WILLIAM WEATHERFORD AND THE ROAD TO THE HOLY GROUND
FINDING HIMSELF THE LAST WARRIOR STANDING AT THE DOOMED HOLY GROUND, CHIEF RED EAGLE HAD ONLY ONE AVENUE OF ESCAPE-A RISKY LEAP INTO THE FRIGID RIVER BELOW. BY PAM JONES
RED EAGLE-William Weatherford as the Americans knew him-suddenly found himself alone, the last defender of the Holy Ground on that bitterly cold morning in 1813. He had to make a decision-flee as his warriors had done and surrender the Creek town, or be captured. With American troops quickly closing in, surrounding him on three sides, Weatherford’s only escape was a bluff above the wintry Alabama River. In his History of Alabama (1851), Albert James Pickett describes Weatherford’s belated retreat:
Coursing with great rapidity along the banks of the Alabama, below the town, on a gray steed of unsurpassed strength and fleetness. . . [he] came at length to the termination of a kind of ravine, where there was a perpendicular bluff ten or fifteen feet above the surface of the river. Over this with a mighty bound the horse pitched with the gallant chief, and both went out of sight beneath the waves.
As the story of William Weatherford’s daring leap spread, it took on mythic proportions. The bluff from which he leapt became fifty feet above the river, then one hundred. In the telling and retelling, “Chief Red Eagle became a legend.
WILLIAM WEATHERFORD was an unlikely resistance leader in the Greek War. Born into a wealthy family of mixed heritage, Weatherford could just as easily have fought with American troops as against them. He was the eldest son of Charles Weatherford, a Scots trader and horse breeder, and Princess Sehoy III, the daughter of a Creek chief and the granddaughter of a French military commander. Weatherford’s father, a resolute Tory, left Georgia during the early years of the American Revolution after his name appeared on a list of loyalists whose property was to be confiscated. His mother was a member of one of the most influential groups in the Creek nation, the Clan of the Wind.
While only a teen, Weatherford gained a reputation as an excellent athlete. He was also skilled at breaking horses and racing them. Throughout the Greek world, Weatherford was known for his equestrian skills. One Indian woman noted that when Weatherford would gracefully ride past a group of women, they “would quit hoeing corn, and smile and gaze upon him as he rode by the corn-patch.”
Because of his mother’s status in the Wind Clan, Weatherford knew he would be in a position of power and influence in the Creek community. As he grew into adulthood, however, he seemed more interested in running his plantation and breeding race horses. He was known throughout the region as a hospitable and gregarious host. His plantation was located near the Upper Creek territory’s main thoroughfare, the path that eventually became the Federal Road. Travelers through the area often noted the incongruity of seeing Creek warriors camped in his pastures while Americans dined, danced, and slept in his home. Weatherford was a tall man with reddish-blond hair who dressed in the style of the white settlers in the nation. He moved comfortably between the two disparate and contradictory worlds of the frontier.
THINGS WOULD soon change for Weatherford, however. As more and more settlers pushed into the Mississippi Territory, they also pushed into the Creek Nation. The American government, to promote safety and peace in the region, sought to “civilize” Indians by persuading them to adopt Anglo-American dress, language, and customs such as farming. Many Indians willingly adopted these white ways, and intermarriage between the groups was not uncommon. Some Creeks, however, seeing their culture slowly erode, became increasingly resentful of the American presence in their lands. The Federal Road, carved out of Creek lands between the Chattahoochee and Alabama Rivers in 1811, ensured even more contact between whites and Creeks. Seeing the overwhelming white presence as a threat to their way of life, many Creeks decided to fight back. Because red was the color of war, they became known as Red Sticks, and they were openly hostile towards both encroaching settlers and the Indians who accommodated the newcomers.
Believing that the Greeks would be at a disadvantage against American forces, Weatherford did not join the Red Stick movement initially. At a tribal council in Tuckabatchee in 1811, Weatherford argued against the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who had traveled to the area to encourage the Choctaws and Creeks to join a broad pan-Indian alliance against the Americans, a movement which had already spread throughout the Great Lake region. Acting upon a spiritual vision by his brother Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh believed that an alliance between all tribes would give the Indians enough strength to stop any further white encroachment. Opposing Tecumseh, Weatherford suggested that, should the British and Americans go to war with one another, the Greeks would do best to remain neutral; if forced to choose sides, though, they should ally themselves with the Americans.
