Published on February 13, 2013 by Carol
The conditions and events that led up to the Creek Indian War, which resulted in the Fort Mims massacre on August 30, 1813, began before the start of the War of 1812. In the early 1800s, the loosely confederated tribes of the Creek nation numbered somewhere between 18,000 to 24,000 persons and primarily inhabited present day Alabama and western Georgia. Their territory was generally bounded by the Tennessee River on the north, the Gulf of Mexico on the south, the Oconee River in Georgia on the east, and the Tombigbee River on the west and comprised about 300 square miles.
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In the years following the American Revolution, the United States, Great Britain, Spain and France all sought alliances with the Creeks as they attempted to diminish the others influence in the region. The Creeks had signed four treaties with the new American government by 1805, but the continual international intrigue in the Alabama backwoods and the animosity between England and America would spark the Creek War as an extension of the War of 1812.
Situated on relatively high ground on the east bank of Tensaw Lake, Fort Mims began as the fortified home and outbuildings of Samuel Mims. The lake was formed from an old channel of the Alabama River and was connected to the river by a navigable passage. The fort consisted of 17 buildings, including one blockhouse and a log palisade. By early August 1813, about 550 settlers and slaves from the surrounding area had crowded into to tiny stockade. A number of friendly Indians and half-breeds had also sought protection within the fort. Before the massacre, the Creek nation had generally peaceful relations with the white settlers, and intermarriage was not uncommon. In fact, many of the settlers who died at Fort Mims were of mixed blood.
Brig. Gen. Ferdinand L. Claiborne of the Mississippi territorial militia was in charge of military affairs in the region and divided his forces to garrison the frontier outposts. He sent Maj. Daniel Beasley and 170 men of the 1st Mississippi Volunteers to defend the Fort Mims area. Maj. Beasley posted 120 men, mostly Louisianians, in Fort Mims and scattered the balance among other smaller area posts including 40 soldiers stationed at Fort Pierce located on Pine Log Creek about two miles south of Fort Mims.
Maj. Beasley had no military experience and was a lawyer in the territory’s Jefferson County when Gen. Claiborne, a close personal friend, used his influence to have him appointed a militia major in February 1813. Beasley had been at Fort Mims only a few days when Gen. Claiborne inspected the post on August 7, 1813, and recommended that at least two and possibly three additional blockhouses be built. “To respect our Enemy, and to prepare in the best possible way to meet him, is the certain means to ensure success”, Gen. Claiborne wrote in orders to Beasley after the inspection.
However, Maj. Beasley was slow to strengthen Fort Mims’ defenses, apparently believing there was no danger of imminent attack. The defenders did however, construct a second defensive wall a few yards inside the stockade and facing the main gate on the east side of the fort. “We are perfectly tranquil here” Maj. Beasley wrote Gen. Claiborne on August 12, 1813, “and are progressing in our works as well as can be expected considering the want of tools. We shall probably finish the Stockade tomorrow.”
On August 13, 1813, about 50 of Beasley’s men at Fort Mims were sent to Mount Vernon, a cantonment on the Mobile River a few miles west of the fort. “It is with regret that I send them as it weakens my command very much,” Maj. Beasley wrote to Gen. Claiborne, who had ordered the movement. Yet the loss of these troops, which left Beasley with only 70 militiamen in addition to the volunteers among the settlers, did not cause the Major to hasten work on the fort’s defenses.
Adding to Beasley’s tranquility were reports – supplied by supposedly friendly Indians and believed by militia leaders, including Gen. Claiborne – that the Creeks were massing for an attack on Fort Easley, located on the Tombigbee River about 30 miles northwest of Fort Mims. Maj. Beasley’s post seemed to be out of immediate danger.
On August 24, 1813, Gen. Claiborne led about 80 men to reinforce Fort Easley, writing that if the Creeks attacked there he would “give a good account of them”. Whether the hostile Creeks intentionally mislead the militia leaders in order to divert reinforcements from Fort Mims is a question that may never be answered.
The hostile Creek Indians, known as Red Sticks, learned of the weakness of the Fort Mims’ garrison from their scouts and gathered from 750 to 1000 warriors for an attack on the pioneer stronghold and Fort Pierce. A half-breed prophet, Paddy Welsh, was chosen to lead the assault, but William Weatherford, also know as Chief Red Eagle, was instrumental in planning the attack.
