Holy Ground

Holy Ground – origin of Oklahoma as a Creek resettlement territory

Gloria Jahoda

“Away back in that time in–1492–there was a man by the name of Columbus came from across the great ocean, and he discovered the country for the white man … What did he find when he first arrived here? Did he find a white man standing on the continent then? … I stood here first, and Columbus first discovered me.”


In the north the scarlet council fires burned long and high on frost-touched nights in the spring of 1813. It was the Moon of the Running Sap, and the United States and Britain were at war. Tecumtha of the Shawnees of Ohio was urging America’s Indians to declare for the British and push out of Indian land forever the rude settlers who appeared to think they were the only Americans who mattered. The Prophet Tenskwatawa, Tecumtha’s brother, was traveling from tribe to tribe exhorting their clans to rebellion as the acrid flames crackled in the dark: “O Shawnee braves! O Potawatomi men! O Miami panthers! O Ottawa foxes! O Miami lynxes! O Kickapoo beavers! O Winnebago wolves! Lift up your hatchets; raise your knives; sight your rifles! Have no fears–your lives are charmed! Stand up to the foe; he is a weakling and a coward! O red brothers, fall upon him! Wound, rend, tear, and flay, scalp, and leave him to the wolves and buzzards! O Shawnee braves! O Potawatomi men!” Had not the Great Spirit first made the Shawnees before he made the French and English out of his breast, the Dutch out of his feet, and the American Long Knives out of his hands? “All these inferior races of man he made white and placed them beyond the Stinking Lake,” Tenskwatawa shouted as black smoke vanished upward into a blacker sky where stars glittered crisp and blue-white. Now it was time to drive the inferior races back across the Stinking Lake. The British must be used to help exterminate the Americans; afterward, the united Indians could deal similarly with the British.

Many of America’s original settlers listened spellbound to the compelling oratory of Tecumtha and Tenskwatawa as it echoed through their ebony forests. Soon exhortations to vengeance were dividing tribes into hostile factions of moderates and fanatics, none more bitterly than the southern Creeks. The Creeks, so called by the whites because most of the subtribes that comprised the nation lived on rivers and streams, owned sprawling fertile lands in Georgia and Alabama. Rivers that flowed red with Georgia clay, the Flint and Chattahoochee and Ocmulgee, and Alabama streams whose slower brown waters moved under high canopies of longleaf pines and moss-draped live oaks, the Coosa, Tallapoosa, Tombigbee, and Alabama, belonged by tradition to the Creeks. Farther south lived a scattering of Spaniards in west Florida, whose capital, Pensacola, was a boisterous town full of an assortment of outlaws, pirates between expeditions, petty Spanish officialdom, and dark-eyed senoritas who welcomed the visiting British army and navy with enthusiasm. The British Indian trading firm of Panton Leslie and Company was based in Pensacola too. In the 321 years since Columbus had begun exterminating the Tainos of the West Indies, America’s Indians had become dependent on the goods traders sold them: muzzle-loading rifles, keen-honed knives, osnaburg cloth, flannel and calico and sturdy blankets, brightly colored glass beads, and also potent whiskey.

No tribe relied on traders more than the Creeks; they took to the white man’s ways so readily that they were considered a “civilized” tribe. Parties of Creeks regularly journeyed from Georgia and Alabama to exchange skins and furs at Pensacola; many Creek women had married traders. Names like McGillivray, Farquharson, Weatherford, and McIntosh were common in the war towns and peace towns that lined ferny southern riverbanks. The Creeks had appropriated white customs that suited them–cloth dress, hunting weapons and ammunition, the keeping of peach orchards and livestock. But in most of their minds there was no doubt that their lands were theirs forever. “They are our life and breath,” said one of their chiefs, Yahola Micco. “If we part with them we part with our blood.”

The Creeks, though not as drastically as Tecumtha’s Shawnees, had already felt the pressure of white expansion into their country. They watched horrified as American frontiersmen killed game not only for food but for fun. The Creeks had taken a long step into the 19th century, at the same time that they had also been pushed back from the Atlantic Coast they had once known. Some were fatalists: what would be, would be. But some were not.

