Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Battle of Horseshoe Bend: Hidden Gem in the Story of Saga of the American West

Today the approach to the site does not seem significant. It is tucked away in a typical rural, agricultural Southern landscape. There are scattered houses and trailers among the pines on a two lane black top Alabama road. A local fire station I passed was conducting a fund raiser barbeque when I visited the site back in the late 1990’s. The National Park was quite. It was a hot, sleepy summer afternoon. I think Karen and I were the only visitors at the time. The field of battle is just that - a field. It is not very impressive, and yet, this place was one of those places which continued the saga of the American West . The events here moved populations and changed fortunes. The events set Americans even more in motion and even more on a westward march.

The Red Sticks were a part of the Upper Creek nation in Alabama who had been inspired by the teachings of Tecumseh. This Shawnee prophet had travelled around to various native groups seeking Native American unity in order to stand up to the destructive forces of European culture and settlement. He preached the doctrine of maintaining traditional Native American ways and holding onto Native American lands. Both ideas resonated with many Native Americans but lacking any ally to achieve such goals against the technological and demographically superior numbers of European-Americans seemed impossible. That is, until the War of 1812 broke out. The British made overtures to Native Americans and offered hope in achieving Tecumseh’s program. The British talked about preserving Native American lands and holding off the tide of American expansion. Tecumseh was a staunch British ally and called for others to support his position against the Americans. A large part of the Upper Creek nation joined him and became known as the Red Sticks because of their red painted war clubs.

The Red Stick faction sought supplies and arms from the Spanish in Florida to fight for their own as well as British aims. Raids by American militia men to stop this alliance touched off the short lived Creek War of 1813-1814. In retaliation for a deadly raid against warriors returning with supplies and arms from Pensacola, Florida, the Creeks sweep down on Fort Mims near Mobile, Alabama. They killed many men as well as women and children who had sought safety in this American frontier fort. Over a hundred more were taken as hostages. These events shook the old Southwestern frontier. In response militia men from Tennessee, Georgia, and the Mississippi Territory launched an attack on the Red Sticks. The governor of Tennessee appointed South Carolina’s own backswoods man Andrew Jackson, who had moved to Tennessee as a young man, as commander of the West Tennessee militia and he was sent to deal with the threat. In the following months Jackson fought a hard winter campaign against the Red Sticks in the trackless woods of frontier Alabama.

Meanwhile, the Creeks gathered and readied their forces at a bend of the Tallapoosa River in east central Alabama. This bend formed a meandering horseshoe shaped peninsular with a slight rise running down the peninsular’s center. Over 1,350 Creek men, women, and children gathered here looking for protection and shelter. 1000 Red Stick warriors prepared to defend this site if attacked. When Jackson heard about it from his scouts he aggressively marched toward the site. 2,600 European Americans and another 600 friendly Native Americans (Choctaw, Cherokee, and even dissenting Creeks) made up Jackson’s force.

The Battle of Horseshoe Bend took place on March 27, 1814. Jackson started with an artillery barrage on the Red Sticks position which was on the rise behind a hastily constructed wooden breastworks made of logs and trees. The barrage was followed by a bayonet charge against the breastworks. Sam Houston, future governor of both Tennessee and Texas, as well as future president of the Lone Star Republic served as a third lieutenant under Andrew Jackson. He made the charge and was one of the first men to get over the barricade. In the process he received an arrow wound which would trouble him for the rest of his life. But he made it over and hundred more soon followed. The battle was fierce and lasted over five hours. Eventually Jackson’s men came to gain the field. 550 Red Sticks were killed on the field. Another 250 were killed trying to escape in the river. About 200 did escape over to the other side of the river and moved south to look for refuge with the Seminole Indians in Florida. Only about 50 of Jackson’s men had been killed.

The victory was significant for a couple of reasons. In August, 1814 Jackson and chiefs from the Creek nation signed the Treaty of Fort Jackson. The Creeks ceded 23 million acres of land (half of the state of Alabama as well as significant parts of southern Georgia) to the United States government. This in turned opened these lands up to settlement as the Creeks were pushed further and further West and in their place came hordes of American settlers. These same scenes would be repeated on frontier after frontier in America as Native American were dispossessed and their lands became available for settlement. In Alabama and Georgia the population of 9,000 Americans in 1810 grew to 310,000 Americans in 1830. Many of these new settlers came from the South, including South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and older portions of Georgia. They moved from lands made unproductive by decades of cotton farming into new virgin lands just ripe for this crop. They brought cotton culture and slavery to this area of the new Southwest. What was left of the Creeks were first pushed into Western Arkansas and Tennessee and then were eventually moved even further west to Oklahoma during the period of Indian removal. Andrew Jackson initiated this mass movement of Native Americans including the infamous Cherokee Trail of Tears to make the lands on the east side of the Mississippi “safe” for white Americans and their slaves. Some of these men would latter follow the Creeks and other Native Americans even further West seeking new lands and new fortunes.

The other significance of the battle was the fame that Andrew Jackson received from this victory as well as his more famous victory in New Orleans. This fame would help to catapult him to the United States presidency in 1728. Jackson’s youth on the South Carolina frontier, and then later the Tennessee frontier, and beyond shaped his views of Native Americans and his policies of Indian removal. The old lands of the Southwest were swiftly transformed into the new lands of the South when the Creeks and other tribes were removed. Cotton and slavery made fortunes for those who settled them. Because of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Alabama and southern Georgia were reshaped into the image of the older coastal South. This set the stage for future transformations in the lands to the West of this as settlers continued to push further and further in that direction. Today the battlefield of Horseshoe Bend looks like a big grass field. The secret of its significance to American, Southern, and Western history, however, is currently in the commonplace of its familiar Southern countryside. This landscape was set in place by the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. The “new world” created by this battle led eventually to the further expansion and settlement of newly opened lands West of the bend in the Tallapoosa River. Southern history blended into Western history. That’s the secret of this big field of grass.

Andy Thomas

Sources Used to Write This Blog:

The Battle of Horseshoe Bend: Collision of Cultures, by Virginia Horak, Teaching with Historic Places: the National Park Service at: http://www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/54horseshoe/54about.htm

Battle of Horseshoe Bend, by Ove Jensen, Encyclopedia of Alabama at: http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1044

Battle of Horseshoe Bend on U-S-History.com at: http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1128.html

Battle of Horseshoe Bend (1814) on Wikipedia at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Horseshoe_Bend

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Original Maverick

Sam Maverick.
Sam Maverick was the original “maverick.” His name would come to embrace the name of a Texas county, unbranded cattle, and free-thinking individuals. He would help in the creation of the Texas Republic, its annexation by the United States, and would become one of the largest land owners in Texas in the 1850’s and 1860’s. Maverick was born in 1803, the year that the Lewis and Clark expedition set out from St. Louis to find an all-water route to the Pacific. His birthplace was in Pendleton, South Carolina in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains near today’s Clemson University. His father was a successful land speculator acquiring lands in South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. Sam spent his early years growing up in Charleston and Pendleton. In 1822 he enrolled in college at Yale. He graduated four years later in 1825 and moved back to Pendleton to help his father in the family business.

