The Creek Refugees
Nine-year-old Billy Powell, the boy who would grow up to become the warrior Osceola, watched as his whole world went up in flames.
Billy was in the company of his mother and dozens of other members of the Creek tribe—mostly women, children, and old men—who crouched in the dense underbrush where they had fled from their homes. One by one they cautiously raised their heads to view great plumes of charcoal smoke furiously billowing upward into the distant sky. This fear-inspiring sight indicated that countless fires were raging in the direction of their homes. It was apparent that every residence and building in the town of Tallassee along the Tallapoosa River in the region of present-day Macon County, Alabama, had been set on fire and was burning out of control. Soon nothing would remain but ashes and debris.
These displaced people had been on the move for two days, abandoning their town when word was received that the soldiers were on their way. They had been hiding in various places within the thick underbrush between the Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers, waiting for the time when they could return to their homes. They had survived thus far by scavenging whatever they could find in fields or abandoned villages that still stood, or resorting to stealing when the opportunity arose. It was likely that Billy Powell and the other boys helped provide meat by hunting squirrel, rabbit, or other small game with their bows and arrows.
These desperate Creeks, however, now were struck with the gravity of their situation—it could be assumed that all their homes and the town community buildings had been consumed by the fire and they were homeless and in the hands of fate.
There were no tears or wailing or shouts of anger and revenge. It was imperative that they remain quiet, secreted, and focused. The U.S. Army invaders who had perpetrated this tragedy upon them would be combing the area to search for the missing inhabitants of this town. The purpose of those soldiers raiding any Creek town was not only to destroy homes and possessions but also to take lives, and this enemy had proved itself extraordinarily brutal and heartless. Even young Billy Powell understood that if any of the Tallassee Creeks were found, they surely would be killed.
The faces of the Creek refugees were grave. No one dared speak the words, but each stunned member of this band was aware that they would be compelled to flee without delay from their homeland—perhaps permanently. They had no home to go back to now that their town had vanished into smoldering ruins, and the soldiers would make certain that Tallassee and any other Upper Creek town they destroyed would never be rebuilt or reoccupied. Billy Powell and his Creek neighbors must try to forget about the loss of their town and possessions and focus all their efforts on escaping from this dangerous place.
Such a desperate assessment was not easy to make, nor would flight to a new place be a simple undertaking. The town of Tallassee had been their traditional home for generations. Where could they go, under duress and on a moment’s notice, without any possessions other than those they carried on their backs? This question was not spoken aloud but was foremost on everyone’s minds. These Creek people were not by any means prepared for an extended journey. The country beyond was rife with danger from extreme elements, from vicious wild animals, from their enemies, from an unforgiving tangled and soggy terrain of swamps and forests, and most of all from the unknown.
Billy Powell watched the final visible vestiges of smoke rise against the blackening sky. It was difficult for him to imagine that everything he knew in life had been destroyed. His mind might have drifted back to relive the memories of his well-ordered childhood in that pastoral place along the Tallapoosa River. He likely could not fathom the fact that he would never again lay eyes on that town and its environs that had become so familiar to him and offered him a sense of security.
Billy’s people had lived in that place for as long as anyone could remember. The written history of the Creeks had its foundations in narratives of de Soto’s expedition in 1540, but they were much older than that. The Creeks were descendants of the Mississippian culture, the first great civilization in North America, which arose some four thousand years before the Spanish arrived. These prehistoric Muskogees or Muscokees and affiliated tribes were known to build earthwork mounds at regional chiefdoms that spread across two-thirds of the United States.
By the time of de Soto’s landing on the islands of coastal Georgia, however, the Muskogean people, who would become known as Creeks, no longer built mounds and had established a confederacy that occupied the greater portion of Alabama and Georgia. This Creek Confederacy had grown to great numbers and was powerful enough to fight off any invasion or threat to their territory from the strong northern tribes—the Catawba, Cherokee, Iroquois, and Shawnee, to name a few. They spoke a typical Muskogean language that was closely related to the Choctaw language, with many words identical in pronunciation. This rather common language was quickly learned by early white frontiersmen with whom the tribe traded.