The majority of Creek leaders agreed with Weatherford and declined to join Tecumseh’s military alliance. Although Tecumseh left, he ordered several of his prophets to stay and charged them with recruiting as many Creeks as possible to the Red Stick movement. Tecumseh’s prophet, seekaboo, immediately began to proselytize, filling new prophets with a zeal to end white culture in Creek territory. One of the first men Seekaboo enlisted was Josiah Francis, the son of an English trader and a Creek mother. After a lengthy ceremony, Francis, whose Indian name Hilts Hadsho meant “crazy medicine,” declared he could clearly see the future and set about recruiting other prophets. Seekaboo, Francis, and the other newly inducted prophets spent the next year encouraging Red Sticks to cause havoc in the nation through a series of sporadic raiding parties on the properties of American-allied Creeks. The movement grew as the prophets assured the Creeks that the Great Spirit would not allow the Red Sticks to be harmed.
Not long after the Tuckabatchee council and open hostilities began, numerous Red Stick families settled on a bend of the Alabama River. The area offered its inhabitants a strong defensive position; it was surrounded by swamps and cane brakes on three sides and the Alabama River on the remaining side. In addition to these geographic advantages, the site was also protected by the new prophets. They sanctified the ground and declared that should whites attempt to attack the Red Sticks here, their bullets would fall harmlessly to the ground. Built in close proximity to many of the Upper Creek towns and villages that were firmly in the Red Stick camp, the settlement became known as Ecunchate, or the Holy Ground.
A. B. Meek, a nineteenth-century Alabama lawyer, historian, and poet, described the Indian settlement:
The Holy Ground proper was situated along the south bank of the Alabama, between the Pintlala and Big Swamp Creeks (sic), in the present county of Lowndes. It received its name from being the residence of the principal prophets of the nation, and having been by them consecrated from the intrusion of white men. Wizard circles were described around its borders, and the credulous inhabitants were assured that no enemy could tread upon its soil without being blasted. It was emphatically called the “Grave of White Men.”
THE RED STICK RAIDS became more frequent. Peter McQueen, a prominent Red Stick leader of Scottish-Creek ancestry, led one such raid in July 1813. At the head of a small band of Red Stick warriors, and accompanied by the prophet Francis, McQueen raided several mestizo Creek plantations. One of the victims of the raids, James Cornells, lost his home and corn crib to fire, while the hostile warriors kidnapped his wife and sold her as a slave.
As word of the unprovoked attack spread, outrage grew. Colonel James Caller of Washington County hastily assembled a militia of about 180 American, friendly Creek, and mestizo men, including “the Daniel Boone of Alabama,” Sam Dale, to engage the hostile Red Sticks. “Unless this decisive step is taken, our settlements will be broken up,” Caller wrote to his superior, Brigadier General Ferdinand Leigh Claiborne. Although a successful trader on good terms with many of the Indian tribes, Dale agreed with Caller and saw the raids and uprisings as a national threat. Scouts informed the troops that the Red Sticks were encamped at Burnt Corn Creek in present-day Monroe County, preparing for the midday meal. The Americans decided to take advantage of the Creeks’ vulnerability and attacked. The Indians retreated with a number of soldiers still in pursuit. Sam Dale, though shot in the chest during the skirmish, continued to fight. “I vomited a good deal of blood, and felt easier, and one of my men reloaded my rifle for me,” he later recalled. The majority of the troops, however, gave up the chase and returned to capture the Creeks’ horses. Realizing how few Americans were after them at this point, the Creeks rallied themselves and went on the offensive. As the Red Sticks reconverged on Burnt Corn Creek, Caller ordered his men to retreat, intending to regroup and renew the attack. But his forces became confused during the battle and retreated completely.
