The Thousnd-Mile Journey...without a map - Part 2

‘Washington secretly plotted to bring the Creek Indian chiefs to New York City’


By Don and Diane Wells, Eddie Lanham © 2014
This is a true story about President George Washington’s attempt in 1790 to prevent a war with the Creek Indians. Employing the skills of his spy Col. Marinus Willett, Washington secretly plotted to bring the Creek Indian chiefs to New York City to resolve the conflict. He hoped to win the Indians’ agreement to a new treaty without any interference from Georgia’s political leaders.

Previous attempts to prevent bloodshed between the Creek Indians and Georgians failed in 1785 at the meeting in Galphinton and again in 1786 after the Creeks signed a Treaty at Sholderbone on the Oconee then considered it null and void because they felt forced to sign it.

  Alexander McGillivray as King of the Creek Indians from sketch by John Trumball, 1790.

Washington’s Commissioners came back to Georgia in September 1789 to try again to reach a settlement but Alexander McGillivray, principal chief of the Creek Indians—the key to any solution with the Creeks—backed out of the negotiations and returned to his home.
McGillivray--the son of Lachlan McGillivray, a Scot trader from Augusta, Ga., and Sehay Marchand, a mixed blood Creek of the powerful Wind Clan in Little Tallasee—was the principal chief, the most powerful of all the Creek chiefs. Peace was unlikely without his consent.

The McGillivarys had been traders with the Creek Indians since the early 1700s and were loyalists of the British with plantations in Augusta, Ga. and Charleston, S. C.. Educated in Charleston and capable of speaking numerous languages including Muskogee, McGillivray moved to Little Tallassee (near present day Montgomery, Ala.) in 1777 soon after the colonists started revolting against the British government. In May 1781, the new American government confiscated the McGillivray family’s plantations.

In 1783, at age 33, McGillivray became principal chief of the Creeks. As principal chief, he spoke for the Creeks but with the general consent of all the tribal chiefs. In 1784, he signed a treaty of alliance with Spain, pledging that the Creeks and Seminoles would defend the cause of Spain. Upon signing the Treaty of Pensacola, he became a Spanish commissary with the rank and pay of a colonel.


A pathless wilderness?

In his book, “The Chickasaw Nation, A Short Sketch of a Noble People” (published in 1922), James Malone stated:

“The expression often used with respect to the condition of this country at the time of its discovery, as being a pathless wilderness, has in it scarcely a vestige of truth. The trails or traces of the Indians extended hundreds of miles in all directions and they crisscrossed each other over the whole continent and over these the Indians constantly traveled on continuous trips thousands of miles.

The Chickasaws were great travelers, and thought nothing of going to the far West, over their trails to Mobile on the Gulf, to Savannah and Charleston on the Atlantic, and to the Great Lakes in the far North, where they waged furious warfare with the Iroquois.”

Jerry Wolfe, elder of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, told us that Indian trails were either a two-foot or a four-foot wide trail. The two-foot trails were obviously used to travel in a single file whereas the four-foot trails could accommodate horses and small wagons.

In his Journal on Aug 1837, when he was visiting the Cherokee Middle Towns in now North Carolina, British-American geologist, geographer and surveyor George W. Featherstonbaugh, stated:

“After sunrise, we mounted again and directed our course to the town of Franklin, in Macon County, North Carolina, intending from thence to proceed to the Cherokee settlements. Our way led through a succession of vales separated from each other by mountains of highly micaceous gneiss* The country was perfectly wild, without any roads but obscure Indian trails almost hidden by the shrubs and high grass.”

The Chickasaws were great travelers, and thought nothing of going to the far West, over their trails to Mobile on the Gulf, to Savannah and Charleston on the Atlantic, and to the Great Lakes in the far North, where they waged furious warfare with the Iroquois.”

*Gneiss is a metamorphic rock form characterized by banding caused by segregation of different types of rock, typically light and dark silicates.

The critical mission
President Washington sent his secret agent 500 miles into the wilderness to reason with McGillivray and set the stage for a peace treaty. Benjamin Hawkins, then a senator from North Carolina, dispatched a letter to McGillivray asking him to meet with Washington’s representative to discuss a treaty with the Creek Indians.

Willett arrived in Charleston aboard a sloop then left in early April with a sulky and a horse he rode, traveling west for 11 days to reach General Pickens’ Plantation on the Seneca River in South Carolina.

Earlier Pickens, one of Washington’s Commissioners, had tried to negotiate the Treaty on the Oconee River. A well-respected man, Pickens helped Willet prepare for his trip into Creek Territory. He hired Young Corn, a Cherokee Indian guide and provided additional horses and supplies.

On the morning of April 19, 1790, Willett along with a servant and guide left Pickens’ Plantation on Pickens’ ferry, crossing the Seneca River then heading south into unknown territory.

In his journal, Willett described his travels, listing towns and places visited but didn’t name the trails he used. Since the Mountain Stewards Trail Mapping Program has mapped the Indian Trails in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, we can make some educated guesses about which trails the Willett party followed. The extracted trails from the surveyed maps are mostly from the early 1800s; we assumed travelers in 1790 had access to the same trails: typically four to six feet wide dirt trails with rocky impediments and little improvement.

Travel with horse and sulky averaged about three miles an hour so estimates of daily travel distances were 25 to 35 miles a day, depending on weather. Water was a precious commodity so stopping periodically for refreshment for horses and travelers was important.

