The annals of the Seminole Wars are filled with stories of days on which the fighting men of both sides demonstrated great courage and valor. This was not one of those days.
It was 200 years ago today that the U.S. Navy resorted to flying the flag of another nation in order to capture the Prophet Josiah Francis, Homathlemico and two Red Stick warriors. It was an unsavory affair that was similar in many ways to the seizure of Osceola two decades later while he was under the protection of a flag of true.
This article is part of our continuing series marking the 200th Anniversary of the First Seminole War.
The sun rose over the marshes of today’s St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge 200 years ago today (April 3, 1818) to reveal that three armed schooners resting at anchor in the St. Marks River. As Spanish officers and other observers looked through telescopes from the walls of the fort of San Marcos de Apalache, the British Union Jack could be seen flapping in the breeze from the lead ship.
The little flotilla had arrived in Apalachee Bay on the previous day before winding its way through the shoals and oyster bars to drop anchor off the site that would later become the Territorial era town of Port Leon. The Spanish officers could see the vessels well their posts three miles away on the walls of the fort.
After some deliberation they agreed to send three prisoners – Duncan McCrimmon, William Hambly and Edmund Doyle – in a small boat to investigate. The Spanish commandant, Capt. Francisco Luengo, had accepted custody of Hambly and Doyle from the Black Seminole chief Nero in a move to protect their lives. McCrimmon had been ransomed from the Prophet Francis after the Milly Francis episode (please see Milly Francis and Duncan McCrimmon).
McKrimmon, upon seeing a vessel coming into port showing English colors, asked leave of the Spanish commandant to go on board of her, alleging that he feared the Indians might reclaim him and put him to death. He had been consigned to the custody of the Spanish commandant by Francis the prophet, whose town was only three miles distant. He went on board with Hambly and Doyle, who were in the same situation as himself – prisoners subject to Indian caprice. To their equal astonishment and delight, they found that the vessel was American, and that their safety was certain. [I]
The three ships were the schooners Thomas Shields, James Lawrence and Peacock. The first two were armed vessels of the U.S. Navy while the third was a supply vessel with provisions for Jackson’s army, which was then at Miccosukee (please see The Battle of Miccosukee).
The vessels were under the charge of Lt. Commander Isaac McKeever, a 23-year old hero of the War of 1812. He had decided on his own initiative to lower his American flags and fly the British ensign instead as a ruse to decoy Seminole, Miccosukee or Red Stick Creek (Muscogee) fighters into coming aboard. When he learned from the three now-liberated prisoners that the ruse was working, he ordered that even more British flags be hauled up over the ships:
…[T]he temptation was too strong to be longer resisted – Francis or Hellis Hajo, with his right-hand chief, Himollemico, obtained a canoe and set off to the fleet at the mouth of the bay, distant ten miles from the fort. Soon they accomplished their journey, and as soon as they got on board Francis asked:
‘What loaded with?’
He was informed, ‘guns, powder, lead, and blankets for his red friends the Indians.’ [II]
Francis and Homathlemico were accompanied by two Red Stick warriors and McKeever knew that a severe fight could erupt if his ruse was discovered. He undertook even more trickery as a means of separating the two chiefs from their escort by inviting them down to his cabin to discuss their situation over a drink:
They manifested ecstatic delight; when the captain invited them to his cabin (taking care to deprive them of all their arms), to take a glass with him. They descended the stairs, the captain following in the rear, with a signal to a few Jack tars to accompany him with ropes. No sooner said than done. Jack [i.e. Jack Tars, a reference to sailors] made his appearance before the astonished chiefs, who were soon bound and secured beyond the possibility of escape. [III]
Dr. J.B. Rodgers, a surgeon in Jackson’s army, gained the above facts from McCrimmon, Hambly and Doyle a few days later. The former man told him that Francis was incensed when he caught sight of him (McCrimmon) aboard the ship:
‘This is what I get for saving your life.’
‘Not so,’ said McKrimmon; ‘it is to your daughter Milly that I am indebted for my life, and I will do anything I can for your deliverance.’