During the American Revolution, the Creek Nation made an effort to maintain its neutrality, although the tribe had earlier allied with the English. In 1786, the Creek Nation declared war on the state of Georgia, and several attempts at negotiating a treaty had failed. At the time of Billy Powell’s birth in the early 1800s, there was no peace between the Creeks and the white people to the north. Incidences of violence between the two enemies were relatively minor, but tensions remained high and those border whites closest to the Creek Nation were in constant fear of an attack. This was the state of the world into which Billy would be born and reared.1
The birth and lineage of Billy Powell has been a source of question and controversy over the years. Most historians agree that he was born in or near the town of Tallassee, Alabama—northeast of modern-day Montgomery—in the year 1804. The identities of both his parents and his ancestors, however, are a less settled matter.2
The most credible and widely accepted account of Billy’s ancestry relies mainly on the reminiscences of Thomas S. Woodward, a contemporary white soldier and distinguished Creek historian. Woodward claimed that Billy’s lineage could be traced back to James McQueen, a Scottish sailor who had jumped ship in Charleston in the late 1690s and in 1716 became the first white man to trade with the Creeks. McQueen remained with the Creeks as a trader from that day forth until, according to Woodward, he died at the remarkable age of 128 in the year 1811.
James McQueen, who was known among the Creek people as the Soft-Shelled Turtle, fathered many children during his lifetime. At some point, McQueen married a young Creek woman from Tallassee, who bore him a son, Peter McQueen, and a daughter named Ann. James McQueen’s daughter Ann grew up to marry a white man or a man of mixed race named Jose Copinger. Ann Copinger then gave birth to a daughter named Polly, who married a white trader named William Powell. Billy Powell was said to have been born from this union between Polly and William Powell, thereby making him of mixed blood, with Scottish and Creek, or Muskogee, being the most prevalent that flowed through his veins.3
There are those interested parties and historians who dispute this accepted theory that Billy was of mixed blood—including Billy himself. He was quoted by George Catlin, who painted his portrait in 1838, shortly before his death, as saying, “No foreign blood runs in my veins; I am pure-blood Muskogee.”4
This adamant denial has created a major contradiction, because this youngster who grew up to become Osceola has been called “Billy Powell” in countless references. There has been speculation ranging from the idea that Billy Powell was merely a nickname or that William Powell was not his real father but his stepfather to the idea that he could not have had white blood because the man Osceola did not speak English. Lieutenant L. L. Cohen, a contemporary and historian, wrote in 1836 that he believed that Billy’s father was a full-blooded Creek who died after Billy was born—Polly then married the trader William Powell. No evidence exists to confirm any of these theories.5
Cohen, however, must have known that the Creek family structure was matrilineal, with each person belonging to his or her mother’s clan and with descent and inheritance evolving from that side. Young Billy, and later the man Osceola, would have accepted the fact that his mother was full-blooded Creek because her mother had been full-blooded Creek, which, to his way of thinking, would have made him a full-blooded Creek—regardless of whether or not William Powell had been his biological father. Dr. John K. Mahon, a respected historian of Southeastern Native American traditions, wrote that “among both the Creeks and the Seminoles a man was a member of his mother’s clan, and home to him was where the mother of his clan lived.”6
William Powell disappeared from Billy’s life by about 1808, as best as can be determined, although he might have remained as late as 1814. In keeping with Creek tradition, however, William Powell would have had little or no influence through the years on his son. His mother and her male relatives—in this case his well-known warrior grand-uncle, Peter McQueen—would have been responsible for rearing the boy. Billy’s upbringing by his mother’s side of the family would also explain why he did not speak English. Peter McQueen, incidentally, although proved to be of mixed-blood ancestry, always claimed, perhaps on the basis of his own maternal lineage, that he, too, was a pure-blooded Creek.7
Billy’s people lived in clans, the basic family and social unit, with the oldest and most revered man or woman of the group charged with judging the behavior of each member. This elder would praise, condemn, or punish as he or she saw fit. He or she was by tribal custom responsible for organizing hunting parties, arranging and approving marriages, and distributing land. In fact, many marriages were arranged by the clan without consulting the bride or groom to be. People had little control over their hearts or lusts, which was perhaps why polygamy was commonplace, with the other wife or wives usually living apart from their husband. In addition to marriages, it was the responsibility of the clan and its leaders to ascertain that members adhered to all the Creek traditions and values that had been in place for generations.8
Tallassee, the place where Billy Powell was born and reared, was a typical Creek town when it came to its political and social structure. The most important town leader was the micco
), the town chief or king, who was normally elected. This man led the people in battle, if necessary, and represented the town at tribal meetings, but had no other power than that which persuasion could garner. He did, however, preside over the town council and had great influence over their decisions due to the respect the tribe members had for him.
