Two centuries later, history of Tallasseehatchee overshadowed by legend of 'battle'
The Anniston Star, Ala.
ALEXANDRIA, Ala. — Emman Spain looked on the crowd of faces and searched for the right thing to say about an attack that killed 186 people.
"I don't want to make anybody mad," he said. "But to us, we see ourselves as suffering from foreign terrorism."
After a nervous chuckle and a few more comments, he added: "We realize most Americans are not going to see it that way."
Spain, the historical officer for the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma, traveled 700 miles to stand in an Alexandria pasture Saturday and help 90 local residents mark a pivotal event in Alabama history.
On the morning of Nov. 3, 1813 a force of 1,000 American soldiers surrounded the still-sleeping Creek village of Tallasseehatchee. In about 20 minutes, they wiped out the town, killing two-thirds of the residents and taking another 89 people captive.
Two hundred years later, what happened that day is still a delicate topic in some circles. For generations of Alabama students, Tallasseehatchee was the moment American legends such as Andrew Jackson and Davy Crockett stepped onto the Alabama stage — a reminder that the state was once America's wild frontier. To many Alabama history buffs, Tallasseehatchee was America's first victory in the war against the Red Stick faction of the Creeks, a war that cleared the path for the creation of the state of Alabama. And it was the place where Jackson adopted an Indian "son," rescued from the carnage of battle.
But for Spain and other Creeks, Tallasseehatchee was more like Pearl Harbor. "Red Stick," he says, was a term many residents of the village may not have even known. And the story of Lincoyer, Jackson's adopted Creek son, just doesn't hold together, he said.
All of which is hard to say to people who've invited you to their 200th anniversary ceremony, and to lunch afterward.
"To get up here and talk to you guys is a little intimidating," Spain told the crowd. "You don't want to make people mad, but we see things a little differently."
"It's hard to talk about this because there are so many stories," Spain told a reporter later. "And there are so many things that impact other things."
In 1813, Tallasseehatchee was one of the northernmost outposts of the Creeks, who occupied two-thirds of what is now Alabama. At least 270 people lived there, according to account by American soldiers, the only written accounts available. There's no telling how long the Creek town was there, but archaeological digs have found settlements at the site dating back to the Woodland period, 8,000 years ago.
The town was about 100 miles away from the Federal Road, the U.S. government's path through Creek lands toward Louisiana. But it was that road that likely caused the village's downfall.
The road — built to give the U.S. an overland route to New Orleans — cut through an area that, historians say, was more diverse than many people realize. Creeks and European traders had intermarried for decades, and some tribal leaders had Scottish surnames. The U.S. government encouraged Creeks to abandon traditional roles to become ranchers in the American style, raising livestock for trade. Some took that path; others stuck to more traditional ways.
American travelers on the Federal Road weren't supposed to stop and settle in the Mississippi territory, but many did. The growing pressure on the Creeks from white settlement led to a resurgent traditionalist movement — known in history books as "Red Sticks," after their red war clubs. The Red Sticks launched a civil war, attacking Creek leaders who supported European ways and slaughtering the herds that were the source of their wealth. That war expanded quickly.
"It just kept rolling into something bigger," said Jim Parker, director of Fort Toulouse/Fort Jackson, a state historical site at the location of a Creek War fort, in a telephone interview last week.
When an American militia unit attacked Red Stick warriors on a trip to Pensacola to buy ammunition, historians say, the Red Sticks responded with an attack on Fort Mims, a hastily-built compound in what is now Baldwin County. A force of 700 Creeks charged into the fort, killing approximately 250 people. Reports of deaths of women and children at the fort led America into all-out war with the Red Sticks.
Officials in Tennessee were quick to assemble a force to take on the Creeks. One of their stated goals was to avenge Fort Mims, said Harry Holstein, an archaeology professor at Jacksonville State University. But they likely had their eye on an economic goal as well.
"Tennessee people saw the Gulf of Mexico as an economic engine," Holstein said. The Creeks lived on much of the land between Tennessee and the Gulf.
Tennessee sent 5,000 soldiers, under Gen. Andrew Jackson, to attack the Red Sticks. In early November 1813, Jackson's men were setting up a fort at Ten Islands, a now-uninhabited area on the Coosa River near Ragland. Jackson sent Cherokee scouts out to survey the area.
"Some of these scouts came out of those mountains, and they saw a village here," Holstein said. Jackson's men considered Tallasseehatchee a Red Stick village, Holstein said.
Jackson sent 1,000 dragoons — lightly-armed cavalry — to take the town. On Nov. 2, they camped about a mile away. On the morning of Nov. 3, they surrounded the town.
"The Indians were all sleeping," Holstein said. About an hour after dawn, the Americans sent a small force to sneak up to Tallasseehatchee and fire on the houses.
"The plan was to draw the Indians out and basically massacre them," he said.
The plan worked. A force of Creek men emerged from the town to defend it and were largely cut down. The survivors retreated to the town. Forty-six warriors took refuge in a house where women and children were also sheltering.
“We now shot them like dogs; and then set the house on fire, and burned it up with the forty-six warriors in it,” wrote Davy Crockett, a participant in the attack.
John Coffee, the leader of the dragoons, later shifted the blame to the Creek warriors.
"In consequence of their flying to the houses and mixing with the families, in killing the males, we wounded a few of the squaws and children," Coffee wrote.
The Americans lost five men. The surviving Creek women and children were taken prisoner, and the dead -- 186 of them, by Coffee's count -- were left unburied. American troops who happened across the scene later were shocked by what they saw, Holstein said.
"The soldiers let every body just lie here," he said. "Dead dogs, dead horses, dead humans."