He was very good at handling land deals and sometime after he began to help his father he decided to become a lawyer. He moved to Virginia for several years as he pursued a law degree. He returned to South Carolina in 1829 and became a lawyer. He ran for office in the South Carolina legislature in 1830 but was soundly defeated because of his anti-secession and anti-nullification views. He certainly was a lone wolf in trying to convince his constituents that South Carolina was better off in the Union. Because of his political views and his desire to acquire a land empire like his father had done, he left South Carolina in 1833. After living briefly in Georgia and Alabama he set off for the far western frontier and arrived in San Antonio, Texas in September 1835.

Detail of a mural in the museum at Gonzales, Texas. Photograph by J. Williams (Jul. 6, 2003).
Sam Maverick arrived with lots of other Americans just as the Texas Revolution was heating up. Because of the number of Americans arriving in this important city and the rumors of Rebels outside, the Mexican authorities cracked down and placed many, including Maverick, under house arrest. Mexican military forces began to concentrate in the city. Outside of San Antonio de Bexar, Texas volunteers began to gather under Stephen F. Austin. Shortly afterwards, San Antonio was put under siege by this rebel Texas army. During his months in captivity, Sam was able to study the layout and defenses of the Mexican forces from his house prison. In December 1835, the city under siege, Maverick was released along with other Americans with the promise they would not participate in the fighting and would go straight back to America. Sam, however, had other ideas. He went to the Texas volunteers’ camp and reported all that he had seen. Impressed with his knowledge he was picked to command a force to take the city. The Texas forces were successful and were able to take the city of San Antonio, including the mission of the Alamo in December 1835. This set the scene for the Battle of the Alamo in March, 1836. Many of the men who had wrested the city from Mexican control would face a larger Mexican force attempting to reassert control.

Sam Maverick was so well liked and had helped so much in the taking of San Antonio that he was elected as one of two delegates by the Alamo garrison to attend the Texas Independence Convention at Washington on the Brazos on March 1, 1836. Later, he would write that attending the convention saved his life. It was during this time that the siege of the Alamo took place and he speculated that he would have been with the defenders if he had not gone to Washington on the Brazos to meet about Texas Independence. At Washington on the Brazos, Maverick signed the Texas Independence document, one of 4 South Carolinians to do so. Soon afterwards he heard of the fate of the men defending the Alamo. He then rode back to South Carolina to assure his family that he was alive and well, fearing the mail would not outrace the news of the Alamo massacre. He also had some business to take care of for his father. On his way through Alabama he met, fell and love, and then married Mary Ann Adams. The couple returned to San Antonio and set up a home in 1838. Here Maverick became a lawyer and began to once again turn to land speculation. He also began to serve in the Texas legislature. He argued strongly that Texas should become an American state and was instrumental in making that occur. Afterwards he would serve in the state legislature from 1851-63. He also served two terms as the mayor of San Antonio. He began to acquire thousands of acres of land during this time. In the 1850’s and 1860’s he was one of biggest land barons in the state of Texas. By his death in 1870, he owned more than 300,000 acres of land. Most of his holdings were in West Texas. Maverick County in West Texas is today named in honor of him.

"The Reading of the Texas Declaration of Independence" Charles and Fanny Norman, Star of the Republic Museum, Washington, Texas

It was during this time that the term “maverick” came into use. Sam had accepted some cattle in payment for debts. He was not really a rancher but he ran these cattle on his lands. He let the cattle roam free on the open grasslands where most were unbranded until others branded them. It wasn’t long before Cowboys and others began referring to any stray, unbranded cows as mavericks. In addition, his friends used the term to refer to his independent, free-thinking stance. This mantle came to be used on others who seemed to have Sam Maverick’s traits which included reluctance to go along with the crowd, a stance of dissent from the dictates of larger group or causes, and a passionate sense of independence.

Maverick, being maverick, opposed succession but seeing that he was once again outnumbered, he relented and supported the Confederate cause. During the war he served on the Texas Succession Convention and as the Chief Justice of Bexar County. After the Civil War he was pardoned and worked against the radical Republican regime of Reconstruction. His health began to decline during these years and he passed away in 1870 after a brief illness. The term maverick has a real connection to the American West and frontier and the people who lived there. Sam Maverick stands tall as an enduring symbol of freedom, independence, and fearless belief in standing for what one believes in.

Andy Thomas

Sources used to write this blog:
Marks, Paula Mitchell. “Samuel Augustus Maverick.” The Handbook of Texas Online. August 23, 2007: http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/MM/fma84.html

Andrew Gill: “Bexar County Judge Samuel Augustus Maverick.”

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Juan Pardo & the Road to Mexico (Part 3)

This is part 3 of a 3 part blog on the Juan Pardo expeditions. Scroll down to see parts 1 and 2.

Conquistador and scribe Francisco Martinez recorded the start of the 1566 expedition. “From the city of Santa Elena Captain Juan Pardo started on the first day of November in the year 1566, to penetrate into the interior to make it known and conquer it from here to Mexico . . .” The day that Martinez recorded as the start of the expedition was a month too early. The day Juan Pardo and his 150 conquistadors and unknown numbers of Native American porters set off from Fort San Felipe on Parris Island was on or near St. Andrews Day which is usually celebrated on the Sunday nearest November 30th. Martinez certainly meant December 1, 1566 when he recorded the first day of November.

Nonetheless, 150 Spanish trekked into the Carolina wilderness. A 1578 report from Santa Elena indicates that ordinary soldiers in La Florida carried not only swords, daggers, and crossbows but early guns known as harquebuses with powder flasks and bullets. They wore quilted linen tunics known as escaupiles. These garments only marginally protected soldiers from arrows. The main reason they were chosen was because they were not as bulky or as uncomfortable to wear in hot weather as Spanish armor. No doubt, the men on Pardo’s expeditions were fitted in these garments and carried with them various armaments. In addition to extra boots and shoes, Pardo’s men also took along fiber sandals for comfort and practicality. Accompanying the Spaniards were large war dogs. These dogs had been trained to attack humans and were meant to be an intimidating presence to Native Americans who encountered them. Trade goods including beads, textiles, and axes were also carried along by the expedition. Although little could be spared, Pardo’s men carried small provisions of wine, cheese, and biscuits from Fort San Felipe’s dwindling stores.

Map from Walter Edgar's South Carolina: A History
It must have been an odd site to the Native Americans as the Spaniards made their way from the coast in the bright sunshine and cool air of the winter of 1566. Loud and colorful with the red on white flags of the Burgundy Cross before them and their drums beating, they entered the unmapped frontier. On the second expedition in 1567 the scribe Bandera is told by Pardo that there is nothing to record of the villages forty leagues from Santa Elena because "the land is rough and full of swamps and Indians already subject and obedient" to the Spanish. However, we can follow the 1569 Bandera chronicle by the same scribe, whose notes from the 1566 expedition were reworked into a chronicle several years after this march, for the trip northward from Santa Elena. Their first stop, based on the assumption that Pardo followed the same trail on both his first and second expeditions (and we have no reason to think he did not) was the village of Uscamacu. Uscamacu sat on an island surrounded by rivers. It was “a sandy place of very good clay for cooking pots and tiles and other things that might be necessary.” Historian Charles Hudson who has extensively studied the routes of the Pardo expeditions believes that this village may have been located at the northern tip of St. Helena Island.