This council met daily to discuss various topics important to the well-being of the town—war and peace; hunting, fishing, and planting; maintenance of public buildings and grounds; ceremonies—and to settle disputes and punish wrongdoers. The micco would be advised by an assortment of respected townspeople—a second in charge, called the heniha
; the micalgi,
or lesser chiefs; the yahola,
a medicine man who cared for sacred objects; and a tustenugge,
the ranking warrior who was appointed by the micco. In wartime, a fighting man could earn the title hadjo,
which meant “great warrior.” The authority of the micco was held in check by the clan leaders, who were often the true leaders within the Creek Nation.9
Billy Powell had resided in a typical Creek dwelling, which was situated on a street within a complex of streets that ran adjacent to public buildings and grounds. His house likely consisted of four separate buildings, with one room serving as a cookroom and lodgings during winter, another designed for summer living, and another utilized as a granary. Houses in this town were rectangular in shape, with poles for a frame, walls plastered with mud mixed with straw, and roofs that had been shingled with cypress bark. The men of the town could construct one of these structures from start to finish in just one day. A private garden plot was situated beside each house, where a small amount of beans, corn, and tobacco was tended by the family. One morbidly interesting aspect of Creek dwellings is that traditionally, the dead of the family were buried under the earthen floor at the spot where they had died inside the house.10
The primary supply of food for all the Creek families was grown in large fields that belonged to the town but were broken down into smaller plots that were cared for by each family. These tracts of land were the richest soil available in the area, usually located at a bend in the river and as close to town as possible. Planting was a community event that was held on the first of May each year. A conch shell was blown early in the morning, which brought out the entire village with farm implements in hand to the town square. Their primitive tools were made of wood, bone, or stone, and they had a number of manufactured axes or hoes procured from traders. They walked to the town-owned field as a group and worked from one end of the field to the other until the planting was completed.
The Creeks raised crops of corn, beans, pumpkins, squash, melons, sweet potatoes, tobacco, and occasionally rice, and supplemented their diets with wild fruits and nuts. One popular delicacy was hickory nuts or acorns pounded in a mortar, stirred in boiling water with the oil skimmed off, and mixed in hominy and corn cakes.
The May planting was a time of great joy and celebration, with songs and jokes, and the chiefs working alongside the common people. Everyone, without exception, was expected to participate. Anyone caught shirking or failing to pull his or her weight would be fined or denied his or her share of the food. If the transgression was serious enough, the offending person could be banned from the town.