The Red Sticks’ “victory” at Burnt Corn Creek sent a wave of panic through settlers along the waterways of the territory’s southern frontier. Fear of more Red Stick raids led scores of pioneers, friendly Creeks, and mestizos to abandon their isolated and unprotected homes for the security of fortified encampments. Hundreds of these fugitives ended up in a hastily and poorly assembled stockade near the Tensaw River known as Fort Mims, under the command of Major Daniel Beasley. Built around the small frame house of ferryman Samuel Mims, the complex sat well above other structures in the area. Two slaves who had been tending cattle outside the fort on August 29 warned of approaching Red Sticks, as did James Cornells. Major Beasley ignored the reports and refused to close the fort’s gates, which were wedged open with sand.
On August 30, 1813, hundreds of warriors and several prophets charged through the open gates of Fort Mims, following none other than William Weatherford. How Weatherford found himself in this position remains one of the great mysteries of Alabama history.
The assault began at noon, in retaliation for the midday attack on the Indians at Burnt Corn Creek; it became the deadliest Indian attack against Americans in the country’s history. The following is one account of the event:
Officers and soldiers fell in vain attempts to counteract the results of a want of vigilance in the past. Help or hope there was none, and soldiers, women, children, Spaniards, friendly Indians, fell together in heaps of mangled bodies, the dying and the dead, scalped, mutilated, bloody, to be consumed ere long by fire, or to become food for hungry dogs and buzzards.
Although there has been disagreement over the exact number of casualties, a report to Claiborne claimed that more than 240 bodies were found inside the fort. Outrage over the massacre was immediate and widespread. Calls for retribution against the Creeks echoed across the southern frontier.
While William Weatherford led the assault on Fort Minis, correspondence suggests that he made a noble, yet ultimately futile, attempt to stop the massacre and save the fort’s women and children. Some reports say the Red Sticks had kidnapped his wife and son, forcing Weatherford to join the faction to protect his family; others suggest that he hoped to use his influence to stop the violent campaign. Whatever Weatherford’s true motivations, he was viewed by many Americans as the instigator of the slaughter, becoming the most wanted man in the Mississippi Territory. One of the soldiers determined to find the “bloodthirsty savage” was the well-seasoned General Claiborne, who had only recently arrived in the territory when the Fort Minis massacre occurred. Claiborne, a Virginia native and a brother to the first governor of Louisiana, was given the command of the U. S. Army Third Regiment and the Mississippi Territory militia. In June 1813, General Thomas Flournoy ordered Glaiborne to take his six hundred militia volunteers from Baton Rouge to Mount Vernon, just north of Mobile, to “repel any attack that may be made on any part of the frontier of the Mississippi Territory, either from Indians, Spaniards, or English.”
After he and his troops settled in at Mount Vernon, Claiborne sent one of his men, a Major Ballenger, into the Choctaw nation to persuade their warrior leader, Chief Pushmataha, to join the Americans against the Red Stick Creeks. Already legendary in the frontier for the numerous treaties he had signed with the Americans, Pushmataha offered to raise companies of warriors to fight alongside the American troops. In a speech given to rally Choctaws to the cause, Pushmataha reminded them of the Fort Mims attack-the slaughter of the Tensaw community that had faithfully sheltered and fed the Choctaws traveling to Pensacola. The charismatic chief raised a force of 150 warriors to aid in the coming battle.
For weeks Claiborne recruited allies and anxiously awaited orders to march deep into the Creek nation against the Red Sticks. On November 10, he finally received orders to take his force of some one thousand men north along the Alabama River to Weatherford’s Bluff, the site of Charles Weatherford’s plantation. There, the general and his men were to build a depot to store provisions for the approaching Tennessee army under the leadership of Andrew Jackson. On the 17th, Claiborne’s men crossed the Alabama River to their destination where they built a “strong stockade, two hundred feet square, defended by three block houses and a half-moon battery which commanded the river.”