The march continued from here. Pardo proceeded north by northwest following a Native American trail near the Coosawhatchie River. He went in this direction rather than west toward New Spain because native guides probably told Pardo he could find sizable villages and supplies of food for his men. The next stop was the village of Ahoya. On his second expedition in 1567, Pardo would make an auto de fe or a Spanish act of faith in Ahoya. This was possibly a religious speech to the natives. It was noted that Ahoya was an island surrounded by rivers and suitable corn, grapes, and stocks. This village was probably located near Pocataligo or Yemassee. Next, Pardo’s men came upon a small village subject to Ahoya named Ahoyabe. It is placed by Hudson near today’s Cummings or even further north near Hampton. The trail now closely followed the black, oily flow of the Coosawhatchie River.

Since leaving the coast Pardo’s party had encountered only small villages and few natives. But the next village encountered was Cozoa. This village was close to the headwaters of the Coosawhatchie River and was probably near Brunson or Fairfax. Cozoa is also probably the namesake for the Coosawhatchie River. Here the waters of the river become more palatable as they flowed swiftly over the Aiken Plateau. It was also here that small pebbles were first encountered instead of the more sandy ground of the South Carolina coastal plain. The chief of this large village had much land. There were many plots of land, “where can be cultivated corn, wheat, barley, vineyards, fruit orchards” by “the rivers and sweet water brooks.” It was a “land good for everything.” Pardo continued to follow the Coosawhatchie River to its headwaters and then he turned northeast. On the way he encountered a tributary town of Cozao that was unnamed. This town was probably on the Little Salkehatchie River near today’s Ulmers in Allendale County. At a point nearly forty leagues from Santa Elena, the Spanish scribe Guiomez would write that, “The road that he followed, was somewhat difficult, but land that can be cultimvated the same as Cozao and even better. There are some large and shallow swamps but this is caused by the flatness of the land.”

Painting from National Geographic, March 1988

Eventually Pardo continued to march east and then turned north and west. He would in time make his way to the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. Along the way, following his orders for establishing the road to New Spain, he hastily built some forts and left small garrisons of men in each. At this point he received orders from Santa Elena to return immediately to help defend Fort San Felipe against the French. French corsairs had been sighted off the coast. So he retraced his route and in four months time he was right back where he had started on March 7, 1567. The French threat never materialized. Martinez, the Spanish soldier who recorded the first expedition wrote of the lands that he encountered that, “It is good in itself for bread and wine and all kinds of cattle raising because it is flat country with many rivers of fresh water and many groves where there are nuts and blackberries and medlars (persimmons) and liquid amber and many other kinds of groves. It is also a land for much hunting not only deer but hare and rabbit and birds and bear and lions (panthers).”

Pardo, known as the “valiant Captain from Asturias” set out with 120 men on his second expedition on September 1, 1567. He was to resupply and relieve the garrisons in the backcountry, and continue his quest for a path to New Spain. He followed the same path into the interior and then back as the first expedition. This time Pardo was ordered to have each chief he encountered to swear obedience to the Spanish king Phillip II and to Menendez in the presence of a notary and to agree to play tribute to the Spanish. Each major town had to build a storehouse to be stocked with maize, salt, and deer meat to supply the Spaniards on the coast. He distributed presents to Native American leaders along the way hoping to further bring them into amity with the Spaniards.

Pardo supplied the small forts in the backcountry. The forts are never mentioned again. They probably became the casualty of attacks by Native Americans who destroyed them sometime very soon after Pardo’s last foray into this region. Pardo began to realize that the distance to New Spain was considerably more than anyone until that time had imagined. Realizing this, Pardo then began his trek home collecting as much foodstuffs as he could. He and his men foreswore corn and meat for other exotic Native American foods. They saved the corn for the men at Santa Elena and sent it ahead of them as they retraced their path to the coast. They ate deer meat, acorns, and roots supplied to them by the Indians. The Native Americans ate wild roots call batatas by the Spanish. It is known today as the American Groundnut and it is distinct but very similar to today’s sweet potatoes. At the large village of Cozoa, in accordance to Spanish wishes, the Native Americans had built a corncrib on posts high above the ground to protect it from pests and other animals. Pardo arrived there on February 16th and picked up 60 additional bushels of corn that were loaded into baskets and deerskins to be toted to the coast. Pardo and his men arrived back in Santa Elena on March 2, 1568. Only one man was lost in the two daring expeditions. The forts in the backcountry would disappear but it seems that Pardo’s leadership in unknown territory on the march was focused on the care of his men. To have only lost one man on these marches into unknown territory was a great achievement for this leader.

Painting from National Geographic, March 1988

Pardo returned to soldiering in the settlement of Santa Elena. In its heyday Santa Elena was a small farming community larger than St. Augustine. Corn, wheat, oats, pumpkins, chickpeans, beans, sugarcane and peaches were finally cultivated there with better agricultural practices. Cows, horses, pigs, sheep, and goats were raised. In 1576, however, Fort San Felipe was attacked by angry Native Americans and burned. It seems they had enough of Spanish conquistadors lording it over them. Although a subsequent fort was build, relations continued to be shaky with the Native Americans and the growth of the Spanish enclave at St. Augustine led Menendez and the Spanish to abandon Santa Elena in August 1587. The Spanish claims to the region would remain however until the 1670 settlement of the Carolina colony in a place that would become known as Charles Town. After that the frontier would tip into the hands of the English and for many the Spanish age would be forgotten.

Juan Pardo’s two expeditions had failed to forge a route to Mexico. However, these expeditions had accomplished many other things. They expanded the geographical knowledge of Europeans about North America. They also, through oaths, trade goods, and intimidation of the Native Americans solidified Spain’s claims to this region for many years to come. They relieved immediate pressure of starvation for the settlement at Santa Elena and established friendly relations with some Native Americans who lived in the interior. They also left for us a tantalizing, if incomplete record about the Native Americans and Spanish explorers interacting in the area that would one day be known as South Carolina.

Andy Thomas

Works I consulted to write this blog:

Charles Hudson: The Juan Pardo Expeditions: Exploration of the Carolinas and Tennessee, 1566-1568

Rowland, Moore, and Rogers: The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina: 1514-1861

Lawrence S. Rowland: Window on the Atlantic: The Rise and Fall of Santa Elena, South Carolina's Spanish City

Walter Edgar: South Carolina: A History

DePratter, Hudson, and Smith: Juan Pardo's Explorations in the Interior Southeast,1566-1568. The Florida Historical Quarterly 62:125-158, 1983

Paul Hoffman: A New Andalucia and a Way to the Orient: The American Southeast During the Sixteenth Century

Juan Pardo & the Road to Mexico (Part 2)

This is part 2 of a 3 part blog on the Juan Pardo Expeditions. (Scroll down to see part 1)

