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A Conquering Spirit Fort Mims and the Redstick War of 1813-1814
By GREGORY A. WASELKOV
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS Copyright © 2006 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Tensaw
On the eve of the eighteenth century the area soon to be known as the Tensaw had no full-time occupants, although the Tomé Indians claimed those lands as a hunting ground. Their towns, Tomé and Naniaba, sat atop bluffs west of the lower Tombigbee and upper Mobile rivers, overlooking fields planted on the low natural levees lining the opposite banks. To the east lay the swampy expanses of the Mobile-Tensaw delta, an 80,000-acre bottomland forest of cypress and tupelo gum dissected by innumerable slow-moving streams, old river meander bayous, and marshes. For thousands of years the delta's abundant wild game and fish attracted Indians, who left traces of their lives in the hundreds of shell heaps still visible in eroding stream edges and riverbanks. Tensaw River, as the lower reaches of the Alabama River came to be called by the mid-eighteenth century, bounds the delta on the east, beyond which the land rises abruptly into dissected piney hills less suitable for agriculture.
During the era of French colonization, from 1699 until 1763, a few habitants established modest plantations on the margins of the delta,mostly on the west banks of the Mobile and Tombigbee rivers, insinuated between native fields and villages. About the year 1720 French officials persuaded the Tawasa Indians, refugees from Florida, to establish their town along the Tensaw River, where they could serve as a protective buffer, standing between the French, Tomés, and other allies west of the delta and the potentially hostile Creek Indians to the northeast. When the Tawasas, tiring of their assigned role of human shield, moved north to join the Creek confederacy a few years later, French officials found the Taensa (or Tensaw) Indians willing to fulfill the same function. The Taensas had originally lived along the lower Mississippi River. They relocated to the Mobile area in 1715, first making their home at Twenty-one Mile Bluff on the Mobile River, then moving by 1725 to the east bank of the river that would take their name. There they remained, tending fields on a large island in the delta west of their settlement, until they returned to the Mississippi River valley as the British took control of the region from France.
The Taensas abandoned their village in 1764, part of a general emigration of French-allied Indians from the Mobile area (Figure 2). All of these small tribes, or petites nations, had fought alongside the French against the British and their Creek and Chickasaw allies. Some had even converted to Roman Catholicism. When King Louis XV turned his back on the French colonists of La Louisiane and the native peoples who had depended on French political, military, and economic support for six decades, the petites nations felt betrayed. Certainly they dreaded a transfer of allegiance to British rule, so most moved to Spanish-held lands west of the Mississippi River-all except the Tomés, who joined fellow Choctaw-speakers in the Chickasawhay towns of the Choctaw confederacy to their north. The Creek Indians viewed this abrupt departure of the petites nations as a victory and claimed, by right of conquest, the lands of their erstwhile native opponents in the Mobile area. Newly arrived British colonial officials disputed Creek claims, since they wished to offer these same recently vacated lands as grants to attract potential settlers. By 1765, after protracted negotiations, the Choctaws and the Creeks reached understandings with British officials that colonists might occupy all the high ground on the west banks of the lower Tombigbee and Mobile rivers but only as far north as the "Cut-off" on the east bank of the Alabama and Tensaw rivers. The Cut-off is a channel of the Alabama River that connects with the lower Tombigbee River some miles above their true confluence. All lands north and east of the Cut-off were now mutually agreed to belong to the Creeks.
One of the first British colonists to settle the eastern border of the delta was Major Robert Farmar. In 1763 he had commanded the British military expedition that accepted Mobile from the departing French. After a brief, controversial tenure as commandant of Mobile's British garrison at Fort Charlotte, Farmar resigned his military commission and established a profitable plantation immediately south of the abandoned Tensaw Indian lands, called "Taensa Old Fields," west of present-day Stockton, Alabama. He built his home, Farm Hall, amid a cluster of smaller tracts granted to ethnic French who had remained behind after the departure of French colonial officials and troops. These ten neighboring plantations came to be known collectively as the Tensaw (or Tassa) Settlement, immediately south of the 1765 Indian boundary line. Even then, however, at least two colonists (both probably French creoles) occupied lands farther north, in the vicinity of Boatyard Lake east of the Alabama River. According to a map drafted by David Taitt in 1771, one of these unidentified settlers built a home near the spot where Fort Mims would later stand (Plate 1).
