One of the most remarkable stories in Florida history took place 200 years ago this week on the Wakulla River in what is now Wakulla County, Florida.
This story is part of our continuing series that commemorates the First Seminole War. Please click here to read other articles in the series.
Milly Francis was the 15-year-old daughter of the Prophet Josiah Francis (Hillis Hadjo). She is sometimes called “Malee” or “Princess Malee” although she always used the name Milly during her lifetime. All of the Prophet’s children had English names and Milly was identified by her’s on the various Creek Census rolls of her time.
As she later told the story, the young woman was was playing on the banks of the Wakulla River at the Prophet’s town when she heard warriors shouting from the center of the village. She and her sister ran up to see what was happening and witnessed a young white man being tied to a stake. His name was Duncan McCrimmon.
McCrimmon – whose name is often misspelled “McKrimmon” – was a resident of the Milledgeville area and a soldier in the Georgia militia. He later claimed that he had left Fort Gadsden as work was underway to complete that new post to go fishing on a nearby creek. Why a soldier would leave the safety of a military camp alone to go fishing in the middle of a war has never been explained.
Regardless of his thought process, the soldier lost his way and could not find the trail back to the fort.
The following account of what happened that day in 1818 – as told first by army officers and then by Milly herself – is excerpted from my book Milly Francis: The Life & Times of the Creek Pocahontas:
– Excerpt –
While in this condition, he stumbled across two warriors from the Prophet’s Town. They had been sent to gather intelligence on the movements of Jackson’s army and quickly took the hapless militiaman as their captive:
After wandering about in various directions, he was espied and captured by a party of hostile Indians, headed by the well known prophet Francis – who had an elegant uniform, a fine brace of pistols, and a British commission of brigadier general which he exultingly shewed to the prisoner. Having obtained the satisfaction they wanted respecting the strength and position of the American army, they began to prepare for the intended sacrifice.
There are many versions of what happened next, but the earliest are those that appeared in the Milledgeville newspapers in November 1818. They appear to have been based on an account provided to the editors by Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Arbuckle, then commanding at Fort Gadsden. A man who enjoyed writing, Arbuckle was a regular correspondent of the Milledgeville papers. The editors may have benefited as well from conversations with McCrimmon himself, who by that time had returned back home in Georgia.
As the story was told at the time, the warriors were on the verge of executing McCrimmon when a Pocahontas-like story unfolded:
M’Krimmon was planted at a stake, and the ruthless savages having shaved his head, and reduced his body to a state of nudity, formed themselves in a circle and danced several hours, yelling all the while most horribly. The youngest daughter of the prophet, (who is about 15 years of age and represented by officers of the army we have conversed with to be a woman very superior to her associates) was sad and silent the whole time – she participated not in the general joy, but was evidently, even to the affrighted prisoner, much pained at the savage scene she was compelled to witness.
The “youngest daughter of the Prophet,” of course, was Milly Francis. She had been playing on the banks of the Wakulla River with her sister when they heard the war whoop of warriors. Going into the village to investigate, they found that some of the men had brought in a white prisoner:
When the fatal tomahawk was raised to terminate forever the mortal existence of the unfortunate M’Krimmon, at that critical, that awful moment, Milly Francis, like an angel of mercy, placed herself between it and death, resolutely bidding the astonished executioner if he thirsted for human blood, to shed her’s; being determined, she said, not to survive the prisoner’s death. A momentary pause was produced by this unexpected occurrence, and she took advantage of the circumstance to implore the pity of her ferocious father – who finally yielded to her wishes with the intention, however, it is believed, of murdering them both, if he could not sell M’Krimmon to the Spaniards, which was luckily effected a few days after at St. Marks, for seven gallons and a half of rum.
Despite the editor’s fantastic claim, there is no evidence of any kind that Josiah Francis planned to murder his daughter along with McCrimmon at some later time. Like most fathers, he loved his children and wanted only the best for them. The Prophet had seen to the education of his young son, Earle, before leaving England and he had returned to Florida with extravagant gifts for his daughters. Throughout the Creek War and War of 1812, he had seen to the safety of his family and – American opinions of him aside – there is no reason to believe he was anything other than a devoted father and husband.