By August 29, 1813, Welsh and Weatherford had hidden their main force in the woods and tall grass about six miles from the unsuspecting outpost, where soldiers and settlers were enjoying a supply of whiskey that had arrived that day. Sometime during the day, two young salves tending cattle outside the stockade were startled to see war-painted Creeks in the forest near the fort. They hurried back to the fort and informed Maj. Beasley. He quickly ordered a mounted patrol of about 10 men to check out the sighting.
Two of these scouts apparently rode within 300 yards of the Creek attack force without seeing the concealed warriors. Indian accounts stated that two of the militiamen, talking between themselves, passed along a road leading to the fort with the Creeks watching from the brush. Since the patrol reported no Indian activity in the area, Maj. Beasley ordered the slaves to be whipped for bringing false information and took no other defensive precautions.
By nightfall of August 29, 1813, the Creeks had advanced to within one mile of the unsuspecting fort. During the night, Weatherford and two warriors silently crawled up to the walls and peered through the fort’s firing ports (loopholes) which were cut into the palisade timbers about four feet from the ground. The sentries were playing cards and evidently never saw them.
On the morning of August 30, 1813, few of Fort Mims’ defenders stirred in the steaming heat. In the forested shade, the Creeks watched and waited. The fort’s main gate, located on the east side of the stockade, had not been closed by the garrison troops and was lodged open by a shifting bank of sand. Some historians believe Weatherford and his night scouts may have piled the dirt to hold the gate ajar. No sentries occupied the blockhouse.
During the morning, Maj. Beasley dispatched a message to Gen. Claiborne, unaware that he had only a few hours left to live. Beasley described the “false alarm” spread by the slaves. He added that while he had been initially concerned because other slaves sent to a nearby plantation to gather corn had reported seeing Indians “committing every kind of Havoc” he now doubted the truth of that report.
“I was much pleased at the appearance of the Soldiers here at the time of the Alarm yesterday when it was expected that the Indians would appear in Sight, the Soldiers very generally appeared anxious to see them”, Beasley wrote in his last dispatch. “I Have improved the fort at this place and have it much Stronger that when you were here,” Beasley continued. With more that a hint of frustration, he noted that his initial force had been so divided among the other outposts that he would be relegated to defense if attacked and “utterly unable to leave the fort and meet any number of the enemy.”
Before noon, Maj. Beasley received one last warning, but also ignored it. James Cornells, a scout, galloped into the fort and shouted to Beasley on the parade ground that he had seen hostile Creeks approaching. Beasley told him that he had only seen a few red cattle and mistaken them for Indians. Witnesses stated that Cornells yelled to Beasley that the red cattle would “give him a hell of a kick before night”. Beasley ordered Cornells arrested, but the scout galloped away, leaving the outpost and its occupants to its fate.
At noon, a drummer sounded the call to mess, and the soldiers and settlers headed for their midday meal. Some of the girls and young men were dancing, and the soldiers were playing cards as they waited for their food. The rattle of the drum was the Creek’s signal to attack and the death knell for most of settlers and militia. Hundreds of Red Stick warriors, hidden in a ravine only 400 yards from the fort, stormed across the open field and crowded through the open gate, their war whoops mingling with scattered musket shots from the soldiers and screams of terror from the pioneer women and children.
Before the attack, the prophet Welsh had performed a magical ceremony to make four braves impervious to bullets. These warriors were to lead the attack through the gate and divert the defender’s attention long enough for other Red Sticks to occupy the stockade’s loopholes and fire into the fort from outside the walls. The “bullet-proof” braves were the first to rush into the gate, and three were immediately shot down. Despite the failure of the magic, the militiamen were occupied long enough for the Red Sticks to take many of the loopholes and open fire on the whites running for cover inside the fort. Within minutes of the initial attack, the Creeks had also seized the unoccupied blockhouse.
Maj. Beasley, who according to some accounts was drunk at the time of the attack, drew his sword and vainly fought to close the gate, but was quickly clubbed to death in the Creek’s initial onslaught. Dixon Bailey, a half-breed who had been elected captain of the fort’s volunteers, took command and led a group of riflemen who fired at the attackers from the loopholes not occupied by the Indians. Other militiamen set-up a hasty defense behind the inner wall and among the fort’s buildings. By surprise and sheer numbers, the Indians quickly established a foothold inside the palisade, and slowly pushed all of the frontiersmen back behind the secondary defenses. The militiamen and pioneer riflemen poured fire into the Creeks, but were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of screaming warriors rushing into the stockade.
