Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fort Mims 200th Anniversary - The night before the attack

Monument  at Fort Mims
 200 years ago tonight, a force 700-1,000 Red Stick warriors moved to within range of Fort Mims, a roughly built log stockade in the Tensaw settlement north of Mobile, Alabama.

The evening of August 29, 1813, would be the last night on earth for more than 250 of the inhabitants of the fort. They had come there seeking safety, but on the next day Fort Mims would prove to be a trap from which few would escape.

19th Century Artist's Impression of the Big Warrior
The attack was part of the Creek War of 1813-1814, a conflict that had started as a civil war among the Upper Creeks who lived along the Alabama, Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers. A large segment of the nation had broken away from its traditional leadership - the Big Warrior, Little Prince, William McIntosh and others - and taken up the war club under the leadership of Josiah Francis, a man remembered today as the Alabama Prophet.

Francis grew up in the Alabama towns which were clustered near present-day Montgomery, Alabama. The Alabama (or Alibamo) were an ancient tribe with different traditions and a different language those those of the Muskogee or Upper Creeks. Even so, the Alabamas and the associated Coushatta (or Coosada) had allied themselves with the Muskogees as part of the loosely organized Creek Confederacy.

Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet
In 1811-1812, however, Josiah Francis converted to the religion of the Shawnee Prophet, Tenskwatawa. A brother of Tecumseh, the Prophet taught that the American Indians should separate themselves from and give up the ways of the whites. Contrary to much 19th century and modern writing, he did not urge war on the whites but instead told his followers they should remain at peace with everyone and should steal nothing from the whites, "not even a bell." He did advocate a strong union of the various Indian nations, but as a defensive measure to halt any further westward expansion by settlers from the United States.

Francis had seen the impact of the "plan of civilization" introduced in the Creek Nation by the United States through the guidance of its Agent for Indian Affairs, Colonel Benjamin Hawkins. Traditional ways were disappearing from the Creeks and the evil influence of alcohol had spread through the Nation. Even though he was the son of a white trader, Francis grew concerned over these influences and listened carefully to Tecumseh when he came to Alabama in the fall of 1811 to spread the word of his brother's religion and prophesies.

Alabama River
Francis did not immediately convert, however, but thought over Tecumseh's message and learned more from the lesser Shawnee prophet Seekaboo, who had remained among the Creeks after the Prophet's brother returned to the Midwest. Josiah Francis became a true believer.

In the late summer of 1812, he announced that he had become a prophet himself. As the warriors in the Alabama towns listened to his preachings, they became convinced that the conversion was real and began calling Francis a "Hillis Hadjo" ("Warrior of Mad Medicine"). From an early group of 60 followers, the Alabama Prophet's following grew dramatically until by early 1813 his converts numbered in the thousands.

19th Century Sketch of a Human Scalp
The U.S. unwittingly ignited the civil war among the Creeks when it demanded the punishment of Little Warrior and a party of the Alabama Prophet's followers who had killed white settlers on the Duck River in Tennessee. The Big Warrior - traditional leader of the Creek Nation - ordered out execution squads to kill the murderers. Francis ordered his own warriors to retaliate and war exploded among the Creeks.

Francis and his followers became known as Red Sticks because they displayed red war clubs in their villages in a traditional sign of war.

As the conflict escalated, a force of 300 Red Sticks went to Pensacola in Spanish Florida to obtain arms and ammunition. The Spanish governor provided them with 1,000 pounds of gunpowder, along with gun flints, other supplies and a corresponding amount of lead shot. As they were making their way back to Holy Ground, the town that the Prophet Francis had established on the upper Alabama River, these warriors were attacked by a force of Mississippi Territorial Militia. The resulting engagement is remembered today as the Battle of Burnt Corn Creek and ended in victory for the Red Sticks.

Reconstructed Stockade at Fort Mims
Blood had been shed between the Red Sticks and the whites, however, and the families of those slain and wounded demanded a retaliatory strike. Since many of their enemies - including a group of mestizos (Creeks of mixed ancestry who sided with the whites) - were sheltered at Fort Mims, it was selected as the target.

The fort was not a true military structure, but instead was a rough stockade with a blockhouse that had been erected around the house of Samuel Mims. Hundreds of white and mestizo settlers had crowded inside, where they were protected by a small force of territorial militia. Because there were so many of them, the occupants of Fort Mims did not really think the Red Sticks would dare attack them. They were wrong.

Artist's Impression of William Weatherford
200 years ago tonight, a force of 700-1,000 Red Stick warriors led by William Weatherford and the lesser prophet Paddy Walsh took up positions in shallow ravines within view of Fort Mims. Weatherford and others even crawled up to the walls of the fort and peered through the loopholes to study the arrangement of the stockade. The fort was so poorly designed that the loopholes were not elevated. This meant that an attacking enemy could use them to fire into the fort just as easily as its defenders could use them to fire out.

Even though slaves had reported the presence of a large Red Stick force in the area and even though hundreds of warriors spent the night within sight of the stockade, Major Daniel Beasley and the officers commanding Fort Mims never saw them coming.

The next day - August 30, 1813 - would end in one of the greatest defeats ever administered by whites by an American Indian force in the entire history of North America.

Please click here to read more about the attack itself:

You can learn more about Fort Mims State Historic Site at

This weekend marks the 200th anniversary of the attack on Fort Mims and special events are planned. To see the schedule of events and obtain directions, please visit

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