In the summer of 1566 two Spanish men of war, the San Salvadore and the Zebeita, dropped their anchors in Port Royal Sound. Captain Juan Pardo and two hundred and fifty soldiers and another fifty hopeful settlers were on board these vessels. They disembarked on a small sub tropical island known today as Parris Island. This island had overarching live oaks grown thick with gray moss, exotic palmetto trees, and expansive saltwater marshes. Animals such as the white-tailed deer, the opossum, the raccoon, and the alligator roamed the island and the surrounding mainland. Native American peoples lived in the dark, mysterious forests on the horizon. An earthen fort had been built on the island’s southern end overlooking the usually untroubled waters of the great sound. This fort was surrounded by a rough wooden palisade of stakes and defended by several small bronze cannons. The Spanish had named this bastion Fort San Felipe. Twenty-seven hardened soldiers who awaited a suspected counterattack of French corsairs manned the fort. They were all that remained of Menendez’s original complement of one hundred and ten men that he had sent to build and maintain this outpost. Munity and numerous desertions had taken their toll. These twenty seven men had, no doubt, fought off heat, humidity, mosquitoes, and starvation. The new arrivals were welcomed along with their food and other needed supplies. They had been sent north by Menendez from his newly established settlement at St. Augustine. Fears over inadequate provisions at St. Augustine and freshly arrived soldiers and settlers from Spain prompted Menendez to disperse his forces. In addition, the need to reinforce the fledgling outpost at Santa Elena had necessitated this move. Menendez had imperial dreams for Santa Elena.

Food shortages continued to plague those early Spanish colonizers. The men first deployed at Santa Elena had failed to produce sufficient crops for the outpost in the low, sandy soil that surrounded the fort. Tidal inundations and wild animals had further diminished these crops. Resupply by Spanish ships sailing along the coast was haphazard and inadequate to meet the need. Short of their own supplies they had relied on trade and benevolence of neighboring Native Americans for their food. By the fall of 1566 this situation had once again grown serious as the provisions brought by the new arrivals that summer were quickly consumed. In order to relieve this problem and for other personal and nationalistic reasons Menendez, who arrived at Santa Elena that fall, decided to dispatch Captain Juan Pardo and a large force of his soldiers to the interior. These conquistadors were to obtain food on the march. In addition to feeding themselves, they were instructed to gather and send provisions to Fort San Felipe. Presumably they would do both by hunting, gathering, and forging in New World forests and trading, soliciting oaths of loyalty, and intimidating Native Americans they encountered on their march. These oaths of loyalty to Phillip II and Menendez were to be cemented by token gifts given to Native American leaders on the Spanish side and large supplies of food given to the Spanish on the Native American side. The Spanish still subscribed to the hierarchal and reciprocal system of feudalism that had dominated the Middle Ages in Spain and Europe and they hoped to use it to their advantage in dealing with Native Americans in the New World.

The practical necessity for such an expedition was heightened by Menendez’s sense of duty and his own political and economic ambitions. Santa Elena was to provide not only protection for the Spanish treasure fleets but was to be a base for future Spanish settlement and expansion in North America. Menendez had declared Santa Elena as the capitol of the province of La Florida in August 1566. He expected this outpost to grow considerably in the years to follow because of what he perceived as its strategic and economic position. Menendez, like other Spanish conquistadors, dreamed of New World riches and empires. He instructed Captain Pardo as he went along to keep an eye out for gold, silver, and other sources of mineral wealth that he may encounter. But more importantly, he instructed Pardo to establish an overland route to New Spain (Mexico).

Mule caravans burdened with silver from the rich Zacatecas and San Martin mines in central New Spain plodded many dusty miles overland to the port of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico. Here, the newly mined bars of silver were loaded on galleons that sailed north to Cuba and then onward to Spain. Menendez and other high ranking Spaniards believed this was a drawn out process and that it could be shortened and made safer. The mule caravans could be driven to Santa Elena to meet the treasure galleons. The galleons would then miss many of the deadly seasonal hurricanes in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, entirely bypass the haunts of numerous pirates, and be reasonably secured from the attacks of other countries whose navies lurked in the Caribbean. Menendez hoped that the settlement at Santa Elena would become rich and powerful controlling the outward flow of New World Spanish silver.

Captain Pardo’s orders included establishing forts along the way to New Spain and using them to keep this new overland route open. Trade goods, oaths of loyalty, and intimidation were to be employed to secure future provisions for the fort at Santa Elena and any Spanish soldiers who may be posted along the new route. Menendez ordered Pardo, “to see that they (Native Americans) became subject to His Holiness and His Majesty.” Pardo’s expeditions were to lay claim to a vast interior colony in the name of the kingdom of Spain, for the care of the Catholic Church, and for the honor and glory of his supporter: Menendez. Of course, Europeans at this time did not have a firm grasp of geographical knowledge about the North American continent and did not know how far it was to New Spain. Menendez thought New Spain was only 790 to 910 miles away. He expected that Pardo would make a trip there and back in only six months. Both Pardo expeditions discovered that the geographic reality was many more hundreds of miles away. In light of that, the expeditions led by Pardo, traveled no further west than the gentle, blue ridges of the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Andy Thomas

Bibliographic references of works used to prepare this blog will be presented in the last part of this blog.

Juan Pardo & the Road to Mexico (Part 1)

This is part 1 of a 3 part blog on the Juan Pardo Expeditions.

In 1569, writing several years after the fact, the Spaniard Joan de la Vandera recorded the names of Native American villages and the potential bounty of agricultural lands he had encountered on Juan Pardo’s expeditions through what is today known as South Carolina’s Low Country. In his travels through the area that is Allendale and Hampton counties he would later note places like the village of Ahoya. Here, he wrote that, “land suitable for corn and also many grape stocks and many shoots” was found. At the larger village of Cozao he wrote that the land was suitable to cultivate, “corn, wheat, barley, vineyards, and all kinds of fruit and orchards, because there are rivers and sweet water brooks and land good for everything.”

The two Spanish expeditions led by Juan Pardo between 1566-67 and 1567-68 explored, documented, and reaffirmed Spain’s claims to this “land good for everything.” Not as large or as celebrated as the earlier Hernando De Soto expedition, Pardo’s expeditions succeeded in the practical but failed in the visionary. Beyond that, Pardo’s marches helped the Spanish to fill in missing geographical knowledge about the North American continent and solidified their claims to the region they called La Florida. The Vandera document and others kept about the expeditions provide some of the earliest accounts of the New World. They give us a colorful snapshot of what South Carolina was like during the European exploration and discovery period, how Native Americans lived, and how the first Europeans perceived the land and interacted with the natives. They also remind us about the area’s rich and diverse history. English settlers are usually associated with the early history of the region. However, the more ancient Native American and Spanish claims to this area were to remain in place until the English, with the founding of the Carolina colony in 1670, usurped them. Essentially, the area encompassing today’s present South Carolina, for a period of about one hundred and fifty years, was claimed as part of the kingdom of Spain.