Despite their manpower advantage, the Red Sticks, most of who were armed with only tomahawks, clubs, knives, and bows and arrows, suffered heavy losses. Many of the fort’s defenders, however, were killed by Indians firing into the fort through loopholes behind the defender’s positions. The Creeks set fire to most of the fort’s buildings using flaming arrows. Many settlers, including numerous women and children were burned alive. The fort’s powder magazine, located in one of the cabins, exploded, ignited by the raging flames.
Yet, by 3 p.m., the battle was far from decided. The Creeks were exhausted and many were ready to quit the fight. Most of the surviving settlers and militiamen had sought refuge in a loomhouse and another log building against the fort’s north wall and were grimly holding out. The Creek leaders rallied their braves, who now set these last two structures ablaze. Some settlers died in the flames, but others were forced out and immediately killed by the warriors. Bailey was mortally wounded in these closing moments of the battle. Some settlers, mostly men, were able to hack their way through the northern stockade wall and make their escape. A few found a flatboat and floated down the river to Fort Stoddert near Mobile.
The Creeks apparently spared most of the slaves to serve them, but this reprieve was to be short lived. During the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Alabama fought on March 27, 1814, the Indians vainly used these slaves as a human shield, but the attacking soldiers under Gen. Jackson quickly killed them. While the slaves were spared during the massacre, the Indians showed no mercy to the whites. By some accounts, the Creeks slaughtered the settlers including brutalizing women, some of whom were pregnant, and children. Some of the wounded and dead bodies were thrown into fires.
Weatherford apparently was horrified by the gruesome spectacle and vainly tried to stop the slaughter, but the Red Sticks, angered by the deaths of many comrades and in a killing frenzy, could not be stopped. The Creeks also believed a false rumor that British officials in Pensacola offered 5 dollars for every white scalp. Many of the victims at Fort Mims were scalped before they were killed. However, not all of the Creeks participated in the slaughter. One survivor told of a friendly Creek named Johomobtee, who shot three Red Sticks who were killing women.
Another survivor, as she watched her husband being killed, decided to bravely meet her own fate. Taking two children by their hands, she walked into the middle of the carnage, expecting to die at any moment. She was startled to see a blood stained Creek calling to her. She recognized him as Dog Warrior, an Indian she had known when he was a child. Dog Warrior led her and the children to safety out of the fort. However, these actions were the exception.
A slave who escaped told authorities he and others including Dixon Bailey’s sister were in Mims’ house when the hostile Creeks entered. A warrior asked the woman if she was related to anyone in the fort. The woman pointed to the body of her brother and said I am the sister of that great man you have murdered there, whereupon the warrior knocked her down and mutilated her.
About 3 miles away, the 40 soldiers and about 150 settlers at Fort Pierce listened to the sounds of the chaos through the day and nervously waited for an attack. “The firing and yells of the Indians were heard at this post until after four o’clock in the afternoon when the firing ceased”, wrote militiaman Lieutenant Andrew Montgomery, who commanded Fort Pierce. “It was impossible to render them any assistance with my small force.”
By 5 p.m., the battle was over, and the Creeks and their captives left the blazing ruins and dead behind.
A soldier who had served under Major General Wayne along the northern frontier, was wounded but escaped from the fort and gave an account of the massacre. He ran into the forest and shot a brave who confronted him then hid beneath the lake bank as darkness settled over the fort. To the soldier’s horror, some of the Creeks from the war party camped near his hiding place. The next morning, the Red Sticks threw the bodies of three people into the lake and departed. In the abandoned camp, he said he found a young boy’s body sprawled on an animal hide.
The fort’s assistant surgeon, Dr. Thomas G. Holmes, escaped from the burning fort and hid in a hole by the roots of a fallen tree. He wandered through the wilderness for nine days before being found by a friendly settler.
