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The Thousand-Mile Journey...without a map - Part 5

The Journey Home

By Don and Diane Wells, Eddie Lanham ©2014

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

After a 19-day journey through the wilderness, George Washington’s secret agent Col. Marinus Willett escorts Andrew McGillivray, known as “The Emperor of the Creeks,” and 29 Creek chiefs to New York City for Treaty talks with President George Washington. After 24 chiefs sign the Treaty, it’s time for the return trip to take the Creek chiefs and their escorts home.

With the signing of the Treaty of New York, Col. Marinus Willett’s secret mission was completed and he could now return to his previous life in New York City. In 1791 he was again appointed Sheriff of New York County. He remained the sheriff of the county until 1795. In 1807, he became the 48th mayor of New York City.

Since the U.S. Government had brought the Creek chiefs to New York City, Washington considered it his responsibility to get them home again.

Henry Knox, secretary of war, appointed Maj. Caleb Swan to accompany the Creek chiefs back to their homelands, serving as their logistics agent in arranging for this long trip. It was also likely that Knox, already suspicious of Andrew McGillivray, was concerned about the Creek’s principal chief meeting with Spanish officials. Knox wanted to be sure McGillivray was honoring the treaty with his loyalty.

Maj. Swan wrote a journal about his experience on the trip. It was found about 180 years later and published in 1972 by unknown persons in what appears to be a typed manuscript. The account of his journey is entitled, “Journal of Maj. Caleb Swan, U.S.A. 1790, An Early Visitor to Talladega County, Life and Customs of the Creek Indians.” Today, there are very few copies of this journal left in circulation.

Although having used the inland route in coming to New York City, a sea route to St. Marys, Ga. was selected for the return. The chiefs would then go home following Indian Trails across Georgia and Alabama.

ga territorial map Sea Journey to St. Marys Georgia
Swan chartered a schooner vessel to take the chiefs and their other party members to St. Marys. He notes in his journal that the schooner was under the command of a Capt. Smith. The group departed from New York City on 19 August 1790 and arrived in St. Marys on Sept. 2, 1790.

It must have been an interesting experience for the Creek Indians as this was probably their first time to be on a ship at sea. Making things more interesting, the sea journey ended in a near disaster that could have killed some of the chiefs.

Swan notes in his journal that on Sept. 1, 1790, “Capt. Smith imprudently ran the vessel through a large breaker, at the north end of Cumberland Island. The vessel struck on the sands several times, and afterwards went over.”

Perhaps there were some weather problems that made Capt. Smith elect to go between Cumberland Island and the mainland but this channel is very precarious and not a general route to be taken into St. Marys.

The channel into St. Marys is some 18 miles further south at the southern end of Cumberland Island. Swan gave no definition of his meaning of “it went over.” He might have meant that the vessel tipped over spilling all into the sea or on the other hand “went over” the sand bar back into a channel. Whichever way it happened, it was a tough situation for the chiefs.

Swan notes that they all arrived at Capt. Burbeck’s post on Sept. 2, 1790. Capt. Henry Burbeck was an Army officer who had been stationed near St. Marys in 1789 with the job of building a fort at that location.

It is interesting that St. Marys was chosen as the port of entry. Savannah was a much larger port with more services. Also, one of the main Creek Indian trading paths ended in the area of Savannah. However, Savannah was in the State of Georgia, which the Creek Indian party had studiously avoided on the trip north. It was probably prudent to disembark at a different port.

St. Marys had been chartered as a seaport on Nov. 20, 1787, the same year as the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. The British had used this port since the 1770s but had not built it up to be a major seaport.

The St. Marys River—the boundary between the United States and the Spanish colony of Florida –was strategically of great importance. In 1792, four years after its founding and by then a booming port, the Georgia Legislature approved St. Marys as a town in Georgia.

One other stealthy fact about the St. Marys area was that in 1790 there were only 235 white people and 70 Negroes in the entire area between the Altamaha and the St. Marys rivers. Those who lived there preferred to avoid contact with society and had moved into the wilds for greater freedom. There was not a church south of the Altamaha, nor a single public school.

The Spanish arrive
Soon after McGillivray and his fellow chiefs arrived in St. Marys, he was visited by members of the Spanish government from Eastern Florida. They came to meet with him to ensure they still had a binding agreement with the Creek Nation.

