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The Thousand-Mile Journey . . . without a map

Creek Indians
"In 1790, with greater hostilities imminent, Georgia Governor Edward Telfair, petitioned the U.S. government to provide the state $15 million and troops from the northern states to fight the Creek Indians."

By Diane and Don Wells

  Washington
  “Realizing the Creek Indians could muster 6,000 warriors to the United States’600 soldiers, Washington knew he needed a better solution.”

After years of fighting a war for independence, the new Americans feared their fragile peace was threatened.  The year was 1790; seven years after the Treaty of Paris codified peace between England and the young American nation and two years after adoption of the U.S. Constitution.

A war weary President George Washington saw threats on all sides: The British and Spanish wanted to prevent America from claiming more territory. Governance issues created growing tension between the fledgling states and new central government. But, the biggest threat came from the Creek Indian people. After siding with the British and fighting against the colonists during the Revolutionary War, the Creeks were ready to attack again to prevent further loss of their tribal lands.

The political landscape in 1790
With the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787, the 13 colonies were under the central government control of the American president and congress.

The U.S. government now managed Indian affairs for the states in lieu of individual states handling their own affairs. In the northern colonies, most of the Indians had already moved out west from their colonial territory; the southern states were still dealing with the Indian situation. Because the Cherokee and Creek Indians sided with the British during the Revolutionary War they were forced to cede some of the tribal lands they had occupied. 

In 1790, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia claimed rights to continental territory all the way west to the Mississippi River. The Cherokee and Creek Indians still occupied over half of Georgia and all of the territory that would become Alabama. The Choctaws and Chickasaw occupied large parts of the territory to the west toward the Mississippi River. The Indians were not about to give up any more land without a fight or to sign a treaty to cede those lands.

Although the British had lost the Revolutionary War and had given up their claim to the colonies, they still maintained a foothold on the continent in Pensacola, then under Spanish rule. Panton, Leslie & Co, a British Trading Company, maintained a thriving trading post in Pensacola and sold guns and ammunition to the Indians for animal skins and other trade goods. Having lost a part of their lucrative business, they were quick to incite the Indians to attack the U.S. settlers who were moving west into Indian Territory without permission.

  authors
  About the authors
“The Thousand-Mile Journey . . . without a map” is the collaborative work of Don & Diane Wells and Eddie Lanham.

Don Wells is president of the Jasper-based Mountain Stewards, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation, development and maintenance of trails and open spaces in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

Diane is a retired educator whose field is history. Together, Don and Diane, along with Robert Wells, Dr. Mickey Nardo, Lamar Marshall, and others on the Mountain Stewards team of researchers, trail mappers and film makers have been working for eight years to document Indian Cultural Heritage sites throughout the United States. They published the book, Mystery of the Trees in 2011 and are currently completing work on a documentary of the same title that will be introduced in early 2015.

Eddie Lanham has an extensive background in Early American, Western, War Between the States, and Native American history. He joined the team in 2011 as the chief researcher for Georgia Indian sites.

The authors conducted extensive research to document the thousand mile journey of 1790. With the aid of more than 25 resources, ranging from personal journals, histories, biographies of key parties to Internet resources. A complete list of the resources is listed below.

The Spanish, likewise, were doing their part to keep their Indian allies and to encourage them to fight against U.S. expansion efforts.

Even after the end of hostilities between Great Britain and the United States, Alexander McGillivray, the principal chief of the Creek Indians, still fueled resentment against the U.S.—and particularly against Georgia.

The Situation in Georgia
As a British Colony, Georgia had claimed the lands all the way to the Mississippi. While most colonies had ceded their claims when they became states during the American Revolution, Georgia did not.

With the signing of the Constitution in 1783, Georgia governors and legislative members were insistent that the Cherokee and Creek Indians cede their lands to the Chattahoochee River.

In 1783, Lyman Hall was serving a one-year term as governor. All of the Georgia governors who served during the period from 1783-1790 focused on getting the Indians to cede their lands. The Treaty of Augusta, signed in May of 1783 between the Cherokees and the state, ceded some Cherokee lands in northeast Georgia.

The Creek Indians balked at signing a similar treaty. Finally, some Georgia officials convinced two minor Creek chiefs, Tallassee King and Fat King, to sign a treaty in November 1783 to cede the lands between the Ogeechee and Oconee rivers—this action was the catalyst for the potential conflicts in 1790.

Because the two chiefs didn’t have the authority to sign a treaty unless all chiefs of the Creek Confederacy agreed, Alexander McGillivray, principal chief of the Creeks, declared the treaty null and void. Despite this action, Georgia quickly moved to divide the land into two counties and settlers moved in rapidly.

From 1783 through 1789, there were several attempts to sign a new treaty, including one at Galphinton on the Ogeechee River in 1785 and another at Sholderbone Creek on the Oconee River in 1786, but in all cases McGillivray refused to recognize these treaty attempts.

On April 2, 1786, the Creeks declared war on Georgia and attacked settlements on a wide front. Americans wanted peace but refused to give back Creek lands.

McGillivray refused to negotiate with the Georgians until they recognized the boundary of Creek and Georgia land as of the 1783 Augusta treaty. In a July 1787 letter to Georgia Governor George Mathews, Timothy Barnard (with McGillivray’s agreement) responded to the governor’s previous letter to the Creek Chief Fat King:  

“The Fat King says that the Georgians have acted rashly against his people by seeking revenge for unspecified damages inflicted by a few of the Upper Creeks and maintains that neither he nor Alexander McGillivray had anything to do with the recent depredations. He demands the lives of 12 Georgians to make up for the 12 of his own people who were murdered by the Georgians.”