When Tecumtha’s Religion of the Dancing Lakes came to young Creek braves, they were ready to believe in it. As they gyrated, leaders of the dance carried red sticks that Tecumtha’s followers said would show the direction from which the whites were coming. Any Indian who bore a red stick could not be injured. Soon council fires were also burning in the heavy, humid nights of the South. In the Creek war town of Tuckabatchee, 5,000 people crowded the main square to watch Red Stick dancers whirl naked except for breechclouts and eagle feathers. As the hard, hammering music of rattles and the wails of reed flutes rose and fell in the perfumed darkness, the Red Stick men undulated into the chofoka, the town meetinghouse, while sweat poured down their burnished faces. In ringing tones, they prophesied miracles. Soon afterward, in rapid succession, came a comet, a meteor shower, and a mild earthquake. Could anyone doubt Tecumtha when he said that the earth would tremble when he stamped his foot upon it? The hotheaded warriors of the Creeks did not. But Lumhe Chati, Red Eagle, had misgivings. The whites he knew in southern Alabama had been friendly. Why could the two peoples not live together?

Red Eagle was born Bill Weatherford, son of a white trader and a Creek mother whose maiden name had been Tait. The lands he knew best were the pinewoods and swamps where the Tombigbee and the Alabama rivers joined, a few miles north of the site of the ancient Indian town of Mabila. The Mabila Indians, obliterated by conflict and disease, had already passed into history, along with the Natchez and Timucuas and Calusas and Apalachees. Now Mabila (the French, when they had owned it, had called it Mobile) belonged to the Creeks. The path between Mobile and Pensacola was well worn with Creek footprints as it wound among light-speckled forests and sluggish coastal rivers, past broad bays full of marsh grasses shining darkly in the southern sunlight. The place of pilgrimage in Pensacola was the store of Panton Leslie and Company. Also in Pensacola, as American frontiersmen knew, British soldiers, with the compliance of the Spanish, were training bands of Creek Indians in organized warfare. These particular Creeks had left their old lands in Georgia and Alabama to become Siminoli, wanderers. The main body of the tribe had severed its ties with them. A Creek in Tuckabatchee was as much like a Seminole of steaming Florida as an urban Yankee merchant who carried a goldheaded cane was like a squatter in the hinterlands who lived on deer, opossum, and raccoon meat. The Creeks considered their Siminoli brothers “wild men.” Red Eagle, like so many of his nation, admired the efficiency of white civilization. He found the Religion of the Dancing Lakes excessive, the flight of the Siminoli futile, and the belief in the invincibility of those who carried red sticks grotesque.

During the Summer Moon, in July 1813, 90 Alabama Creek warriors set out for Pensacola with laden packhorses. Their leader was the half-breed Peter McQueen, chief of the Tallassee band. They made their way slowly through the dank heat. Frequently, they paused to rest in the shade of high pines along sepia streamlets where there was fresh water to drink. To the whites of the Alabama frontier settlements, the group of traveling Indians was frightening. The British fleet had been seen off Pensacola, and it was common knowledge that the British and Spanish were inciting Indians and selling them ammunition. From cabin to far-flung cabin word was passed that the Creeks, urged on by Red Stick braves, were planning a massacre. Alabama Colonel James Caller called out a ragtag territorial militia and crossed the Tombigbee to Sisemore’s Ferry on the Alabama. There, on the river’s western bank, he bivouacked for the night. His recruits listened to the calling of owls and the thumping of marsh rabbits, wondering if the noises came from animal or human throats.

The militia had passed through the town of Jackson, named for the American major-general who had written such stirring recruiting notices in Tennessee: “VOLUNTEERS TO ARMS! … Are we the rifled slaves of George the Third? The military conscripts of Napoleon? Or the frozen peasants of the Russian Czar? No–we are the freeborn sons of the only republick now existing in the world.” Andrew Jackson, who had known the Indian wars of the Appalachians as a boy, knew there were no republics among Indians. Most red men understood his contempt for their race. The man whose name was an inspiration to Colonel Caller was Jacksa Chula Harjo to the Creeks–“Jackson, old and fierce.” Some said he was mad. Neighboring Choctaws called him, more succinctly, “The Devil.”

