One of the most remarkable documents of the Seminole War was penned 200 years ago today at the mouth of Florida’s Suwannee River.
This article is part of a continuing series that marks the 200th anniversary of the first year of the Seminole War. Please click here to access the entire series.
Alexander Arbuthnot was 69-years old during the winter of 1817-1818. A native of Scotland, he was a long-time resident of the Bahamas where he was affiliated with the trading firm of Bain, Dunshee & Company. He and his son, John, had arrived in Florida in January 1817 to challenge the trading supremacy of John Forbes & Company.
Since Bain, Dunshee & Company was not licensed by the government of Spain to trade in Florida, Arbuthnot was a smuggler at best, a foreign agent at worst. He established a “store” or trading post on an island at the mouth of the Suwannee River near today’s community of Suwannee in Dixie County, Florida. It was from there that he wrote to Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls of the British Royal Marines on this date 200 years ago:
When I last took the liberty of writing to you, by the desire of the chiefs of the Creek nation, I little expected that war would so soon have commenced between the Americans and them. It is, however, actually begun, by the wanton aggressions of the former, in an attack on Fowl Town, during the night. Though this wanton attack has been disavowed by General Mitchell, the American agent for Indian affairs, and he has made reparation for the injury and loss sustained by Inhimathlo and his people, yet the continued aggression of the Americans, and the numbers pouring into the nation, not from the land side alone, but from Mobile and elsewhere, by the Appalachicola river, have compelled the Indians to take arms as their only resource from oppression.[i]
The individual referred to by Arbuthnot as “Inhimathlo” was Eneah Emathla, the principal chief of Fowltown. He is best known as Neamathla today. The trader had secured his mark – along with the marks of a number of other chiefs – on a document that gave him Power of Attorney to represent them in contacts with the governments of Great Britain, the United States and Spain.
His letter to Nicolls – the British officer who had constructed the Fort at Prospect Bluff during the War of 1812 – was an attempt to secure his influence in obtaining military supplies for the Native American alliance engaged in the war against the United States. He informed the lieutenant colonel that Josiah Francis (Hillis Hadjo) was leading the fight against the U.S. Army:
Your friend Hillis Hadjo has been called by his people to put himself at their head, and he is now encamped at Spanish Bluff, the residence of Doyle and Hambly, which is now in the possession of the Indians, with from one thousand to one thousand two hundred men; those men are principally Red Sticks, who are scattered about in the nation, and who have collected and put themselves under his command, with a few hundred Upper Indians, who have joined them.[ii]
Edmund Doyle was the manager of the John Forbes & Company trading post at Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River. William Hambly, his sometimes business associate, lived at Spanish Bluff in what is now Calhoun County, Florida. His plantation there was called “Poverty Hall.”
The two men would later report that they had been taken prisoner by order of Arbuthnot, who planned to try them on the Suwannee and have them executed. The Black Seminole chief Nero intervened, however, and placed them in the custody of the commandant of the Spansih fort at San Marcos de Apalache (St. Marks).
It is not known if Nicolls ever received or replied to the letter. He maintained his interest in the fate of his former allies in Florida, but there was little that he could do to help.
Whatever his original business intentions, Arbuthnot was now acting as an agent for the Seminole, Miccosukee, Red Stick and Lower Muscogee (Creek) warriors. His letter to Nicolls was one of a series that he wrote to British officials during the winter of 1817-1818. The discovery of copies of these documents later in the year would lead to Arbuthnot’s hanging.
This series will continue.
To learn more about Dixie County, please visit http://visitdixie.com/. The map below will acquaint you with the community of Suwannee and the mouth of the Suwannee River.
[i] Alexander Arbuthnot to a person of rank in England (i.e. Edward Nicolls), January 30, 1818, from the London Times of August 7, 1818.