Thomas Woodward was one of the more interesting figures of the early frontier, largely due to his preserved reminiscences about the Creek and Seminole Wars. He completed one of his most fascinating missions – a desperate crossing of Georgia from Fort Early on the Flint River to Fort Gaines on the Chattahoochee – 200 years ago today on February 17, 1818.
This article is part of a special series that commemorates the 200th anniversary of the first year of the Seminole War. Please click here to access the entire series.
Alarming reports spread across the frontier in mid-February 1818 that a force of 300 Seminole, Miccosukee and Muscogee (Creek) warriors was on its way to attack Fort Gaines, the early fort that stood on the site of the modern Georgia town of the same name. The fort was lightly defended by local citizens, a few regular soldiers and a small detachment of Georgia militia. The men, women and children of the area had crowded into the stockade.
A courier named Keith left Fort Gaines during this emergency and made his way cross-country to Fort Early, which overlooked the Flint River crossing near present-day Cordele. He arrived there shortly after the killing of Thomas Lofters and Samuel Leigh at nearby Cedar Creek (please see Attack near Fort Early, Georgia).
Woodward described his relief mission to Fort Gaines in his reminiscences. That he led such a mission is confirmed by other documents of the time. It is important to remember, though, that he wrote down his memories forty years later and they are not always consistent with reports and letters written in 1818. Here is his account of his march to the Chattahoochee with 22 men (including himself):
…I crossed the river, went to Chehaw, on Kitchafoony Creek, got fourteen Indian warriors, and left next morning. I wanted, if possible, to cross before night, the Echowagnotchy Creek, which was very large and very full, and a large swamp on both sides. Between sunset and dark we entered the swamp. We had not gone far before we discovered some dozen pairs of Indian leggings, hung of up dry. We made our way to the run of the creek, and cut down a large hollow gum for the men to cross upon, but when it fell, it went so deep into the water that we could not use it, and we had to return back to high land and camp. [I]
The creek called “Echowagnotchy” by Woodward is spelled Ichawaynochaway today and is pronounced “Itch-a-way-notch-a-way.” It is nearly 84-miles long and flows south-southeast to enter the Flint River between Bainbridge and Newton. A well-known battle of the Creek War of 1836 was fought near the spot where the militia and Native American party tried to cross in 1818.
Unable to get across the flooded stream, Woodward and his men withdrew to a high point and threw up a small breastwork using fallen pine trees. An old chief from Chiaha (“Chehaw”) was with them and explained that there was another crossing not far away. They built up three large fires in the breastwork before dawn the next morning and set out to attempt a crossing at that spot, which was said to be about three miles away:
…We crossed quite handy, and had to turn up the creek to get to our trail. A little after day we heard a number of guns fire in the direction of our camp – we made a forced march that day. We frequently, through the day, could see one or two Indians, who would keep at a distance from us. That night, about nine o’clock, we came in the neighborhood of Fort Gaines. [II]
The relief party reached Fort Gaines as darkness was falling. It was impossible to tell if the fort was still held by local settlers or if it had already fallen. Dogs surrounded the stockade and were howling in all directions. Only a single small light could be seen flickering from what Mr. Keith told Woodward was one of the blockhouses.
Unsure of what he was facing, Maj. Woodward sent men to see if there were any boats at the landing below the bluff. They soon reported that there were canoes and a “ferry boat” there. He then sat down and wrote a letter to Maj. Gen. Edmund Gaines – one that he claimed to remember verbatim forty years later – explaining that he believed the fort was in Indian hands but would try to retake it. If he failed, he would take canoes and go downriver to the abandoned site of Perryman’s Town on today’s Lake Seminole and cross from there to Fort Scott:
…We waited until the cloud covered us, and then approached towards the Fort, and when within about one hundred yards of it, I halted the men, and took Keith and an Indian, and made for a little flickering light which we could see, and which Keith supposed was in one of the block-houses. It turned out to be true. I walked up to the block-house, in which there was a door some three or four feet square, cut out to place a cannon at. Two men were playing cards on the ammunition box, and a young lady interesting them with a song. As I got to the door, one of the card-players observed to the other that he was out. I observed to them that it was me that was out, and wished to come in. [III]
The relief party was welcomed into the fort and Woodward opened the magazine and passed out government arms and ammunition to all of the men sheltered in the stockade. Anyone who was unwilling to take up arms, he told them, would have to leave.
The major and his little force remained at the fort for several days before being relieved by a force of regular troops under Maj. Peter Muhlenberg and Bvt. Major David E. Twiggs. They had marched up from Fort Scott to garrison the post.
Woodward then took his men and headed cross-country again, this time to Fort Hawkins at what is now Macon, Georgia. From there he made his way back to Fort Early, which he reached at about the time that the outcome of his expedition was reported by the Georgia Journal on February 17, 1818 – 200 years ago today.
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[I] Woodward’s Reminisces of the Muscogee or Creek Indians