Updated: May 15, 2022
"The main question at issue between the two factions of the Creek nation was, whether they should undertake the extermination of the white settlers on their western borders."
Henry S. Halbert, The Creek War of 1813 and 1814 (1895)
Historiography is about how history is written. Trends in historiography can often be traced alongside shifts in society and changing attitudes and perspectives. In the last thirty years, in particular, historians have sought to bring back into the historical narrative, especially in American history, the roles of once marginalized groups of people such as Native Americans, Black Americans, and Latinos. The danger of writing history is portraying groups with a broad brush or with inherent bias. Even among revisionists, historians can fall victim to confining their subjects to a stereotype regardless of their intent. For example, in writing about Native American history, authors often represent Native Americans as a single, monolithic, homogeneous block of people. They all are noble savages or unwilling victims. They are ascribed similar characteristics and similar goals, especially in their relationship with European settlers. There are limited Native American perspectives within the historical record, and events are seen through mainly a white, European lens. But the past, like the present, is filled with complexity and nuance. This is true for Europeans, for Asians, and in this case, for Native Americans. Take the example of the Muscogee, known as the Creek by the English, and their eventual embroilment in the broader conflict between the United States and Great Britain.
The Creek occupied the territory that now comprises Alabama and Georgia and the western panhandle of Florida. They were considered one of the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes" along with the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, and the Seminoles. However, the Muscogee were not a single tribe, but they were a confederacy of several tribes at the time of European contact. This confederacy was a political organization rather than a cultural or ethnic unit. The tribes shared similar cultures and spoke related languages.
Though the Muscogee made up the majority of what is known as the Creek Confederacy, there were several other Native American ethnic groups from Florida and the Mississippi Delta regions. The basic unit of this political structure was the tribal town or "talwa." The talwa's were politically autonomous and maintained their own territories. Groups of people identified themselves in terms of the closest talwa rather than some larger nation or ethnic group. Due to the independence of the talwas and the diverse ethnic composition, obtaining true unity within the confederacy was challenging to achieve. Oral traditions, though, recognized foundational towns. These towns had a more significant influence in directing the affairs of the Creek.
The British, and subsequently the Americans, tended to divide the Creek into two groups. Those towns that occupied the Coosa River and the Upper Tallapoosa River were referred to as the Upper Creek. The towns in the Chattahoochee River basin and the lower Tallapoosa were known as the Lower Creek. For a century and a half, the Lower Creek towns had, through intermarriage and trade, a well-established relationship with first the Spanish and then the English in colonial Florida and Georgia. While the Lower Creek adopted more European ways, the Upper Creek towns clung to the older traditions and customs of the Muscogee. The distinct differences in the two groups became more apparent at the beginning of the 19th century.
The years following the American Revolution saw an increase in western migration. Despite resistance and help from Spanish Florida, the Creek could not hold back the encroachment of settlers into their traditional lands. In a series of treaties, they ceded a substantial amount of land to the state of Georgia. At the same time, President George Washington introduced a "civilization program" as the new American government's policy toward assimilating Native Americans. Benjamin Hawkins was made the government agent for the Southeast. Hawkins provided instruction in European-style agriculture and other domestic arts, encouraged private farms rather than communal acreage held by a town, and introduced new technologies and practices. The economy of the Lower Creek towns shifted from hunting/gathering to a more market-based one. Plantations resembling those in the coastal and tidewater areas of the South started to appear. Cotton and, in time, slavery was introduced to the region. Among the Lower Creeks, many of the younger generation were children of mixed marriages, mainly Scottish fathers and Muscogee mothers. These men became wealthy in the new type of economy. This success fueled resentment among the Upper Creeks, who still resisted assimilation.
Further division was created when Hawkins strengthened the National Council to govern the tribes. The National Council, traditionally, had little to no authority over the talwas. Hawkins redistributed power from the autonomous towns to the more central administration of the National Council. He also ensured that only sympathizers to the United States sat on the council. This was not looked upon favorably by the independent-minded talwas and traditionalists among the Creek who desired to eliminate the council. Another point of contention would be the opening of the Federal Road. The road was cleared in 1805 when the Creek agreed to have it cut through their territory. It linked Georgia with the Mississippi Territory around present-day Mobile, Alabama. In 1811, with mounting tensions with Great Britain, the U.S. government widened the road to allow for rapid movement of troops to the Gulf Coast. Many of the Creek benefited from the road by opening taverns and collecting tolls. But the road also made it easier for white settlers to migrate further into Creek lands.