Cultivation was once again a community event. This time, however, each family would harvest the crops on its particular assigned plot within the town field. They would carry the produce to their own storehouse—with a portion of the bounty being contributed to public storage. The community town warehouse, a spacious building situated near the field, was held under strict supervision. The doors were opened only to accommodate travelers in need, provision military expeditions, or assist those townspeople whose own supplies had run out.11
Billy Powell and his friends, along with the women and the old men, had the responsibility of working in the fields and watching over them closely to drive off birds and other scavengers that might destroy the crops. Every child was expected to toil in the fields to weed and hoe at the bidding of the women. At night, the grown men took over the watch to scare away the deer, raccoons, and bears that might be seeking a meal. No doubt Billy and his friends would watch the men with envy, wishing they were old enough to leave behind the daily toils that they chided as “women’s work” and keep company with the men.12
Division of labor within the family was not unlike that of white people of the time. The women were responsible for all the household tasks. They would prepare the food; clean the house; make pottery, baskets, and mats; and care for the children. The women also were expected to sew and produce all the family clothing. During the late seventeenth century, the Creek had shed their buckskins and taken to wearing European fashions made of comfortable and colorful cloth. They would trade for bolts of cloth in a variety of colors and textures, and accessorize the styles with bells, ribbons, metal, beads, and pieces of mirror.
The men built the houses, provided the material for clothing, made garden implements, presided over the government, protected the town, and fought the wars. They also hunted for meat, mainly deer, but bear was also sought for its fat, which was stored in deerskins.
The Creek towns along the Tallapoosa each had their own wooded preserve and rights along the river where their townspeople hunted and fished exclusively. Inhabitants of each town were mindful not to trespass onto another town’s territory. The people were attentive to ways of conserving nature. Game management was the responsibility of the town council, which would set open and closed seasons on the various species in order to preserve game for the future. In addition to fresh game and fish, the men raised cattle and hogs, and had a corral with horses for both work and pleasure.13
Billy Powell and his young companions were not always obliged to work in the fields with the women and old men. He and his friends spent much time roaming the fields and forests with their bows and arrows at the ready in search of game. The men killed big game, whereas the boys learned how to hunt by stalking squirrels, raccoons, opossum, and rabbits. The youngsters were taught how to hunt and clean their kill mainly by watching the men and imitating their actions. This act of hunting was also a lesson for war. Hunting small game with a bow and arrow required much stealth to sneak in close and the skill to remain hidden from the prey until firing one’s weapon. Frequent target shooting was also encouraged to further hone their skills.
Creek children played many games, as well as wrestling and running races, both of which were highly competitive. One popular game was similar to our modern-day lacrosse. In this game, played by both boys and girls, teams took positions on either side of a pole. The object was to strike that pole with a thrown deerskin ball. Girls could use their hands, but boys were required to use a pair of rackets. The game commenced when someone threw at the pole. If the ball missed its mark, a player from the opposite team would field the ball and attempt to hit the target or pass the ball to another player. The ball hitting the pole would score a point for that team. These games often resulted in physical contact as the boys and girls jostled each other for control of the ball.14
The men would play this same lacrosse game, and it would occasionally become quite violent and lead to the shedding of blood. Perhaps that was why it appealed so much to Creek youngsters, who were attracted to this sport as much as today’s children are obsessed with football, basketball, hockey, soccer, and baseball. Unlike the sports of today, however, this early lacrosse game—and other games as well—was a substitute for war in the eyes of the participants. There was no sport to their games. Every time they took to the field, it could be equated to a life-or-death situation. For this reason, oftentimes rules were ignored and arguments escalated into fistfights. Games without competitors on both sides sustaining injuries were rare.15
Evidence supports the fact that Billy Powell excelled at these traditional games and was notable as an all-around athlete. Charles H. Coe, a nineteenth-century historian, writes, “As a youth, many testify to the fact that [Billy Powell] was a great favorite with his tribe, being uncommonly bright, accomplished and energetic. ‘Cudjoe,’ who was interpreter to our army for several years, and who had known [Billy Powell] from his childhood, said he was a very active youth, excelling in the chase, in running, leaping, ball-playing, and other Indian exercises.”16
These physical accomplishments explain in part why he later emerged as a significant leader. The sporting attributes demonstrated by Billy Powell—courage, skill, mental toughness, and superior strength and conditioning—were the same traits necessary to assume leadership roles in society or as an exceptional warrior.
Now, Billy Powell lamented, the town of Tallassee and its athletic fields with stands built for spectators had burned to the ground. The memories of sports triumphs and defeats were blackened and obscured by the soot and smoke that drifted away at the whim of the wind.