The frightened defenders of Fort Pierce remained on the alert through the night of 30 Aug. and saw bands of warriors in the distance, but the expected attack never came. About noon on 31 Aug., Lieutenant Montgomery sent out a mounted patrol that reported that Fort Mims had fallen and the river swamp was full of Indians. Believing he could not defend Fort Pierce with his small force; Montgomery made plans to abandoned the outpost. Thwarted in an attempt to find a boat to help evacuate the fort, Montgomery waited until dark and led the militia and refugees out of the fort headed for Mobile, about 35 miles to the south. In a grueling March through the wilderness, Montgomery’s party reached Mobile early on the morning of September 4 with no losses.
Exact casualty figures will never be known, but most authorities agree about 250 to 400 settlers and militiamen died at Fort Mims. A settler who returned to the grisly scene four days after the battle to search for his family reportedly saw about “250 dead bodies and the women in a situation shocking to behold or relate”. Many accounts state the death toll exceeded 500, but this apparently does not take into account the approximately 100 to 175 slaves who were captured by the Creeks, however, among the bodies were the remains of about 20 slaves. Additionally, a few white women and children may also have been taken prisoner.
Militia Major Kennedy commanded a detachment sent to the gruesome site to bury the dead three weeks after the massacre. The soldiers were horrified to find throngs of vultures and wild dogs, which had been attracted to the corpses. Major Kennedy reported he found and buried the bodies of 247 men, women and children. “Indians, Negroes, white men, women, and children lay in one promiscuous ruin”, wrote Kennedy. “All were scalped, and the females of every age, were butchered. ”
In the charred remains of Mims’ house, the soldiers found the bones of many victims. In the woods nearby, the militiamen found the graves of about one hundred Red Sticks. In a letter of September 4 to Territory Governor David Holmes, General Claiborne wrote that about 200 Creeks were believed to have been killed in the attack. Some historians believe the Creeks may have lost 300 to 400 warriors in the fight.
In the months after the massacre, a Fort Mims survivor named Zachariah McGirth, was overjoyed to see is wife and 7 daughters, whom he believed at been killed, arrive at the Mobile wharf. McGirth and two of his slaves had left the fort about two hours before the attack to go to his nearby farm to gather provisions. As they paddled their boat down the Alabama River, they heard gunfire and saw flames and smoke from the fort rising above the trees. Knowing that he could do nothing to help his family McGirth and his men hid in a bayou near the blazing outpost through the night.
McGirth entered the ruins early on the morning of 31 Aug. to search for his family but did not find them or their bodies. Unknown to him, a Red Stick named Sanota, whom they had adopted, as a hungry, orphaned boy had taken his family, except for his only son who was killed at the fort, captive. Sanota kept his adopted mother and the girls in a Creek village, providing for them and protecting them from the other warriors.
When Sanota was killed in battle a few months after the battle at Fort Mims, the McGirths set out on foot for the nearest pioneer outpost. After days of struggling through the wilds, a militia major found the family who took them to Mobile where they were reunited with McGirth.
News of the Fort Mims massacre spread quickly, shocking and outraging the American nation. General Claiborne was widely criticized for his handling of the frontier defenses, but Major Beasley’s carelessness appears to the more to blame for the Fort Mims massacre. The Creek victory raised the confidence of the Red Stick warriors as much as it panicked settlers along the entire western frontier.
The Americans soon stuck back, defeating the Creek nation even though the Americans fought a bungling, uncoordinated campaign. By October 4, 1813, about 1,300 mounted Tennessee volunteer troops under the command of Major General Andrew Jackson had moved into northern Alabama. After a series of battles, General Jackson’s army annihilated the main Creek force on March 27, 1814 at Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River in eastern Alabama.
Weatherford eventually surrendered to General Jackson, who was impressed by Red Eagle’s bearing and bravery. With the Red sticks essentially destroyed, Weatherford helped persuade remaining groups of warriors to surrender. Red Eagle also convinced Jackson of his futile attempt to stop the Fort Mims slaughter. “I exerted myself in vain to prevent the massacre of the women and children at Fort Mims”, Red Eagle reportedly told General Jackson. “I am now done with fighting.”
On August 9, 1814, several Creek leaders signed the Treaty of Fort Jackson, which ceded some 20 million acres of Creek land to the United States. For his actions in the war and in forcing the treaty on the Creeks, General Jackson earned the first measure of fame that would lead him to the presidency.
After the war, Jackson released Weatherford, who was allowed to settle in Monroe County, Alabama, to lead a peaceful existence until his death in March 1824. A cairn marks Red Eagle’s grave located about a mile from the site of Fort Mims.