In lengthy talks with the British, Creek micos explained that lands above Tensaw occupied by colonists under the French regime "were never ceded to them and that they had only allowed the French to settle them on sufferance." During the eighteenth century the Creeks-and especially the talwas of the Alabama, Abeka, and Tallapoosa divisions of the Creek confederacy around the junction of the Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers, near modern-day Montgomery, Alabama-hunted there and throughout the vast hinterland east of the Mobile-Tensaw delta and north of Pensacola. In talks held with British officials during the early 1770s, Emisteseguo, mico of the prominent Abeka town of Little Tallassee, repeatedly affirmed Creek intentions to settle the valleys of the Escambia and Conecuh rivers, north of Pensacola, "as soon as we have peace with the Choctaws." They evidently did not do so, nor did the Creeks establish a settlement in the Tensaw, before the decade ended and the British colonial regime came to a close.
In an often overlooked campaign of the American Revolution, a Spanish army led by Bernardo de Gálvez conquered British-held Mobile in 1780 and Pensacola in 1781, bringing the entire Gulf coast under Spanish colonial rule. Many of the English-speaking colonists who settled along the Tombigbee and Tensaw rivers during the British colonial period fled in advance of Gálvez's troops or left soon thereafter rather than swear an oath of loyalty to the Spanish crown. Within a few years, however, growing Spanish fears of the newly independent United States-particularly the threat that land-hungry American immigrants would overwhelm sparse Spanish colonial populations in La Luisiana and Las Floridas-led to Spain's reconciliation with its old enemy, Britain. At the center of this rapidly evolving, three-way colonial competition for southeastern North America lay the Creek nation, with a population approaching 15,000 and an undeniable right to possession of the bulk of the region that would become modern-day Alabama.
In these years immediately following the American Revolution, Alexander McGillivray rose to leadership among the Creeks. Son of a prominent Creek woman, Sehoy of the Wind clan, and the loyalist Lachlan McGillivray, a Scot who had grown wealthy trading with the Creeks, Alexander achieved great influence among the Creeks for his ability to negotiate effectively with American and Spanish officials. In this he was aided by the Scottish partners behind the British commercial firm of Panton, Leslie and Co., which maintained a highly profitable trade with the Creeks through the Spanish ports of St. Augustine, Pensacola, and Mobile. Until his death in 1793, McGillivray and other leaders of the nascent Creek national council enlisted Spanish support to counter growing American political and economic influence among the southeastern Indians and to restrain American aspirations for Creek lands.
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In the wake of Britain's recognition of an independent United States in 1783, thousands of loyalist families fled the thirteen former colonies to escape a pervasive climate of political intolerance and persecution. Many sailed to the British Isles (among them, Lachlan McGillivray), Canada, or the Bahamas. Loyalists from the Carolinas and Georgia, in particular, were tempted by a Spanish offer of lands near Mobile and Natchez. With Alexander McGillivray's encouragement, Spanish officials permitted some loyalist refugees, including retired British officers, to settle along the Tombigbee and Tensaw south of the vaguely defined U.S. border, in the colony of Spanish West Florida. Not every Americano (as Spaniards called all English speakers in the region) arrived as a political refugee. Other immigrants were "Indian countrymen," Whigs and Tories alike, who had lived in the Creek Indian towns as traders and packhorse wranglers and in many instances had married Creek women. A substantial number of these men left the Creek country as profits from the deerskin trade declined after the Revolution. Many of these former traders congregated on the Tensaw; one was Samuel Mims.
Decades later, an acquaintance of William Weatherford jotted down William's recollection that his father Charles Weatherford had come with Samuel Mims to the Upper Creek towns following the Revolution, after Mims had spent some time in the employ of George Galphin, a prominent trader operating out of Silver Bluff, South Carolina. During the war Galphin served as rebel agent to the Creeks, actively promoting the patriot cause until his death in 1780. Mims may have been a patriot sympathizer as well (although his later close association in the Tensaw with numerous unrepentant Tories raises doubts). He first appears in Spanish records of the Mobile District on a census certified the first of January 1786, as an unmarried American, a soltero Americano. An enumeration the following year reaffirmed his bachelor status, gave his age as forty-five years, and indicated his residence on a river near Mobile, without specifying whether the Tombigbee or Tensaw. Soon afterwards Mims signed an oath of allegiance to the Spanish crown, adding his name to a list of "English established on the Tensaw" (Ingleses establecidos en el Tinza). In January 1788 he married another Americano, Hannah Rains of St. Augustine, Florida, in a Catholic ceremony in Mobile. Over the next decade Mims dabbled in land speculation, acquiring farmlands along the Tombigbee River and town lots on the north edge of Mobile, all the while maintaining a residence on the Tensaw. When he discovered in 1797 that two prior British grants conflicted with one of his Spanish land claims, Mims obtained a new grant of 524 acres near Boatyard Lake, where he remained firmly ensconced for the next sixteen years, becoming wealthy from his slave plantations and by operating a ferry across the Alabama River at the "South margin of the Cut-off."