Billy Powell and his neighbors who had resided in the destroyed town could be considered innocent victims, but that would not be entirely correct. The inhabitants of Tallassee certainly had been victims—victims of long-simmering politics that had been escalated by their own people into a full-scale war. And in war, the noncombatants often suffered as much as or more than the fighting men.
This particular conflict that had displaced Billy Powell and his neighbors might have had its roots in, or at least been helped along by, of all things, a comet and an earthquake. The comet was the first to affect the Creek, streaming across the starry sky in March 1811. The story was told that soon after the comet was observed, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, whose name meant “Shooting Star,” visited the town of Tuckabatchee. Tecumseh, whose mother was Creek, which made him Creek in the eyes of the tribe, preached that the Creek must resist the cultural changes that were occurring within the tribe. At that time, he also told the people there that the comet had signaled his coming. This statement was met with great skepticism. Tecumseh informed these doubters that he would provide another sign to prove that the Great Spirit had sent him. On December 11, 1811, the New Madrid fault erupted violently to shake the land—and the nerves—of the Creek, as well as everyone throughout much of eastern North America. This massive earthquake—the most devastating to strike North America in historic times—originated in Missouri but could be felt as far away as Boston, Massachusetts, and Charleston, South Carolina.
Unusual natural occurrences always carried a special meaning to the tribes affected by them, and this comet and powerful earthquake were no exception. The interpretation of their meaning varied from tribe to tribe, but there was no doubt that these frightening natural occurrences—the mysterious streak across the sky and the shaking of the earth—had great supernatural significance. Many Creek people embraced the warning from Tecumseh and believed that his prophetic words about change should be taken seriously.17
Change was already taking place within the Creek tribe at an alarming pace, however. It was likely that a faction of the Creek people who lived in central Alabama, who were known as the Upper Creeks due to the location of their towns—led by William Weatherford (aka Red Eagle), Billy Powell’s grand-uncle Peter McQueen, and Chief Menawa—did view the comet and earthquake as solemn warnings that the people should return their society to a traditional way of life. It was widely accepted that the residents of too many Creek towns had strayed from their traditional culture and values. These leaders had made an effort to maintain their sovereignty as a tribe in spite of white encroachment for centuries, but they were now engaged in a losing battle for the hearts and minds of great numbers of their tribal members.
The Upper Creek townspeople were also called Red Sticks, from the Creek practice of using bundles of red sticks as a measurement of time before the commencement of war. The conflict would begin in the number of days corresponding with the number of red sticks in a bundle delivered to an enemy. Also, Creek warriors would occasionally leave behind a red war club at the scene of a battle. People in the Lower Towns, who rarely participated in this practice, became known as White Sticks.18
William Weatherford and the traditional Red Stick Creeks blamed the radical changes in their lifestyle on Benjamin Hawkins, the U.S. agent to the Creek Indians. Hawkins was a well-educated man who came from a socially prominent family in North Carolina. He had developed a fascination with southeastern Indians at a young age, and in 1796 he received the appointment as Indian agent from President George Washington. Although his family regarded the appointment as a sort of banishment, Hawkins, who could have enjoyed the genteel lifestyle of a privileged gentleman, was personally thrilled. He immediately set out to acculturate the primitive Creek in the white man’s culture. Benjamin Hawkins, as had so many whites before and after, vowed to bring civilization to these savages who, in his mind at least, would welcome the improvements to their lifestyle. Incidentally, Hawkins has been credited with coining the phrase “God willing and the Creek don’t rise.” He allegedly wrote those words in response to a request from President Washington to return to the capital. If the Creek Nation “rose,” Hawkins would need to be present to help quell the rebellion.19
At the time of Hawkins’s arrival, the Creeks had already established their own civilization with effective governmental and economic practices—the Creek Confederation—that predated the earliest European contacts. The tribe had maintained its culture and traditions even though many Europeans had entered their society, as evidenced by the abundance of mixed-blood descendants with names like Weatherford, McQueen, McIntosh, and McGillivray. Their government and economy had flourished for generations. They wondered why anyone would wish to alter a system that had worked so well for centuries.20
Hawkins soon commenced tearing down traditional Creek culture and traditions and replacing them with his personal vision of acculturation. Instead of raising food just for their own use, Hawkins promoted the planting of cotton and other cash crops to sell for profit. He also encouraged the abandonment of certain sacred ceremonies, aided and abetted the distribution of communal lands among individual Creeks, and approved of the purchase of African slaves for trade or labor. In other words, Hawkins brought the white man’s Southern civilization, a “cotton culture,” to the Creeks.
