Andrew Jackson and His Indian Warsby Robert V. Remini
The Expulsion of Native Americans from the eastern half of the continent to the Indian Territory beyond the Mississippi River remains one of the most notorious events in U.S. history, and the man most responsible and most widely blamed for their removal is Andrew Jackson. Robert Remini, hailed by The New York Times as "our foremost Jacksonian scholar," now provides a thought-provoking analysis of this single most controversial aspect of Jackson's long career.
Andrew Jackson was fearless -- some would say ruthless -- in his single-minded focus on the security of the United States. Orphaned at fifteen and already a veteran of wars with the British and the Indians, Jackson was clear and outspoken from an early age in his often violent patriotism. In a spirited narrative, Remini describes Jackson's early years as an Indian fighter in South Carolina and Tennessee, his victory in the Creek War of 1814, his excursions against the Choctaws, Cherokees, and Chickasaws, and his conduct of the First Seminole War in Florida. Remini recalls Jackson's political rise and election to the presidency, where he set in motion the legislation that led to the Indian Removal Act and eventually the Trail of Tears. Masterfully capturing Jackson's flaws and limitations as well as his heroism, Remini contends that despite the injustice and atrocities that accompanied the removal, Jackson in fact ensured the tribes' survival, for they certainly would have been wholly exterminated had they remained in place.
This is at once an exuberant work of American history and a sobering reminder of the violence and darkness at the heart of that history.
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Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars
The Making of an Indian Fighter
The great Shawnee chief Tecumseh let out a terrifying whoop. Six Shawnees, six Kickapoos, and six Winnebagos responded with similar cries. Together, with two Creek warriors as guides, they boarded canoes and headed down the Wabash to the Ohio River on their way south to the country of the Five Civilized Nations: Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Seminoles. They were beginning a momentous journey that would change the course of American history in ways they never intended. Tecumseh expected to persuade the southern tribes into joining a stupendous confederation of Native Americans reaching from the Canadian frontier to the Gulf of Mexico with which he would launch a massive Indian attack against white settlements. With such an alliance he expected to sweep the white devils back into the ocean whence they had come and restore the continent to its rightful owners.
After several weeks of overland travel through Kentucky and Tennessee, the chief and his escort arrived in the Alabama Creek territory in October 1811, just in time for the annual grand council of the Creek Nation taking place in the ancient town of Tookabatcha. Tecumseh's fame as an orator and his anticipated address to the council attracted some five thousand Creeks, who had heard about his purpose and had come painted for war. Each night they danced the war dance. Benjamin Hawkins, the veteran American Indian agent in Alabama who espoused the cause of white civilization for Indians and was revered by the Creeks, also attended the grand council, as was his custom.
Finally, after muchanticipation, Tecumseh and his warrior party arrived. They strode haughtily to the center of the square of the ancient town and stood "still and erect as so many statues." They were dressed in buckskin hunting shirts and leggings and wore a "profusion of silver ornaments." Their faces were painted red and black, and each warrior carried a rifle, tomahawk, war club, and scalping knife. The muscular six-foot-tall Tecumseh, whose mother was a Creek, looked "austere" and "imperial." He faced the council house and did not turn his head to look to the right or left.
Silence. There was no salutation, no greeting. The Indians waited. Finally Big Warrior (Tustunnuggee Thlucco), a "man of gigantic figure" and the Principal Chief of the Upper Creeks,* slowly approached the visitor and handed his pipe to Tecumseh, who puffed on it and then passed it to his followers. Without saying a word, Big Warrior pointed to a large cabin and Tecumseh and his men entered it. They were seen no more until dark, when they emerged from the cabin and danced the northern war dance, as Creeks crowded around, watching intently but saying nothing.
The following morning one of Tecumseh's escorts presented himself to the Creek Council and announced that his chief would speak at noon; but at that hour the same warrior reappeared and declared that the sun had "traveled too far" and that the talk would be delivered the following day.
This ritual was repeated over the next several days without producing an appearance by the great chief. Finally, in disgust, Hawkins pronounced Tecumseh a fraud and left the council, boasting of his ability to prevent the tribe from entering any agreement that would trigger an uprising. The very next day at noon, Tecumseh and his men emerged from their lodge. It obviously indicated the Shawnee chief's unwillingness to speak in the presence of the white man.
They were naked, except for a "flap about their loins" and a small tobacco pouch suspended under their left arm. They were painted black and each carried a war club. All their other weapons had been laid aside. As an immense throng of Creeks swarmed on either side of them, the visitors moved swiftly into the square, scowling angrily as they walked. At each corner of the square they dropped some tobacco and sumac on the ground. By their agitated movements they seemed to be working themselves into a passion, and they strode forward "like a procession of devils."2 Then they approached the pole in the center of the square, circled it three times, and threw the rest of their tobacco and sumac into a fire at the base of the pole. After that they marched to the huge council chamber or King's House, as it was called in ancient times, and drew up where Big Warrior and other Creek chiefs were seated.
Suddenly, Tecumseh let out a horrendous war whoop, and each of his followers responded with similar shouts, setting up a frightening din. Then the visitor handed Big Warrior a wampum belt of five different strands.
