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The Year without a Summer
Scott and his soldiers, half of whom were sick and unarmed, had kept careful watch but so far the attack they expected had not materialized. By the morning of the 30th, the boat was less than two miles from the confluence and only twelve miles from the safety of Fort Scott. Fighting to keep the boat moving forward as it was pushed near the east bank by the current, the lieutenant and his men never saw the warriors who were waiting there for them.
The shoreline erupted with a sheet of flame as lead balls exploded from hundreds of rifles and muskets, all aimed at Lieutenant Scott and his command. The bloodbath that followed forever changed American history. The U.S. Army sustained its first defeat of the Seminole Wars, a series of conflicts that would plague the nation for four decades to come. In their victory, the Seminoles and their Red Stick allies assured their defeat in the greater war. Andrew Jackson would be sent to invade foreign soil, clearly demonstrating to Spain that it could not hope to hold Florida. The old colony became a U.S. territory just four years later.
Ash from the explosion drifted high into the atmosphere and slowly spread around the world. So much of it infiltrated the sky that the year of 1816 was remembered for decades to come as the “Year Without a Summer.” Strange weather destroyed the corn crops in New England and Europe. Hundreds of thousands died and food riots shattered the peace of Switzerland. In the United States, the light of day glowed in a strange golden or orange color and unseasonable cold persisted far longer than anyone had ever seen. The unusual and deadly weather continued for two years to come.
With them was destroyed or captured a vast armament of muskets, carbines, swords, gun flints, cannon, powder and other military supplies that had been left behind by the British at the end of the War of 1812. The totality of the disaster so stunned the Lower Creek and Seminole Indians of Florida, Southwest Georgia and South Alabama that they did not resist the movement of the American troops as they marched back up the river to Georgia. Returning to a temporary outpost called Camp Crawford on the lower Flint River, they began building a more permanent fort with squared log buildings and comfortable quarters. The new post was called Fort Scott, after General Winfield T. Scott, and was described as “elegant” by one inspector who reviewed the work in progress.
The fort was still incomplete in December 1816 when orders came for Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Lamont Clinch and his men from the 4th U.S. Infantry to evacuate it. Leaving the buildings and supplies stored there in the care of George Perryman, the mestizo brother of the Lower Creek chiefs William and Ben Perryman, the troops evacuated Fort Scott and headed north to Fort Gaines and then Fort Mitchell.
The move gave new confidence to the refugee Red Stick fighters concentrated near the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers. They had fled to the region after their bloody defeat at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend seeking and receiving resupply from the British who had built two forts on the Apalachicola. Irate over the destruction of their depot at the “Negro Fort,” they now exacted their revenge on the unfinished and unguarded buildings of Fort Scott. Appearing almost as soon as the soldiers departed, they threatened Perryman and drove him off from the place. He was only able to secure his family and a few personal possessions before fleeing the scene in a canoe. The supplies left at the fort were ransacked and stolen and fire was set to the log buildings. George Perryman saw at least three buildings burning as he fled. The Indians, he said, were “in numbers.”[i]
Francis, it was said by his followers, could communicate with the water spirits. He was often seen walking down into a flowing stream or river from which he would not emerge for many hours. A practitioner of the Nativistic religion of the Shawnee Prophet Tenskwatawa, Francis taught the converts who gathered around him that the Indians should separate themselves from the whites, that accommodationist chiefs should be overthrown and that the Creeks should live in peace with all people, but subject to none. No more Native American land was to be given up.
Such talk resonated with the head chief of Fowltown (called Tutalosi Talofa or “Chicken Town” in the Hitchiti tongue of the Lower Creeks). His name or title was Eneah Emathla, which translates roughly to “Fat Warrior.” He was not an overweight individual, but instead was enormous in courage. The whites, who were never very good with Indian names, called him everything from E-nee-hee-maut-by to Eneamathla before finally settling on the name Neamathla.
A man of courage and talent, Neamathla was said by one contemporary to be able to command his warriors with a mere look. He agreed with Josiah Francis that the Creeks should no longer submit to the expansionist desires of the whites and led his warriors to join the Prophet’s force at Holy Ground on the Alabama River. The Tutalosi warriors, however, were cornered and defeated at the Battle of Uchee in what is now Russell County, Alabama, by an overwhelming party of Cowetas led by the U.S.-allied chief William McIntosh.
Blocked in his objective of joining the Red Sticks in Alabama and fearing that the women and children of his town would be subjected to follow-up attack by McIntosh’s warriors, Neamathla abandoned his town on Kinchafoonee Creek near present day Albany, Georgia, and withdrew down the Flint River into the deep wilderness near the Florida border. There he resettled his people and established a new town, also called Tutalosi Talofa or Fowltown.
Neamathla and his warriors quickly allied themselves with the British, who appeared on the Apalachicola at about the same time. Joining the auxiliary force being raised by Lieutenant Colonel Edward Nicolls, they were given arms, ammunition and a drum for their town. The chief himself was presented with a military uniform coat of scarlet color and a letter signed by Captain Robert Spencer testifying that Neamathla was a loyal and good friend of Great Britain.
Neamathla was present at the British outpost near the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers on March 10, 1815, when a large gathering of Creek and Seminole chiefs signed a written appeal to the Prince Regent in London for help in enforcing the provisions of the Treaty of Ghent. The treaty had finally ended the War of 1812 and required that all combatants returned to their prewar land holdings. Colonel Nicolls and other British officers on the Apalachicola believed that the Creeks were covered under the terms of the treaty as their war with the United States had been a subsidiary part of the larger conflict. The United States disagreed and maintained that the Creeks had already entered into a separate treaty and therefore were not covered under the Treaty of Ghent.
That agreement, called the Treaty of Fort Jackson, was negotiated by Andrew Jackson in August 1814. Signed by many Creek leaders, it was in effect a Native American surrender. In exchange for peace, the chiefs agreed to Jackson’s terms and ceded to the United States a vast stretch of territory including 23,000,000 acres. The largest swath of this cession was along the Florida border and, unfortunately for Neamathla and his followers, it included the land on which they had established their new village.
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[i] Lt. Richard Sands to Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines, February 2, 1817.