That's not the story Roger Zeimet heard as a kid. Zeimet, a Troy University history teacher who attended the 200th anniversary event, said he thinks Tallaseehatchee was alluded to in the old Disney "Davy Crockett" miniseries from the 1950s. Footage from that program is still accessible online: the first major military engagement in the show has Crockett and other soldiers attacking an all-male Creek encampment in search of a specific chief named "Red Stick."
"I think he later reconciles with the chief in a swamp or something," Zeimet said. "It was pretty absurd."
There's no proof there were any Red Sticks in Tallasseehatchee, said Kathryn Braund, an Auburn University history professor who has written several books about the Creeks.
"Fort Mims changed the character of the war," Braund said. "After that, every Creek who does not actively say 'I am with you, America' is a Red Stick."
Spain, the Muscogee Creek official, said the the term "Red Stick" wasn't invented by Creeks, and may not have meant anything to many of the people sleeping in their houses that morning. Perhaps there were men in the village who were sympathetic to the movement, he said, but there was no sign the town itself had thrown its support to the Red Sticks. And Creek towns, he said, were largely independent.
"They had their own micco," Spain said, referring to the Muscogee term for a village leader.
Tallasseehatchee was the beginning of the end for Creek towns in Alabama. Jackson won another battle in Talladega a week later, and eventually pursued the Creeks to Horseshoe Bend, near present-day Dadeville. Jackson's victory there, against more than 1,000 Creek warriors, marked the last major Indian resistance to white settlement in the South.
"After the Creek War, all of the Indian tribes in the Southeast feel some sort of pressure to sign treaties to give up their lands," Braund said.
By the mid 1830s most of the Creeks — even those who had supported the Americans in the war — had been forced to move to Oklahoma, or led there by false promises from the U.S. government. The Cherokees, who had fought on the American side in 1813, were also forced out.
History books often call Tallasseehatchee a "battle," but most of the speakers at the Saturday event seemed to feel that "massacre" would be just as applicable.
"We're in substantial agreement on this," said Monty Clendenin, the organizer of the event.
But even with a sympathetic audience, it takes some nudging for Spain to get people over to the Creek view. The Muscogee Creek Nation isn't a reservation, he said, it's a set of jurisdictional boundaries. Some Creek War events named as "assassinations" in history books, he said, were actually executions, approved by tribal leaders.
And then there's Lincoyer, the most famous survivor of Tallasseehatchee.
Alabama history textbooks once recounted how Jackson adopted an infant, named Lincoyer or Lyncoya, who was found on the battlefield. Creek women, taken captive and bereft of their husbands, refused to take him in and said Jackson should let him die. Or so the story goes.
So Jackson sent Lincoyer home to his family.
"He raised him as his child," Holstein said. "He was going to send him off to the east, to military school."
Spain said he's discussed the tale with Creek elders. They can't make sense of the bit about abandoning an orphan.
"They say, that's crazy," Spain recalls. "Why would anyone do that? That's why we have the clan system."
Creek society is organized into clans, he said, which gives everyone an extended family to go to for support.
Braund, the Auburn professor, has tried to track down records of the 89 survivors of the attack. She said several officers sent Creek children home, to entertain their own children. Some were referred to as "pets" in letters home, and were likely little more than slaves, she said.
What happened to the grown women of the village is less clear. Braund said some likely wound up in the custody of Cherokee or Creek supporters of Jackson, where they too could have become slaves.
Creeks rarely talk about the Creek War, Spain said, or anything else before their arrival in Oklahoma.
"Most Creeks don't talk about these battles, and they don't talk about removal, because it brings back bad feelings," he said.
Spain told the crowd about the Muscogee Creek experience in Oklahoma, where the federal government provided little of the support it promised in the 1830s, but Creeks learned to thrive anyway. He said the Muscogee Creek Nation, which covers parts of 11 counties in Oklahoma, has 70,000 members, its own judicial system, 11 casinos and a college, among other things.
Other Creeks remain in the state. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians, headquartered in Atmore, is Alabama's only federally recognized Native American tribe.
Braund said members of the Poarch Band are descended from Creeks who held land outside traditional Creek borders. That exempted them from the Creek Removal of the 1830s.
"They kept a low profile and hung in there," Braund said.
The Poarch Band were from families that had intermarried with Europeans, Braund said, but that didn't help them in a state preoccupied with race. For the most part, Poarch Creeks were banned from white schools under segregation, Braund said.
"(Poarch Band leader) Eddie Tullis told me that when boys got big enough to play football, sometimes the buses would stop for them," Braund said.
At Poarch-owned lands in Atmore and Wetumpka, high-rise hotels loom over casinos run by tribal authorities. The Poarch Band is one of the biggest political donors in the state, and often makes charitable donations to South Alabama causes — most recently, gifts of $1 million each to the school systems in Montgomery and Elmore counties.
Multiple attempts to reach Poarch Band historical officer Robert Thrower last week were unsuccessful. Other tribal officials directed all inquiries to his office.
The Muscogee Nation filed suit against the Poarch Band last year, saying the plan to expand a casino in Wetumpka was a threat to a Creek historical site there. Spain said the the two Creek groups are not regularly in communication with each other. He says he has seen Poarch officials occasionally on trips back to Alabama to assess Creek sites for possible preservation.
Spain and others said they hope more will be done to mark the site of Tallasseehatchee. Part of the site is now a cow pasture, and part is on undeveloped land owned by Vulcan Materials Company. There are two historical markers in Alexandria that mention the battle, but neither are on the actual site of the town.
Like most Alexandria residents, Grant Burt grew up without any idea what had happened here. Burt's grandfather owns the pasture at the Tallasseehatchee site.
"I played all over this land," said Burt, now 43. "And I never knew."