The Red Sticks, part 1: “…a war will take place.”

In 1811, Tecumseh traveled to Tuckabatchee. Tecumseh led a powerful confederation of Native nations with their informal capital at Prophetstown, north of modern-day Lafayette, Indiana. He and his brother, the Shawnee prophet Tenskatawa, recruited warriors and followers from across the Great Lakes region. They wanted to stop the steady westward encroachment of white settlers and preserve their religious traditions from the meddling of missionaries. In the early 19th century they found plenty of Shawnee, Delaware, Mohawk, and Potawatomi peoples who shared their complaints and the population of Prophetstown swelled.

Yet Tecumseh’s vision of a powerful Pan-Native state capable of resisting American imperialism did not start and stop in the shadow of the Great Lakes. It extended south and embraced all the remaining Native lands of the Mississippi River Basin. So, in 1811, he came to Alabama. Tuckabatchee was one of the mother towns of the Creek Nation and the site of the National Council; it hugged the Tallapoosa River and was the birthplace of many Principal Chiefs. It held special significance as a potential first site of the puskita, the Creek version of the Green Corn Ceremony, a sacred harvest ritual practiced by Native nations from the Northeastern woodlands to the eastern edges of the Great Plains and south to the Gulf of Mexico.

Tecumseh did not choose the Creeks at random. Instead he returned to the homeland of his mother and spoke to them as his relatives. He appealed to their religious traditions, their shared experiences of subjugation at the hands of white settlers, and the whittling away of their territory by the persistent cessions to the United States.

Some young men liked what they heard and against the advice of their elders traveled back to the Great Lakes with Tecumseh. They returned to the Creek lands with new dances and magic that would supposedly make them impervious to American arms and renewed promises of British aid in the coming war. In return for all this magic and all these guns, the followers of Tecumseh and Tenskatawa had to destroy all things American. So began a violent campaign to rid the Creek nation of American influence.

The Red Sticks, as they came to be called, destroyed plows and looms; they slaughtered cattle, horses, and pigs. They burned cotton fields and tore down barns. They targeted pro-American leaders among the Creek. Red Stick warriors went to mixed Anglo-Creek people and told them to choose a side.

Red Sticks returning from their meetings with the Shawnee murdered a white family near the Duck River in Tennessee. They targeted white settlers living along the Federal Road that connected Washington D.C. to New Orleans and ran right through the Creek Nation. Benjamin Hawkins, the Creek Agent or representative of the United States government, implored the Creek National Council to hunt down the murderers. They complied but it further strained relations between the different Creek camps. By the spring of 1813, there were no neutral towns. A Creek civil war raged throughout their whole territory.

In July 1813, Red Sticks traveled south to the port-town of Pensacola in Spanish West Florida. They met a British captain there and procured a large shipment of guns. Upon their return northwards they were blocked by a combined militia force of pro-American Creeks and white settlers from the Tensaw area. On July 27, the militia scattered the Red Sticks near Burnt Corn Creek and retrieved some of their arms, but not enough to stop what happened next.

In retaliation for the meddling of Americans in their affairs, the Red Sticks turned their fury onto Fort Mims, an outpost near the confluence of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers, just north of Spanish West Florida. On August 30, 1813, they overran the fort’s meager defenses, killing around 250 people and taking the rest as prisoners.

The calls for vengeance issued from every corner of the South. Militia from Tennessee, Georgia, and the Mississippi Territory marched out to meet the Red Stick threat. Huntsville, as the largest American settlement near the Creek Nation fell into a panic.

On August 22, 1813, Major John Read of the Seventh Cavalry Regiment, stationed in Huntsville, warned Governor David Holmes of growing tensions between the Cherokees and Creeks:

 “Sir,

I think it is very probable that a war will take place between the Cherokes & Creeks, it appears that a white man living at Hightower in the Cherokee nation have been killd by the Creeks; that the Cherokees wrote to the Creeks & sent one of their own people requiring of them why they had come into their country to do mischief, the Creeks on receipt of the letter immediately burnt it & put the messenger to death.”

Major Read wrote that the Cherokees in Hightower planned to meet in council on August 25th to decide their response. The violence, ongoing for the previous two years, only drew the attention of white Americans in Madison County a week before the Fort Mims massacre.

In many ways this inattention to the southern frontier became emblematic of the course of the conflict. The Red Stick War took place against the backdrop of the War of 1812, a new front in a war that stemmed from Britain’s desire to remain the dominant power in North America. Much of the United States’ attention in 1812 and 1813 was focused on the high drama around the Great Lakes, Tecumseh and the British’s capture of Detroit, and a failed American invasion of Canada that culminated in the destruction of what would become Toronto.

As such, the federal government offered little help in securing the lives and claims of white settlers in the Mississippi Territory and that instead fell to a hodge-podge of governors and militia leaders. Governors David Holmes of the Mississippi Territory, William Blount of Tennessee, and David Mitchell of Georgia – all attempted to raise and supply armies, secure communications and logistics lines, and prevent the spread of Red Stick ideology to other Creek groups. They accomplished this during a war with Great Britain, growing civilian panic about Native uprisings throughout the frontier, and an unclear chain of command.

Just as three governors tried to coordinate a response – their three armies moved against the Red Sticks: the Mississippi Territory militia and their Choctaw allies under General Ferdinand Claiborne, a combined force of Georgia militia under General John Floyd and the pro-American Creek leader William McIntosh, and Tennessee’s rival militias – the West Tennesseans and their Cherokee allies under General Andrew Jackson and the East Tennesseans under John Cocke.

Unsurprisingly, with so many egos meeting so many moving parts, they did a haphazard job.

citations:

“Series 488: Administration Papers, 1769, 1788-1817; N.d.” Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Accessed March 01, 2019. http://www.mdah.ms.gov/arrec/digital_archives/series/s488/detail/9782.

Braund, Kathryn. “Creek War of 1813-14.” Last Updated: January 30, 2017. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1820

Ethridge, Robbie. Creek Country: The Creek Indians and Their World. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003. (specifically pages 238-241)

 

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