A U.S. Army keelboat rocked in the waves of Apalachicola Bay 200 years ago today. The boat had run a three-day, 106-mile gauntlet through Native American territory, surviving multiple attacks along the way.
This article is part of a continuing series that marks the 200th anniversary of the Seminole War. Please click here to access the entire series.
Capt. Alex Cummings and his company from the 4th U.S. Infantry left Fort Scott on the morning of January 11, 1818. His orders were to break through to Apalachicola Bay to see if expected supply ships had arrived there. The garrison at the fort on today’s Lake Seminole was completely out of meat and down to the last vestiges of its supply of flour. The men had been on half-rations for longer than they cared to remember. If new supplies could not be obtained soon, Fort Scott would have to be abandoned.
Cummings made the forks of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers quickly and then started his desperate journey down the Apalachicola. It turned into a wild affair:
About one o’clock of the day we left you we passed the Ochesee town, a little below which we were fired on: a ball passed through our bulwarks, but fortunately did no other injury. We passed Hambly’s a little after dark, where the Indians have collected in considerable force, & where we exchanged a number of shot with them without receiving any injury.[i]
“Hambly’s” was the Poverty Hall plantation of William Hambly, who lived at the south end of Spanish Bluff near present-day Blountstown in Calhoun County, Florida. He and his friend Edmund Doyle were taken prisoner by Red Sticks when his home was attacked on December 13, 1817 (please see The killing of Chief Perryman at Spanish Bluff).
The attacks continued on the next morning:
At Stefanulga Bluff, about eight miles below Hambly’s, we were again attacked and had (for a little time) a very sharp firing, a ball passed through the bulwarks of the keel boat and wounded the Srgt. (slightly) but did no other injury.[ii]
Estiffanulga Bluff – called “Stefanulga” by Capt. Cummings and jokingly dubbed “Stiff and Ugly” by local residents – is an impressive escarpment on the east side of the river south of present-day Bristol in Liberty County. It had been the headquarters of the adventurer William Augustus Bowles during the first decade of the 19th century and was a well-known landmark.
The attack there marked the third time that the keelboat had come under fire since the previous morning. It would be attacked again before sunset, with Cummings writing that he had been fired upon “at a low Bluff, but we passed so rapidly that we recd. no injury the enemy not being able to load and fire a second time.”[iii]
The captain did not identify this “low bluff” but it probably was Ricco’s Bluff on the east side of the river in southern Liberty County. The John Forbes & Company had operated a cattle farm there prior to the arrival of the British on the Apalachicola during the War of 1812.
The attack was the fourth in two days but the fast-moving keelboat finally broke free and received no further gunfire on its way down to the bay, where it arrived on the night of January 14, 1818:
On arriving at the Bay I found Lieut. Christian with a schooner from Mobile. He has on board only forty two barrels of flour & pork and only six or seven of the latter, which will / in my opinion / be insufficient for the guard & crew of the vessels in ascending the River. The Keel Boat cannot row more than nine oars (nor that number with convenience) and with that force it is impossible for her to stem the current. I speak from actual experience having made the trial coming down the river. The current being much stronger low down than it is above.[iv]
The Lt. Christian referenced by Cummings was 1st Lt. Benjamin R. Christian of the 7th U.S. Infantry. He had served during the War of 1812 and was on detached duty with a small party of soldiers that had been sent to escort the supply schooner to the Apalachicola. He told the captain that two other supply vessels had passed Mobile Point 14 days ahead of him, but he had arrived in Apalachicola Bay to find no sign of them.
Capt. Cummings sent a courier – probably a U.S.-allied Native American runner – to Fort Scott to notify Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle of the situation at the bay and to inform him that he was going to try to go 20 miles back upstream to Prospect Bluff:
I shall make the attempt to move up tomorrow and will be glad to hear from you at the Negro Fort. From the time we leave this place our difficulties will increase hourly, and I am really apprehensive that with all our exertions we shall not be able to ascend much higher…If you could send us a few men who are expert in the use of artillery, they would be useful. Medical aid will also be wanting and an additional number of men if you please to spare them.[v]
From his report, it appears that Cummings had decided to try to occupy Prospect Bluff, the site of the “Negro Fort” that had been blown up by U.S. forces on July 27, 1816 (please visit Prospect Bluff Historic Sites to learn more). It is unknown whether he had discussed this possibility with Arbuckle before leaving Fort Scott, but the captain clearly believed that the river was flowing with too much strength for him to make it beyond that point.
His request for artillerymen suggests that Lt. Christian’s vessel was carrying cannon in addition to the small supply of food and 200-300 axes, other tools and regimental clothing that were included in its cargo.
Whether Cummings actually occupied Prospect Bluff with his company is not known. U.S. troops, however, would return to the site of the ruined fort two months later.
This series will continue. Enjoy this video from Two Egg TV to learn more about historic Apalachicola, the city that soon grew on Apalachicola Bay:
[i] Capt. Alex Cummings to Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle, January 14, 1818, Adjutant General, Letters Received, NARA.