The movement of the Alachua Seminoles and their African or black allies from Paynes Prairie in Central Florida to the west side of the Suwannee River marked the first time that the widely dispersed bands of Native Americans in Florida concentrated their population into a single part of Florida.
This movement was occasioned by the “Patriot War” in East Florida. A group of United States citizens – along with a few allies already living in Florida – crossed the St. Mary’s River and declared an insurrection against the government of Spain in 1812. They called themselves Patriots and intended to surrender the province to the United States as soon as they captured it. The Spanish governor in St. Augustine convinced the Alachua Seminoles to join his troops in resisting the American invasion.
The Alachua, led by their principal chief Payne, carried out raids on the Patriots and joined in the bloody defeat of U.S. troops at Twelve Mile Swamp north of St. Augustine. The American soldiers had entered Florida to accept and occupy land surrendered to them by the Patriots.
The involvement of the Alachua Seminole and their black allies in the war led to an unexpected invasion of the colony by the State of Tennessee. The expedition was led by Col. John Williams. He later commanded the 39th U.S. Infantry and served in the United States Senate prior to his political defeat at the hands of Andrew Jackson.
What the Alachua had done that the people of Tennessee found so alarming was to defeat a similar group of Georgians led by Col. Daniel Newnan. That force had invaded Seminole country only to be badly beaten at Newnan’s Defeat, an engagement also remembered as the Battle of Payne’s Prairie. Williams planned to avenge Newnan by carrying the fight to Paynes Prairie, a vast plain on the southern edge of what is now Gainesville, Florida. The prairie region had been the home of the Alachua group since Florida’s British era (1763-1783).
One thing that the frontiersmen had learned from Newnan’s Defeat was that the “Negroes, who are their best soldiers,” would fight hard against any attack on the Alachua country. Combined with the Alachua warriors, they made a powerful fighting force.
Williams was the adjutant general of the Tennessee militia when he called for volunteers to join him in attack the Seminoles of Florida. Each man was to bring a musket or rifle, pair of pistols, tomahawk and butcher knife. Each was to come dressed in pantaloons, black hunting shirt, black hat and boots or shoes with leggings. Each was to come well-mounted and ready to ride.
The Tennessee politician believed that Spain had committed a war crime by forming a military alliance with the Seminoles:
…War now ranges in our land – A deranged Monarch, venal Prince, and a corrupt Ministry, have driven us to assert our rights, at the point of a bayonet. They have enlisted under their banners the savages, those hell hounds fitted only for the deeds of ferocity, who seek victory by the indiscriminate slaughter of all ages and sexes. (1)
Williams and his Tennesseans marched south through snow and bitter cold in December 1812 and arrived on the St. Mary’s River that divided Spanish Florida from the United States shortly before New Year’s Day. They were forced to wait there for more than one month by U.S. authorities who were concerned about the legal repercussions of allowing a state (Tennessee) to invade a foreign country.
An influential Milledgeville newspaper, the Georgia Journal, even questioned the need for military action:
…They propose to restore not only the property of the whites, but to deliver up all offenders against our laws. Could we ask – could they do more? Why then make war upon hem? Why drive them from their homes and firesides, perhaps to utter ruin, a poor, defenseless, miserable race of beings, who are supplicating, as it were, mercy upon their knees? (2)
The administration of President James Madison in Washington, D.C., however, was having none of such talk. The President had covertly supported the Patriot invasion and clearly coveted the Floridas. He also feared that Spain would form an alliance with Great Britain in the War of 1812. This would allow Florida to be used as a base of operations for attacks on the U.S. frontier.
Washington did not immediately answer questions from authorities on the frontier but later made clear that the invasion by the Tennessee troops was authorized. U.S. Army officers took the Administration’s silence as approval for the action to go forward, despite the known desire of the Seminoles to make peace.
The Tennessee volunteers crossed into Spanish Florida on February 3, 1813. Lt. Col. Thomas A. Smith of the U.S. Army was ordered to support their operations with 220 soldiers. He was further instructed by Gen. Thomas Flournoy to burn any Native American property that could not be carried away, to take their cattle and to execute any black warriors captured with arms. Any other captured blacks were to be brought back to Georgia as prisoners of war.
The two forces joined on the scene of Newnan’s Defeat near present-day Rochelle, Florida, on February 7, 1813. They moved forward down the eastern rim of Paynes Prairie that evening and camped three miles from Payne’s Town. The troops advanced at 4 a.m. the next morning and charged the town, which they found abandoned. Payne himself had died the previous year and leadership of the Alachua now rested on the shoulders of his brother Bolek.
Likely realizing that whites would return in larger force after the Seminole victory at the Battle of Payne’s Prairie, the chief had withdrawn most of his people from the prairie about three weeks prior to the arrival of the Tennessee and U.S. troops. A small party of Native Americans was surprised near Payne’s Town. Two women and an elderly man were killed in the indiscriminate fire directed at them by the whites.
The largest battle took place on February 10 when Williams and his Tennesseans set out in search of Boleck’s town. Seminoles fired on them from the cover of a thick hammock and swamp. The volunteers returned the fire and a sharp clash between the two sides erupted. The battle continued until about dark when the Alachua slipped away having bloodied Williams’ command.
The troops remained in the Paynes Prairie area until February 17, spending their time rounding up horses and cows and destroying Native American property. They burned several important towns. The official estimate of damage inflicted on the Seminoles included 386 houses burned or destroyed, 1,500-2,000 bushels of corn captured, 400 head of cattle and 300 horses were taken and 2,000 deer skins were confiscated or destroyed. It was a devastating blow, despite the fact that Boleck never engaged the whites in the key battle that they sought.
Nine Native Americans and blacks were captured and taken away by the whites. Several of them had been wounded. The returning soldiers and volunteers also described how the bodies of those killed at Newnan’s defeat had been mutilated by the Seminoles. Heads had been cut off and nailed to trees around Payne’s Town. Scalps were found in Indian cabins.
Boleck withdrew his people across the Suwannee River and established a new settlement in the vicinity of Old Town in Dixie County. The African or Black Seminoles built a new town in the northern part of the of the community while the Native Americans settled in a large centrally located town. The river provided a natural defense against more attacks from the whites on the St. Mary’s while to the west were the powerful Miccasukee.
The existence of Suwannee Old Town is noted today by a historical marker. It is located on US 98/19 near the center of Old Town.
Paynes Prairie is now preserved as Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. Click here for more information.
(1) Clarion, November 23, 1812.
(2) Georgia Journal as quoted by the Charleston Courier, March 3, 1813.
Note: This account of Williams’ raid is based largely on Rembert W. Patrick’s 1954 book Florida Fiasco. It is available for purchase from Amazon by clicking here: Florida Fiasco: Rampant Rebels on the Georgia-Florida Border, 1810-1815.