Mr. Hambly then addressed Himollemico in his language, and told him he was now in the hands of General Jackson, who was hourly expected to invest St. Marks with his army, five thousand strong, and who actually did arrive that very evening as predicted; a thing, however, expected and looked for by the chiefs then in confinement, and who had made a desperate virtue of necessity in coming on board to obtain munitions of war to repel the General, but who had made so sad a mistake. [IV]
With the four Red Sticks in irons, McKeever turned his attention back to San Marcos de Apalache. It was not long before a canoe was seen leaving the fort with a young woman and a warrior aboard:
…The sea was increasing and the canoe labored much, until it came near the vessel, when suddenly, either from the force of the sea or some presentiment, the canoe wheeled and put back for the nearest beach, distant a mile. The sentinel on duty hailed without arresting the attention of the occupants of the canoe. He hailed a second, a third time with like results. The captain then ordered the discharge of a cannon to intimidate them, with like result. The captain then ordered a second cannon to be fired, somewhat impatiently. The officer misunderstanding the order, fired a heavy discharge of grape directly at the canoe, the shot falling all around, without the slightest damage to the occupants. [V]
Why the U.S. Navy saw fit to open cannon fire on a teenage woman who was in the process of fleeing for her life was never explained. McKeever maintained total silence on the matter and did not mention it in his report to Commodore Daniel T. Patterson at New Orleans.
The young woman was Polly Francis, daughter of the Prophet. Duncan McCrimmon, seeing her from a distance, mistook her for Milly Francis, who had saved his life from a few days before. The account he gave to Dr. Rodgers indicates that Polly possessed some of the same fight that had motivated her father since 1812:
The captain then manned a light boat, with orders to capture the craft, which sped off at his bidding, and was soon in close pursuit. The canoe, however, approached the land, the water being shallow. Milly [i.e. Polly] bounded from the canoe, and as quick as thought, snatched from the bottom the warrior’s rifle, and discharged it at the boat, depositing the ball in the rudder under the arm of the steers-man without further damage. The warrior grasped the empty gun from the hands of Milly [i.e. Polly], and both made safe their retreat to the main land, beyond the reach of the boat’s crew, who made it their particular business to be as quick as possible to get beyond the second discharge of the warrior’s rifle. [VI]
The firing of the guns of the Thomas Shields at the canoe ended any possibility that the ruse carried out by Lt. Commander McKeever could be continued and the British flags were soon lowered and the Stars and Stripes raised. The ships remained at anchor off the later Port Leon site until Jackson’s army arrived at St. Marks three days later. Francis, Homathlemico and their two escorts remained in close confinement.
McKeever reported of their capture only that “on the third had the satisfaction of getting possession (by stratagem) of Hillis Hadjo, the red stick Prophet, Homathlemico, Chief of the Ottosee Towns, and two other warriors.” [VII]
The “stratagem” to which he referred likely would have been considered dishonorable by Commodore Patterson at New Orleans, which probably explains why McKeever did not go into detail. The move did receive some criticism in the national press and Great Britain, of course, was displeased. Gen. Jackson applauded the naval officer’s actions, though, and the American public by and large approved of it so far as can be determined.
As a violation of the accepted rules of war, however, it was probably even more egregious than the capture of Osceola nineteen years later near St. Augustine. The Seminole leader was taken prisoner while negotiating under the protection of a flag of truce, a move that ignited outrage across the country. He did at least know, however, that he was talking to U.S. Army officers. Francis and Homathlemico, were lured aboard a U.S. Navy vessel that was flying the flag of an entirely different nation. The officers and sailors aboard the Thomas Shields pretended to be members of the Royal Navy even after the Red Stick leaders were aboard. They also fired anti-personnel charges at a fleeing young woman.
Both incidents were extremely dishonorable.
This series will continue. To learn more about the capture of Francis and the story of Milly Francis and Duncan McCrimmon, please consider the book Milly Francis: The Life & Times of the Creek Pocahontas. It is available in both print and Kindle editions.
You can learn more about the rise of the Prophet in Two Egg TV’s documentary Battle for Fort Mims. It is available free on Amazon Prime Video or by using the Two Egg TV app on your Roku device. You can also watch it here:
The site of the capture of of the Prophet Josiah Francis and Homathlemico can be seen today from the point at the confluence of the Wakulla and St. Marks Rivers at San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park in St. Marks, Florida. The U.S. vessels were anchored three miles south of the point when the Red Stick leaders went aboard.
The more adventurous can get a closer look of the site by either paddling or boating down the river from the landing adjacent to the old fort or by a 3.5 mile (one-way) trail that begins near the pay station of the St. Marks unit of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
The map below will assist you in visiting both the historic fort and the stunning wildlife refuge. Be sure to enjoy a seafood lunch in St. Marks and to check out the many other points of interest in St. Marks, Wakulla County and the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. For more information on Wakulla County, please check out www.visitwakulla.com.
[I] Dr. J.B. Rodgers, Personal Account of Jackson’s Campaign, quoted by James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, Volume 2, p. 455-456.
[VI] Ibid., pp. 456-457.
[VII] Lt. Commander Isaac McKeever to Commodore Daniel T. Patterson, April 28, 1818.