Ask Rufus: New Year's Day 1814

December 28, 2013 8:26:27 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


This New Year's Day arrives with a fair share of concerns: What will the Affordable Care Act do to health care? Will the economy improve? Will there ever be peace in the Middle East? As much as those issues worry people, they are nothing like the fears of people in the Tombigbee River Valley 200 years ago on January 1, 1814. 


Only four months earlier, at the end of August, 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 women and children. The War of 1812 was then raging with England and the United States was fairing rather badly. There was also mounting fear across the Mississippi Territory's countryside of attacks by the Creek Indians. It was even feared that a British assault against Mobile was imminent and, if successful, would be followed by attacks against Natchez or New Orleans.  


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 was uncertainty as to what the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians would do. 


On September 14, 1813, Mississippi Territorial Judge Harry Toulmin, who lived on the lower Tombigbee, 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 four people. There was John Pitchlynn, the U.S. interpreter to the Choctaw Nation, Pushmataha, the great Medal Chief of the Choctaws, George Gaines, Choctaw Factor and Col. John McKee, the "confidential agent" of Tennessee Governor Blount. Pushmataha 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 twenty 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. It was also decided that in January a combined Choctaw and Chickasaw force would attack the Creek village at the Falls of the Warrior. 


Operations with the Chickasaws and northern Choctaws would be under McKee while Gaines would take charge of assembling the Choctaws from the nation's southern villages. 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 was named Ft. Smith.  


However, after the good news of the Choctaw-Chickasaw alliance with the United States there was more 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. Word was dispatched to the Chickasaw Agency (in present day Pontotoc County), and from there Oliver Livingston "rode express" to Nashville with the report. 


As the new year 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 had lifted from the Tombigbee Valley. 


As is often the case when writing, while checking some information for this article, I got side tracked by some transcriptions of letters between two "old friends." The letters are in the National Archives and were between William Cocke, an early settler in Columbus, and Thomas Jefferson. One from January 1814, was describing the state of the Creek conflict to his "old friend" while another from 1825 commented on Jefferson's interest in education and told how the academy in Columbus (Franklin) had "60 scholars." If you dig deep enough, you never know what you might stumble on. 


Rufus Ward is a local historian. Email your questions about local history to him at [email protected]

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]