MARION, Ind. (AP) — Smoke from campfires wafts among the sycamores lining the banks of the Mississinewa River as the sounds of gunfire, drums and war-whoops echo through the woods.
In a clearing, ragtag bands of settlers and more polished soldiers armed with muskets clash with American Indians. The fighting leaves the ground littered with bodies.
It is a gruesome yet oddly engaging scene that takes visitors back to the Battle of Mississinewa, a pivotal turning point in the War of 1812 — and in the history of the territory that soon would become Indiana.
The historic battle site about seven miles north of Marion is bustling this weekend with more than 1,000 re-enactors and artisans and an estimated 30,000 more who come to take in the sights and soak up the colors and flavors of a bygone era.
The annual three-day event that continues through Sunday features America's largest War of 1812 battle re-enactment.
The Mississinewa event — part battle spectacle, part living history fair — is also one of the most visible and enduring reminders of just how little many Hoosiers know about a nearly forgotten war that helped shape the state.
Even the well-honed re-enactment, now in its 25th year, misses the mark historically on at least a couple of counts, as organizers readily admit. First, the actual battle was waged in December, not October. And second, no British troops were involved in the fighting despite their participation in the daily battle re-enactments.
Still, re-enactors and historians agree, the observance is a good introduction to the escalating conflict between Indians and settlers two centuries ago in what then was the "Old Northwest."
For many, the war can be boiled down to two or three touchstones. Probably best-known are the British burning of the White House; the attack on Fort McHenry, which inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the poem that would later be set to music and become "The Star-Spangled Banner"; and the Battle of New Orleans, which actually occurred after the war ended.
David Nichols, associate professor at Indiana State University, said the War of 1812 is much harder to define than the two others wars fought on U.S. soil — the American Revolution and Civil War.
The War of 1812, he explained, was fought on several fronts and for different reasons. There was no clear set of principles, Nichols explained, nor obvious good and bad guys. There were no large-scale battles. And, probably most significantly, there was no real winner — at least in terms of gaining land or power.
But there was a clear loser, particularly in Indiana: the Indian tribes that gave the state its name.
"To the extent that the U.S. won, it did so through imperial aggression," Nichols told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/OwWN7u ). "The war decisively broke the Native Americans in Indiana."
That victory fueled a rapid expansion of settlement that set the stage for statehood in 1816, when Indiana passed the benchmark of 60,000 free inhabitants and became the 19th state.
"Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison believed the only way to induce settlement was to offer free land," Nichols said. "To procure that land, it had to be taken from the Indians."
Many Hoosiers may not know details of the bloody and sometimes morally disturbing battles fought on Indiana soil between U.S. troops and Indians who opposed the encroachment of white settlers, yet reminders abound.
The war helped propel Harrison to national prominence and the presidency. In fact, his classic campaign slogan — "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too" — is a reference to Harrison's success in the Battle of Tippecanoe, which is often considered the first conflict of the war, even though it occurred in 1811.
Other military leaders who fought or lost their lives on the war's western front became namesakes for more than a half-dozen counties across the state, including Bartholomew, Daviess, Owen, Spencer, Warrick and Wells.
Even some of the key Indian leaders, most notably Shawnee chief Tecumseh — a savvy warrior who aligned with the British and led an effort to establish a pan-Indian confederacy to fight for an independent Native American state — have been memorialized by Hoosiers. Tributes to Tecumseh include a small, unincorporated community north of Terre Haute named in his honor and schools bearing his name in Tippecanoe and Warrick counties.
Tecumseh's younger brother, Tenskwatawa, a spiritual leader known as "The Prophet," also has been the subject of long-lasting tributes. In 1994, the state established Prophetstown State Park near Lafayette. There also is the Prophet's Rock memorial, erected in 1929 at a site along Prophet Rock Road near Battle Ground, marking the spot where Tenskwatawa "sat and sang to encourage the Indians" during the Nov. 7, 1811, Battle of Tippecanoe.
The frontier conflict with Indians had little to do with the United States entering the War of 1812. That was spurred by conflicts with Britain over issues related to maritime activity and trade.
But the Indians were supported by the British, and that gave settlers and the territorial government a rationale to merge their fight into the broader conflict with Britain.
Tensions had escalated between the settlers and Indians following the signing of the Treaty of Fort Wayne, negotiated in 1809 by Harrison.
The treaty — vehemently opposed by Tecumseh — added nearly 3 million acres of former Indian land to U.S. holdings.
Fearing an Indian uprising, Harrison led troops in an attack on Prophetstown in November 1811, sacking the village along the Tippecanoe River where Indians backing Tecumseh had begun to muster.
The fighting is often considered to be the first salvo of the war on the western front.
At least a half-dozen more significant battles would follow over the next year — the most fighting on Indiana soil in any conflict before or since.
In the wake of Tippecanoe, and for much of 1812, the Indians held the upper hand. That changed in December 2012, when U.S. troops and militiamen launched a surprise attack on several Indian villages along the Mississinewa River. The fighting marked the first clear victory for U.S. forces in the land war.
"Mississinewa did a lot to turn the tide of the war," said Roger Laybourn, Loogootee, a historical interpreter and docent at Grouseland, the Harrison mansion in Vincennes.
It would be the last major conflict on Indiana soil, but it would be decades before most of the remaining Indians were removed — some forcibly — from the new state of Indiana.
War or not, however, the removal of Indians from the territory was inevitable, said Dawn G. Marsh, a Purdue University professor who teaches Native American history.
"There was a very clear imperative from Washington that the Indians needed to be removed from the region so that it could be settled," she said.
"Even if the War of 1812 hadn't happened, those processes were in place to get the Indians to go somewhere else."
On the banks of the Mississinewa this weekend, the story of the conflict between the settlers and Indians — as well as glimpses of frontier life, circa 1812 — is being shared with thousands of Hoosiers, from wide-eyed schoolchildren to senior citizens.
"I wanted to create something of lasting value that was educational, historical and cultural as a gift to the community," said Martin Lake, 73, Marion, co-founder of the event called Mississinewa 1812.
Lake considered several possible options before settling on a commemoration of the Battle of Mississinewa.
"Back then, I really didn't know that much about this battle," he admitted. "It really wasn't taught in schools."
Lake visited other re-enactments across the country and begged and cajoled participants to join him in the new venture. The event started slowly but has grown steadily, attracting participants this year from as far away as Canada and New Orleans.
The wooded park along the river was filled Friday with hundreds of schoolchildren, including many fourth-graders who are studying Indiana history.
Anne Eddingfield, a teacher at W.C. Mills Elementary in Wabash, was among those visiting with students Friday. She said the history text her students use does not include much about Indiana's role in the War of 1812, so she has used supplemental materials. The field trip, she explained, helps reinforce her classroom work.
"This gives them a better feel for the period," she said, "and the way people lived at that time. It gets them excited about history."
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com