On the morning of July 26, Caller started the laborious crossing to the east side of the Alabama. Horses swam by the side of long dugout canoes; it took most of the morning to get the animals across. At noon, Caller’s party halted at the cow pens of a frontiersman, where they were reinforced by a company under the command of Dixon Bailey, a mixed-blood Creek who had been educated in Philadelphia at white expense. Bailey’s men carried the same mixture of rifles and shotguns as Caller’s; they were as ready to fight, and their frontier horses were as sturdy. They wanted their pay, however, more than they wanted glory.

By July 27, Peter McQueen’s Creeks were returning from Pensacola with their purchases: rifles and shotguns like those the Long Knives carried, the bright cloth Creek wives fancied, metal fishing books, sharp hunting knives, and the British-made cookware that had replaced Creek pottery. The morning was torrid. Before noon, McQueen’s party stopped by a tiny rivulet named Burnt Corn Creek, where they cooked and ate the game they had caught. The smoke of their fire rose slowly into the pinetops of the little barren where they were resting.

Without warning, the Americans fell on them with shrill yells, forcing them to plunge into the river. Soon the Americans were losing Creek packhorses and plundering the wares of Panton Leslie and Company. Only a few bothered to pursue the Indians swimming down the Alabama. Then Colonel Caller ordered a retreat to a nearby hill in order to consolidate his position. But the greediest of his followers held onto their booty as they drove their horses before them, while the remaining Indians disappeared into a nearby swamp. The militiamen clung to their new possessions thinking themselves victorious, while Caller and Bailey tried to rally them. But the Indians rushed out from the swamp brandishing the guns they had never relinquished. From the swamp they ran to a bed of tall reeds, where they began shooting at the whites in the open woodland. This was more than Caller’s militia could endure. Two-thirds of them fled into the surrounding forest. Caller himself, who had marked no trail, became lost in a labyrinth of pond and hammock land and saw-palmetto thickets. When he was found 15 days later he was “starved almost to death and bereft of his senses,” babbling idiocies in his verdant hell. For him the war of the United States of America versus the Creek Indian nation had had an inglorious beginning.

The prosperous mixed-bloods of southern Alabama were frightened. The white settlers were more so. The Battle of Burnt Corn would surely be avenged by the Indians. Again the council fires began spiraling over the Creek towns: Hoithlewaula, Sawanogee, Mooklausa, Woccocau, Fooschatchge, Eufaula, Hookchoioochee. Again chanting echoed through velvet summer midnights, and the whites and mixed-bloods heard it as they tossed sleepless on their cots. They knew they had to take shelter.

A mile east of the Alabama on cypress-studded Lake Tensaw lived Samuel Mims, who had built himself a rambling frame house and large storage sheds. He had plenty of fresh water from nearby springs. Here the settlers quickly erected a stockade around an acre of sandy Alabama earth; they left 500 portholes in the fence, each one three and a half feet from the ground. They put up two unwieldy gates, one on the east and one on the west. Within the fort they hewed out temporary cabins, and at the southwest corner they started a blockhouse. To the south was a potato field, dotted by a few ramshackle slave cabins. Between the fence and Lake Tensaw tall slash pines flashed high needles in the sun; on the north were dense cane swamps, on the east trackless marshes. Fort Mims was possibly the most vulnerably situated outpost in the history of the American frontier. Men might hide undetected on any side of it.

The settlers did not wait for the blockhouse to be finished. They poured in with their featherbeds and cookpots, spinning wheels and axes and dogs and rations of dried meat. When Major Daniel Beasley arrived to take charge, he found two of the youngest men in what passed for command. The picketing needed to be strengthened, the blockhouse to be completed and two more built and scouts sent out to tell any friendly Indians that if they were hungry there was food for them at Fort Mims. Possibly Beasley himself believed that there were friendly Indians even after the unprovoked attack at Burnt Corn Creek. By this time there were 553 people jostling each other in the fort: civilians, whites, half-bloods, officers and recruits, black slaves, and bedraggled women in faded calico who nursed the inevitable sick in the Alabama swamp country in high summer. Malaria and dysentery claimed fresh victims daily; within the stockade the stench of their suffering was undiluted by wind. Inland Alabama has no summer winds. In the swamps the water shimmered darkly and the slow snouts of alligators made semicircular ripples as they moved forward; water moccasins were curled over looping branches. The smell of sulfurous marsh gas drifted over the stockade to mix with the smell of disease and spoiling food. And thus Fort Mims waited.

