The rise and fall of the Creek Confederacy

  • Themes: History

The Creek War between Native Americans and white settlers is little studied today but it left a deep mark in American history.

General Andrew Jackson taking the surrender of Chief William Weatherford after the defeat of the Creek Native Americans at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Alabama, 27 March 1814. Color engraving, 19th century.
General Andrew Jackson taking the surrender of Chief William Weatherford after the defeat of the Creek Native Americans at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Alabama, 27 March 1814. Color engraving, 19th century. Credit: The Granger Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

A Brutal Reckoning: The Creek Indians and the Epic War for the American South, Peter Cozzens, Atlantic, £25

‘No other Indian conflict in our nation’s history so changed the complexion of American society as did the Creek War,’ declares Peter Cozzens in the prologue to this book, and yet few will have heard of the Creek War of 1813-14. Even the victors, the westward-surging white Americans and their descendants, have not written much about this fascinating episode. In a probing and nuanced study, Cozzens remedies this deficiency, writing with empathy towards both sides in the conflict.

A Brutal Reckoning completes Cozzens’ trilogy of books about the Native American experience, which have been published in non-chronological order. The Earth is Weeping, about the Indian Wars of 1860-1890, was published in 2016, followed in 2020 by Tecumseh and the Prophet, about the two Shawnee brothers who led Indian resistance to white encroachment in the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley in 1812-13. These follow his five-volume series Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars, 1865-1890, and several military history titles about the American Civil War.

Perhaps as many as two million Indians lived in the American South when Hernando de Soto arrived with an army of 600 men and 100 or so camp followers in 1539; the one-sided military engagement was brief and the Spanish afterwards withdrew, but over the next three decades more than 90 per cent of the region’s Indians are reckoned to have perished from smallpox and other European viruses.

By 1670, when the English settled Charles Towne on the Carolina Coast, there were upwards of 20,000 Muscogee Indians living in a region of 84,000 square miles that extended from coastal Georgia to eastern Mississippi and from the Tennessee River in the north to Spanish Florida in the south.

The Muscogee were hemmed in by Indian tribes – the Choctaws, the Chickasaws, and the Cherokees. The Creeks, as they took to calling themselves when dealing with Europeans, were not a tribe but a confederacy of affiliated towns known as talwas and villages known as talofas, derived from around 50 matrilineal clans, located close to the fertile riverbeds of six major river systems. Although the Creek Confederacy was ‘the dominant Indian power’ in the region, argues Cozzens, it was ‘a loose assemblage of largely inward-looking towns with about as much sense of common purpose as the querulous Italian city-states of Renaissance Europe had possessed’. The talwas had public squares, designated public meeting places, and competed against one another in playing a ball game, holliicosi, which was an early form of lacrosse. Each talwa had a civic leader or micco, but matters of war were the preserve of a tustuunugee thlucco, or great warrior.

The Creeks worshipped ‘the Master of Breath’ and believed in an afterlife. Family property was owned by their women; divorce was permitted, as was polygamy; unmarried women were allowed to have sex with different men, but adultery was severely punished; and menstruating women had to shut themselves away. Creek men from individual talwas waged war against neighbouring tribes with the purpose of collecting scalps, torturing captured males to death in public, and enslaving their women and children. Until they were able to buy or steal firearms from Europeans, their most fearsome weapon was the red stick, a curved, tempered club that was painted red, with a sharp blade embedded in its outer curve. In hand-to-hand fighting it was more effective than the tomahawk. War was an annual, though seasonal activity, since most of the time Creek men were engaged in hunting and cultivating crops.

Once the Europeans arrived, however, the Creeks became slave traders, selling other Indians to white settlers for plantation and domestic work in exchange for guns and goods. Between 1670 and 1715 the Creeks traded over 20,000 Indian captives to Carolina. From this trade emerged a division between the Lower Creeks, who embraced it, and the Upper Creeks, who remained remote from it. Creeks also hunted down runaway black slaves and exchanged them for blankets and rifles. Back in Europe, a new fashion for leather goods drove Creeks to become commercial hunters for English leather manufacturers.

The Creeks quickly came to understand that three white fires burned beyond the borders of their land – the British, Spanish, and French. Following the Seven Years’ War, Britain ejected France from America and Canada, and Spain from Florida. America won independence from Britain in 1776, and France sold Louisiana to America in 1803, although Spain reclaimed Florida in 1783.

The American traders intermarried with Creek women and had métis or mixed-blood families. The Proclamation of 1763 allowed traders from Georgia to set up outposts in the Creek Confederacy, where they sold alcohol (West Indies tafia) to the Indians, who ran up debts in order to satisfy their craving. They hunted and hunted, to the detriment of the deer population and by 1773 Creek debt totalled 670,000 pounds of deerskin. The traders also introduced cattle, which competed with the deer for grass. Such was the extent of miscegenation that many métis, who were the offspring of European settlers and Creek women, took European, usually Scottish or Irish surnames.

