Seminole War
The Breaking of Yellow Hair (Seminole War 200th)

A view of the Jim Woodruff Dam from the site of Mission San Carlos. Yellow Hair’s town of Choconicla was south of this point.

The principal chief of Choconicla, a Lower Muscogee (Creek) town near the head of the Apalachicola River, was broken from his position by the U.S. Army during the winter of 1817-1818, 200 years ago.

This article is part of our continuing series that commemorates the 200th Anniversary of the Seminole War.

Old Yellow Hair – so called to differentiate him from his son, John Yellow Hair – was a prominent chief and well-known figure along the borderlands of Spanish Florida during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His community, Choconicla, stood near today’s Town of Sneads in Jackson County, Florida.

When the Seminole War erupted in fall of 1817, Yellow Hair allied himself with the United States. He and his warriors rescued the six soldiers that survived the attack on Lt. Richard W. Scott’s party, treating five for the severe wounds that they had suffered and helping all reach the safety of Fort Scott. 

A 19th century artist’s impression of the attack on Lt. Richard W. Scott’s command.

The U.S. Army asked him to watch for signs of Red Stick, Seminole or Miccosukee warriors moving upstream on the Apalachicola and he readily agreed to do so:

…Yellow hair was an intrepid and talented Indian, and was greatly confided in by the American officers during the British and Seminole wars. He had received orders from the officers commanding on the Georgia and Florida frontier [Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle] to overhaul all boats passing his town on the Appalachicola. This order he executed zealously, and was of essential service. A canoe of Indians having refused, however, to come to his landing place, after being hailed, he fired into it, and it appearing that they were not hostile Indians, as supposed, but friendly, he was ignominiously broke by the aforesaid officer from his rank as head chief, and also as chief of Choconicla. (1)

The reference to Yellow Hair as “head chief, and also as chief of Choconicla” refers to the fact that he was the principal chief for the small Apalachicola bands that included the towns of Econchattimico, Vacapachasie (Mulatto King), John Blunt, Jack Mealy and Cochrane. These communities were located along the west bank of the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers from the present-day Alabama line to about the midpoint of the latter river. Econchattimico, Vacapachasie and Jack Mealy all fought against the United States, but Yellow Hair, John Blunt and Cochrane assisted U.S. troops.

Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle of the 7th U.S. Infantry “broke” Yellow Hair from his position of leadership during the winter of 1817-1818.

The decision by Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle to “break” Yellow Hair from his leadership of Choconicla and the Apalachicola bands would cause problems for U.S. authorities for two decades to come. Acting-Governor James D. Westcott, Jr., wrote about it in 1833:

There are many gentlemen now living in Florida well acquainted with the circumstances, and all join in condemning the course pursued toward him as unjust, and an all requital for his valuable and friendly services to us. He became dispirited in consequence, and soon after died. Blunt succeeded to the station of head chief of the towns, and Mulatto King, or Vacapichassee, the cowdriver, was made head chief of Choconicla by Colonel Arbuckle. (2)

It is difficult to comprehend why U.S. authorities of the time thought that they had the authority to “break” American Indian chiefs from their positions of leadership, but it was commonly done.

The old chief’s son, John Yellow Hair, remained friendly to the United States despite the army’s treatment of his father. He eventually succeeded to the leadership of Choconicla but remained at odds with Vacapachasie over the situation for years to come. Arguments over which was the legitimate chief continued until the Apalachicola bands went west on the Trail of Tears to Texas and Oklahoma in 1833-1838.

The incident that led to Arbuckle’s harsh treating of Yellow Hair also shows the difficulty in telling allies from enemies in the war zone. The Seminole War in its first year was very much a “brother against brother” conflict just as it was a war against the U.S. Army. Muscogee (Creek) warriors in particular waged numerous battles against each other as the fighting spread and individual towns decided on the courses they should take in the war.

This series will continue.

Learn more about the outbreak of the Seminole War in this free documentary from Two Egg TV:

(1) James D. Westcott, Jr., Acting Governor of Florida, to E. Herring, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, November 13, 1833.

(2) Ibid.

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