Meanwhile Peter McQueen, the literate leader of the fateful expedition to Pensacola, received an interesting communication from British and Spanish agents in Pensacola who had heard of Burnt Corn Creek. “Fight the Americans,” they urged him. “If they prove too hard for you, send your women and children to Pensacola and we will send them to Havana; and if you should be compelled to fly yourselves, and the Americans should prove too hard for both of us, there are vessels enough to take us all off together.” The advice was bitterly debated in long chofoka councils. During these debates the young Chief Red Eagle sat pondering, his eyes flashing restlessly over his gathered tribesmen, his lips compressed. In his long blue-black hair he wore two eagle feathers. Red Eagle’s father had been a white Georgian, his mother, a mixture of Creek and Scottish and French. He himself had elected his Creek identity. His brother, John Weatherford, had taken the white man’s way. He had not felt the same strong bonds to Creek earth and to the mystical Creek religion which taught the identity of man and nature under Isakita Immissi, the Master of Breath.

Red Eagle knew that so far the Creek War had really been a civil war. His half-brother David Tait was a Red Stick dancer; a sister and all her sons were also in the war party, while her husband, McNac, had fled to Fort Mims. When Red Eagle spoke at last in the chofoka it was to say tersely: “Do not avenge Burnt Corn. Civil War will only weaken us.” In Fort Mims the Creeks had many relatives, and there were white and black women and children there as innocent as the red women and children of the Creek villages. Red Eagle was listened to, for he was trusted as a man of honor, but the Red Stick warriors outvoted him. They then asked him to lead them on a Fort Mims expedition. No one had a better reputation than Red Eagle as a fighter and a commander of men. For the sake of his honor he consented; his loyalty was with his nation. The fort would be shut tight; the battle could be turned into a token charge against an impregnable target, and such a token would surely satisfy the families of the warriors killed by the whites at Burnt Corn.

On August 29, two young blacks were ordered to mind some Fort Mims cattle in a nearby field. Not long after they passed through the gate they came running back with the news that they had seen 24 Indians in war paint. Hurriedly, an officer rode to the spot with the blacks and a detachment of horses. There was not a sign of the enemy. The officer and his horsemen were disgusted. At sunset the blacks were dragged back to Fort Mims. One of them was tied to the stockade and beaten until his dark back was striped red with blood. The owner of the other refused to let his slave be punished for lying and was ordered by Major Beasley to leave the fort by 10 o’clock on the morning of August 30. By then the slave who had been flogged left the fort again to tend the cattle. Once more he saw a large group of Indians in the nearby forest. But this time, his back swollen with lashes, he fled to a distant settlement where he might be believed. In the meantime, the other slave’s owner had abandoned his defense. The hapless black was tied to the stockade in the hot sun where he waited to be beaten. Some of the soldiers sprawled on the ground laughed at him; others indifferently played cards. A group of teenagers danced by the open gate, while nearly a hundred small children frolicked among the tents and, giggling, hid from each other behind the cabins. Inside, the sick moaned fitfully.

Red Eagle and his men–a thousand Red Sticks–waited in the swamps, their view of the fort obscured by thick cane. Their faces were painted black and their arms and legs yellow, for they had taken the path of war. They carried medicine bundles, the red sticks of invincibility, and their tomahawks, and they also carried rifles and guns from Panton Leslie and Company. At noon they heard the fort’s drum summoning the officers and soldiers to lunch. For a breathless moment longer they waited. Then, with a massive whoop, they sprang forward. Only then was Red Eagle close enough to see, to his horror, that the fort gate stood wide. His warriors rushed ahead. Beasley hurried to the gate and tried to shut it, but it was banked in Alabama soil and wouldn’t move. In a single blow Red Sticks felled Beasley, then left him to crawl behind the gate, where he died of his gashes. Five designated prophets began dancing Red Stick dances; some of the soldiers managed to get to their weapons and shot them down. Red Eagle was shouting, trying to hold his men back. “See!” he roared out, “the Red Stick prophets weren’t invincible!” But there was no stopping the Indians. They killed soldiers, settlers, blacks, women, and children. Outside the pickets another group of prophets had gathered to dance and shriek their incantations.

