Tuesday, August 4, 2009
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.
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