Claiborne’s army was joined by Colonel Gilbert C. Russell, Mount Vernon’s commander, and the Third Regiment of U. S. Infantry. While he and his men were anxious to battle the Red Sticks, Claiborne had been forbidden to go any deeper into Creek territory than the bluff until his men were joined by militia from Tennessee and Georgia. But Claiborne persevered and finally obtained permission to depart. Although Claiborne was not supposed to initiate hostile actions against the Creeks, his orders were just vague enough that he decided it would be acceptable to head for the Holy Ground-the axis of Red Stick resistance. When they learned of the mission, the general’s officers were stunned; twenty-six of the men signed a petition asking Claiborne to reconsider and abandon the mission. The men cited the wet and cold weather, the soldiers’ lack of winter clothing, shoes or blankets, the lack of a path to the sacred city, the impossibility of moving supplies, and finally, the fact that many of the volunteers were due to muster out before the troops even reached the Holy Ground. Claiborne, however, was intractable. The troops that left for the Holy Ground on December 13 included the Third Regiment, the Twelve-Month Mississippi Territory Volunteers under Colonel Joseph Carson, Pushmataha and his warriors, Major Cassels’s Cavalry Battalion, Major Smoot’s Militia Battalion, and captains Bailey Heard and Sam Dale.
Events progressed rapidly in December as Claiborne’s soldiers set up camp within ten miles of the Holy Ground on December 22. Upon learning of the advancing troops, Weatherford left his plantation to warn Josiah Francis and the other Holy Ground inhabitants of the impending attack. Despite the belief that no white could step on the sanctified ground of the town without dying and that the white man’s bullets would split and fall harmlessly to the ground, Weatherford managed to convince the prophets to evacuate the women and children to the thick forests across the river. Some time after Weatherford’s arrival in the encampment, Francis abandoned the Holy Ground, leaving an ill-prepared Weatherford to assume the mantle of lead warrior in the upcoming battle against an overwhelmingly larger and better armed adversary.
THE NEXT MORNING broke bitterly cold and wet for the assembled troops. General Claiborne gave his orders for the attack, dividing his soldiers into three columns to encircle the Red Sticks and block any avenue of escape. Claiborne headed a central column of men. Colonel Carson’s Mississippi volunteers comprised the right company and the left column was Major Smoot’s militia battalion, along with Pushmataha and his men. Major Cassel’s cavalry was to prevent any of the enemy from escaping down the river that ran along the west side of the site.
The thick canebrake along Holy Ground Greek, however, rendered it impossible for Carson’s men to cross it and attack the town from the creek’s right bank. Instead they were forced to wade through the swampy water for about a mile. Despite the setback, they were the first to do battle with the Red Sticks. Weatherford had ordered a large number of warriors to hide behind a bank of Holy Ground Creek and a smaller group behind a nearby log. The approaching Americans were met with a volley of rifle fire as the Red Sticks ambushed them from across the water. As Carson’s men returned gunfire and slowly began to cross the creek, a barrage of arrows flew from a third contingent of Indians.
A Creek prophet-chanting war cries, dancing, and waving a cow’s tail, painted red, in each hand-was felled by one shot to the chest from a soldier named Gatlin. The realization that the Holy Ground was not impenetrable led many of the Red Sticks to throw down their weapons and run from the skirmish, some stopping to pick up and carry their wounded comrades with them. Some fleeing warriors escaped down the creek, while several hundred swam or canoed their way to the safety of the west side of the Alabama River. Carson urged his men to pursue the warriors, telling them, “Boys, you seem keen! Go ahead and drive them.”
After less than an hour of battle, only William Weatherford and a few Red Stick warriors remained to fight. One by one they fell until the chieftain found himself the last defender of the Holy Ground. Knowing the cause was lost, he contemplated his only chance of escape-such as it was-the Alabama River. After reaching the bluffs edge, he rode back for about thirty paces, turned his horse around and raced toward the river. Weatherford and his horse leaped off the bluff and into the icy river. The chief emerged seconds later with his rifle held aloft amid a hail of bullets. According to Sam Dale, who watched the incident from nearby, he refused to shoot at the fleeing chieftain because of his admiration for both Weatherford’s courage and horsemanship. After reaching the bank, Weatherford dismounted, checked his horse for injuries and rode away, unharmed.
THE AMERICANS LOST only one man, the unfortunate ensign James Luckett, one of the signers of the petition asking Glaiborne not to attack the Holy Ground. The Red Stick losses were, according to the Americans, thirty-three, including one of Tecumseh’s Shawnee prophets and twelve African Americans. This encounter is reportedly the only battle of the Greek War in which escaped or freed African American slaves fought with the Red Sticks against their American foes.