McCrimmon was taken to San Marcos de Apalache (Fort St. Marks) and turned over to the commandant there. Evidence exists that the Spanish officer did in fact ransom the young citizen soldier for a supply of rum. McCrimmon joined two other prisoners – William Hambly and Edmund Doyle – who already were under the care and protection of the Spanish.
The three prisoners were allowed freedom within the perimeters of the post but the commandant cautioned them not to stray past those lines lest they be recaptured by the Red Sticks.
The remarkable story of the “new Pocahontas” fascinated readers across the country and newspapers as far away as Maine reprinted the articles originating from Milledgeville. Updates on her condition and whereabouts were published throughout the years 1818 and 1819 by newspapers all over the United States. Americans have always loved heroes, and Milly Francis became the heroine of her day.
Milly told the story many times over the years that followed to dozens of interested people, but her actual words were not recorded until more than two decades later when Lieutenant Colonel Ethan Allen Hitchcock found her living in the Creek Nation of present-day Oklahoma. Sent west to investigate conditions among the tribes and to get to investigate reports of frauds committed on the Indians, Hitchcock was at Fort Gibson in the Cherokee Nation when he learned that the famed Creek Pocahontas lived nearby.
On the afternoon of January 27, 1842, Colonel Hitchcock rode from Fort Gibson to the nearby trading post of Seaborn Hill. In his conversation with Mr. Hill, Hitchcock learned that Milly Francis lived only one mile away. Fascinated, he sent a messenger to see if she would consent to come and visit him. She soon appeared with her youngest son, who was then around 14 years of age:
…I spoke of the story of her having saved the life of a white man and she at once told me the whole story. During the war (1817-18) it was “given out” that if any Indian caught a white man that he had the life of the white man in his power, (no chief even could save him). Milly heard a war whoop and going to the place that two Indians had a young white man tied and perfectly naked; other Indians came around and Milly described the white man doubling himself to screen himself from the gaze of those that were looking at him and at the same time looking anxiously around as if to ask if there was no one to speak for him and save his life.
Milly told Hitchcock that the warriors were not preparing to burn McCrimmon at the stake, as most reports indicated at the time, but instead were about to shoot him. She recalled that she was but “a little girl” at the time and that she felt great sadness for him:
Seeing the young man and thinking it a “pity” he should be killed she went to her father and urged that it was a pity, etc. The father said, go to the men who have the right over the young man’s life. She went to them and began to plead. One of them said he should die for that, he had had two sisters killed. She told him that to kill a white man would not bring back his sisters and that he was but a boy and had not the “head” of a man to guide him – (the meaning of this was that he was not old enough to have engaged in the war upon his own judgment). Milly prevailed on the condition that the lad should have his head shaved and live with the Indians.
Milly’s story differed from the original newspaper accounts in that she said McCrimmon’s head was shaved after he agreed to the terms she presented him, not before as part of the execution ritual. This is logical since Creek warriors of the time often shaved all of their heads except for the scalp locks down the top and strips across the front. If McCrimmon had agreed to live as one of them, then they probably would have shaved his head in the same way as their own. When Milly explained the terms to him, she recalled that he said, “Yes, Yes, cut it all off if you choose!” They then shaved his head “except for the scalp lock” and he was turned loose and dressed.
Searching her memory, Milly verified to Major Hitchcock that McCrimmon had been sold to the Spanish for a barrel of whiskey. The Prophet’s teachings against alcohol had gone by the wayside with the destruction of his movement during the Creek War of 1813-1814. The sale or ransoming of Duncan McCrimmon to the Spanish – even though he had agreed to become a member of the village – probably was done as a way to protect him from harm. Many of the followers of the Prophet Francis had lost wives, sons and daughters during the Creek War and flight from Alabama. Resentment to one of their enemies living among them must have been strong.
– End of Excerpt –
The story of Milly Francis and Duncan McCrimmon did not end that day. Watch for more about it as this series continues.
You can also read the complete story of Milly Francis, of which the incident with Duncan McCrimmon was just a small part, in my book Milly Francis: The Life & Times of the Creek Pocahontas. I hope that you will consider it.