Willett states that his first day’s journey took him from Pickens’ Plantation to Colonel Cleveland’s Plantation at the fork of the Tugaloo River and Chauga Creek in what is now Oconee County, South Carolina. That location, known today as Old Madison, South Carolina is the area where the Lower Cherokee Village of Tugaloo existed before it was burned in the 1760s. Willett’s route would have taken him south along a major trail to a place now known as Townville and then west to the Cleveland Plantation on the Tugaloo, a total distance of about 27 miles.

From Col. Cleveland’s, Willett went to Sautee-Nacoochee, a Cherokee village near present day Helen.  Because of some difficulties along the way, it took one and a half days to cover 32 miles. The route likely followed the Unicoi Trail, which begins at Travelers Rest on the Georgia side of the Tugaloo. Taking the ferry across the Tugaloo, Willett’s party would have followed the trail west through present day Toccoa and Clarksville.

In Sautee-Nacoochee, Willett bought corn for his horses, paying in ribands, most likely quality English ribbon, which would have been a trade item for the Cherokees who lived in the village. Willett noted that at the time of his visit there were about 17 houses at the village. From Sautee-Nacoochee, he traveled to the Cherokee village of Little Chotee and camped in the vicinity of what is today Cleveland, Ga.

The next day’s travel took him to a village of Huntoweekee. This village, while not listed on any historical maps, is described by Willett as being a new town with 50 houses located on each side of the Cousa River. Since there isn’t any Cousa River in that part of Georgia, he may have been referring to the Etowah River, which flows southwest and joins the Coosa River near Rome. The village was probably northwest of present day Dahlonega.

Willett's route through Georgia to find the Creek Indian chiefs. Map by Don Wells

After purchasing more corn for his horses with ribands and paint, Willet traveled another eight miles and camped for the night. Since there were few recorded trails in this area shown on the survey maps of 1817 and 1832, we don’t know the exact path Willett’s party followed.

The next day the party reached the Cherokee village of Long Swamp, located at the confluence of Long Swamp Creek and the Etowah River near present day Ball Ground.  Willett’s journey would have taken him through present day Pickens County.

At the Long Swamp village, Willett met with Thomas Gogg, a trader who lived in the Cherokee village of Pine Log some 25 miles west of Long Swamp. Guided by Gogg, Willett’s party traveled to the Pine Log village, the area now known as Rt. 140 west of Waleska on Pine Log Creek. There he was greeted by Yellow Bird, chief of the Pine Log village. Yellow Bird later received the title of Major when he led the Cherokee fighters in support of Andrew Jackson in the Creek and Seminole Indian Wars in 1814–1818.

  ga territorial map 1783

The road to McGillivray
From Pine Log, the route to the Creeks led southwest but Willett traveled northwest to the Cherokee village of Euestenaree, which Willett states was on the Coosa River but was probably on the Coosawattee River just northeast of present day Calhoun.

Willet had a letter of introduction (probably supplied by General Pickens) to Badger and Jobberson, the two chiefs of that village. We believe the letter asked for their help to bring Willett into the Creek territory. James Carey, a white man who served as an interpreter for the Indians also lived in the village. Carey and Chief Jobberson agreed to help Young Corn guide Willett to McGillivray.

The party left Euestenaree and returned to Pine Log before heading due west to the Cherokee village of Hightower, located on the Etowah River near present day Rome. The following day they crossed the Etowah River and continued south toward present day Cedartown. Since there was no ferry near the Hightower village, Willett crossed the Hightower (Etowah) River in a canoe.

Willett mentions that, even though they had several guides, the party was lost for a while. He camped 25 miles south of Hightower on the first night near Cedartown, Ga. Willett’s description of his four-day journey from Hightower to the Creek Indian towns is rather sparse making it hard to determine his exact route.

Today’s maps don’t list any mountains known as Pumpkin Posk but there is a Pumpkin Creek west of Cedartown near the Alabama line. Willett stated the mountains his party crossed were about three-miles wide and a mountain range just inside Alabama meets this description.  

After crossing over these mountains, Willett’s party traveled for several days making about 35 miles per day. Likely, his party traveled west of the Choccolocco Mountain range traveling southwest and passing through the area of present day Piedmont, Anniston and Oxford, Alabama. There is also the possibility that he traveled east of the Choccolocco Mountains as there are Indian Trails on that side of the mountain as well as west of the mountain.

Four days after leaving Hightower, the party reached the first Creek Indian village, likely one of the Hillabee towns; depending on his route of travel, he could have been at Lanudshi Apala or Entochapco. The Creek Confederacy consisted of numerous tribes speaking seven different languages. The Hillabees, originally located near Savannah and later moved to Alabama, were one of these tribes who spoke the Muscogee language. There were five satellite towns centered around the Mother Town.

In his journal, Willett writes that on the fourth day, after traveling 12 miles, he reached the first Creek village and then rode three more miles to the home of a “Mr. Scott.” This was probably Thomas Scott, a Scotsman, trader and large landowner among the Hillabees. He came to the area in 1776 with Robert Grierson, the principal trader of Hillabee towns, who was a Scotsman and Creek Indian.

Scott told Willett that McGillivray was currently located in Oakfuskee about 30 miles from Scott’s home. Willett rode another eight miles to the Hillabee Creek Mother Town and Robert Grierson’s trading post.

McGillivray, who had received a letter from North Carolina Senator Benjamin Hawkins with a request to meet with Washington’s representative, had traveled north from his home to meet Willett.

Part 3, Coming in March: Willett and McGillivray finally connect at the Hillabee Mother Town. Willett now begins his mission of convincing McGillivray and the Creek Indian chiefs to leave their homes and travel north to meet with President Washington.

About the authors

  L-R, Don and Diane Wells, Eddie Lanham

“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.



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

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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