The Creeks emerged from the American Revolution a divided and imperiled people,’ writes Cozzens. ‘To traditional inter-talwa tensions and clan jealousies, the Revolutionary War added a new and deeper layer of friction in Creek society: pro-American and pro-British factions.’ In the period between the end of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, in which Britain sought to take back its former American colonies, the new federal government pursued a policy of paternalism towards the Creeks, bribing Creek miccos with annuities in return for operating ferries, toll bridges and horse-changing posts along a postal path through Creek lands. This postal path was soon expanded by stealth to become the Federal Road, even though the Creeks had insisted in treaty negotiations that no road be permitted. Georgia needed room to expand, its population having grown from 100,000 in 1800 to 250,000 in 1810, half of which were black slaves. The opening of river commerce with Tennessee was another aggravating factor.

In 1811 the Shawnee leader Tecumseh paid a visit from the north, attending the annual National Council of the Creeks, preaching pan-Indian unity though carefully avoiding direct incitement to war against the Americans, and his followers demonstrated the ‘Dance of the Lakes’ by which they fired themselves up before battle. He left behind a prophet, Seekaboo, who spread a message of resistance to the Federal Road among Upper Creeks. Seekaboo’s disciples, who became self-styled prophets, included Josiah Francis, a middle-aged métis medicine man who owed $1,000 to a British trading company.

Those with property, especially those with cattle, plantations and black slaves, wanted peace. The young warriors, resentful of white settler intrusions and often heavily indebted, yearned for plunder. Apart from Josiah Francis, the Red Sticks were led by an Alabama métis called Paddy Walsh, a Tallassee métis farmer called Peter McQueen, Hopoithle Micco, the Abeika métis Chief Menawa, and a mulatto called Jim Boy. By the summer of 1813 these militants controlled 29 of the 34 Upper Creek talwas, but they lacked gunpowder or the skill to repair broken muskets and sent a delegation to request assistance from the Spanish governor of West Florida in Pensacola.

Believing that the British and Tecumseh’s northern Indians would ultimately come to their aid, the Red Sticks provoked a war with America by raiding and terrorizing the marshy land between the Mobile and Tensaw rivers, whose inhabitants were Creek and métis as well as white ‘slaveholders, ranchers, cotton-planters, and entrepreneurs who embraced the American-style market economy’.

The Creek War started in July 1813 following Indian atrocities. A half-hearted attack by militia on a Red Stick camp at Burnt Corn Creek was followed by the infamous Red Stick attack on the unfinished stockade at Fort Mims and the wholesale massacre of its inhabitants, which ranks as ‘the most horrific massacre of American and mixed-race settlers in U.S. history’. The death toll of the fort’s inhabitants was around 300 (half were white, a quarter métis and a quarter black) against a Red Stick death toll of around 100. Scalping women, ripping fetuses from the bellies of pregnant women, and the murder of infants were the more horrific aspects of the Red Sticks’ exterminationist mindset.

Andrew Jackson, a former U.S. Congressman, hated the Red Sticks because he saw them as potential allies of the revanchist British. His army of Tennessee Volunteers was ill-equipped and under-victualled; discipline in the ranks was fragile. Jackson faced down one group of mutineers by blocking their path and pointing out that a row of cannons was trained on them; but on another occasion the mutineers filed past him while he fulminated ineffectually. His willpower and determination, in spite of a persistently painful shoulder wound and ravaging diarrhea, were extraordinary and earned him the nickname of ‘Old Hickory’.

At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, 850 Red Stick warriors died defending a stronghold against Jackson’s army, ‘a Native death count never exceeded in the two centuries of conflict between American Indians and the expanding American republic’. Jackson’s losses were 26 soldiers killed and 107 wounded as well as 18 Cherokees killed and 36 wounded. Jackson went on to glory when an army under his command defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815.

The Red Stick leader Josiah Francis visited England from 1814-17, where he dressed in an English general’s scarlet uniform and was lionised as a true British patriot. Although he was made a brigadier-general by the Prince Regent, he was told that Britain no longer wished to fight the Americans. Back in West Florida in 1817 he gathered a following of 3,500 Indians willing to stir up trouble, but without foreign assistance his force was no match for the Americans. In a bid to escape he boarded a ship flying an English flag which turned out to be an American vessel in disguise. Once informed of his capture, Jackson ordered him to be taken ashore and hanged.

Creek territory was curtailed in a series of disastrous land cessions made by self-interested Creek micco. Some Creeks fell into alcohol-sodden poverty; others became farmers and innkeepers. Creek micco William McIntosh illegally ceded Creek land for a mess of pottage and paid the price, his dead body riddled with 50 bullets by executioners sent by the Creek National Council.

In the late 1830s, with Jackson in the White House, thousands of Creeks were forcibly removed, the men in chains, by steamboats and thereafter by forced march, to new lands in modern-day eastern Oklahoma. Many died of exhaustion, hunger, and illness along the way – the contractors who escorted them kept much of the money intended for feeding them – or were otherwise robbed by predatory white men. The Creek population, as recorded in censuses, shrank from 23,000 in 1832 to 13,500 in 1859. John Quincy Adams said their expulsion was ‘among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring them to judgment – but at His own time and by His own means’. The American Civil War and its legacy, by which the plantation economy that had replaced the Creek Confederacy was destroyed and the Deep South impoverished, might be regarded as a form of payback.

As Cozzens makes clear, the disparate nature of the Creek Confederacy, unlike that of the tribal nations, resulted in a lack of effective political leadership and coherent strategy. Nonetheless, the crushing of Creek resistance was inevitable when even an enlightened statesman such as Thomas Jefferson was as land-hungry as the most scurvy Georgia tavernkeeper.


Christopher Silvester