Beginning in the 1520’s the Spanish attempted to explore, establish outposts, and settle lands that had primarily been scouted from the masthead of Spanish ships as they made their way along the south Atlantic American coast. This region of discovery, which presently encompassed the state of Florida and much of today’s Southeast was eventually named La Florida by Ponce de Leon during his ill-fated attempt to found a settlement there in 1521. A prominent headland was later spotted along this coast during a reconnoitering expedition in 1525. This headland was north of Ponce de Leon’s landfall and it became a mariner’s landmark known as La Punta de Santa Elena (The Point of Santa Elena) because its discovery was made on the feast day of Saint Helena: May 18th. The landmark, whose identification is not clear today, was probably Tybee Island that sits at the mouth of the Savannah River. La Punta de Santa Elena provided a geographical reference point for early European explorers and led to the subsequent discovery of the large, majestic sound to the north of it that is today known by its French name as Port Royal Sound. This sound is the deepest and most attractive anchorage along the south Atlantic coast. During the 1500’s and 1600’s the Spanish called the sound and surrounding lands Santa Elena after the nearby headland.

Santa Elena acquired strategic importance as the rivalry between the Spanish and the French grew to encompass the New World. The Spanish had grown wealthy on their exploitation of the Americas. Spanish treasure galleons loaded with gold and silver from Mexico and Peru gathered together in great fleets and sailed north from the Caribbean to catch the trade winds off the south Atlantic coast. These winds, acquired somewhere between Jacksonville, Florida and Wilmington, North Carolina, provided a quick and sure route back to Spain. Therefore, alarms were raised in 1563 when news arrived at the Spanish court that Protestant French Huguenots led by Jean Ribaut had built a small fort on an island in Port Royal Sound. Although this outpost proved a failure and was abandoned and burned within several months time, the French then moved south to build another fort on the Saint Mary’s River near present-day Jacksonville, Florida. This occupation of lands claimed by Spain in an area sensitive to Spanish interests set in motion a plan to protect and settle La Florida. It was hoped this would prevent unwelcome enemy fortifications there and discourage pirates and marauders who could use these coasts as basses to harass and pillage the Spanish treasure fleets. In addition, Protestant settlers in the New World who might recruit Native American allies were anathema to Catholic Spain in an age of religious strife. Immediate plans were made to eliminate this serious threat to Spanish economic security and to uphold the interests of the Catholic Church.

Pedro Menendez de Aviles was the man chosen by the Spanish monarch, Phillip II, to evict the French and lay a more strenuous claim to these lands. Menendez was a nobleman, a veteran sea captain, and a bit of a pirate. He had fought French corsairs in the Mediterranean and escorted treasure caravans home as captain-general of the Indies fleet. He was also a privateer who plundered French vessels that sailed along the coast of his native Asturias in northern Spain. Phillip II, however, entrusted the rakish Menendez with the settlement and security of La Florida. Menendez, although expected to bare an equal share of cost for colonization, readily accepted this honor. He believed it to be a lucrative opportunity. He had lost his son and a fortune in riches to an Atlantic hurricane in 1563. The king offered him a means to recoup his loses, search for his son, serve his king, country, and church against the Protestant French invaders, and fulfill his own imperial ambitions. Menendez quickly moved to murderously evict the French from the coast of La Florida. This act was to carry the violence of the Reformation in Europe to the New World. Menendez cruelly slaughtered the French Huguenots that he found along the La Florida coast without remorse and as a warming to other European interlopers. He established a fort and settlement nearby at present day St. Augustine and then erected a small fort on or near the abandoned ruins of the French fort in Port Royal Sound. Over one hundred and ten Spanish soldiers and settlers were sent to build and man this lonely island outpost at Santa Elena. It was at Santa Elena, on the Atlantic edge of the North American continent where Menendez decided to focus his efforts, both public and private. And it was at Santa Elena that the Juan Pardo expeditions were born out of necessity, duty, and Menendez’s ambition.

Andy Thomas

Bibliographic references of works used to prepare this blog will be presented in the last part of this blog..

Friday, May 29, 2009

Aaron Burr’s Dreams of Western Empire

Aaron Burr was a revolutionary hero, New York politician, and western adventurer. He had many political connections in New York and served terms as the states’ Attorney General and as a Senator. He ran for the presidency of the United States in 1800 as a Democratic-Republican. He tied Thomas Jefferson in electoral votes but lost to him when the vote fell to the United States House of Representatives. He served as Jefferson’s Vice President from 1801-1805. After his famous duel in which he killed Alexander Hamilton, Burr began to formulate plans about the West, including Mexico, and perhaps the new lands of the Louisiana Purchase.

Burr was an outsider to the Jefferson administration but because of the way in which Presidents and Vice Presidents were elected at the time he became the Vice President with the second most number of votes. Jefferson however barred him from his inner circle and excluded him from important decisions and administration matters. Jefferson planned on picking his own man to run with him in his second presidential election campaign.

When he realized he would not serve as Jefferson’s Vice President in the second term, Burr poured his energy into getting elected as the governor of New York. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington and the writer of the majority of The Federalist Papers did not like Burr and he feared that Burr would use his connections in New York to weaken the Federalist Party in that state. He spoke out about Burr during his election for governor. Burr lost the election soundly but he blamed his lost on the smear campaign headed by Alexander Hamilton.

In return, Hamilton called Burr “despicable” in a newspaper article. Burr tried to get him to apologize but he refused. This was the origin of the most famous duel in American history. Burr challenged Hamilton for his honor and the two met on the dueling grounds in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804. Hamilton fired first and missed. Then, Burr fired his weapon. Hamilton was mortally wounded and Burr was charged with murder. After the duel, Burr was still popular in the South and West as a man who had rightfully defended his honor but his political fortunes in the East were destroyed. However, he was able to have most charges against him dropped and he enjoyed immunity from prosecution in Washington, D.C. Burr stayed in Washington to complete his term as Jefferson’s Vice President.

After completing his term as Vice President, Burr headed West. From 1805 to 1807 he travelled up and down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers calling for a “grand expedition.” It is unclear what Burr really wanted. He called on the liberation of Mexico from Spain and some have argued that is all he wanted. But others have gone further and thought that he was author of a conspiracy to separate the lands beyond the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers from the United States. His enemies charged he wanted to do both. Burr owned lands in Texas which was then part of Mexico. He believed that there was a war coming between the United States and Mexico. He also believed that if he settled in Texas with a group of fellow settlers who could be called on as an army, that once that war came he could use that army to fight and claim land for himself and to set up a new and sovereign nation in the West. Of course, war did not come to Mexico until 1836 when Texas fought for its independence. But Burr persisted from 1805 to 1807 to accomplish his plans. Burr worked to cultivate relationships with military and financial powers in the Mississippi Valley and Ohio River region that could help him to succeed.

He called on Harman Blennerhassett, a wealthy Irishman to provide financial support and on a small island in the Ohio River, where Blennerhassett lived, he set up a base of operations to store supplies and gather men. He made contact with Anthony Merry who was Great Britain’s minister to America requesting funds for this expedition. In the letter, Merry claimed that he also hinted that he was looking “to effect a separation of the Western part of the United States.” He even requested the use of the British Royal Navy to secure the Mississippi River during the takeover. He also approached General James Wilkinson who was the commander and chief of the United States Army at New Orleans and Governor of the Louisiana Territory asking him for his support. Unfortunately, Wilkinson was also a double agent working for Spain. Ignorant of that, Burr enlisted him in a series of reconnaissance missions of the West. He also sent Wilkinson several cipher letters. In one letter he intimated that he was involved in “things improper to letter.”

