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The Thousand-Mile Journey...without a map - Part 3

‘Will Col. Willett convince the Creek Chiefs to meet with the American president?’


By Don and Diane Wells, Eddie Lanham © 2014
After traveling through the wilderness for 19 days George Washington’s secret agent finally reached “The Emperor of the Creeks”: the one person with the power to prevent another war between the Creek Indians and Georgia settlers.

On April 20, 1790 Col. Marinus Willett arrived at the Hillabee Mother Town, connecting with Andrew McGillivray and determined to convince him and the Creek Indian Chiefs to come to New York City to meet with President George Washington.

  A model of the Creek Indian village of Tuckabachee created by Richard Thornton. This was a "Mother" town so it had great importance; Willett met with the regional chiefs here to present Washington’s treaty appeal. The Village Square, in the center of the town, was the meeting place for discussions, announcements and news important to the chiefs and people of the tribes. This is where the men would have performed the "Black Drink" ceremony before listening to the speaker. Each town of importance had a town square structure.

Willett—a proven military leader and loyal supporter of Washington and his fledgling American government—was about to engage in a battle of wills with Andrew McGillivray, principal chief of the Creek Indians. . . . and a secret ally of Spain and Britain.  

Willett provided McGillivray with a letter of introduction from President Washington. Later, he reported to Washington that he had been received cordially by McGillivray and the Griersons. He observed that McGillivray “was a man of an open, candid, generous mind, with a good judgment, and a very tenacious memory.”

In spite of his young age and poor health McGillivray had the respect of all the Creek chiefs who considered him "The Emperor of the Creeks"; he was the leading American Indian figure of his day.

The Creek Nation was a confederacy; every chief had a say before actions were approved but McGillivray’s command presence swayed the chiefs, allowing him to negotiate with other nations or business partners for the good of the Creek nation. The only known mention McGillivray made about his meeting with Willett was in a letter to William Panton, the English Trader of the Panton, Leslie & Company in Pensacola on May 8, 1790:

"I have to announce to you the arrival of an Ambassador from New York, a Col. Marinus Willett expressly sent by President Washington. This officer during the War was particularly distinguished for enterprise and success, and since filled respectable offices. I find him just as General Pickens, a Candid and benevolent character, possessing abilities but without Show or parade."

The gathering of the Creek Confederacy
To convince the Creek Chiefs to come to New York City to sign a treaty, Willett had to negotiate a wild tangle of competing major territorial issues. It was anything but easy.  
The Treaty of Pensacola, which McGillivray had signed with the Spanish government in 1784, recognized Muscogee sovereignty over three million acres of land claimed by Georgia. Under that treaty, McGillivray received a commission of colonel in the Spanish Army with a salary of $50 per month. He was also a partner with Panton, Leslie & Co., a British firm in Pensacola where he used his control over the deer skin trade to expand his power.

Under his alliance with the Spanish Government he had agreed to use the Creek Nation to help the Spanish block expansion of the new American government.

In meeting with the US government’s representative, McGillivray had nothing to lose and much to gain if the United States wanted to up the stakes for him.

In his book “McGillivray of Creeks,” (University of Oklahoma Press, 1938) John Walton Maughey published a collection of letters from McGillivray to Spanish government officials, owners of the Patton & Leslie Company in Pensacola and others with whom he had signed treaties and business agreements.

All were concerned about the visit of Washington’s agent because it might upset their agreements and relationships with the Creek Nation. McGillivray, in his letters to these political allies, assured them he would do nothing to harm these relationships but he was concerned that if he did not sign some treaty with the US government, the Americans might begin a war against the Creek Nation.

Black Drink Ceremony
Willett and McGillivray remained at the Hillabee village for two days. During that time Willett was introduced to the Black Drink ceremony. For the Muscogee Creeks as well as the Seminoles, the Black Drink Ceremony was an extremely important event.

The drink, made from dried or roasted leaves of the Yaupon Holly, has emetic properties. When consumed in large quantities it caused vomiting. Its purpose was cleansing the body, which the Creeks believed prepared them to be ready for discussions of matters of importance to the tribe.

The Muscogee Creeks used this drink in all important ceremonies. For example, the Black Drink was used in four-day purgations and fasting events to cleanse the body in order to prepare it for a new year.

In the center of each village was a square with seats arranged facing each other. The rows further back from the front were raised so all could see. Members of the tribe and guests gathered in the seats and the Black Drink was boiled in the center of the square. When the drink was ready, the warriors of the tribe poured the drink into gourds and, after having drunk themselves, they administered the drink to all in attendance until it was gone.

  The Yaupon Holly used in the Black Drink ceremony.  The black drink usually contained  emetic herbs, used to induce vomiting. While the recipe can vary between tribes, and the full formula is not published or given to outsiders, a prominent ingredient in many formulas is the roasted leaves and stems of Ilex vomitoria (commonly known as Yaupon Holly) native to the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.[1] An example of the black drink is the Muscogee ássi.
It is likely that the Black Drink ceremony was held at the Hillabee town to prepare for the major decisions that would have to be made if the tribe were to go to New York to sign a treaty.

