The Prophet Josiah Francis in British uniform. He drew this self-portrait during his 1815-1817 visit to Great Britain. Courtesy of the British Museum.

The increase in violence that took place along the Florida-Georgia border during the spring and summer of 1817 was aggravated in the eyes of U.S. officials by the arrival in Florida of two noteworthy individuals, the Scottish trader Alexander Arbuthnot and the Creek prophet Josiah Francis.

Arbuthnot was an unknown figure to the Americans and the story of his life remains still murky 200 years later. He has been identified by some modern writers as Alexander (George) Arbuthnot, who was born in Scotland in 1748 and was 69 years old in 1817. This is consistent with early reports that listed him as “elderly.” The documents produced during his subsequent military trial indicate that he was a trader from New Providence in the Bahamas and was affiliated with the house of Bain, Dunshee & Co. He had at least one adult son, John.

Letters written by Arbuthnot and his associates show that he traveled to Florida from the Bahamas on at least several occasions in 1817-1818. He was on the Suwannee River in January 1817 and by March of that year was at Ochlockonee Sound. He came to know Peter McQueen, a Red Stick leader who had fled into Spanish Florida near the end of the Creek War of 1813-1814, and introduced himself to American authorities at Fort Gaines, Georgia, by writing on McQueen’s behalf to request the return of a former slave named Joe:

A reconstructed blockhouse at Fort Gaines, Georgia. Alexander’s first letter to American authorities was directed to the commanding officer of the post.

When McQueen left Tucky Batche his property was considerable both in negroes and cattle; of the former, ten grown negroes were taken by a half breed man named Barney, nine of which he believes were sold & one a girl is still in possession of said Barney: Twenty able negroes were taken by a Chief named Colonel, or Auche Hatcho – who acts also as an interpreter; and as he never had possession of any of those persons’ property, nor ever did them an injury to his knowledge; he claims as farther proof of your friendship, that you will use your influence in procuring those Negroes for them; And, should they be given up by the persons holding them, there is one faithful Negro among them named Charles who will bring them to him at Okolockne River.[i]

Arbuthnot seems not to have realized the degree of animosity that the United States and traditional leadership of the Creek Nation held for McQueen. “The American headmen and officers that were accustomed to live near him can testify to his civility and good fellowship with them,” he wrote. The American military officers must have found this to be an exceedingly strange statement as McQueen had waged bitter war against them as one of the leaders of the Red Stick movement.

The trader was back in the Bahamas by late May 1817 when he was approached by George Woodbine, a former brevet major in the British Colonial Marines. Woodbine requested that Arbuthnot provide passage to Florida for the Prophet Francis, who had recently arrived Nassau via ship from Great Britain.

This 1823 map of Florida shows many of the sites of the First Seminole War. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The leader of the Red Stick movement that culminated in the Creek War of 1813-1814, Josiah Francis was a native of the Alabama towns which stood around the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers. He was a skilled artisan and trader before he accepted the teachings of the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa and sparked a religious movement among the Upper Creeks. He came to be called Hillis Hadjo (“Maker of Mad Medicine”) and encouraged his thousands of followers to slaughter their livestock and give up everything associated with the whites.

Francis withdrew his family to Florida when the Red Stick movement collapsed in the spring of 1814. He joined the British at Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River and was an eyewitness to the Battle of New Orleans. The Prophet then traveled to Great Britain in June 1815 as an emissary from the Creek, Miccosukee and Seminole groups in Florida. He tried but failed to secure a permanent military and trade alliance with the British.

Arbuthnot returned with him to the Florida coast in June 1817:

…Hillisajo arrived in my schooner, Ocklocknee Sound, last June, and was well received by all the Chiefs and others who came to welcome him home; in consequence of his arrival a talk was held, the substance of which was put on paper, for them, and it was sent, with a pipe of peace, to other nations. Hillisajo wished to return to Nassau with me, but I prevailed upon him to stay in the nation, and to keep them at peace.[ii]

Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River, site of the Forbes & Co. trading post and the “Negro Fort” destroyed by U.S. forces in 1816.

Arbuthnot left the coast on a return voyage to the Bahamas on June 20, 1817. Francis, meanwhile, traveled with his family to the village that his followers had established on the Wakulla River. It was located upstream from the Spanish fort of San Marcos de Apalache.

Employees of the John Forbes & Company trading post on the Apalachicola noted in their letters that the Prophet did try to keep his followers at peace. He was said to be subdued in his demeanor after his return from Great Britain and his attitude was in striking contrast to others who were speaking in favor of war with the United States. There is no evidence that any his warriors took part in the raids that took place along the Georgia frontier during the spring and summer of 1817.

The U.S. Army, meanwhile, was preparing for war. Expect more on troop movements and fort building in the next article of this continuing series marking the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War.

You can learn more about the life and family of the Prophet Francis in the book Milly Francis: The Life & Times of the Creek Pocahontas. It is available here:

[i] Alexander Arbuthnot to the Officer Commanding at Fort Gaines, March 3, 1817, Andrew Jackson Papers, Library of Congress.

[ii] Alexander Arbuthnot to Edward Nicolls, August 26, 1817, published in The Trials of A. Arbuthnot and R.C. Ambrister, London, 1819: pp. 22-27.


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