After a near incident on a reconnaissance mission with Spanish forces near Natchitoches, Texas, Wilkerson decided he could best protect himself from charges of treason and help himself financially by betraying Burr’s plan to Jefferson and the Spanish authorities who had hired him. It is still very ambiguous what Burr was up to but he was clearly planning some type of filibusting expedition against Mexico and possibly seeking to grab even more lands, perhaps some from the new Louisiana Purchase.

1803 Map of the United States, Library of Congress

Jefferson had been given reports on Burr’s activities but at first he did not act. More and more complaints however reached his ears as did Wilkinson’s charge. Finally, Thomas Jefferson had enough. He ordered Burr arrested without an indictment declaring him a traitor to the United States. Soon, afterward in early 1807, Burr was arrested in the Louisiana Territory. He was to be tried in the United States Circuit Court in Richmond Virginia. The trail was to be proceeded over by the Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall.

Burr was marched east toward Richmond. As he was being transported through Chester, South Carolina, Burr saw an opportunity to make an appeal to the citizens of Chester. Burr was popular in the South and in South Carolina. His daughter, Theodosia had married Joseph Alston, governor and prominent planter from South Carolina in 1801. Burr sensing that he might be able to manipulate the large crowd that had gathered at a Tavern in the town square in Chester, jumped off his horse and jumped onto a large stone that sat in the town square. He shouted out, “I am Aaron Burr, under military arrest, and claim the protection of the civil authorities.” But this was to no avail because before anyone could react he was quickly subdued by his captors and marched out of Chester leaving only the Burr rock as evidence of his passing through South Carolina.

Sometime later he found himself in Richmond, Virginia facing the court to answer the charges as to whether he had committed treason against the United States. Jefferson threw the whole weight of his administration against Burr in trying to get a guilty verdict returned on the case. Jefferson’s own dreams of western empire may have influenced his actions against Burr. War with Spain and her ally, Napoleonic France over Mexico was a dangerous proposition. Jefferson, who had worked hard to maintain American neutrality in European affairs did not see fillbusting expeditions like this as helping his cause in doing so. Finally, Jefferson probably felt anxious about his great coup: the Louisiana Purchase. Losing it would all but destroy his hopes of the United States spreading its wings from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Nevertheless, Jefferson’s efforts were rebuffed by Chief Justice John Marshall who worked hard for a fair trial. The lack of physical evidence helped Burr’s defense and in the end, Burr was acquitted of all charges. But the stench of this episode would not go away for Burr. His political future was destroyed and he was left financially broke. He fled to Europe for several years only to return to the United States where he would die in 1836. It is unclear what Burr wanted to accomplish in the West. In the end, whatever it was never materialized. The United States stood alone. There were no other new and rival nations in North America to block American progress in acquiring western lands from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Aaron Burr's dreams for his "grand expedition" became a footnote of history.

Andy Thomas

Some Resources Used to Write this Blog: Website:

Aaron Burr from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Burr

The Duel at the American Experience: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/duel/

For the incident in Chester, SC see History of Alabama, Thomas M. Owen, 1900, pp. 498-499.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Palmetto Regiment Flag Casts a Shadow Over Mexico

The Battle of Chapultepec, Carl Nebel
The Gallant Palmettos, who showed themselves worthy of their state and country, lost nearly one half. The victory will carry joy and sorrow into half the families in South Carolina.” Brigadier General W.J. Worth, August 26th, 1847.

The Charge of the Palmettos at Churubusco (In Harper's Weekly, 1855)

The Mexican War (1846-1848) was one of the major outcomes of United States beliefs of Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny’s major tenet was the belief that the United States should encompass the whole of North America from east to west. Winning the war with Mexico led to the Mexicans surrendering vast new territories to the United States. These lands would one day be the states of Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and portions of the states of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. The war was a pivotal event that contributed to the United States spreading its system of government and culture from the Atlantic to the Pacific shores. Men from South Carolina would volunteer for this war, as would thousands of other Americans, and they would all become a part of the story of American Westward Expansion.

Historical Marker for Palmetto Regiment in Saluda, South Carolina

In South Carolina, President James Polk’s call for volunteers led to the formation of the Palmetto Regiment. This regiment was composed of 10 companies of men from both the United States professional army and volunteers. Most volunteers served in the war as infantry. The regiment joined General Winifred Scott’s regular army in February 1847. The Palmettos, as they were known, were landed at Vera Cruz by the United States Navy to assist Scott in his siege of that city. They went on to serve bravely in four additional campaigns including battles at Contreras, Churubusco, Chapultepec, and Belén Gate.

The Battle of Chalpultepec, Carl Nebel

Many from the regiment suffered death from diseases rather than from combat. In fact, as many as 13,000 U.S. soldiers died in the war but only about 2,000 from combat. In the Palmetto Regiment 1027 served. 292 died but 236 died from disease and only 56 died in combat or wounds received in combat. The exception was the relatively large number of Palmettos lost in the Battle of Churubusco. Most deaths during the war came from yellow fever, malaria, measles, and dysentery that swept through whole regiments as they served along the humid, tropical coasts near Vera Cruz as well as in the rugged, plateaus of the Valley of Mexico near Mexico City. The Palmetto Regiment had the highest death rate in General Scott’s army. The Highest Ranking Officer from South Carolina, Colonel Pierce Butler (a former governor of the state) was killed by enemy fire during the Battle of Churubusco. His body was later laid to rest near his hometown in Edgefield, South Carolina.

After Scott’s successful siege and taking of the port of Vera Cruz in March 1847, the U.S. Army, now supplied through this port with supplies and manpower slowly fought its way toward Mexico City. Although outmanned in every battle, superior training and equipment helped the United States to slowly push the Mexicans back toward their capital. Here General Scott halted before the gates of Mexico City in August, 1847. The capital itself was defended by over 30,000 men as well as several citadels and forts. One of these forts sat on top of a hill and was known as Chapultepec Castle. After asking for surrender and once more being refused, Scott then led his troops on a charge up the hill of Chapultepec. The Palmetto Regiment fought bravely here and in the end planted their flag along side the regiment of New York’s flag atop Chapultepec Castle, the citadel that guarded one of the approaches to Mexico City. Scott then continued to advance the fight to the center of the Mexico City. On September 13, 1847, U.S. troops raised the Stars and Stripes over the Palace of Montezuma. Soon, afterwards the Mexicans sued for peace.

The Palmetto Regiment Monument at the South Carolina State House

The Palmetto Regiment veterans came home as heroes. Today you can find few relics of their deeds. There is a monument to this regiment on the state house grounds in Columbia. There are a few historical markers scattered throughout the state as in Saluda. And there are some old but interesting artifacts from the war and commemorating the war at the South Carolina State Museum and the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia. Many of the veterans of this war went on to also serve in the Civil War. And it was this terrible civil war, rather than a war that advanced United States lands clear to the Pacific, that would overshadow what happened in Mexico. It would also overshadow the accomplishment of Manifest Destiny that led the United States to become one of the great powers of the world during the late 19th and early 20th century. So, for a short time the Palmetto Regiment’s flag cast its shadow over Mexico and the Mexican capital and symbolically signaled the march of Manifest Destiny and the happy and bitter fruits of Westward Expansion.