In a letter to His Excellency Juan de Quesada of Spain on September 6 while in St. Marys, McGillivray wrote: “In the meantime, you may be assured that no Stipulation and Articles of it (1790 Treaty) in any way clash with or tends to militate against those we have subsisting with Spain and you may further rely on my best exertions to promote and maintain the good harmony and friendship that subsists at present between our nation and the King Provinces of Florida and Louisiana.”

The ink had not dried on the Treaty of New York and McGillivray was already shifting his loyalties between treaty partners.

The Creek Chiefs remained at the fort for six days probably to recover from their sea-going experience. McGillivray mentions in some of his letters that he was suffering from a fever when he got to St. Marys.

On Sept. 8, 1790, they proceeded westward up the St. Marys River to Col. Leonard Marbury’s place and remained there three days. While there they procured horses for their westward journey.

No record can be found as to where Col. Marbury’s place is located but it is likely Traders Hill, south of present day Folkston, Ga. Traders Hill was on a bluff overlooking the St. Marys River and was the location of a trading post serving the Indians in that area. Also, Swan says that they departed from Spanish Creek to head westward.

Spanish Creek enters the St. Marys River at Traders Hill. Several Indian Trails intersect near Traders Hill including the Kinnard Trail and the Ridge Trail, which made it an ideal location for beginning their journey westward.

  1818 background map
  From the port of St. Mary's, Indians finished their return trek on foot.
The journey westward
At Traders Hill, several of the Lower Creek Chiefs decided to go their own way and left several days before the main party left on Sept. 11, 1790. Swan does not comment in his journal which route they took from Traders Hill. However, he does state that for the first 10 days of their journey, they experienced incessant rains.

In South Georgia the terrain is sandy, swampy or a pine barren. Traveling any trail in rain, particularly near swampy grounds, is nearly impossible. The Kinnard Trail ran adjacent to the Okefenokee Swamp and then swung west five miles south of present day Waycross, Ga.

The Ridge Trail went north for a longer distance on higher ground. Then, the traveler would junction with the St. Marys Trail, which headed west passing through Waycross on ground that was still a little higher than the Kinnard Trail.

In view of the incessant rains and the Creek Chiefs desire to remain on higher ground, it’s likely they followed the Ridge Trail and then the St. Marys Trail until the junction with the Kinnard Trail west of Waycross. From there, they followed the Kinnard Trail until a point where the St. Marys Trail turns more northwestward heading toward the Creek Chehaw village. Here they would have switched to the St. Marys Trail.

Normal travel by horseback would be 30 to 35 miles per day in good conditions. For a journey that should have taken three or four days, the Creek Treaty party, averaging only nine to 10 miles a day, arrived 10 days later at the Alapaha River in present day Atkinson County near Willacoochee, Ga.

Swan wrote in his journal: “Came to Alapaha, a branch of the St. Marys River [they may join in Florida], and found it flooded by the late rains for half a mile on each side, over its natural banks. Our present prospects are gloomy; our provisions and clothing wasted and spoiled by rains, our progress impeded by the floods and we are 170 miles advanced from a white settlement.”

At this point in their journey, choosing to travel from Savannah on the Creek Trading Paths probably looked like it might have been a better decision.

The Creek Treaty party remained stranded on the banks of the Alapaha River for four days watching the water continue to rise. Swan notes that they attempted to build a canoe but only had a small hatchet and were unsuccessful. On the fifth day of being stranded, Swan noted the Indians “killed a stray cow and stretched her skin over hoops, into the shape of a bowl” in order to have some means to navigate the river. On the morning of September 26, Swan wrote: “The Indians commenced the business by swimming and towing the skin boat by a string, which they hold in their teeth, getting up a general war hoop, to frighten away the voracious alligators that inhabit the river in vast numbers.”

By late afternoon, the party had made it across the river safely although they had lost four more horses adding to five they had already lost in the first 10 days of the journey. Normally after this many days into their journey, they should have already been almost home.

As luck would have it, the Treaty party ran into a group of Jack Kinnard’s slaves on the west side of the river who were taking horses to St. Marys for sale. The Treaty party bought 15 new horses to allow them to proceed on their already arduous journey.

Coming in June: The journey home frays tempers and tests McGillivray’s intentions as the Spanish pressure him to ignore the treaty with Washington.

See the entire collection of Mountain Stewards articles

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