Virtually all of the earliest American settlers on the Tombigbee and Tensaw depended on the labor of African slaves. In fact, colonial-era censuses reveal a population in Mobile and surrounding areas that was predominantly black during the Spanish regime. Samuel Mims claimed ownership of eight male and eight female black slaves (negros y negras) in 1786 and fifteen the following year. Few Americans owned slaves classified by Spanish officials as racially mixed pardos, although many pardos were held in ethnic French and Spanish households of the Mobile District. Several dozen more pardos and negros lived in town as free people of color. Since the American newcomers generally either purchased anew or brought with them recently enslaved African men and women, their treatment of slaves differed substantially from the relationships created over preceding decades between the pardos and negros and the ethnic French and Spaniards who together comprised a creole population with long ties to the region.
With the benefit of an enslaved labor force, Mims and his neighbors exploited the diverse environment of the Mobile-Tensaw delta and surrounding uplands, adopting wholesale the plantation economy developed nearly a century earlier by French colonial farmers. The first European settlers planted in fields abandoned by Indians as introduced Old World diseases reduced the native population. Those maize fields were confined almost entirely to the banks of delta waterways, where slightly elevated natural levees had accumulated from silt deposited during annual spring floods. Pine-covered hilly uplands on either side of the delta were far less productive of crops, though colonists found that cattle could forage well enough in the woods, a method of cattle raising employed for over a century by Spanish ranchers in northern Florida. According to the 1786 and 1787 Spanish censuses of the Mobile District, Samuel Mims' slaves harvested 150 barrels of maize the first year and raised 10 horses, 90 cattle, 100 pounds of tobacco, and 200 barrels of maize the next. Most planters further diversified their personal economies by harvesting the forest products so abundantly at hand, setting their slaves to rendering pitch and tar from pine trees and riving barrel staves from oaks. Some experimented with the cultivation of indigo, rice, tobacco, and cotton, but cattle raising proved most profitable. African drovers had introduced the idea of fenced cowpens to South Carolina in the late seventeenth century, and the concept spread across the South during the British colonial period. The Americanos continued their use along with Spanish-style open-range grazing when they arrived in the Mobile District.
As this settlement of whites and blacks formed below the Cut-off, another was developing north of the Spanish boundary line on Creek Indian lands (which now, incidentally, fell entirely within the territorial claims of the State of Georgia). Centered on Little River at its confluence with the lower Alabama, this new Creek community consisted mostly of métis, the offspring of Creek women married to white men-Scots, French, English, Americans-who had lived among the Indians as traders. In the racist language of early America they were called "half breeds" or "mixed bloods." As has always been the case when populations collide, many of these métis found their ethnicity questioned and some had difficulty fitting into either native society or colonial society. A number sought a more comfortable middle ground by founding a new settlement at Little River where they hoped conflicts posed by competing cultures could be avoided. Over the next quarter century, neighboring Creek métis and Americanos (both holding black Africans in bondage) would come to consider themselves halves of a single Tensaw community, still racially distinct and spatially separated by an international boundary, but routinely interacting and frequently cooperating in every conceivable way, socially, economically, militarily, and politically. Later references to this region usually call it simply "the Tensaw" without distinguishing Indian from white.
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The Little River métis began to coalesce in 1783 when Alexander McGillivray and his sister Sophia Durant established a plantation and cowpen near Little River to raise cattle and crops to sell to the residents and garrison of Spanish Pensacola. In that era, anyone keeping cattle near traditional Creek towns, whether colonial trader or Creek innovator, risked offending the matrilineages that controlled each town's unfenced agricultural fields, mainstay of Creek subsistence. Those who wished to raise large herds of livestock were compelled to find grazing lands far from community fields. With the market for deerskins beginning a relentless decline that would continue for three decades, cattle raising increasingly appealed as an alternative to hunting. Where cattle could range freely in the woods, especially in forests depleted of wild game at the eastern periphery of the Creek nation, many hunters shifted their efforts from stalking deer to rounding up and shooting cattle to meet household subsistence and commercial needs. Still, this transition met steady resistance from some Creek men who felt their gendered identity, their traditional masculine roles of hunter and warrior, undermined by pressures to tend livestock. During the long simmering border conflict with Georgia during the 1780s and 1790s, Creek warriors reaffirmed traditional gender roles in new ways by stealing horses and slaves and killing cattle belonging to American settlers on the frontier. Nevertheless, Creek cattle herds did increase slowly in number and size, and Creek settlements gradually dispersed during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as nuclear families moved their households away from matrilineage-dominated towns and fields.
Excerpted from A Conquering Spirit by GREGORY A. WASELKOV Copyright © 2006 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
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