Andy Thomas

Works I consulted in writing this blog:

1) See South Carolinians in the War with Mexico at http://sciway3.net/proctor/state/sc_mexicanwar.html

2) South Carolina Confederate Relic Room & Military Museum’s Exhibit on the Mexican War at http://crr.sc.gov/exhibitions/tour/mexicanwar/

Monday, April 20, 2009

Traveler's Tales: Cabrillo's Voyage to California

I tell you that on the right-hand side of the Indies there was an island called California, which was very close to the region of Earthly Paradise. This island was inhabited by black women and there were no males among them at all, for their life style was similar to that of the Amazons. The island was made up of the wildest cliffs and sharpest precipices found anywhere in the world . . .” Las Sergas de Esplandian by Garcia Rodriguez Montalvo, 1510

California was originally a myth. The myth was brought to literary circles by Garcia Rodriguez Montalvo. It was not unlike hundreds of other Traveler’s Tales told before, during, and after the Age of Exploration. As new discoveries were made excitement abounded and imagination mingled with fact; stories were soon fashioned and told about the new "virgin" lands. Along the Atlantic Coast, the Spanish heard tales about the land of Chicora culled together from the natives taken in Spanish slave raids along the South Carolina coast in the 1520’s. The tales told that beyond the coastline in South Carolina, and most of the rest of the southern coast was the land of Chicora. It was a place where the inhabitants were white and had long red hair. Their king and queen were giants. Nearby was a region called Xapida, where pearls were found in abundance. These people also had great herds of domesticated deer, which they milked. They also made deer-milk cheese.

The same sort of tales circulated on the Pacific Coast. California was not a part of the mainland. It was an island. The island of California was ruled by a black Amazon queen who had weapons made of gold. These Amazons also used man-eating griffins as beasts of burden. These stories and others eventually led Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo to be the first European to sail along the west coast of the United States. He opened this region to both exploration and European settlement. Born sometime around 1500, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, was intrigued by the stories of Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and Bartolomeu Dias as well as other traveler’s tales. He decided to go to the New World as did many other young Spaniards to look for wealth and adventure. He arrived in Cuba sometime after 1510. After several years of soldering in Cuba, he was sent to Mexico with an army under the command of Pánfilo de Narvaez to capture Hernan Cortes who was to be returned to Cuba to answer questions of insubordination. Cortes, however, had other plans and he surprised and defeated Narvaez's army in a night battle in the rain in 1520. Cortes then convinced many of Narvaez’s soldiers to join him in conquest by telling them about the dazzling golden riches of the Aztecs.

In 1520-1521, as a unproven young man, Cabrillo assisted Cortes as a corporal of crossbowmen on his conquest of the Aztecs. He was there at the siege of Tenochtitlan and participated in many other battles and skirmishes. After the conquest of the Aztecs, the Spanish then moved south to conquer other native peoples. Cabrillo had by then risen in the ranks to become a hidalgo (an officer of some status). He went on to assist Pedro de Alvarado in subduing the descendants of the Mayans: the Quiches and the Tzutuhils in the conquest of Guatemala in 1524. By this time he had become a man of some means and some time afterward in 1536 he was appointed by Alvalrado as the chief magistrate of the port of Iztapa on the west coast of Guatemala. Here he was ordered to build ships for exploring the Mar de Sur: the South Sea or the Pacific. He built seven or eight ships over the next four years. One of the ships, a galleon, was built with his own money and was known as the San Salvador. This growing fleet was soon set to explore the South Sea. Alvarado’s untimely death in July 1541 in attempting to put down a local uprising in Mexico, however, put the expedition on hold.

Then the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, soon stepped in and resumed Alvarado's quest. He asked Cabrillo to lead a smaller fleet on an expedition to the South Sea to search for new trade opportunities with the Native Americans and to search for a route to China. One part of the fleet was to sail west into the Pacific while the other sailed north along the coast and then west to rendezvous with the other fleet. Cabrillo was to lead the one exploring the coast. Cabrillo accepted the charge and began to equip and man his ships. He had over 200 crewmen who would sail with him. Cabrillo and his 3 vessels the San Salvador, the Victoria, and the San Miguel set out from Navidad, Mexico on June 27, 1542.

With a family, a comfortable government position, and almost 40 years old, why did Cabrillo decide to go on the expedition to the South Sea? Was it more riches? Or did he hope to gain knowledge and fame in finding a route to China and the Orient (the fabled Northwest Passage)? Alvarado had hoped to discover the mythical island of California. Did Cabrillo also have this dream? Or was it just the lure of exploration? What lay around the next cove? What was beyond the horizon? The siren of the Traveler’s Tales was calling.

On September 28, 1542 after 3 months of sailing along the Baja coastline the men sailed into a beautiful harbor today known as San Diego. Cabrillo claimed the land for Spain and gave it the name of San Miguel. Cabrillo and his men briefly explored the area making contact with the local Native Americans. Then they continued their voyage. They sailed along the California coast and they explored the Channel Islands. By November they had gone as far north as Point Reyes, just north of San Francisco. They then turned south to seek shelter from some fierce storms. On January 3, 1543 Cabrillo died on one of the Channel Islands from an injury sustained earlier on the voyage. Cabrillo shattered his shin when he stumbled on some rocks while going ashore. The injury eventually led to gangrene and then to death.

Cabrillo did not discover riches in gold. He did not discover the Northwest Passage, nor did he find the legendary Island of California with its black Amazons. In the end his traveler’s tales were more solid and substantial than ethereal and fantastic. He helped to fill in knowledge about the West. For the first time, this expedition mapped the west coast of what would one day be California and the United States. His expedition also solidified Spanish claims to this area and eventually led to Spanish settlements. The land of California would flower in time to be a destination in vogue whether it was 49ers, the entertainers of Hollywood, or the hippies of the Summer of Love. The tales of what Cabrillo found pointed the way for others who sought their own dreams and destinies in the mythical and real land of California.

Today, Point Loma overlooking San Diego Bay is where the Cabrillo National Monument is located. San Diego is a beautiful city and I urge you to visit it if you have not done so. The weather there seems to be almost perfect every time I have been. Point Loma is also a beautiful spot overlooking the waves of the Pacific. The Old Point Loma Lighthouse stands at the top and guided ships into the bay from 1855-1891. You can spot seals, grey whales, and other maritime creatures in the waters and on the rocks below. I recommend it on your next trip West. Some traveler's tales endure.

Andy Thomas

Works used in preparation of this Blog:

An Account of the Voyage of Juan Rodriguiez Cabrillo
, Cabrillo National Monument Foundation, San Diego, 1999.

Friday, March 27, 2009

James McPherson: Ranger and Rancher on the Southern Colonial Frontier

Print of Yemassee raid on SC frontier found in Library of Congress collection

James McPherson was a prominent rancher, a militiaman who fought in the Yemassee War, a captain and commander of South Carolina’s Southern Rangers, and a trusted frontiersman who helped in the founding of the Georgia colony. McPherson was actively engaged economically and militarily during the period between 1715 and 1750 and contributed to pushing back the colonial frontier and preparing the region of southern Carolina for future settlement. In addition, he led one of the earliest documented cattle drives from the South Carolina colony to the new colony of Georgia. He was a true harbinger of the men who would follow in subsequent western frontiers.

A watershed event in southwestern South Carolina, as well as in all of South Carolina during the early colonial period was the Yemassee War of 1715. The Yemassee and their Creek allies tired of their continued abuse by Carolina’s deer skin traders launched fierce raids on Good Friday, April 15th. They killed many traders, settlers, and livestock. They burned and ransacked frontier homes and outlying settlements. Stunned survivors of these devastating raids were forced to retreat to the walls of Charles Town. The South Carolina colony seemed to be on the verge of destruction.

The Carolinians fought back. They used a victory on the banks of the Salkehatchie River and another at Port Royal as a springboard to drive all the Yemassee out of the colony and across the Savannah River. The danger, however, was not over. The Yemassee’s powerful allies had included many of the Creek tribes in Georgia and Alabama. Carolina authorities desperately sought security for the shaken British colony. The key was found in forging an alliance with the Cherokee in the Appalachian Mountains. They were traditional enemies of the Creeks. With Carolina’s backing and weapons the Cherokee waged war on the Creeks. South Carolinians regained control over the frontier. The Yemassee retreated to Spanish Florida. There they were encouraged by the Spanish to harass British settlers on their former lands in South Carolina. Yemassee raids across the Savannah River during the next 13 years, 1715-1728, left the lands in southern Carolina unsafe. It won the area between the Savannah River and the Combahee and Salkehatchie Rivers the sobriquet of the “Indian Lands.”

In December 1716 the South Carolina government authorized an act for the appointment of rangers to guard the frontiers. Rangers were volunteers or men drafted from the milita who served a specific number of months patrolling the frontier on horseback. The rangers were mobile troops whose primary mission was to search for Native Americans who entered South Carolina as unwanted guests. If unwanted Native Americans were found on their patrols, the rangers were to demand them to leave and/or then, if all else failed, drive them out by force. A combination of small palisade forts and rangers prevented major attacks and stopped most raids by Native American tribes in the following years. By 1718 the rangers and forts were disbanded and abandoned as the Yemassee threat seemed to diminish. But new raids in 1723 and 1726 brought both the rangers and forts back.

Drawing by Bill Drath from Larry E. Ivers, British Drums on the Southern Frontier

James McPherson, of Scottish descent, who was born in 1688 and had served in the South Carolina militia during the Yemassee War, now appeared prominently upon the stage. McPherson became one of the earliest documented backcountry settlers in the lands that are today near the town of Yemassee and part of or near to Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton, and Jasper counties, South Carolina. He sought his livelihood as a cattle rancher. Ranching, although, it never fully recovered from the Yemassee War, was a quick and easy means to obtain wealth in colonial South Carolina before the arrival of rice and indigo. There was little expense or labor involved. Cattle were left to roam the grasslands and forests eating grasses and other wild foods. They were perfectly suited to the mild climate of the Carolina backcountry and were left to forge for food and fend for themselves during the winter. The cattle were rounded up by a minimum number of slaves. They were then, separated out to be slaughtered or driven to market. Butchered meat was packed in wooden barrels with a brine solution and sold to feed the growing population along the southern Carolina coast and/or shipped as provisions to the large sugar plantations in the British Caribbean. McPherson’s 500 acre cowpen was one of the largest cowpens in the area and was manned by McPherson’s family and slaves. Cowpens were areas that were defined by a combination of natural features such as streams or rivers as well as manmade features such as fences. The waterways and fences designated the area in which cattle could range free. McPherson’s Cowpens at the head of the Combahee River where the Salkehatchie and Little Salkehatchie Rivers converged was at a perfect spot to ship goods to market on the coast.

By 1726, in response to renewed Yemassee raids, a division of Carolina rangers were moved to Saltcatcher’s Fort which had been established on or near McPhersons’ Cowpens on the Salkehatchie River and named after the Saltcatcher Indians, a Yemassee group who had inhabited the spot until driven out in 1715. McPherson was appointed Captain of the rangers. Over time they became known as the Southern Rangers or McPherson’s Rangers. They went on mounted patrols scouring the lands between the stockade of Saltcatcher’s Fort on the headwaters of the Combahee to Fort Prince George on the Savannah River looking for Yemassee raiding parties. Fort Prince George or Palachacola Fort was a fort located on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River across the river from an old Native American town known as Palachacola Town. The site of the fort is in the extreme southwestern portion of Hampton County. It was a strategic point because all Native Americans entering lower South Carolina had to stop at the fort for permission from Charles Town authorities before continuing into South Carolina. A detachment of Carolina rangers who became known as the Palachacola Garrison were assigned to this fort. They patrolled the region north to present day North Augusta and Fort Moore (See previous blog: A Glimpse of the “True” Old West) and east toward the lands patrolled by McPherson’s Rangers.

In 1733 McPherson and the Southern Rangers were ordered south by the South Carolina government to support the founding of the Georgia colony. McPherson’s troops provided safe passage for General James Oglethorpe and the new settlers who established the city of Savannah. Later he was ordered to establish a fort in Georgia on the Ogechee River where two Native American paths crossed in order to protect the new town of Savannah. This fort became known as Fort Argyle. Mcpherson’s Rangers manned the fort and he became a close advisor to Oglethorpe.

By 1735, safely protected by the lands of the new colony of Georgia, South Carolina abandoned the ranger system and withdrew support for its rangers and forts. The colony of Georgia kept McPherson on for two more years as an advisor but in 1736 he returned to ranching in South Carolina. His close ties to the new colony of Georgia provided him with contacts useful to his ranch operation. And in 1736 he drove a herd a cattle, “all the way overland” from South Carolina to the new Scottish settlement of Darien in southern Georgia to provide the settlers there with fresh provisions of milk and meat. It was the first of any such documented long-distance cattle drives in the lower South and the South Carolina Gazette said that it created “joy” among the new Scottish settlers “to find the communication for cattle by land opened.” We wish we knew more about this drive over numerous deep, salty, intercoastal rivers, muddy marshes, and trackless woodlands. It sounds like quite an adventure. A cattle drive, not quite a rival to those cattle drives north by those hardy cowboys of Texas, but still an impressive accomplishment.

McPherson continued to buy cattle and drive them to Georgia to be slaughtered. He would later return to serve the colony of South Carolina as intrigue with Spanish Florida and then later French Louisiana emerged in the 1740’s and 1750’s. He served in revamped versions of the rangers in 1744, 1746, and 1751. McPherson lived more than half of his life as a solider and rancher on the frontier. During his lifetime the frontier shifted north, south, and west of the Carolina colony. McPherson, who was instrumental in that shift, lived to see the end of that era. He died at age 83 in 1771. James McPherson, ranger and rancher, is a suitable hero for southern South Carolina’s colorful frontier past.

Andy Thomas

Works I consulted for this Blog:

Lawrence S. Rowland, Alexander Moore, and George Rogers, Jr., The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, Volume I, 1514-1861 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.

Verner W. Crane, The Southern Frontier: 1670-1732 (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1929).

Larry E. Ivers, British Drums on the Southern Frontier: The Military Colonization of Georgia, 1733-1749 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1974)

For the cattle drive see: South Carolina Gazette (Charles Town, 1732-75), October 9, 1736 edition.