When the Indians set fire to the main building as well as the sheds, the flames fanned into a sunburst, and their smoke stifled the people of Fort Mims. “Oh, God, I am a dead man!” cried the father of Samuel Mims as his scalp was lifted from the pulp of his head. Somebody shouted, “To the bastion! To the bastion!” A Spaniard from Pensacola knelt with sandspurs digging into his knees, crossing himself. A black slave exultantly delivered a white child to one of the Red Sticks. Fort Mims burned on, and its stench now was that of a charnel house. Five hours later the Indians collected the booty that was left and melted away to spend the night in the forest, its stolid trunks interlaced against the hectic light from the burning cotton gin. Not until midnight did the flames subside. By then the Red Sticks slept by their small camp fires. But Red Eagle did not sleep.

In the fetid fog of early morning, he ordered his braves to bury the Fort Mims dead. Quietly they began laying them between rows of potatoes, covering them with loose dirt and thickly clustered potato leaves. But there were too many corpses, and the Indian wounded were moaning in pain, begging to be returned to their villages. Some were put into palmetto canoes on the Alabama; others left on foot. A party of them staggered to Burnt Corn Creek, where they died. In the forest, terrified dogs ran and yelped. Also in the forest a Red Stick warrior named Sanota hid. In Fort Mims, he had found a woman who had once befriended him. He had hurried away with the woman and her children, explaining to his fellows that he wanted them as slaves. For weeks he hunted game for the little family; eventually, when they were strong enough, he guided them to a white settlement and then faded back into the wilderness from which he had come. At Fort Mims, a party of militia arrived to bury the dead. A young captain swallowed hard: “It is a promiscuous ruin.”

Early in September, at an inn in Nashville, Tennessee, Jacksa Chula Harjo lay dying. The blood from a dueling wound was soaking through the two mattresses underneath him. All the flock-coated physicians of Nashville were gathered gravely at his bedside, sure the end was near. His left shoulder had been shattered by one bullet, and another had imbedded itself in the upper bone of his left arm. All but one of the doctors agreed on amputation. Jackson was only half-conscious, but as he heard the rising and falling of their voices he began to realize what was being said. “I’ll keep my arm,” he rasped.

On September 12 he was still alive and convalescing at the Hermitage, his Nashville plantation. He was in bed when the news of the Fort Mims massacre came to him. “By the Eternal, these people must be saved!” His voice grew stronger as he raised himself on feather pillows and cried vengeance for the whites of the Alabama frontier. Soon he was sitting up and announcing to the men of his regiment: “The health of your general is restored. He will command in person!”

Shortly thereafter he swung onto a tall horse to ride against Red Eagle and the Red Sticks in their Moon of Roasting Ears. Fastidious politicians in Washington hadn’t liked Andrew Jackson when he had represented his district in Congress. “A tall, lanky, uncouth-looking personage,” they had sniffed. “Queue down his back tied with an eel skin … Dress singular … Manners those of a rough backwoodsman.” But backwoodsmen were better at dealing with rebellious Indian chiefs than perfumed dandies were. In Winchester, Virginia, another “rough backwoodsman” prepared with his regiment to march against the Creeks. His name was David Crockett.

Driving hard into Alabama, where Choctaw Chief Pushmataha joined them (Choctaws and Creeks were traditional enemies), Jackson’s forces descended on Black Warriors’ Town, a Creek settlement on the Black Warrior River, where they sacked what they could and then razed the place. The Creeks had fled before them. Then Jackson turned south, establishing forts as he went. By early November he was camped at Ten Islands, near present-day Gadsden, from where he sent out his subordinate John Coffee to destroy the nearby Creek town of Tallussahatchee. Just after sunrise, Coffee’s men rushed up to the doors of the Creeks’ houses; in a matter of minutes they had killed every warrior in the town, though “the enemy fought with savage fury.” The surprised Red Sticks, Coffee noted, “met [death], with all its horrours, without shrinking or complaining. Not one asked to be spared, but fought as long as they could stand or sit.” Coffee’s troops were not satisfied with killing the 186 warriors of Tallussahatchee. For good measure they shot down women and babies until the ground ran vermilion. They went from house to house slashing and firing. Tallussahatchee had been a peaceful little town without any defenses whatever. One of the Indian women “had at least twenty balls blown through her,” David Crockett noted. Afterward he added, “We shot them like dogs.” The avenging of Fort Mims was crueler than the original massacre since it involved a place utterly without fortifications. Fort Mims, Red Eagle had assumed, would have protection. Not a warrior escaped from Tallussahatchee. One of the Creek houses had 45 people inside it when Coffee’s men put the torch to it. The Indians’ screams didn’t bother the soldiers; they spent the next day “eating potatoes from the cellar stewed in the oil of the Indians we had burned up the day before which had run down on them.”