A final attempt at negotiating a treaty occurred at the Rock Landing on the Oconee River in September 1789. The Creeks, under the leadership of McGillivray, brought 2,000 men to show their power and their dissatisfaction with the occupation of the Creek lands. When the representatives of Georgia refused to give up their claim to the land in question, McGillivray withdrew from the negotiations leaving the situation on the brink of major hostilities unless a way to resolve the conflict was found.

In 1790, with greater hostilities imminent, Georgia Governor Edward Telfair, petitioned the U.S. government to provide the state $15 million and troops from the northern states to fight the Creek Indians.

  ga territorial map 1783
  1973 Georgia territorial map

Washington summons his spy
George Washington didn’t want to fight another war but he couldn’t trust Georgia’s political leaders to work out a treaty plan to avoid future conflicts.

The attempt to resolve differences between the Creek Indians and Georgians had failed in 1785 at the meeting in Galphinton and, although the Creeks had signed a Treaty at Sholderbone on the Oconee in 1786, they considered it null and void because they felt forced to sign it.

Washington’s commissioners came back to Georgia in September 1789 and attempted to reach a settlement but once again McGillevray backed out of negotiations and returned to home. Realizing the Creek Indians could muster 6,000 warriors to the United States’600 soldiers, Washington knew he needed a better solution.

With the situation growing more dangerous by the day, he called on his secret agent for one more seemingly impossible mission: Find and escort the Creek chiefs to New York—a difficult and dangerous 1,000 mile journey—for treaty negotiations.

Washington needed a man who could convince the Creek chiefs to leave the safety of their tribal lands then navigate and provision the 1,000-mile trip, while maintaining secrecy and preventing interference from the British, Spanish and Georgians along the way.

Secret Agent Col. Marinus Willett
Born in Jamaica, New York in 1740, Marinus Willett joined the militia and served in the French and Indian War and other campaigns. He returned to civilian life in New York and remained there until the Revolutionary War when he again took up arms.  

A leader in the Sons of Liberty in New York, he helped capture the British arsenal in New York City when the British evacuated. In June 1775, he joined the Continental Army and participated in many campaigns rising to the rank of Colonel. By 1778, he had joined General Washington’s Main Army and served as an aide to General Scott.

His leadership in commanding Continental Army troops and his ability to work with the Indians in pursuing the British impressed General Washington, who visited Willett’s command on occasions assigning him missions critical to winning the Revolutionary War.

After the Revolutionary War, Willett returned to New York where he became the sheriff of New York County from 1784 to 1787. Interestingly, he was an anti-federalist who opposed the United States Constitution and worked to get it repealed.

Even though he had anti-federalist leanings, Washington knew him as a person who got things done so he sought him out for another important mission.

To make his mission succeed Willet had to travel 500 miles through the wilderness to convince one man—Alexander McGillivray—to meet with Washington and sign the treaty.
But, the Creek Indian Principal Chief had his own plans. With his plantations confiscated by the Americans McGillivray had signed an alliance with the Spanish.

Look for Part 2, when Washington’s spy and the Creek Indians’ principal chief meet, in the February issue of Smoke Signals.

References

Primary
William M. Willett. A Narrative of The Military Actions of Colonel Marinus Willett, published in New York, 1831

Caleb Swan. Journal of Major Caleb Swan, U.S.A.1790, An Early Visitor to the Talladega Country, Life and Customs of the Creek Indians published as book in 1972; published earlier as Position and State of Manners and Arts in the Creek or Muscogee Nation 1791

John Walton Caughey. McGillivray of the Creeks, University of Oklahoma Press 1938

James Malone. The Chickasaw Nation, A Short Sketch of a Noble People published in 1922

George W. Featherstonhaugh. Journal of the Middle Towns published in 1838

Jack Boedeker. Personal account of the Neyaka Story in Lee County, GA, 2013

Joseph Ellis. American Creation: Triumph and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, Published in New York 2007

Mountain Stewards Indian Trails Database of Extracted Indian Trails from GA Land Lottery Maps from 1805-1827 and the Government Land Office Maps of Alabama from 1832-1840

Eleazer Early. Map of Georgia and Alabama in 1818

John Coffee Map of the Cherokee Nation in 1817

Michael Pryor. Alexander McGillivray of the Creek Confederacy, published by Pryolino Press 2010

H. Thomas Foster II. Archaeology of the Lower Muscogee Creek Indians 1715-1836, published by The University of Alabama Press, 2007

Robbie Ethridge. Creek Country, The Creek Indians and Their World, published by the University of North Carolina Press, 2003

Bert W. Bierer. Indian and Artifacts in the Southeast, published by The State Printing Company, Columbia, SC 1977

Amos J. Wright, Jr., Historic Indian Towns in Alabama, 1540-1838 published by University of Alabama Press 2003

Secondary
James D. Horan. North American Indian Portraits, published by Crown Publishers, Inc, 1975

Don C. East. A Historical Analysis of the Creek Indian Hillabee Towns, published by I Universe, Inc, New York 2008.

Claudio Saunt, Black, White, and Indian: Race and the Unmaking of an American Family published by Oxford University Press, 2005

Albert James Pickett, History of Alabama and Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi from the Earliest Period, published in 1851

Remington & Kallson, Historical Atlas of Alabama Volume 1 Historical Locations by County published by University of Alabama, published in 1997

Georgia Archives Rare Map Collection including Dr. John Goff Collection, GA Archives

Vicki Rozema, Footsteps of the Cherokees published by John F. Blair 2007

Personal Communication with Danny K. Crownover, President & Executive Director Etowah Historical Society & Heritage Museum

David Freeman, Carved in Stone, The History of Stone Mountain, published by Mercer University Press, 1997

Parke Rouse, The Great Wagon Road: From Philadelphia to the South. United States, 2004
Alabama Department of Archives and History Historical Maps.

Various Internet searches for place names, people and events

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