Again silence. A Shawnee pipe was produced. It was large, long, and decorated with shells, beads, eagle feathers, and porcupine quills. Tecumseh and his men each puffed on it and then passed it to the Creek chiefs. All this while not a word was uttered.
At length Tecumseh broke the silence, speaking slowly at first and in guttural tones. But as his words grew more impassioned they came like an avalanche, and "his eyes burned with supernatural luster, and every limb and muscle quivered with emotion."
He began with a brief introduction about his trip from the "great lakes of the North" and how he had passed through many Creek towns "like the wind at night." No whoop was sounded by his followers, he cried, no track was made nor fire kindled, "but see! there is blood on our war clubs!"
"Listen!...Oh Muskogees! Brethren of my mother! Brush from your eyelids the sleep of slavery, and strike for vengeance and your country!"
By this time his voice had swelled to a roar and resounded over the square as he called on the Creeks to join their Shawnee brothers to the north and wage war against their common enemy, the white settlers who constantly pressed deeper and deeper into their country. The expression on his face varied with the words he spoke, frequently showing hatred and defiance, occasionally profound sadness. And sometimes his face brightened with a "murderous smile."
"Let the white race perish!" he raged. They seized your lands, corrupted your women, and trampled on the bones of your dead.
"Back whence they came, upon a trail of blood, they must be driven!
"Back-aye, back into the great water whose accursed waves brought them to our shores!
"Burn their dwellings-destroy their stock-slay their wives and children, that the very breed may perish.
"War now! War always! War on the living! War on the dead!"
At the height of this impassioned plea the Shawnee chief assured his listeners that it was the will of the "Great Spirit" who had spoken in the ear of his brother, "the mighty Prophet of the Lakes." And when the white men approach your towns, Tecumseh went on, the earth will open up and swallow them. Then will the Creeks see Tecumseh's strong arm of fire, which will stretch across the sky. "You will know I am on the war-path. I will stamp my foot and the very earth shall shake."
He spoke for an hour. When he finished he had a look of "concentrated vengeance." Not a word was uttered by the immense crowd who heard him. No one let out a war whoop, applauded, shouted, or replied, but a thousand warriors shook with emotion and brandished their tomahawks in the air. Even Big Warrior, who had discouraged the war party among his people, was seen more than once spasmodically clutching the handle of his knife.
A Shawnee pipe was lighted and passed around in solemn silence. Finally Tecumseh's escort let out an "appalling yell" and began their tribal war dance, a descriptive dance that included several individual segments: the scout, the ambush, the surprise, the deadly struggle, and the final evolutions of battle. As they danced they brandished their war clubs and screamed in concert.
After several minutes, Big Warrior regained his composure. His antiwar convictions stirred again and a look of deep sorrow flickered across his face. Slowly he turned toward Tecumseh and said that he would not join the confederation in a war against the United States. He could not. His people would suffer if he did.
Tecumseh reacted in anger and reportedly thrust a finger in Big Warrior's face. "Your blood is white," he shouted. "...You do not believe the Great Spirit sent me. You shall believe it. I will leave directly and go straight to Detroit. When I get there I will stamp my foot upon the ground and shake down every house in Tookabatcha."
Several weeks later, after Tecumseh had left and returned to Detroit, an earthquake rocked the Creek territory and severely damaged Tookabatcha. To the superstitious it was a sure sign that Tecumseh had indeed conveyed to them the will of the Great Spirit. As houses collapsed around them the people ran about crying, "Tecumseh has got to Detroit! Tecumseh has got to Detroit! We feel the shake of his foot!" To add further proof of his divine mission the sudden appearance of a comet recalled the Shawnee's claim that his arm of fire would be stretched across the sky.
Although Big Warrior and a number of other chiefs did not cotton to Tecumseh's call to war and publicly scorned the idea, some Upper Creeks, led by a coterie of prophets, formed a war party known as Red Sticks, a name they acquired from their practice of painting their war clubs bright red. The Red Sticks resented the influence of Big Warrior and his faction, as well as the encroachment by whites on their land, the intrusion of white culture, and the building of a federal road from the Georgia frontier to new American settlements along the Alabama River.
A group of them, led by Little Warrior, visited the Shawnees up north. On their way home they killed seven white families on the Duck River just south of Nashville. On learning of these murders, Benjamin Hawkins demanded the arrest and punishment of those involved. The tribal council agreed, and Big Warrior sent out a war party to seize them. The fugitives vainly resisted their capture, and eight of them were executed. The Red Sticks subsequently retaliated by killing nine of the executioners.
Other "rebel" Creeks, led mainly by Peter McQueen (a mixed-blood son of a Scots trader and Creek mother), Josiah Francis (Hilis Hadjo), Paddy Welsh (another mixed-blood), and others, most of them "prophets," formed a mystic order probably created by Seekabo and patterned after the rites developed by Tecumseh's brother, Tenskwatawa, called The Prophet. They claimed they had power to change the direction of bullets in flight, cause earthquakes, or summon lightning to strike a victim.
