The outbreak of the First Seminole War edged ever closer during the summer of 1817. Much of the focus of the U.S. Army and government was on one man: Neamathla (Eneah Emathla).
He was the chief of Fowltown (Tutalosi Talofa), an important Lower Creek village that stood along the edge of Four Mile Creek south of present-day Bainbridge, Georgia. It was a new village. Neamathla and his people had relocated twice in less than four years. They hoped now to settle peacefully in the rich lands of today’s Decatur County, Georgia, but it was not to be.
Little is known about the chief prior to 1814 when he allied with the British on Florida’s Apalachicola River during the War of 1812. Later accounts place his age at around 80 in 1836. This would mean that he was around 60 in 1817.
Perhaps the best account of Neamathla was written by Washington Irving. The famed author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow interviewed William P. Duval about his interactions with the chief. Duval, the Territorial Governor of Florida in 1822-1834, met Neamathla as Florida’s capital city of Tallahassee was being established on lands that the chief had occupied following the First Seminole War:
…He was a remarkable man; upward of sixty years of age, about six feet high, with a fine eye, and a strongly-marked countenance, over which he possessed great command. His hatred of white men appeared to be mixed with contempt: on the common people he looked down with infinite scorn. He seemed unwilling to acknowledge any superiority of rank or dignity in Governor Duval, claiming to associate with him on terms of equality as two great chieftains.[i]
Irving’s statement that the chief was unwilling to acknowledge the superiority of the white governor is powerful and shows that Neamathla regarded himself as the equal of any white leader. He also left no doubt about his feelings with regard to the U.S. occupation of his lands:
…This country belongs to the red man; and if I had the number of warriors at my command that this nation once had, I would not leave a white man on my lands. I would exterminate the whole. I can say this to you, for you can understand me: you are a man; but I would not say it to your people. They’d cry out I was a savage, and would take my life. They cannot appreciate the feelings of a man that loves his country.[ii]
Duval was attempting to arrange the movement of Neamathla and his followers from their village site at Tallahassee to a new reservation established for them near the Ochlockonee River in Gadsden County, Florida. The chief’s voice grew louder and louder until it could be heard over the entire village as he made clear that he was willing to fight to the death to defend the lands of his people:
…He held in his hand a long knife, with which he had been rasping tobacco; this he kept flourishing backward and forward, as he talked, by way of giving effect to his words, brandishing it at times within an inch of the governor’s throat. He concluded his tirade by repeating, that the country belonged to the red men, and that sooner than give it up, his bones and the bones of his people should bleach upon its soil.[iii]
Neamathla eventually did put his words into action. He never occupied the tiny reservation established for him in Florida but instead moved up the Chattahoochee River to the surviving part of the Creek Nation. There he became the principal chief of Hitchiti and emerged as one of the principal leaders in the uprising that grew to become the Creek War of 1836.
Captured by U.S. and Alabama militia troops during that war, he was placed in chains and marched west on the Trail of Tears. A U.S. Army officer saw him at that time and wrote that the chief was over 80 years old but never uttered a complaint despite the weight of his chains. He reached what is now Oklahoma during the brutal winter of 1836-1837 and in one of the final mentions of him in U.S. military records was complaining to the army that his people had never received the blankets promised to them and were suffering in the ice and snow.
The brief account recorded by Irving provides remarkable insight to the man who opposed U.S. troops on the Flint River in August 1817.
This series marking the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War will continue.
[i] Washington Irving, “Conspiracy of Neamathla” in The Works of Washington Irving, Author’s Revist Edition, Volume XVI, Woolfer’s Roost, New York, G.P. Putnam, 1863, page 297.
[ii] Ibid., pp. 297-298.
[iii] Ibid., pp. 301-302