Forty-six years before Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman set fire to Atlanta, Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson burned Tallahassee to ashes.
This article is part of a continuing series that marks the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to access the entire timeline of stories.
Tallahassee Talofa (“Old Field Town”) was a long-established Seminole village when Andrew Jackson arrived on March 31, 1818. Established by Muscogee (Creek) Indians who moved down into Florida during Great Britain’s brief 20-year rule (1763-1783), it stood on a prominent hilltop just east of the former site of Mission San Luis. The hill is in today’s Levy Park and Frenchtown neighborhoods of Florida’s capital city.
Capt. Hugh Young, Jackson’s topographer, was more impressed with the site of the town than he was by Tallahassee itself:
…Tallehassas. Settled on the road from Okalokina to Mikasukey numbers only fifteen [i.e. warriors]. Chief Okiakhija a weak man and unfriendly. Character worthless, dishonest and inveterately hostile. They have neither arts nor cattle, but their land is excellent and gave them fine crops with very little labour. [I]
Young was like many white Americans of his day in his views of Native Americans. He usually considered those who fought against the United States to be “weak” or “worthless,” while he lavished praise on those who sided with U.S. forces and considered them to be charismatic and talented.
His estimate that the town was home to around 15 warriors indicates that it had a total population of around 150 people. Like most Muscogee (Creek), Seminole and Miccosukee towns of the time, it covered a considerable acreage. Tallahassee had a central square or complex of four structures where the important business of the town was transacted – as well as end of day conversations about events and news – but from there the homes tended to be loosely concentrated as compared to the compact designs of most modern cities.
Brevet Maj. David E. Twiggs had been sent ahead of the main army to find the town and arrived in the adjacent woods and fields during the previous night. The word “brevet” before his title signified that he had been honored with higher rank – but not higher pay – in recognition of meritorious service.
Twiggs moved into Tallahassee Talofa at daybreak 200 years ago today with one company of soldiers from the 7th U.S. Infantry and 200 allied warriors from the U.S. Creek Brigade. He already knew from the reports of scouts that the village was empty:
…On his near approach, he despached a party to ascertain its situation, who reported it evacuated some days before. On the morning of the 31st he entered the village, having previously sent out parties to reconnoiter. Two of the enemy were made prisoners, one of whom made his escape before he was brought into camp. The army passed the village about twelve o’clock, and encamped near Mikasukey. [II]
No resistance to the army’s advance was attemted at Tallahassee Talofa and the two captured warriors were probably scouts for the larger force then gathering about sixteen miles away at the large town of Miccosukee. The troops were surprised, however, by the discovery of a recently deceased woman in the environs of the town:
…On Tuesday, the 31st, arrived at a town called Tallahassee. The Indians had abandoned it before we got there. We passed an old indian lying near a pond, dead. She had not been dead long from her appearance; she had been left there to die by the Indians who fled before us; she was lying on the ground by some ashes and a dirt pot. We burnt the town (this is the present capital of Florida). We found some cattle that day which were distributed amongst the soldiers. [III]
The pond where the woman was found could have been today’s Lake Ella, a popular recreation spot just off Monroe Street (U.S. 27) near downtown Tallahassee. The hilltop on which the village stood was visible from there. It also could have been one of several other small ponds in the vicinity.
The old town was reduced to ashes by the army as Jackson continued his march for Miccosukee. He and other officers were disappointed that Brevet Maj. Twiggs had failed to find Elizabeth Stewart in Tallahassee. The sole female survivor of the Scott 1817 Battle at what is now Chattahoochee (please see The Bloodiest U.S. Defeat of the First Seminole War), she was reported by spies to be there but had disappeared along with the inhabitants of the town before Twiggs arrived on the scene.
The army turned from the area that is now downtown Tallahassee and marched northeast along Miccosukee Road. The beautiful canopy road of today has been in use for more than 200 years and some of the old live oaks growing along it were there when the soldiers passed by in 1818.
Capt. Young’s campaign map shows that the army camped along Miccosukee Road that night. The map is faded and difficult to read in places, but the encampment appears to have been in the vicinity of Welaunee Pond and the Miccosukee Canopy Road Greenway just south of Interstate 10. Jackson would reach Miccosukee on the next day and fight the first real battle of his campaign.
The charred ruins of Tallahassee Talofa undoubtedly continued to smoke as the army bedded down for the night.
The exact site of destroyed town has long been a point of curiosity. It was shown on the Purcell-Stuart Map of 1778 a short distance due east of the “Ruins of St. Luis Fort and Town.” This was Mission San Luis, now a beautifully preserved and interpreted historic site. The map also that Tallahassee was at the intersection of an east-west trail from the San Luis site and a trail that led northeast to James Burges’s trading post on the Flint River at present-day Bainbridge, Georgia.
The trail to Burges’s corresponded roughly with the Old Bainbridge Road of today. The path to San Luis was a surviving part of the famed Old Spanish Trail.
By overlaying the Stuart-Purcell Map of 1778 and/or Capt. Young’s campaign map of 1818 on a modern topographic map, it can be determined that Tallahassee Talofa stood on a high hill that overlooks downtown Tallahassee from the north. This is the hill that can be seen today between Old Bainbridge Road and Monroe Streeet. West Tharpe Street crosses the elevation and a rough center-point is Levy Park at the intersection of West Tharpe and Gibbs Drive. The village undoubtedly spread out along this hilltop and its fields covered the level ground below.
The hill can be seen by driving along either West Tharpe Street or Old Bainbridge Road. With a little imagination it is possible to erase the modern development from the scene and still see the terrain as it was viewed by Capt. Young:
…[T]o Tallehassa T. through an excellent body of land, the soil adapted to any kind of culture growth, oak and hickory. A small miry branch near the village – entering Okalokina. The town was handsomely situated on a hill and consisted of ten or twelve houses with a large clearing cultivated in common. [IV]
This series will continue tomorrow with the story of the Battle of Miccosukee. Use the map below to help you follow – generally, at least – the route of the army on March 31, 1818. Along the way, be sure to visit Mission San Luis, the great museums in downtown Tallahassee and enjoy the first part of Miccosukee Road and its beautiful canopy of historic trees.
[I] Capt. Hugh Young, “A Topographical Memoir of East and West Florida with Itineraries of General Jackson, 1818,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Oct., 1934), page 18.
[II] Col. Robert Butler to Brig. Gen. Daniel Parker, May 3, 1818.
[III] Lt. John Banks, Diary of John Banks, 1936.
[IV] Capt. Hugh Young, “A Topographical Memoir of East and West Florida,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, Volume 13, No. 3 (Jan., 1935), pp. 142-143.