraries, phone (512) 795-4366 or online to the Historic Newspapers Preservation link.

About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden