Friday, March 13, 2009

The Fleur de Lis Waves Off English Westward Expansion

The English traders from Charles Town were a bold sort and they spread out from the South Carolina port city to cover what was then the wide and wild southwestern frontier (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas). They were seeking deerskins and Native American slaves for their trading ventures. They sought to trade English goods among the various Native American tribes they encountered. Early on, they pushed their way to the Mississippi and even as far West as the Arkansas River. As they established trading partners they sought to cement alliances with them and push British influence and expansion into these areas of the old West. By 1690 they had established trading posts among the Alabamas, a Creek tribe that would one day give its name to a new American state. They traded guns and ammunition, as well as beads and axes for deerskins and slaves. But in 1702, the French, who had already extensively explored this area, established the colony of Louisiana with its first capitol in Mobile. So began a struggle in the South, also marked in other parts of North America, between the English and the French for control of the Continent.

The English influence among the Creeks remained strong for some years afterward, but things soon changed. In 1715 the Yemassee and their Creek allies rebelled against the English traders and their trading abuses. This was a serious blow to the Carolina colony, English trade, and English westward expansion. All English traders, living among the Creeks were killed at the start of the war. The Alabamas and other Creeks now needed a new trading partner to supply them with guns, ammunition, and other trade goods. In the turmoil that followed, the French, took advantage of this time to step in and take control of the trade with the Alabamas and the other Creek tribes and to also advance their own dreams of empire building.

In 1717 they built Fort Toulouse on the Coosa River on a high bluff controlling the river. The site is currently about ten miles north of the present day city of Montgomery. The fort was situated where the Coosa and the Tallapoosa come together to form the head of the Alabama River. This outpost was right in the middle of the Alabamas. It was only 5 days by boat on the Alabama River to Mobile. On the other hand, it was almost 500 miles and 27 days by land to Charles Town. The French strategically positioned the fort on a major intersection of the Lower Path. The Lower Path, a major Indian trading path, branched to the northwest to the Chickasaws and branched to the west to the Choctaws. With the establishment of Fort Toulouse the English were never again able to hold onto or effectively control or make alliances with the Creeks, Choctaws, or Chickasaws. They also worried about the influence of the French on winning the Creeks as a solid ally with enough support among them to march on the Carolina colony. This fort would be a thorn in the side of the English. Fort Toulouse effectively checked English expansion into the Old Southwest until 1763 and the end of the French and Indian War.

The outpost served several purposes. It was a diplomatic post for carrying on relations with the Alabamas and the Creeks. Because the post was small and did not expand very much the Creeks were happy to let it survive among them for their own reasons which were mainly trade and neutrality. After the Yemassee War the Creeks sought to stay neutral in the conflict between the English and the French. They hoped to play the two European powers against each other. Several years after the war they once again allowed the English to trade with them but also kept the English honest by allowing the French to trade with them from Fort Toulouse. The Creeks would not make any alliances that gave either European nation a strategic advantage and so, therefore manipulated both by taking a neutral stand. This in turn ensured their continued strength and survival until after the French and Indian War when they could no longer pit the French against the English.

The outpost also served as a missionary outpost. First Capuchin friars and then Jesuits used the post to evangelize the Alabamas and their Creek allies. But more importantly, it served as a trading post and an alternative to English traders. English trade goods at the time were cheaper and of better quality than the French goods. But the Creeks did not want to limit themselves to these goods because of their stance of neutrality. So, they traded their deerskins with French traders from Mobile and then finally, after 1718, French traders from the new and growing port of New Orleans.

Fort Toulouse was a small fort. It was also isolated, and poorly supplied. At first only about 20 to 30 French soldiers manned the outpost. After 1748, it expanded to include the families of these soldiers as well as others. Around 1751 about 140 French men, women, and children lived in and around the fort with about 40 of these serving as soldiers at the fort. This would be the case until 1763. In 1763, with the end of the French and Indian War, the fort was abandoned as part of the treaty negotiations. It would remain so until 1814. During the period of the War of 1812 the crumbling fort was rebuilt and re-named Fort Jackson in honor of General Andrew Jackson who had defeated the Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814 and who had ordered forts to be built to secure the surrounding countryside. It was here also in 1814 that the Treaty of Fort Jackson was signed and the Creeks surrendered more than a half of all their lands to the Americans and became no longer an obstacle or threat to American settlers and American Westward Expansion. Without the French, and now without even the protection of some English diplomats who had sought to halt expansion with such pre-Revolutionary War efforts as the Proclamation of 1763, the Creeks had no choice but to comply with these American demands. By 1817 Fort Jackson was also abandoned and the area around it slowly reverted to nature. There the site of both French and American forts remained hidden until rediscovered in 1986.

I visited the site of the fort on a late summer’s day in 1998. By then a reconstructed version of Fort Toulouse has been built near the original site. I looked down at the peaceful Coosa River as the wind rustled the trees and the sun began its descent from the sky. I closed me eyes and imagined the Fleur de Lis floating gracefully in that warm summer air so many centuries before. The French flag floating over Fort Toulouse signaled France’s determination to stand firm in these lands and this stance had, for a while, temporarily halted and waved off the early tide of English and American westward expansion.

The best book on this subject and the work that I consulted is:

Thomas, Daniel H. Fort Toulouse: The French Outpost at the Alabamas on the Coosa, 1960, 1989: Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama.

Andy Thomas

1 comment:

  1. Saying hello from Hampton! Hope you have a great night.