A few days later, Jackson led his troops into Talladega. “We shall repeat Tallussahatchee,” he said confidently. But his ranks broke; veteran army men blamed it on draftees. Later the draftees started to mutiny. Jackson held them at bay with his rifle resting on the neck of his horse; his left arm was still useless. “I’ll shoot dead the first man who makes a move to leave!” he thundered. That ended the mutiny.

The warriors of eight Creek towns gathered in Artussee on the east bank of the Tallapoosa River, at the mouth of Calebee Creek. It was a place sacred to the Red Sticks, “beloved ground” that had been reserved for Creek war councils. Surely the magic sticks, the incantations, and the Dance of the Lakes would protect them here. But the Red Sticks hadn’t reckoned on the bizarre reinforcements which arrived to swell Jackson’s ranks. Four hundred friendly Indians, mostly Choctaws but some Creeks who opposed the Red Sticks, arrived in the care of a Jewish trader named Abraham Mordecai who had a reputation as “a queer fellow” among the Creeks. He traded his wares for ginseng root, hickory nut oil, and pelts. What the Indians didn’t know was that hickory nut oil was considered a delicacy by French epicures in New Orleans. Mordecai sold it there for many times more than what he had paid for it. Sometimes Mordecai was “amorous.” He had been charmed by a Creek squaw, wife of a Red Stick warrior, and emerged from this intrigue with a thrashing that had left him unconscious and his trading post a heap of ashes. The Red Sticks recognized Mordecai only too well when they saw him. They also recognized many of their brother Creeks who, with Jackson’s soldiers, put the torch to Artussee’s houses. This time 200 Creek Indians were burned alive; 400 of their wooden houses and outbuildings went up in smoke, and women and children and infants perished in a second avenging of Fort Mims. When the news reached Red Eagle, he led his warriors to Ecunchate, the most holy ground of all, where they believed they would truly be unconquerable. Not only would red sticks protect them, but stout fencing and a location atop a river bluff. Ecunchate symbolized the relationship of the Creeks to the earth. Its sacredness represented the sacredness of every other inch of Creek soil where Creeks hunted or tilled.

In marched the troops of Jacksa Chula Harjo. The Creeks hastily evacuated their wives and children into the sanctuary of surrounding swamps across the river. Most of the Red Sticks also were able to escape when Jackson’s cavalry failed to understand orders and charged. But the soldiers were exultant; they had the destroyer of Fort Mims, Red Eagle himself, at bay. Red Eagle, however, was too quick for them. He leaped onto his gray horse and began a wild ride along the banks of the Alabama. With Jackson’s cavalry in pursuit, horse and man flew against the wind until they reached a high bluff 15 feet above the river. Red Eagle hesitated only a moment. Then, “with a mighty bound” he and his horse pitched over the bluff to the river below, where they disappeared beneath the waves. Incredulous, Jackson’s horsemen watched horse and man rise again. Red Eagle held his horse’s mane with one hand and his rifle with the other. Ecunchate, the Holy Ground, had been reduced to smoldering rains, but Red Eagle survived. The winter of 1814 passed with Jackson on an elusive Red Eagle’s trail, while Jackson’s troops laid waste to Creek towns. Now Red Eagle was determined never to give up. Jackson had turned Indian against Indian in his determination to subjugate every red man in the United States. At the Horseshoe Bend of the Tallapoosa River, Red Eagle gathered his Red Sticks to build a breastwork of logs; assailants would be exposed to cross fire. Into the Horseshoe Bend poured the militant braves of Hillabee Town, Oefuske, Oakchoie, Eufaulahatchee, Yauca, Hickory Ground, and the Fish Pond Town, all of them waiting for Andrew Jackson who had been joined by a regiment of Cherokees from north Georgia and the Carolinas. These Cherokees believed that in the Red Sticks they were fighting renegade outlaws and that Jackson cherished their loyalty and would reward them well. It was the Cherokees who captured the Red Sticks’ canoes by stealth and took them to the other side of the river, where they were soon filled with Choctaws, Cherokees, and Americans who paddled furiously across to throw torches into the warriors’ midst at Horseshoe Bend. The breastwork went up in smoke. The defenses of the Red Sticks crumbled. The Indians died at knifeg and gunpoint, red sticks clutched in their charred hands. Most of the warriors who tried to escape by plunging into the Alabama were caught by Jackson’s men and drowned, their heads wrenched by hostile hands under the brown water. After it was all over, gunsmoke drifted above the Tallapoosa while mockingbirds sang obliviously and sunlight streamed through the vapor onto the corpses. Only 10 Red Sticks had escaped. But one of them was Red Eagle, and at the junction of the Coosa and Tallapoosa he tried heartening the other nine. It was no use. This, too, was Beloved Ground, but the demoralized Creek warriors had lost their faith in the Religion of the Dancing Lakes, in Tecumtba’s prophecies and red sticks and the blood-tingling music of war. They left Red Eagle to muse at the Beloved Ground alone.

