Gone to Fight the Indians —Part I

Trail of Tears
Trail of Tears

It all began innocently enough, as most things do that come out of our nation’s capital. The words even sound reasonable and benevolent: An Act to provide for an exchange of land with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi. The construction of nice sounding words is what lawyers and lawmakers do for a living.

Early in the Nineteenth Century, the Mississippi Territory mostly belonged to the Creek Indian Confederacy. This native population lived in towns, which became significant political and tribal cultural centers were equally important to the personal identity of the people who lived in those towns. The Creek Nation consisted of two primary divisions: those known as the Upper Creek, who occupied territories along the Coosa, Alabama, and Tallapoosa Rivers in central Alabama, and the Lower Creek who lived in the areas along the lower Chattahoochee, Ocmulgee, and Flint Rivers in Southwestern Georgia. These areas generally corresponded to the upper and lower trade routes that connected the Creeks with South Carolina. Although confederated, it was a loose alliance with each tribal town governing itself. The alliance was more important during time of war or during political negotiations with encroaching colonial settlements.

The Removal Act of 1830 came almost as a second shoe to drop following the Red Stick War, fought between 1813 and 1814. Also known as the Creek Indian War, the essence of this conflict was a civil war that occurred mostly in Alabama and along the Gulf Coast. The Red Stick faction deeply resented the federal government’s meddling in Indian affairs, while the Lower Creek factions benefitted from trade with the Americans and sided with them against the traditionalists. A third group of Muscogee existed: the Creeks who ran away. In the Creek language, the word for runaway is simanooli. Today we call these Muscogee Indians, Seminoles.

What makes the Creek Indian War complex is the number of factions and agents involved. An abbreviated version of this was:

• Upper Creek militancy resisting American territorial and cultural encroachments;
• Obstinacy among the Lower Creek, who favored white civilization;
• Foolishness among federal bureaucrats meddling in matters that did not concern them; and
• British and Spanish agents who kept the Indians agitated.

In 1830, the Indian Removal Act had the support of non-Native people in the south who were eager to gain access to lands inhabited by the civilized tribes. Georgia, the largest state at that time, was engaged in a very contentious jurisdictional dispute with the Cherokee people. President Jackson sought to resolve this dispute by removing the Indians from their ancestral lands. There was also significant opposition to the Indian Removal Act: Christian missionaries protested the legislation—notably Jeremiah Evarts, and joining him was New Jersey Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen and Tennessee Congressman David Crockett.

The wording of the act strongly suggested that Indian removal was a voluntary process: an exchange of land carries with it the connotation that there would be some discussion, negotiation, and a fair swap. It was none of these things. The federal government put great pressure on Native leaders to sign removal treaties, but nearly everyone associated with the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, Wyandot, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Shawnee, and Lenape tribes understood that eventually, whites would send them to a new location. Jackson’s landslide victory in 1832 was the “go” signal.

The first removal treaty was the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek on September 27, 1830; Choctaw Indians in Mississippi ceded land east of the river in exchange for payment and land in the west. In 1835, the Treaty of New Echota resulted in the removal of the Cherokee. The remaining tribes decided they would not leave without a fight; the Seminoles were no longer running away. To assist the Seminole in their resistance were the Black Seminole, or fugitive slaves living among the Seminole people.

Brevet Brigadier General Archibald Henderson, Commandant of the Marine Corps
Brevet BrigGen Archibald Henderson Commandant of the Marine Corps

During the summer of 1835, Archibald Henderson marched a battalion of United States Marines south to confront Native Americans who decided they would rather fight than switch. It was a long walk; by the time the Marines arrived in southern Alabama, the Creek refusal to relocate to western lands was already resolved. Rather than locating, closing with, and destroying highly agitated Indians, the Marines patrolled the border of Georgia and Alabama on foot and by steamboat. In October, Henderson’s battalion joined with that of Lieutenant Colonel William H. Freeman at Fort Brooke, Florida. Henderson reorganized his force into a regiment of six companies, the strength of which was more than half that of the entire Marine Corps in 1835. Augmenting the Marines were 750 Creek Indian Volunteers. Henderson detailed Marine Corps officers to command some of the Native forces.

Colonel Henderson could not know that he and his Marines would participate in the longest and most costly of all Indian conflicts in the history of the United States. For seven years (1835-1942), eight different generals fought a frustrating war against an elusive adversary, aided by inhospitable terrain, hot, humid weather, and insect borne disease. Concentrating superior modern firepower and discipline against an enemy with no flanks, no lines of communication, no political or industrial bases proved an impossible task for such notable men as Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor.

Opposing America’s finest generals was Billy Powell (1804-1838), a man of mixed Creek-Scotch-Irish-English parentage. Billy’s mother raised him as a Creek Indian. Following their defeat in 1814, Billy’s mother took him south into Florida along with other Red Stick refugees. We know him today as Osceola, the influential leader of the Florida Seminole and one of the southern Creek who decided not to abide by the terms of a treaty negotiated with the United States government.

The Seminole’s first demonstration against forcible relocation was the massacre of a column of 110 soldiers led by Brevet Major Francis Dade on December 28, 1835. There were three survivors to the attack, but Seminoles killed one of those the next day. Of the two remaining survivors, one had no clear memory or understanding of what had transpired. What we know of the event we learned from one solitary survivor. The Second Seminole War was the result of this massacre along with an order to round up and kill every hostile.

Not everyone agreed with this policy: Major Ethan Allen Hitchcock participated in the search for and discovery of the remains of Major Dade’s company. In his journal he wrote about that discovery and his opposition to US policy: “The government is in the wrong, and this is the chief cause of the persevering opposition of the Indians, who have nobly defended their country against our attempt to enforce a fraudulent treaty. The natives used every means to avoid war, but were forced into it by the tyranny of our government.”

Continued Next Week

3 thoughts on “Gone to Fight the Indians —Part I”

  1. “…eight different generals fought a frustrating war against an elusive adversary, aided by inhospitable terrain, hot, humid weather, and insect borne disease. Concentrating superior modern firepower and discipline against an enemy with no flanks, no lines of communication, no political or industrial bases…” Shades of Afghanistan and Iraq, yes?

    Your history lessons are so educational and interesting. I had no idea of the origin of “Seminole”, for example nor that the Marines were even involved.

  2. great insights Mustang! Happy Columbus DAY! xoxoxox are u still getting caught in my spam filter? haven’t seen u around my friend?

    1. Still going into SPAM, Angel. I do comment, but not as often as before. Hard to understand why I’m being excluded from the community …

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