A Creek Council was appointed to oversee a police force that enforced the laws—as determined by the council—which, in a controversial move, had been exempted from the Creek tradition of clan blood vengeance. This move did not sit well with those traditionalists who had difficulty conceiving that the council was betraying everything for which they, the Upper Creeks, stood. Everyone was aware that the council had for all intents and purposes delegated its authority. The real power behind the Creek Council that delved into every aspect of daily life was none other than Benjamin Hawkins.21
The Hawkins policy appealed to many Creeks of mixed white–Native American ancestry, especially those who lived in the Lower Creek towns, but was vehemently opposed by the Upper Creeks. It was pointed out by the Upper Creeks that the adoption of these new policies was contrary to tribal tradition, such as gender roles. Only women engaged in horticulture, not men. Any attempt to transform the men—the warriors—into working in agriculture was an attempt by Hawkins to emasculate them and was therefore wrong.
The Lower Town Creeks lived mostly along the Chattahoochee River, which was much closer geographically to whites than to the Upper Towns. Therefore, it was easier for the Lower Creeks to embrace this change to white culture, whereas people in the Upper Towns saw it as too radical and it served to harden their attitude toward the whites. The insistence by Benjamin Hawkins that his plan be adopted by the entire tribe—both Red Sticks and White Sticks—caused the breach that already existed between the towns to widen.22
In early 1813, the Upper Creeks were paid another visit by revered Shawnee chief Tecumseh. His mother was Creek, which, because of the matrilineal culture, was why he was regarded as Creek when he was among these people. This charismatic warrior eloquently preached traditional Indian values, anti-Americanism, and resistance by any means to the white encroachment on Creek land. Tecumseh had arrived fresh from his alliance with the British and the capture of Fort Detroit in August 1812. Although Benjamin Hawkins—and even many of the Creek people, both Upper and Lower—regarded Tecumseh’s behavior as duplicitous, there was no doubting his influence on the common people. His visit had served to strengthen Creek resolve against these radical cultural changes that were taking place.23
The Red Stick leaders—Weatherford (Red Eagle), McQueen, and Menawa—were not as enamored with Tecumseh as their people were, but they were inspired by their own religious leaders and the encouragement of British traders. Although the Creek deerskin trade with the Europeans had nearly depleted the deer population, this decline, as well as the demise of Creek tribal traditions, was blamed on the acculturation schemes of Benjamin Hawkins and his white ways. Following Tecumseh’s visit, these Red Stick leaders urged a spiritual cleansing, which included killing domestic livestock and discarding white man’s farm implements. They easily won the support of the Upper Creeks to engage in a spiritual rebirth.24
This decision by the Upper Towns did not sit well with many leading chiefs of the Creek Nation, most notably the Lower Creek micco and Hawkins’s most powerful ally, William McIntosh. The Lower Creek White Sticks had adopted white customs, welcomed white settlers, and embraced the policies of Indian agent Hawkins. They vowed not to reverse this trend anytime soon.
It was inevitable that this smoldering distrust and dislike between the Upper Creek towns and the Lower Creek towns, not to mention betrayal of their Creek roots in the eyes of the Red Sticks, would burst into a full-scale conflagration with encouragement from even the smallest of sparks.