There was simmering dissension among the tribes in the summer of 1811. Into this precarious situation came outside influences. That summer, the Shawnee chief Tecumseh arrived in the Creek Confederacy. Tecumseh led the Native American opposition to American expansion into the Northwest Territories. With support from the British, he had forged together an alliance of the tribes north of the Ohio River. He sought to expand the pan-Indian resistance to the tribes of the Southeast. After a lukewarm reception by the Cherokees, Choctaws, and Chickasaws, Tecumseh discovered a more receptive ear in the growing numbers of disgruntled Creek, especially in the Upper Creek towns. Any veneer of unity in the confederacy vanished upon Tecumseh's departure. He warned against taking any action until he solidified his coalition. Still, early in 1812, some of his supporters among the Creek attacked a party of white settlers traveling along the Federal Road.
Hawkins and other officials pressured the National Council to take action. The council sentenced the accused to death and sent men out to carry out the sentence. Leaders of the towns were angered by this usurpation of their traditional rights to dispense justice within the local community. This set off a series of reprisals on both sides. Attacks on settlers happened for the rest of 1812, and the National Council retaliated against them. Then news of war between the United States and Great Britain reached the backcountry along with growing fears of the U.S. government about Spanish involvement on the side of the recalcitrant tribe members. Meanwhile, the confederacy spiraled towards civil war as two factions squared off against each other.
One faction was comprised of American sympathizers. They believed that adopting European customs was the way forward for their people. They had become successful in the new market economy, were financially supported by the government, backed the central authority of the National Council, and opposed any war with the United States. The other faction was made up of those who feared that white culture was supplanting their traditional ways. They wanted a return to the local authority, and they subscribed to Tecumseh's militancy. They were called Red Sticks after the red-painted clubs that symbolized warfare.
President James Madison grew concerned that the Spanish and the British were supplying arms to the Red Sticks. At the start of 1813, he ordered first the Tennessee militia to invade the western panhandle of Florida. This plan was aborted, but then Madison ordered the militia in the Mississippi Territory to take the port of Mobile. Meanwhile, animosity between the two Creek factions intensified. The Red Sticks had garnered the support of the majority of the Creek communities. Sporadic violence escalated to open warfare as the Red Sticks targeted white settlers and Creeks who supported the National Council and the United States. It became dangerous to travel through Creek territory. Still, the governors of the neighboring states of Georgia and Tennessee could do nothing until they were granted permission by the Federal government to send in troops.
By the summer of 1813, news came that the Red Sticks were receiving weapons and ammunition from the Spanish in Florida on the recommendation of the British. Settlers in the Creek territory formed up into a local militia to intercept the Creek upon their return from Pensacola. The settlers succeeded in seizing the supplies, which made them targets of the Red Sticks. Many who lived in the remote areas fled to the apparent safety of small stockade forts scattered around the region. One of these was Fort Mims, located roughly forty miles north of Mobile. Built on the property of a local planter, Fort Mims was one of the largest of these stockade forts. The fort sheltered several hundred white and mixed-blood settlers plus a small military garrison. At the end of August, about a thousand Red Stick warriors assaulted the fort. They gained entrance to the inner yard through an open gate. Despite their best efforts, the defenders could not hold back the attacking warriors. Buildings were set ablaze, and the Red Sticks slaughtered all the inhabitants. Reports of the massacre at Fort Mims spread quickly and horrified those in the surrounding territories and states.
The massacre finally prompted the Madison administration to commit to military action in the Creek territories. The Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi Territory militias were engaged to conduct a coordinated campaign from the north, east, and west. The Tennessee militia under General Andrew Jackson took the lead in suppressing the Red Sticks. The militias harried the Red Sticks through the rest of 1813, and the two sides fought several pitched battles.
Towards the end of March 1814, Jackson cornered the bulk of the Red Stick forces at Horseshoe Bend, Alabama. Despite being entrenched behind a massive breastwork, the Red Sticks were overwhelmed by Jackson's artillery barrage and flanking maneuver across the river. Nearly 75% of the Red Stick warriors became casualties. Jackson's victory at Horseshoe Bend effectively ended the Red Stick insurgency. The future president met with the Red Stick chiefs in August and negotiated a peace treaty. As part of the treaty, the Creeks ceded to the United States over 23 million acres of land they formerly occupied. Much of this land would become the state of Alabama. The Creeks remained in the area until they were forcibly removed along with other tribes to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma in 1836.
Historians need to be mindful of how they write about their subjects. The historiography of Native American-European relations has changed over the past few decades. Native American societies, like the Creek, were not homogeneous and differing segments of those societies responded in different ways to contact with European settlers. The Creek reminds us that societies, both past and present, are complex, dynamic entities.
The Creek War 1813-1814: Richard Blackmon
A Paradise of Blood: The Creek War of 1813-1814: Howard Weir
Struggle for the Gulf Lands: The Creek War and the Battle of New Orleans: Frank Lawrence Owsley
Horseshoe Bend National Military Park, Alabama: National Park Service