Over time they attracted a large following, mostly through prophecy, preaching, and magic. As the numbers of Red Sticks swelled, especially among young warriors, they began a systemic assault against their own people, attacking and burning several villages allied with Hawkins, killing livestock, burning homes and fields, and even besieging Big Warrior and his comrades at their fort in Tookabatcha. This civil war broadened into something more ominous when Big Warrior appealed to Hawkins for help. The agent rescued the Principal Chief, but now the United States was involved, and involved at a time when it was already locked in a war against Great Britain that had been declared in June 1812.
A group of so-called War Hawks in the House of Representatives, led by its Speaker, Henry Clay, convinced President James Madison that he should ask Congress for a declaration of war because of Britain's continued violations of American rights. Not only had England impressed our seamen to help fight its war with Napoleon, but it had seized our ships, incited Indians to attack the frontier, and refused to evacuate forts held on American territory along the Canadian border, which it had promised to do under the peace terms that ended the American Revolution. But even more important was a feeling throughout the country that the United States needed to prove to itself and to foreign countries around the world that it had legitimately won its independence and could maintain American rights against any power that dared infringe them, including the most powerful. Madison complied with the demand of the War Hawks, and on June 4, 1812, the House of Representatives voted a declaration of war against Great Britain, followed by the Senate on June 17. The next day President James Madison signed the bill and the nation went to war.
But now the country was also involved in the Creek War, something Britain would surely exploit to its advantage. Then, in July 1813, at a crossing of Burnt Corn Creek on the Pensacola Road, a group of whites and mixed-blood Creeks attacked a number of Red Sticks, led by Peter McQueen and High Head Jim, who were transporting a packtrain of powder and shot obtained from the Spanish in Florida to their Upper Creek villages. The Red Sticks drove off their attackers but lost their gunpowder. The whites and their friends took refuge in Fort Mims, a makeshift structure built around the house of Samuel Mims, a Georgia trader. It was a mile from the Alabama River in the Mississippi Territory and about forty miles north of the town of Mobile.
At noon on August 30, 1813, the Red Sticks counterattacked. They were led by a new recruit, William Weatherford (Chief Red Eagle). They entered through an open gate and slaughtered the defenders and burned the fort. It was one of the most appalling massacres in frontier history. "The fearful shrieks of women and children put to death in ways as horrible as Indian barbarity could invent" echoed through the fort. They were "butchered in the quickest manner, and blood and brains bespattered the whole earth. The children were seized by the legs, and killed by batting their heads against the stockading. The women were scalped, and those who were pregnant were opened, while they were alive and the embryo infants let out of the womb." Red Eagle wanted no part of this savagery but he could do nothing to stop it. Between 250 and 275 white settlers, friendly Indians, and mixed-bloods were killed; between twenty and forty escaped.
By this action the Red Sticks had dared to war against the United States, had dared to attack an American settlement and slaughter hundreds of its occupants. The Creek civil war had now merged into the War of 1812.
The horror of the massacre at Fort Mims prompted the governor of Tennessee, Willie Blount, to call out the militia. The legislature authorized him to raise five thousand men for a three-month tour of duty, so he ordered Major General Andrew Jackson of the Tennessee militia to "call out organize rendezvous and march without delay" 2,500 volunteers and militia "to repel an approaching invasion...and to afford aid and relief to the suffering citizens of the Mississippi Territory."
The James Madison administration responded as well. It recognized that the Creek War had to be extinguished before it expanded into a general uprising among other tribes. Its strategy involved dispatching four armies from Tennessee, Georgia, and the Mississippi Territory into the Creek Nation from different angles with orders to converge at the point where the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers meet to form the Alabama River. Andrew Jackson, commanding the army from west Tennessee, planned to head directly south, slicing through the heart of the Upper Creek Nation and shredding the power of the Red Sticks as he went. He also planned to lay out a military road through the wilderness that would reach Mobile, thereby providing easy access across the southwestern heartland for future American settlers. As it turned out, the only army to fight the Creek War was Jackson's. The expeditions from Georgia and the Mississippi Territory hardly amounted to more than forays followed by quick retreats.
On taking command, Jackson issued a proclamation to what he called his "Brave Tennesseans," and the Nashville Whig published it on September 29, 1813. "Your frontier," he declared, "is threatened with invasion by a savage foe! Already do they advance towards your frontier, with their scalping knives unsheathed, to butcher your wives, your children, and your helpless babes. Time is not to be lost! We must hasten to the frontier, or we will find it drenched in the blood of our fellow-citizens."
The "great Indian fighter of Tennessee" with his troops then headed toward the Creek country and started on a long journey that eventually brought him to the White House. Thus began his celebrated wars against the southern Indian tribes of the United States, which did not end for some twenty-five years, until he had removed them from their ancestral homeland and sent them into a wilderness across the Mississippi River.
From Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars by Robert V. Remini. (c) July 2001, Viking, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc. used by permission.
Meet the Author
Robert V. Remini is professor emeritus of history and the humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In addition to his National Book Award-winning three-volume biography of Andrew Jackson, he is the author of numerous other books.
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