A Consensus Option of the Chiefs
In 1783 only two Creek Chiefs had signed the Treaty of Augusta ceding Creek lands between the Ogeechee and Oconee Rivers. McGillivray and the remaining Chiefs did not recognize that treaty since they all did not sign it.

This illegal treaty became a major problem between the Creeks and the state of Georgia. If the chiefs were to agree to go to New York to sign a treaty, all had to agree and all or a selected number of chiefs would have to go to sign the treaty.

Gathering a consensus of the chiefs required visiting all tribes of the confederacy and convincing them of the value of this proposed treaty. McGillivray appeared to support Willett and the possible treaty with Washington despite his animosity toward the colonists and his allegiance with the Spanish.

On May 3, 1790, McGillivray, Willett and the rest of their combined party began the journey throughout the Creek Nation. At each village they visited, they often attended a Black Drink ceremony. They ventured first to a town called Fish Pond and then to McGillivray’s home at Hickory Ground.

Broken Sticks or Broken Days
In 1790, communication to the many tribal elements of the Creek Nation spread across hundreds of miles in what is now Georgia and Alabama, requiring a different approach. Their communication method was known as Broken Days or Broken Sticks.

The person setting up the meeting would make bundles of small sticks, one for each day before the meeting was to take place. A runner, usually from the Deer Clan (Itchualgi), would take a bundle to the chief of each tribal unit required at the meeting and tell them verbally where it was to be held. The chief would throw away one stick each day which would let them know when to be at the appointed place for the meeting.

The Deer Clan runners were swift and could run alongside of a horse at a gallop for hours. They were thought to be able to cover about 60 miles a day! It was a surprisingly effective method of communication. 

  ga territorial map 1783
  1783 Georgia territorial map
The Creek Nation Lower Towns were mostly located along the Chattahoochee, Flint, Ocmulgee, Oconee, and Altamaha Rivers. For Willett and McGillivray to visit each of these towns to discuss the proposed treaty would take too much time. Therefore, McGillivray sent runners with broken sticks to each town and called for a meeting at the Lower Town of Ositchy just south of present day Columbus, Ga. on the west side of the Chattahoochee River. The meeting was set for 10 days from the day the runners left.

Willett and McGillivray and their party left Hickory Ground on May 12, 1790 and went first to Tuckabatchee on the Tallapoosa east of Hickory Ground to speak to the chiefs in that location. From there, they continued eastward stopping to speak with the chiefs of the villages along the Tallapoosa and other rivers.

On May 15, they arrived at the Cowetas and Cussutas, both Mother Towns for the Creek Indians and spoke to the chiefs there. On Monday, May 17, they arrived at Ositchy, 10 days after the broken sticks had been sent, to speak to all the Lower Town Chiefs. As had occurred in many of the previous town meetings, they first attended a Black Drink ceremony in the town square followed by Willett addressing the Chiefs with this message from George Washington.

“Brothers, I come to you from our beloved town by order of our beloved chief, George Washington, to invite you to a treaty of peace and friendship at a council fire in our beloved city.

“Brothers, our beloved chief, who wishes prosperity to the red people, as well as to the white, has directed me to advise you that he is very desirous of forming a lasting treaty of peace and amity with your nation. That in order to do this effectually, it is his wish to have his own name, and the name of your beloved chief, fixed to the treaty, that it may be strong and lasting.

“Brother, I am very pointedly instructed to inform you that the United States wants none of your lands; that effectual measures will be taken to secure them all to you by our beloved chief; who has an army sufficiently strong to punish all such as may presume to act contrary to any treaty which he, in conjunction with your beloved chief, may make.

“Brothers, our beloved chief is ready to agree with your beloved chief to secure to your lands; to promote your trade by affording you means of procuring goods in a cheap and easy way; to do all such things as will contribute to promote the welfare and happiness of your nation.

“Brothers, I stand before you as a messenger of peace. It is your interest and it is our interest, that we should live in peace and with each other.

“I promise myself, that you will attend to this friendly invitation; and that your beloved chief, and such other chiefs and warriors as you may chose for that purpose, will repair with me to the council fire, that is kindled in our beloved town, that we may form a treaty, which shall be strong as the hills and lasting as the rivers.”

After the Lower Town Chiefs conferred with each other, they delivered a positive response to Willett. Selected chiefs from the Lower Towns would accompany him to Washington. After speaking to the Lower Towns, McGillivray and Willett arrived back on May 20 at Tuckabatchee. Here Willett delivered the same address to the Chiefs of the Upper Towns who also accepted the invitation. Having secured an agreement among all the Creek Chiefs, McGillivray and Willett returned to McGillivray’s home at Hickory Ground (Little Tallassee) Willett dispatched a letter to George Washington to inform him of his success and to set a date for coming to New York.

Part 4 Coming in April, Col. Marinus Willett escorts the Creek Indian Chiefs to New York City where President George Washington is determined to have them sign a peace treaty.

See Parts 1 and 2


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