The flag of Spain still flew over Florida in the summer of 1817.

Two incidents in early 1817 – the burning of Fort Scott on the Flint River and the murder of the Garrett family near the St. Marys – convinced U.S. Army leaders that Creek and Seminole families would not quietly leave Southwest Georgia.

The region was claimed by the United States per the terms of the Treaty of Fort Jackson, although neither the Fowltown nor the Attapulgus warriors who lived south of the Flint had been parties to that agreement. In fact, only one Red Stick chief had signed the treaty even though it supposedly served as a punitive peace agreement to end the Creek War of 1813-1814. All of the other Creek signers had fought on the side of the United States.

The reoccupation of Fort Scott by Donoho’s artillery company in June 1817 appears to have been defensive in nature. Subsequent actions by the army were clearly taken with the prospect of coming aggressive action in mind, particularly because the Seminoles in Florida either could not or would not surrender the warriors responsible for the attack on the Garrett family.

The Garrett murders took place in February 1817 and were first reported to the Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines by Gen. Archibald Clarke, the Intendant or supervisor of St. Mary’s:

The Clark-Bessant House in St. Mary’s, Georgia. It was the home of Gen. Archibald Clarke, who described the attack on the Garrett family in 1817.

On the 24th instant the house of Mr. Garrett, residing in the upper part of this county, near the boundary of Wayne Co. was attacked, during his absence near the middle of the day, by this party consisting of about fifteen, who shot Mrs. Garrett in two places, and then dispatched her by stabbing and scalping. Her two children, one about three years & the other two months, were also murdered, and the eldest scalped; the house was then plundered of every article of value, and set on fire – a young man in the neighbourhood at work hearing the report of guns went immediately towards the house were he discovered the murdered family. The flames having only commenced were soon extinguished – and he spread the alarm.[i]

Garrett was an overseer on the farm and timber operation of William Barber. One of the slaves, a man named Abram, witnessed the beginning of the attack:

…[O]n Monday the 24th Instant a negro man named Abram, belonging to Wm. Barber went to Mr. Clark’s mill and told the people that he saw six or seven Indians at his master’s place at Spanish Creek (about three miles above the mills) that the Indians went to the door of the Overseer’s House, who was in the woods cutting timber, that the wife of the overseer came to the door, and on seeing them screamed, that two of them shot her in the forehead and shoulder, he does not know what happened afterwards, as he ran to his house, took his child and carried it to the mill.[ii]

The St. Mary’s River as seen from the waterfront at St. Mary’s, Georgia.

Some of the men tried to organize a pursuit but failed to come up with the attackers. Slaves who witnessed the assault reported that “the Indians had red caps and red shirts.” White volunteers who arrived on the scene assumed that the warriors had been painted red, but none of these individuals actually saw them or could say for sure.

The Garrett murders were followed about one-month later by a report from David B. Mitchell, who had replaced the late Benjamin Hawkins as the U.S. Agent for Indian Affairs. He relayed intelligence that “the Red Stick party have commenced their Red Stick dancings again, which is a proof that they mean to commense hostilities.”[iii]

Mitchell also reported that the attack on the Garrett family was likely carried out in retaliation for the recent murder of a Seminole hunter:

…I have no doubt but it was perpetrated in retaliation for the killing of an Indian, about three or four weeks previous, on the Florida side of St. Mary’s river, by some worthless white men who reside on the frontiers of East Florida, and who live by plunder. They have, for some time past, been a perfect nuisance to the frontier of Georgia in that quarter; and, although repeated complaints of their bad conduct have been made to the Governor of the province, yet, from the want of either ability or inclination, they have not been suppressed; but I believe their impunity is attributable to the first, viz: inability on his part to apprehend and punish them.[iv]

Gen. John Floyd commanded militia troops near St. Mary’s in 1817.

The agent’s warning that lawless whites had been killing and plundering along the frontier was supported by Gen. John B. Floyd of the Georgia Militia.  “The misconduct of evil disposed persons on both sides has produced a state of things worse than open war with our red neighbors,” he wrote on June 5, 1817, “which requires a reciprocity of vigorous measures for the restoration of order and tranquility to the respective frontiers.”[v]

His communique included details of one such “vigorous measure” in the form of a report from Major Bailey of the Georgia Militia who had crossed into Spanish Florida with only 24 men and attacked a party of Seminoles:

I deem it expedient to inform you, that on the 20th instant, I left Trader’s Hill, accompanied by twenty four volunteers, in pursuit of cattle lately driven off from this frontier by a party of Indians. We took their trail and followed it to where the Maccasooka path crosses the Suanna river. When about a mile from the river, on the 22d between seven and eight o’clock P.M. we saw the light of a fire which we made for, and found it to proceed from an Indian camp of from 5 to 8 men, who we had no doubt were a party fitted out to do mischief, and then on their way for the frontier settlements. We attacked them at 11 o’clock the same evening, killed one man and wounded others, who were assisted off by their comrades. At this camp, we got three horses and two guns. On the morning of the 23d, we fell in with an Indian trail, which we followed a circuitous route bearing for the big bend of the St. Mary’s – at 9 o’clocm P.M. of the 24th we came up with them at Camp on the waters of St. Mary’s river, and attacked them at day break the next morning, killed two, and wounded several. There were 12 or 15 in number. Here we got two guns and sixteen horses, two of which belong to our citizens. I am happy to state that not one of our party received any injury.[vi]

Such incidents were exacerbated, as least in the eyes of the whites, by the arrival in the Big Bend region of Florida of a Scottish trader named Alexander Arbuthnot. Accompanying him was the long absent Creek prophet Josiah Francis, who had taken passage on Arbuthnot’s schooner in the Bahamas to complete his return from a two year journey to Great Britain. He had tried but failed to secure British military support for the Creek and Seminole Indians of Florida.

I will write more about the arrival of Francis and Arbuthnot in the next article of this continuing series on the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War.

While waiting for the next post, you can learn more about the conflict in this book or by watching the free video below:

[i] Archibald Clark to Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines, February 26, 1817, Andrew Jackson Papers, Library of Congress. (Similar letter sent to Hon. David B. Mitchell, Agent for Indian Affairs, on the same date.)

[ii] William Gibson to Hon. David B. Mitchell, Agent for Indian Affairs, February 26, 1817, Andrew Jackson Papers, Library of Congress.

[iii] Hon. David B. Mitchell to the Secretary of War, March 30, 1817, American State Papers, Indian Affairs, Volume II, pp. 156-157.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Gen. John Floyd to Gov. of Georgia, June 5, 1817, Georgia Journal, June 24, 1817, p. 3.

[vi] Maj. Bailey to Gen. John Floyd to Gov. of Georgia, May 28, 1817, enclosed in Floyd to Gov. of Georgia, June 5, 1817.


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