American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Creek War

Title: Horseshoe bend, Tallapoosa River
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In 1813, a civil war erupted among the Creek Indians in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. Also known as the Red Stick War, the dispute was largely an internal struggle over the cultural and political direction of Creek society. In this war, which overlapped with the War of 1812, Red Stick Creeks tried to reassert Creek sovereignty in the region and redirect the cultural path of their society. The war resulted in the defeat of the Red Sticks and the further dispossession of Creek lands by the United States.

In the decades prior to the Creek War, the Creek Indians underwent several cultural and economic transformations. After the American Revolution, the Creeks (via the deerskin trade) became increasingly connected to and dependent on the marketplace. Creek men hunted for longer periods, because the value of their skins declined and their dependence on trade goods increased. Unscrupulous traders, who used false weights and the influence of alcohol, outraged many Creek hunters. At the same time, a "civilization" campaign led by U.S. Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins helped lead many Creeks to embrace cultural innovations within Indian villages. By 1810, many Creeks herded cattle, owned slaves, spoke and wrote English, grew cotton, wore European clothing, fenced their lands, and inter-married with white Americans. These changes frustrated many Creeks, especially as reliance on Euro-American markets for basic supplies led many Creeks to amass burdensome debts.

While the Creeks became dependent on the marketplace for their survival, they experienced a political transformation that further threatened their independence. The creation of a national council, which Hawkins regularly attended, epitomized the political change. By centralizing authority in Creek society, the council violated Creek norms of localism. By allowing Hawkins to participate, the council further angered many Creeks, who saw his presence and participation as a sign that the Americans controlled the council. To the dismay of many Creeks, the council created a centralized police force, called the law menders, in part to protect individual property rights in Creek society. When the council agreed to allow the United States to build and maintain roads across Creek country, the opposition to the council and Hawkins turned to violence. When the road was completed in 1810, Red Stick Creeks attacked American surveyors, mail carriers, and travelers, and they tried to assassinate Creeks they saw as complicit.

In 1811, when Shawnee religious leader Tecumseh came to the Southeast, many Creeks were already predisposed to his Nativist messages and his calls for pan-Indian resistance. Tecumseh urged Creeks to regain control over their villages, to ally themselves politically with other Indians, and to oppose American expansion. Many Creeks embraced his teachings, especially those in the upper towns who felt most threatened by the recent changes in Creek society. Tecumseh's urging of the Creeks to prevent the further invasion of white settlement similarly resonated, as American squatters, settlers, and surveyors seemed to be constantly invading Creek lands.

When Tecumseh left the southeast, several Creek prophets continued to draw upon and spread Tecumseh's teachings. Religious and political leaders like Menawa, William Weatherford, Peter McQueen, and Josiah Francis called for Creeks to resist Hawkins, eliminate the American presence, and reassert Creek sovereignty. These prophets led war dances, sang spiritual songs, and otherwise demonstrated their possession of supernatural powers. They called for a renewal of Creek spiritualism and independence.

Other Creeks, especially those who embraced innovations such as American-style ranching and planting, opposed the Red Sticks. These Creeks were led by William McIntosh, a chief of Coweta, one of the most influential and interconnected towns. Other prominent Creeks, including Big Warrior and Little Prince, also resisted the Red Sticks. The Red Sticks made their attempt to obtain Creek allies rather difficult. Opponents of the Red Sticks were harassed, their property was destroyed, and their lives were threatened. Even before open warfare erupted, many opponents of the Red Sticks were killed and others were physically coerced into supporting the Nativist cause.

After months of intermittent fighting among the Creeks, the civil war slowly became part of the War of 1812. When American frontier settlers were killed by the Red Sticks, Hawkins tried to intervene and obtain justice through the national council. Such actions only exacerbated matters. When the council executed five Creeks for the murder of Thomas Meredith in March 1812, for example, tensions within the Creek nation exploded. Rumors spread that the United States and the Creeks were at war, and within months the rumors became self-fulfilling prophecies.

In this context, the British and the Red Stick Creeks saw an ally in each other. The British provided supplies to the Red Stick majority to help them defeat the United States and its Creek allies. British support of the Red Sticks terrified Americans in the backcountry, who believed that a British–Creek alliance would overrun their settlements. When a party of Red Stick warriors led by Peter McQueen went to Pensacola to obtain supplies from the British in June 1813, militia-men who had formed on the edge of Creek country attacked McQueen and his men. The fighting resulted in the deaths of only a handful of Americans and Indians, but it outraged the Red Sticks, who responded with their own assault.

On August 30, 1813, about 750 Red Stick warriors retaliated by attacking the house of Samuel Mims. Fort Mims, which was located in the Tensaw District in Alabama, housed white traders, their African American slaves, and their Creek allies. Most of the traders at the fort, including Mims, were married to Creek women and were supporters of many economic and cultural innovations within Creek society. The Red Stick warriors completely overran the fort, killing those who resisted and freeing the slaves who were there. The event became known among non-Natives as the Mims Massacre.

After the battle at Fort Mims, the United States took a much more active role in the Creek civil war. Reports of casualties, which were often exaggerated, were met with calls for vengeance. The United States sent forces into Creek country from Tennessee and Georgia, led by General John Cocke, Major General John Floyd, and General Andrew Jackson. In addition, the United States obtained Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Creek allies to help with the invasion. Ordered to attack the Red Sticks they confronted, the armies marched toward the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers. For about ten months, the American troops burned their way through Creek country. As the campaign progressed, Andrew Jackson emerged as the most successful of the four leaders. During the campaign, Jackson and his 3,000 militiamen from Tennessee razed two Creek villages (Talladega and Tallasahatchee) and helped destroy Red Stick interests in Creek country. Jackson's men killed approximately 1,000 Creek warriors and destroyed many of their supplies.

The Red Stick War culminated in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend on March 27, 1814. At this battle, roughly 2,500 Red Stick warriors faced a force of more than 15,000 soldiers. In addition to the soldiers from all four regiments, the United States was assisted by the so-called "friendly" Creek Indians who were led by Chief McIntosh. Nearly 800 Red Stick Creeks died on the battlefield. After the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Jackson's army continued to burn and raze Creek villages. By the end of April, the U.S. forces reached Fort Jackson, which had recently been built on the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers. From there, Jackson received the surrender of hundreds of Red Sticks.

After the war, the United States coerced the defeated Creeks (Red Sticks and so-called "friendly" Creeks) to sign the Treaty of Fort Jackson. This treaty, which resulted in the cession of 23 million acres and the establishment of roads, trading houses, and military posts in Creek country, officially ended the war. Rather than submit to the terms of the treaty, many Red Sticks moved south into Florida and joined with the Seminole Indians. During the First Seminole War, many Red Stick warriors found a new opportunity to fight the United States.

Andrew K. Frank


Further Reading
Frank, Andrew K. 2005. Creeks and Southerners: Biculturalism on the Early American Frontier. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Martin, Joel. 1991. Sacred Revolt: The Muskogees' Struggle for a New World. Boston: Beacon Press.; Owsley, Frank Lawrence, Jr. 1980. Struggle for the Gulf Borderlands: The Creek War and the Battle of New Orleans, 1812–1815. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.; Saunt, Claudio. 1999. A New Order of Things: Property, Power, and the Transformation of the Creek Indians, 1733–1816. New York: Cambridge University Press.
 

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