While the strength of the earthquake felt on the night of December 10, 1817 surprised people across the borderlands, the sudden appearance of emissaries from a Red Stick leader at Fort Scott earlier in the day had greater immediate implications. (For more on the earthquake, please see “The shock of an Earthquake was distinctly felt”).
This article is part of Seminole War 200th, a continuing series that marks the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War.
The U.S. attacks on Fowltown followed by the Native American reprisal against Lt. Richard W. Scott’s command shook the frontier as surely as did the earthquake of December 10, 1817. While the chiefs and warriors of many of the Muscogee (Creek) towns along the lower Chattahoochee River set out to join the Miccosukee, Seminole and Red Stick army forming in Florida as soon as they received news of the Battle of Fowltown, others feared the calamity that war would bring to their people. U.S. armies would march through their towns in order to reach the warring forces and they knew that widespread devastation would be the result.
This led to one last attempt by some of the towns to avoid all out war:
A proposition has been made by the Hostile Chiefs through the friendly chiefs Perriman and Johnston for peace, and as an evidence of their desire for peace they say they will not permit their warriors to fire on our vessels ascending the river, that they will send on board the vessels the woman they took from Lieut. Scott’s command. (1)
The circumstances of the proposition received from the chiefs is difficult to fully ascertain, but it followed a discussion held between the Autossee Mico and Edmund Doyle. Autossee Mico was a Red Stick Creek who had evacuated into Florida with his surviving followers after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. Doyle was the storekeeper in charge of the John Forbes & Company trading post at Prospect Bluff on the lower Apalachicola River.
The meeting between the two likely took place at or near Spanish Bluff in what is now Calhoun County, Florida. Doyle had sought shelter there at the home of his friend and sometimes coworker William Hambly after hearing of the Battle of Fowltown. Autossee Mico was among the chiefs and warriors then gathering at nearby Ocheesee Bluff under the leadership of the Prophet Josiah Francis for a planned attack on two U.S. ships making their way up the Apalachicola River with supplies for Fort Scott.
The details of the discussions are not known, but Autossee Mico did authorize Doyle to go with the neutral chiefs William Perryman, George Perryman and Johnston to see Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle. He had assumed command at Fort Scott on the departure of Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines after the latter was ordered to the St. Marys River.
The meeting took place at Fort Scott on December 10, 1817 – 200 years ago yesterday – and the lieutenant colonel was quick to tell Johnston and the Perryman brothers that he had not authorized Doyle to make an overture to the Native American force:
I have understood that Mr. Doyle has had a talk with Ottossee Micko about making peace. I did not ask Mr. Doyle to make this, or any other Talks with the hostile Indians, but I shall be glad if the talk has enduced them to wish for peace, as their Great Father the President of the United States, has always wished for peace with them. (2)
Arbuckle outlined the U.S. Army’s position of what had happened at Fowltown and likely hit on the real truth of the events leading up to the war when he told the chiefs that “the army did not come here to make war on the Indians, but expected their assistance in getting the negroes belonging to the white people who are in their country.” As an aside he noted that the military had also asked that “some offenders should be given up.” (3)
Cappachimico, the principal chief of Miccosukee, had earlier made clear to Gen. Gaines that neither he nor his people had anything to do with the maroons (escaped slaves) then living near Boleck’s Town on the Suwannee River. The British had put them there, he wrote in response to a demand from the general, and to the British the whites should look for anything to do with them.
Many of the Black Seminole men from the Suwannee had been members of the British Colonial Marines during the War of 1812 and were well-trained fighters. Led by their chief or commander Nero, they were now part of the Miccosukee, Seminole and Red Stick force assembling on the Apalachicola River at Ocheesee Bluff. Some had taken part in the attack on Scott’s party.
Arbuckle continued his “talk” at Fort Scott by telling the assembled chiefs that he would halt offensive operations for six days to give them time to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict:
Should the Mickysoockee & other Chiefs now at war with the United States wish for peace on terms of justice let them send their talks and they shall be heard, but should they hereafter fire on any of our vessels or boats coming up or going down the river, or kill any of our people, their talks will not be heard until they are severely punished. (4)
What the lieutenant colonel did not tell Johnston and the Perryman brothers – but they probably knew – was that the army had no plans for immediate action against the Native American alliance. There were not enough troops on hand at Fort Scott for such a campaign and, in fact, it was taking all that Arbuckle could do to keep warriors from firing at will into the fort.
The chiefs and Doyle appear to have left the fort on their return to Spanish Bluff as soon as the council ended. Arbuckle asked Doyle to deliver news of the conference to Maj. Peter Muhlenberg, the commander of the troops escorting the supply ships up the river. The soldiers were warned to be on their guard and ready for any attack that might develop. (5)
The ships, meanwhile, reached Spanish Bluff while Doyle, Johnston and the Perrymans were on their way to Fort Scott. Maj. Muhlenberg wrote to Lt. Col. Arbuckle from there on the 10th to tell him that he had been informed that danger awaited between his position and the forks of the rivers:
…[I] regret myself that the vessels make such slow progress, but it is unavoidable as there is no other way of getting along but by Warping, which is slow and tedius, not more than five miles a day, should we meet with no impediment, I have learnt this evening that the Indians have assembled at a Bluff 18 miles above this where they intend to annoy us from. I shall use every exertion to get forward with the command, but if we cannot carry out our warp, we shall be compelled to stop. I have been at this place two days getting Provisions on board for the troops and shall leave it tomorrow morning. (6)
The Earthquake of 1817 shook the region that same night. Its impact on subsequent events – if any – is unknown.
(1) Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle to the Commanding Officer on the Appalachicola River, December 10, 1817, Office of the Adjutant General, Letters Received, 1805-1821, National Archives.
(2) Talk delivered on the 10th of Decr. 1817 to three Indian Chiefs, December 10, 1817, Office of the Adjutant General, Letters Received, 1805-1821, National Archives.
(5) Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle to commanding officer on the Apalachicola River, December 10, 1817, Office of the Adjutant General, Letters Received, 1805-1821, National Archives.
(6) Maj. Peter Muhlenberg to Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle, December 10, 1817, Office of the Adjutant General, Letters Received, 1805-1821, National Archives.