One evening, in front of his quarters, Jackson was “accosted by an unarmed, light-colored Indian” who wore buckskin breeches and tattered moccasins.

“General Jackson?”


“I am Bill Weatherford.” Inside, Red Eagle explained why he had come to surrender to his antagonist. “I can oppose you no longer. I have done you much injury. I should have done you more, but my warriors are killed. I am in your power Dispose of me as you please.”

“You are not in my power,” Andrew Jackson answered slowly. “I had ordered you brought to me in chains, but you have come of your own accord. You see my camp. You see my arms. You know my object. If you think you can contend against me in battle go and head your warriors.”

“Ah!” Red Eagle’s smile was dry. “Well may such language be addressed to me now. There was a time”–he paused–“a time when I could have answered you. I could animate my fighters to battle, but I cannot animate the dead. General Jackson, I have nothing to request for myself, but I beg you to send for the women and children of the war party who have been driven to the woods without an ear of corn. They never did any harm. Kill me instead, if the white people want it done.”

Wordlessly Jackson offered Red Eagle a glass of brandy. The warrior drank it. “Save the wives and children of the Creeks, and I will persuade to peace any Red Sticks remaining in my nation,” he said. Deliberately, Jackson nodded. Then he extended his hand. Red Eagle took it, looked at his adversary’s craggy features for a long moment and then, bowing, departed.

With that handshake, the two principal architects of the ultimate fate of the American Indian had sealed a bargain. Red Eagle’s leadership in war had angered America. It had also convinced Andrew Jackson that America’s frontiers would always be frontiers while there were Indians to annoy the settlers. The Indians must go. They couldn’t be exterminated wholesale because of world opinion. But they could be uprooted and packed off to some remote corner of the country where they wouldn’t be in the way. This haven would belong to them, they would be told in the traditional language of America’s Indian treaties, “as long as the green grass grows and the water flows,” provided they began biking en masse with a military escort to get there. At the Horseshoe Bend of the Tallapoosa River in Alabama, Andrew Jackson silently pledged himself to the policy of Indian Removal, which in his presidency was to become law. It would be a simple law: any Indian who remained on his ancestral lands affirming his Indian identity would be a criminal. The Indians would be relocated somewhere on the West’s Great Plains. It didn’t matter that the Great Plains already had Indian inhabitants who could hardly be expected to welcome red refugees. But the government would tout as a mecca the grasslands and forested river bottoms near the Red and Arkansas and Verdigris rivers, in Red Eagle’s time an all but uncharted mystery. Not until five decades had passed did the Choctaw Indian Allen Wright give it a name–perhaps not without irony. The Choctaw word for red was houma; okla meant people. Oklahoma was Indian destiny before it graced a single map. Not an Indian alive, except those who already inhabited it, considered it Holy Ground. East of the Mississippi, Ecunchate was lost land, a lost dream, and the road that led out of it forever became the Trail of Tears.


COPYRIGHT 2002 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group