Creek warriors, driven from their homes in Alabama and on the verge of starvation, swept down on the Apalachicola River settlements of Estiffanulga and Ricco’s Bluff on the late afternoon of May 10, 1839.
The Second Seminole War was then underway in Florida but the attacks were more a continuation of the Creek War of 1836 than part of the Seminole conflict.
The coordinated assaults came quickly and without warning:
It becomes our painful duty to give publicity to a most horrible butchery committed by a body of Creeks, who have for some time been in the fastnesses of the Ocklockony, between Tallahassee and the Apalachicola, and to expel whom every effort of the Governor and militia have been in vain, by attacking simultaneously the settlements of Stefanulgee and Rico’s Bluff, distant from this city on the Apalachicola river, 20 to 100 miles. (Apalachicola Gazette, May 14, 1839)
The war parties had emerged from the vast wilderness of today’s Apalachicola National Forest and Tate’s Hell State Forest, a region of wetlands, woods and prairies to which they had fled after escaping from an emigration camp near present-day Sneads in Jackson County, Florida.
Embittered against the whites for attacks on them and the execution-style murders of some of their wives and children, the warriors emerged from their hidden camps to exact revenge upon the settlers of what would become Liberty County, Florida. The Roberts family at Ricco’s Bluff was just settling down for dinner when the twilight exploded with gunfire:
It appears that on the evening of Tuesday, 10th inst. about twilight, a party of Indians, supposed to number fifteen or twenty, attacked the house of Mr. Roberts, at Rico’s, by firing upon the inmates through the doors and windows. The family fled. Mr. Roberts, together with his wife and several children, effected their escape by taking to the woods. One child was killed before they got away, and another, who was asleep in an out-room, was forgotten in the hurry of flight. Mr. Lamb, who had sometimes acted as an interpreter between the Indians and the whites, was mortally wounded, and though he escaped from the Indians, died soon after reaching Apalachicola, of his wounds. Mr. Lamb recognized several of the Indians, knew them to be of the Creek band, and was also equally certain that there was a white man among them. (Apalachicola Gazette, May 18, 1839)
Estiffanulga, where the second attack took place, was the former base of the notorious adventurer and pirate William Augustus Bowles:
About the same time that this party made their attack upon Roberts, another party, apparently about the same number, attacked the house of Smith of Estefenulgee. At this house were Mr. N. and J., Mrs. N. Smith and their three children, and another individual, name not recollected. The Indians commenced their attack by firing in upon the family, who were at supper. Mrs. Richards was known to have been shot at the first fire. She fell forward with her face upon the table. The balance of the family fled to the woods. All the grown people escaped, and all the children were left behind. Their screams were heard by their flying parents, but no protection could be afforded them. Those who escaped from both settlements remained in the woods during the night. (Apalachicola Gazette, May 18, 1839).
In the confusion and terror that followed, the Creeks captured several children at Estiffanulga. Their parents and others hiding in the nearby woods could hear the screams of the little ones as they were thrown by their captors into the flames of the burning house.
Subsequent accounts indicate that as many as 20 people died at the two settlements. None of them Creek warriors.
The survivors of the attack on Ricco’s Bluff hid in the woods until they were able to signal the steamboat Commerce, which was making her way down to Apalachicola with the the latest mail delivery. The captain took them aboard and did his best to comfort and help them.
At Estiffanulga, survivors likewise hid in the woods while they waited for the Creeks to depart, but the warriors remained on the scene for more than 24 hours. The adults finally slipped away in a small boat.
The steamer Irwinton left Apalachicola heading upstream just a few hours the Commerce arrived there with the survivors from Ricco’s Bluff. A party of armed volunteers came aboard at Iola, a community on the west bank of the river just north of the Chipola Cut-off, hoping to rescue the children at Estiffanulga.