In February 1813, that spark was supplied by a small party of Red Sticks, led by Little Warrior, which was on its way home from Detroit, where it had accompanied the Shawnee in raids. These warriors had just participated in several bloody fights and their own blood was up when they inexplicably butchered two white settler families along the Duck River near Nashville. Little Warrior and his companions were summarily executed under the authority of the Creek Council of old chiefs.
This blatant act of betrayal was viewed by the Upper Creek Red Sticks as nothing more than the Lower Town White Sticks kowtowing to the whites for fear of retribution. This decision by the council could be likened to an earthquake ripping a deeper and wider abyss separating the Upper and Lower towns. Perhaps this was the omen foretold by the comet and the earthquake that had rattled Creek lands in 1811. Regardless, in retaliation for what they deemed was bowing down and pandering to the white man—Hawkins in particular—the furious Upper Creek Red Sticks declared war on the Lower Creek White Sticks and their white allies. Their initial target was Big Warrior, whose Upper Creek town of Tuckabatchee was laid siege to with intentions of destroying the town. The dissidents also wanted to destroy this man who had been a respected leader in his earlier days but now was regarded by the Red Sticks as a coward who had sided with the enemy.25
Thus, the Creek Civil War of 1813–1814 commenced.
The first clash of the war occurred on July 27, 1813, when a war party of Red Sticks under Peter McQueen, who was returning from Spanish Florida, was accosted by a group of American soldiers. Those Red Sticks had been visiting the Spanish governor at Pensacola, where they had received arms and ammunition. The Red Sticks fled from the Americans, who then looted the munitions. McQueen’s warriors carried out a surprise counterattack, which chased the whites from the field. This affair became known as the Battle of Burnt Corn and broadened what began as a solely Creek civil war to include American forces.
On August 30, the Upper Creek Red Sticks executed their initial major attack when William Weatherford led about three hundred followers to Fort Mims, which stood a few miles north of Mobile on the Alabama River. This fort was occupied by hundreds of mixed-blood people from area plantations who had sought safety and protection from the marauding Red Sticks. The fort commander, however, had neglected to takes steps for protection, and the assault by the Red Sticks became a bloody massacre. Weatherford’s warriors burst inside through an open gate and killed 107 soldiers, 160 civilians, and 100 blacks before burning the stockade.
A handful of people managed to escape and spread the alarm. Panic spread throughout the countryside. Settlers armed themselves, with many of them leaving their homes and heading toward the fort with revenge on their minds. This tragedy brought American volunteer militias into the fight as well, with forces assembling in Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi. Secretary of War John Armstrong notified commanders in the field that if Spain was found to be involved, there would be a strike on Pensacola. Georgia commenced building forts along the Chattahoochee River, which forms much of the modern-day border between Alabama and Georgia, in order to hold off any offensive from the frontier and allow militias to prepare for war.
The initial counterattack by Lower Town Creeks and American forces took to the field during the winter of 1813–1814. This column was led by future president Andrew Jackson and his Tennessee militiamen and supported by friendly Cherokees and Creek White Sticks. Jackson and his men were relentless in their pursuit of justice for the Fort Mims massacre. His troops defeated a Red Stick force on November 9 at Talladega. Twenty days later, General John Floyd attacked the Upper Creek town of Auttosee on the Tallapoosa River and killed more than two hundred people before burning the town. Less than a month later, the hometown of Red Stick leader William Weatherford was burned to the ground. To say the least, the war was not going well for the Upper Creek Red Sticks.26
This was a particularly brutal war, with atrocities committed by both sides. One example of this savage action was related by former congressman and future Alamo defender Davy Crockett, who had enlisted in the Second Regiment of the Tennessee Volunteer Mountain Riflemen. Crockett was assigned to scouting duty due to his reputation as a tracker, woodsman, and hunter. He had led his unit to the large town of Tallussahatchee, Alabama, on November 3, whereupon they received enemy fire. A full-scale battle ensued, with casualties suffered on both sides. Finally, the Tennessee volunteers trapped forty-six Red Stick warriors in a log house in the center of town.