“Those credulous savages, through the influence of their prophets were induced to believe that the holy ground was their place of safety where they should stand and see the whites and the ground on which they stood fall whenever they would come to attack them,” wrote the army’s surgeon, Neal Smith, in his diary.
During the preceding months, the Red Sticks had used the town as a storage depot for the plunder they took during raids on neighboring mestizo plantations and white settlements. Although Claiborne forbade any American troops to pillage the site, Pushmataha and his warriors were allowed to take whatever loot they wished, including items taken from Fort Mims. The Choctaws also scalped the Greek and African American dead, but threw away the slaves’ scalps as unworthy of Choctaw warriors. The warriors then burned the town to cinders, erasing Holy Ground from the Alabama landscape.
According to Smith’s diary, there were between twelve and fifteen hundred barrels of corn, which Claiborne did allow his men to take. That night, the soldiers camped near the charred site of the town and dined on the corn from their enemy’s bins. The following day, Christmas Eve, they set about the methodical destruction of all Red Stick property within the vicinity. Also on that day, Dale, Cassel, and a band of riders were sent out scouting local settlements. The men encountered and killed three more Shawnee prophets left by Tecumseh.
In a dispatch written after the battle, Claiborne praised his soldiers’ performance in battle, even those officers who had petitioned him to abort his planned attack on the town.
“Yes, when they were exposed in these swamps and canebrakes to an inclement winter, without tents, warm clothing, shoes or food; when every countenance exhibited suffering; when they were nine days without meat and subsisted chiefly on parched corn, these brave men won an important battle, and endured without a murmur the exigencies of the service. “
Dale saw the battle as a greatly needed boost for the settlers on the southern frontier. He noted,
“The moral effect of this bold movement into the heart of the nation, upon ground held sacred and impregnable, was great. It taught the savages that they were neither inaccessible nor invulnerable; it destroyed their confidence in their prophets, and it proved what volunteers, even without shoes, clothing, blankets, or provisions would do for their country.”
ON CHRISTMAS DAY, two days after his warriors’ disastrous defeat at the hands of General Claiborne’s forces at the battle of the Holy Ground, William Weatherford watched his wife, Sapoth Thlaine, die in a makeshift refugee camp across the Alabama River from the smoldering remains of the once-consecrated site.
The next few months were difficult for the fugitive Weatherford, his son Charles, and the dozens of women and children in the camp. The winter was harshly cold and food supplies were almost nonexistent. Then, in late March 1814, General Andrew Jackson’s army ended the Creek War and gained national recognition with its one-sided victory against the last of the Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.
Jackson remained in Alabama, determined to capture the elusive and legendary Weatherford. Even after Jackson demanded that surrendering Creek leaders find Weatherford and bring him to the general, the chief remained at large. The starvation of Weatherford’s family and people, however, accomplished what Jackson’s threats could not-his surrender. Dressed once again as a frontiersman, Weatherford rode his horse to a site near Fort Jackson, which was under construction on the site of the old Fort Toulouse. There the Creek leader walked into the heavily guarded garrison and asked for directions to the general’s quarters. One legend, difficult though it may be to believe, holds that Weatherford and Jackson spent the night in the general’s tent, drinking whiskey, talking, and quickly becoming friends. The exhausted warrior told Jackson that he only wanted peace with the Americans and the end of his people’s suffering. Jackson answered Weatherford’s request with supplies and fresh deer meat for the remaining Creek women and children.
The oft-told story is that Jackson thought it too dangerous for his new friend to remain in the territory, so he took Weatherford back to his own home, the Hermitage, in Nashville. Contrary to legend, though, Weatherford remained in the Alabama River locale, assisting his defeated people. He remained out of the public eye for several years. Eventually he reappeared in Monroe County, where he set about rebuilding his lost fortune. When he died in March 1824, after becoming ill following a bear hunt, the once-notorious Red Eagle was again one of the wealthiest men in the area and had lived peacefully among his former enemies on a large plantation just a few miles north of Fort Mims. Within a decade, his friend, Andrew Jackson, would order the removal of all Indians from the region, including the Indians who had fought with him against the Red Sticks at the Battle of Holy Ground.
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