This year’s New Year’s Day arrived with more than a fair share of worries. Will the spread of COVID ever end and life return to normal? What will the economy do? What can be done to quell crime and violence? What do Russian saber rattling at the Ukraine border and Chinese threats against Taiwan mean? How can we heal social, racial and political wounds? As much as those issues worry people, they are nothing like the fears of people in the Tombigbee River Valley on January 1, 1814.
In late 1813 the War of 1812 was raging between the United States and England with the United States fairing rather badly. It was even feared that a British assault against Mobile was imminent and, if successful, would be followed by attacks against Natchez and New Orleans. Only four months earlier, at the end of August 1813 the Creek Indians had attacked a strongly — though ineptly defended — Ft. Mims north of Mobile, burning the fort and killing about 275 people seeking safety there. Those killed included not only soldiers but also friendly Creek Indians, and women and children. There was mounting fear across the Mississippi Territory’s countryside of more attacks by the Creek Indians and their being supplied with arms by England.
The horror of what happened at Fort Mims that August day and the fear it caused is shown in a letter written a few days after the fort’s destruction by Mississippi Territorial Judge Harry Toulmin, who lived on the lower Tombigbee: “The dreadful catastrophe, which we have been some time anticipating, has at length taken place. The Indians have broken in upon us, in numbers and fury unexampled. Our settlement is overrun, and our country, I fear, is on the eve of being depopulated.”
The critical situation across what was then the U.S. Southwest spawned a roller coaster of emotion in the fall of 1813. The Creeks had destroyed Ft. Mims, but Andrew Jackson was leading the Tennessee Militia south to confront the Creeks. General Floyd was attacking the Creeks from Georgia and General Claiborne was coming from the south with U.S. Army regulars and the Mississippi Territorial Militia. Jackson’s army, though victorious in battle, was low on supplies. Many soldiers had only enlisted for short terms and would soon be going home. In addition, there had been uncertainty as to what the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indian Nations would do.
On September 14, 1813, Judge Toulmin, wrote to James Madison; “To defend the country is impossible with the force existing here, which is daily diminishing by the expiration of the volunteers’ terms of service… and where to flee to for safety to our helpless families; I have no idea… Would to heaven that there was any one among us authorized to prevent the Choctaws from falling into the snares of the enemy; and who coul’d in the name of the Government invite them to come forward for our protection!”
Also in mid-September, U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Bowyer reported, “The Hostile Creeks expect a large support from all the Southern Indians, as well as those living to the west of the Mississippi.”
The answer to many prayers came in the form of John Pitchlynn, the U.S. interpreter to the Choctaw Nation who resided at Plymouth Bluff (Stennis/Columbus Lock and Dam West Bank), George Gaines, Choctaw Factor, Col. John McKee, the “confidential agent” of Tennessee Governor Blount and especially the chiefs and leaders of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations. Pushmataha, the most prominent of the Choctaw chiefs, was much the friend of the United States, but a few of the Choctaws were wavering. Pitchlynn, Gaines and McKee were trusted and liked by both the Choctaws and Chickasaws.
Col. McKee, with a detachment of 20 soldiers under Capt. George Smith, was dispatched by Governor Blount to Pitchlynn’s to meet with the Choctaw leaders. On Oct. 19, 1813, a meeting commenced at Pitchlynn’s Plymouth Bluff residence between Pitchlynn, McKee and a number of chiefs and leaders of the Choctaw Nation. The Choctaws pledged their support to the United States and declared war on the Creeks. The Chickasaw Nation then centered around present-day Tupelo also pledged its support to the U.S. It was decided that in January 1814 a combined Choctaw and Chickasaw force would attack the Creek village at the Falls of the Warrior (Tuscaloosa).
Operations with the Chickasaws and northern Choctaws would be under McKee with the warriors assembling at Pitchlynn’s. Gaines would take charge of assembling the Choctaws from the nation’s southern villages. At the Chickasaw Indian Agency, a log blockhouse was constructed for protection and the Chickasaw Nation prepared to join the fight against their long time adversaries, the Creeks. On Oct. 24 McKee left Pitchlynn’s with a guard of 50 Choctaw warriors to obtain supplies for the Choctaw troops from St. Stephens on the lower Tombigbee. Captain Smith and his men remained behind to guard Pitchlynn’s fortified residence which became known as Ft. Smith.
However, after the good news of the Choctaw and Chickasaw alliance with the United States there was bad news. In late November 1813, Col. Bowyer at Mobile and Col. John McKee with the Choctaws reported they had received word of a large British force about to land at Pensacola and attack the Mobile area.
As the new year of 1814 broke the British did not appear and two forces totaling about 700 Choctaw and Chickasaw warriors invaded the Creek Indian Nation from the west in support of the United States military efforts. A dark cloud of worry was lifted from the Tombigbee Valley. On January 28, 1814, William Cocke wrote his old friend Thomas Jefferson describing Andrew Jackson’s military operations against the Creeks. (Cocke settled at the site of Columbus between June 1818 and June 1819, building his house where the Tennessee Williams home now sits.) His letter, now in the National Archives, stated:
“In my last I promised to advise you of the Occurences that might take place in the Southern Expedition against the hostile Creeks on the 22nd Instant we had two engagements near the E Muckfaw & another on the 24th at the hilabies or Enochepoo…The enemy have been Confounded and defeated.”
By the end of January 1814, English invasion was still a threat, but the far more frightening threat of Creek attack was greatly diminished. Choctaw and Chickasaw warriors were serving and fighting alongside U.S. regular army soldiers and their chiefs held the rank of Lt. Colonels in U.S. service.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]