At one point, a Creek woman appeared in the doorway of this cabin and fired an arrow from a bow held by her feet, which killed one of the volunteers. That woman was immediately struck by dozens of musket balls as the unit aggressively returned fire. The enraged soldiers then refused to allow any of the Indians inside to surrender, although entreaties had been made. A massacre ensued. The log cabin was set on fire, and every one of the Creeks who was trapped inside burned to death.
The following day, the soldiers were scavenging for food when they located a potato cellar beneath the burned-out cabin. The famished men hungrily ate the potatoes. Crockett related, “Hunger compelled us to eat them, though I had a little rather not, if I could have helped it, for the oil of the Indians we had burned up on the day before had run down on them, and they looked like they had been stewed with fat meat.” In all, a total of 186 men, women, and children were killed and 80 captured at Tallussahatchee that day. The Americans lost 5 men in the “battle.”27
Fortunately, Billy Powell and his mother’s clan had escaped Tallassee and the fate that had befallen Tallussahatchee. In another stroke of fortune, they were advised that Billy’s mother’s uncle, Peter McQueen, intended to head south with other Red Stick Creek survivors of this tragedy. Billy, along with his mother, Polly, and grandmother Ann, joined this migration of small bands that totaled perhaps one thousand people that would travel toward the Spanish-held land called Florida. At least they now had a trusted leader to guide them. McQueen hoped to seek assistance from the British, who were fighting against the United States in the War of 1812.28
This impromptu trip that had been forced upon them would not be without struggle and sacrifice. Billy Powell and his fellow refugees might have been heading south toward relative freedom from military pursuit, but they would endure grim circumstances along the way that would threaten safe arrival at their destination. They feared that the army was chasing them, and they could suffer the same fate as so many of their brethren. In addition, it would be a most difficult task to feed the groups of people who were accustomed to growing their own food and having it available at mealtime. Once again, they would be compelled to rely on hunting, fishing, foraging for berries and roots, theft, and the kindness of strangers they might encounter along the way.
Perhaps worse than the lack of provisions was the spiritual privation they must have experienced. These Creeks regarded their traditional land as sacred—a temporary gift that the Great Spirit had given them for their survival. And now this land that none of them would have ever consider selling or trading because it was not theirs to own but had been shared for the common good had fallen into the hands of the enemy, likely forever. This loss no doubt lay heavy on their hearts.
At the same time that these desperate refugees marched south, the Red Stick warriors, armed primarily with bows and arrows, fought bravely for what they believed was a noble cause. But their resistance would be futile. The enemy was simply too powerful and in numbers that gave them the advantage in any battle.
On March 27, 1814, Andrew Jackson and his volunteers with their Native American allies attacked Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River. More than one thousand Red Stick warriors led by Chief Menawa had built a defensive position out of logs across the narrow peninsula. Their women and children had been secreted in a swamp downstream for safety.
This was not a battle but rather a wholesale slaughter of the Upper Creek faction of the tribe. Artillery shelled the position for two hours, allowing Creeks friendly to the whites to steal away with the Red Stick canoes at water’s edge near the defensive position. Jackson ordered a charge—a frontal assault—which forced about three hundred of Menawa’s warriors into the water. Without canoes in which to escape, the Creek men were systematically killed by troops on the opposite banks. At battle’s end, Jackson counted the bodies of 557 dead Red Stick warriors, but estimated that only 10 of the original 1,000 had escaped.29
The war was lost, and the only way any Upper Creek Red Sticks—men, women, or children—could save their life was to run so far away that Andrew Jackson could never find them.
Billy Powell, the boy who would become the warrior Osceola—born a Creek but forced to leave behind his homeland and tribe—would now have no choice but to make his way in life as a refugee in Spanish Florida.
Copyright © 2012 by Thom Hatch
THOM HATCH is an award-winning author and historian who specializes in the American West, the Civil War, and Native American conflicts. He is a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran, and has received a Spur Award from the Western Writers of America. Hatch lives in Colorado with his wife and daughter.