The reached the scene in a few hours:
…It was found that the houses of both Smith and Roberts had been burned, and the bodies of the killed had been shockingly mutilated and thrown into the fire. Two little girls from eight to ten years old, were found alive unhurt. They had fled with the others on the alarm, and secreted themselves in the woods, and had remained there from Friday to Sunday afternoon, without food. They were found near each other, though unconscious of each other’s presence. They both unite in saying that the Indians remained in the neighborhood till Saturday night. (Apalachicola Gazette, May 18, 1839)
The two children were hungry and shaken. One of them had grown desperate for food and had tried to obtain a few ears of dry corn:
…One of the little girls relates that she came near being surprised by them on Saturday. She had crawled to the crib to get some corn to appease her hunger. She fell asleep on the shucks and when awakened she beheld the Indians with their torches, approaching the crib. She again crept softly away, and concealed herself in the grass, until she could effect a retreat to her hiding place in the woods. (Apalachicola Gazette, May 18, 1839).
The two girls were not the only survivors. Two young boys named Smith and Richards, ages 11 and 9 respectively, also reached the safety of the woods but could not find their parents. They set off for Aspalaga, the nearest town, arriving after a 40 mile trip through the woods.
The youngest of these two boys was Jehu Richards. His name and the story of his harrowing escape became popular in the folklore of the Wewahitchka area. The Richards family settled just south of there at the old Fort Place not long after the attack. The little fort that they built to protect themselves against future raids was described in the first issue of the Florida Historical Quarterly.
The other children from the Richards and Smith families died in the attack:
…The remains of the other children were found. One appeared to have been shot while running; the others, it would seen from the situation of their remains, as well as from the current account of the little girls, who heard their screams, had been caught and thrust into the burning house. (Apalachicola Gazette, May 18, 1839).
The Estiffanulga and Ricco’s Bluff raids came at a time when the U.S. Army had very few men in the Apalachicola River valley. The only regular force in the area at the time was a small detachment at the U.S. Arsenal in Chattahoochee and these could not march out and leave that facility unprotected. The Florida Militia tried to respond with a unit from Apalachicola, but it took days to get organized:
…On Monday another party left this place on board the Commerce, in quest of the savages. They proceeded to the U.S. Arsenal at Chattahoochee for arms, and were fortunate enough to meet at that place our public spirited Mayor, on whose guarantee the arms were delivered. If it had not been for this fortunate occurrence, it is presumed the expedition would have failed for lack of arms. Thus provided, the company proceeded to the neighbourhood where the Indians were supposed to have remained. They have not yet returned. (Apalachicola Gazette, May 18, 1839).
The Apalachicola company, let by Major Rowlett, failed to come up with the warriors responsible for the attacks but did bury the dead and scout the area before returning their borrowed arms to the arsenal and heading for home.
The warriors responsible for the attacks on Estiffanulga and Ricco’s Bluff likely came from Pascofa’s band of Creek Indians. This chief had led his people from an emigration camp on the river in Jackson County during the darkest hours of night to avoid being sent west on the Trail of Tears. He continued to resist until 1843 and became the last major Creek chief east of the Mississippi to surrender to U.S. forces.
I will write more about Pascofa’s band soon but for the sake of understanding why they carried out attacks such as the ones at Ricco’s and Estiffanulga, a brief explanation of their history is necessary. Listen to it by clicking play on this video:
The victims of the 1839 attacks remain buried in unmarked graves. Liberty County road crews may have found some of them nearly 100 years later in 1934. Six graves were uncovered in the middle of Old River Road on the Fenn place during “dragging” or grading that year. The sheriff came to investigate and determined that two burial spots had been disturbed, one containing the graves of two men and one containing four other graves all placed close together. The graves of the two men contained brass buttons dating from the early 1800s.
A nearby tree was cut down some time later and a flint spear or knife point and lead musket shot were found grown into the trunk. A scattering of 19th century coins was also found in an adjacent field.
While these discoveries can not be positively associated with the attacks, there is a reasonable thought.
No traces remain of the burned frontier homes at either Estiffanulga or Ricco’s Bluff today. Even the memories of the bloody attacks have faded away.
by Dale Cox
February 15, 2017