Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson’s army undertook the looting and burning of the largest town in Florida on April 1-5, 1818, 200 years ago this week.
This article continues a series that marks the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to access the entire timeline of stories.
Jackson’s troops had captured Miccosukee, a massive American Indian community in what is now eastern Leon County, following a sharp battle on April 1, 1818 (please see The Battle of Miccosukee). Even as Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines operated against additional communities east of the lake on the next day (please see Fighting near Miccosukee, Florida), the main body of the army began the systematic looting and destruction of the town.
…About one thousand head of cattle fell into our hands, many of which were recognized by the Georgia militia as the brands and marks of their citizens. Near three thousand bushels of corn were found, with other articles useful to the army. Upwards of three hundred houses were consumed, leaving a tract of fertile country in ruin, where these wretches might have lived in plenty, but for the infernal mechinations of foreign traders, if not agents. [I]
This account by Col. Robert Butler, Jackson’s Adjutant General, refers to the “foreign traders, if not agents” Robert Armbrister (often spelled Ambrister) and Alexander Arbuthnot. Armbrister was the son of a Loyalist who was driven from Florida at great loss when Spain regained control of the colony at the end of the American Revolution. Arbuthnot, a Scott by birth, was a Bahamian merchant who openly flouted the trade monopoly of John Forbes & Company. The report does not say how many of the 1,000 head of cattle had brands and marks of Georgia citizens and does not explain how many of those might have been obtained through legitimate trade.
It is known from the accounts of early explorers that the Spanish “old fields” of Florida were rich in feral cattle by the mid-1700s. These herds grew from free range animals that had been left behind when the Spanish mission chain that stretched from St. Augustine to the Apalachicola River was destroyed during English-led raids in 1702-1706. The Miccosukee and Seminole had herded them for decades and regularly supplied beef for the Spanish settlements of St. Augustine, St. Marks and Pensacola.
The loss of 1,000 head of cattle and 3,000 bushels of corn was devastating to the Miccosukee and it was just the beginning. Lt. John Banks reported on the haul of the Georgia militia:
…We got between four and five hundred cattle, some horses, hogs, poultry and about one thousand bushels of corn. Here we had a plentiful feast. The cattle were put in a pen near the encampment. I shall never forget the melancholy effect produced on me by the simultaneous lowing of the cattle, howling of the dogs and chirping of the young chickens. [II]
Banks also reported that scouting parties were sent out in all directions to round up cattle, corn and other supplies from outlying farms and communities.
Miccosukee was a vast community surrounded by fields and prairies. Capt. Hugh Young, Jackson’s topographer, gave some idea of its size and wealth:
……The Mikasukeys have been long settled on a large pond or lake, thirty miles N.N.E. from Fort St. Mark – and before the late campaign they had one hundred and sixty warriors, and eight or nine times that number of women and children. The lake is twelve or fourteen miles long with a breadth of two and three miles, the surrounding land fertile and of beautiful aspect. Here the Indians raised abundance of corn, rice, potatoes, peas, beans, and ground nuts – the soil yielding plentiful crops without much labour of cultivation. They had immense droves of cattle and hogs roaming through the woods, and the abundance of game gave them plenty of venison and skins. They also raised numbers of small but hardy horses. They traded to St. Mark’s and Apalachicola with skins, furs, rice, cattle, etc., and received in exchange woolens, cutlery, guns and ammunition. They had no arts. Even of pottery they were ignorant from the want of proper clay for the manufacture. Of spinning they knew nothing. They pounded their meal and never had the art of grinding even in its rudest forms. Their agriculture was of the simplest kind. The looseness of the soil obviated the necessity of heavy labour and the work of a few hoes soon opened a field and prepared a crop. Their cabins were neatly built and their rude furniture kept in decent condition. [III]
The Miccosukee town or towns had a central square which functioned as a ceremonial and governmental center. It consisted of four inward facing structures that were open in front, but enclosed on the sides and back. These were aligned to the primary coordinates and seating was designated based on rank, age, status, etc. Cappachimico’s cabin stood nearby.
From this square, the settlement spread out for miles in a loose arrangement very unlike a city of today. The Miccosukees lived in family groups instead of clustered all together in a central community. Their cabins were not the chickees with which many people are acquainted from South Florida, but instead were solidly-built homes that rivaled and often surpassed those of white frontier settlers. It was colder in North Florida during the winter and the need for warmer housing governed their construction.
Capt. Young’s estimate of 160 warriors and 8 or 9 times as many women and children places the number of people living in Miccosukee at around 1,200-1,500. This was a massive population for Florida in the early 19th century, giving the community more people than any other in the colony.
The estimates of various eyewitnesses that Miccosukee contained 300-400 households is telling. Pensacola in 1820 had 181 while St. Augustine by 1821 had around 300. The news of the treaty that would transfer Florida from Spain to the United States was known by the time the later estimates were made and American settlers were already flooding into the colony, which would not officially become a U.S. territory until September 1821. Prior to its 1818 capture and destruction, Miccosukee was undoubtedly the largest community in Florida.
The entire town went up in smoke during the first days of April 1818, as Gen. Jackson detailed in a letter to the Spanish commandant of the fort at San Marcos de Apalache (Fort St. Marks) when he wrote, “I have penetrated to the Mekasukian towns & reduced them to ashes.” [IV]
Florida’s largest town was wiped from the face of the earth.
This series will continue tomorrow with an examination of reports that large numbers of human scalps were found at Miccosukee. Until then, you might enjoy watching Two Egg TV’s free new program on the 200th anniversary of Fort Gadsden, the army post from which the march to Miccosukee began:
[I] Col. Robert Butler to Brig. Gen. Daniel Parker, May 3, 1818.
[II] Lt. John Banks, Diary of John Banks, 1936.
[III] 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), pp. 83-84.
[IV]Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson to Francisco Caso y Luengo, April 6, 1818.