The Battle of Old Town took place 200 years ago today in what is now Dixie County, Florida. The engagement was the climactic action of Andrew Jackson’s operations between the Apalachicola and Suwannee Rivers.
This article is part of our continuing series commemorating the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to see the entire timeline of stories.
The Seminole and Black Seminole towns at today’s community of Old Town were the objectives for which Jackson had marched his men six days through some of the roughest terrain in Florida. He hoped to close in rapidly and capture not only Boleck (Bowlegs) and his Alachua Seminoles, but Nero and several hundred maroon or Black Seminole fighters as well. The plan quickly unraveled.
Boleck and Nero had stationed mounted sentries well out from their towns to watch all of the approaches by which the American army could come. Alexander Arbuthnot, the Bahamian trader captured by Jackson at St. Marks, had also sent word to his son at their trading post on the Suwannee, urging him to warn “my friend Bowlegs” that Jackson was coming. Arbuthnot advised that they Suwannee towns evacuate instead of trying to fight the large American army. It was good advice considering the disparity in numbers.
Further intelligence was brought in by Peter McQueen and the survivors of his band as they passed through the Suwannee towns following their defeat at the Battle of the Econfina. The old Red Stick undoubtedly warned Boleck, Nero and the other leaders of the Suwannee towns that Jackson’s army was too big to fight with success. As a result they immediately started evacuating their people across the river to safety.
Jackson, meanwhile, was encountering problems of his own. His guide John Blunt had underestimated the distance to the Suwannee and did not realize it until the army reached Long Pond west of today’s Old Town:
…I marched very early on the 16th, under the hope of being able to encompass and attack the Indian and negro towns by one o’clock P.M., but, much to my regret, at three o’clock, and after marching sixteen miles, we reached a remarkable pond, which my guide recollected, and reported to be distant six miles from the object of my march. [I]
The general would have stopped for the night had a group of mounted warriors not been spotted in the distance. They were some of the sentries that Boleck and Nero had placed to reconnoiter the approaches to their towns:
…At three o’clock, P.M. on the 16th, the army arrived at a large pond within six miles of Bowlegs town, on Suwany river, where a few Indians well mounted discovered our advance. An attempt was made to overtake them, but the enfeebled state of our horses rendered it impracticable. Under these circumstances, the general deemed it advisable to make the town by a forced march, not allowing the enemy time to cross the river and destroy the supplies. [II]
As was his custom, Jackson had already issued specific orders to his officers explaining how they were to react should opposition be encountered. His force of 3,500 men now pushed rapidly forward and prepared to engage the Indian and Black Seminole warriors who were flooding out to meet them:
…The manner of attack having been previously arranged, the army moved rapidly, until arriving near the large hammock which flanks the towns, when the troops changed position, conformably to previous orders, and moved forward. The left flank, composed of Colonel Williamson’s regiment of Tennessee volunteers, at the head of which was a force of Indian warriors under Major (now Colonel) Kanard, soon came in contact, and engaged the Indians and negroes; whilst the right flank, composed of Colonel Dyer’s regiment of Tennessee volunteers, with a like force of warriors under General McIntosh, advanced near the river, to prevent the enemy from crossing. [III]
The left flank or column of the army pushed directly for Nero’s town, which occupied a position slightly to the north of Boleck’s community. The resistance encountered was waged primarily by the Black Seminole fighters who staged a successful delaying action.
The center of the army spread into line of battle and drove straight for Boleck’s main town only to find that it had been evacuated.
The right column took longer to get into position due to the fact that the towns were located along a major bend of the Suwannee River. The curving nature of the river required them to travel a greater distance than the other two columns. As a result, Dyer and McIntosh did not reach their expected position in time to block the warriors being driven back by the left wing under Williamson and Kinard.
Capt. George Birch, who was with the regulars in the center, confirmed that most of the defensive fighting was done by the Black Seminoles against the U.S. left flank. “[W]e arrived on the 16 April 1818 but the Enemy having heard of our approach had nearly all retired,” he wrote, “a small skirmish took place between our flankers and Negroes enemy, a few of the latter of which was killed and scalped by our Indians besides some taken prisoners.” [IV]
Had the right flank been able to reach its planned position, the army would have trapped an estimated 300 fighters. Instead, they were driven into the Suwannee River by the left flank column:
…The reports give eleven killed and three prisoners on the field, and it is believed many were killed and drowned in swimming the river, it being nearly three hundred yards wide. Colonel Kanard had thirteen wounded, but one dangerously. About twenty-seven hundred bushels of corn were obtained in the towns and neighboring swamps, near ninety head of cattle, and a number of horses. [V]
One of the fighters that day is thought to have been the future Black Seminole leader Abraham. Born into slavery in Georgia, he was the slave of Dr. Eugene Sierra in Pensacola by the time of the War of 1812.
Dr. Sierra was the surgeon to the Spanish garrison in the West Florida capital and likely appreciated the fact that Abraham was multilingual and highly intelligent. The degree to which he helped with the doctor’s medical practice is not known, but his life in Pensacola was undoubtedly much different than it would have been on a Georgia plantation.
Slavery in any form, however, is a cage for the human spirit and Abraham yearned to live free. His opportunity came when Capt. George Woodbine and later Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls arrived in Pensacola in the summer and fall of 1814. The British promised freedom in exchange for service in the battalion of Colonial Marines that Nicolls and Woodbine were forming and Abraham was among those who went to Fort St. Michael to volunteer. He received military training there and may have been among the soldiers who took part in the first attack on Fort Bowyer at the mouth of Mobile Bay.
Nicolls withdrew from Pensacola when faced with an overwhelming attack by Maj. Gen. Jackson in December 1814. Abraham went with the other Colonial Marines to the fort at Prospect Bluff – later called the “Negro Fort” – where he continued to drill and serve as a British soldier. He was among the men who remained behind when the British left the Apalachicola valley in May 1815 and was at the fort when it was blown up by U.S. forces under Lt. Col. Duncan Lamont Clinch on July 27, 1816. Abraham survived and was taken prisoner. The army freed him that winter after no one showed up at Fort Scott to claim him and he made his way to Nero’s town on the Suwannee.
If he was present at the battle, which seems logical, he was among those who made it across the Suwannee River as the fighting drew to a close. He later emerged as an important leader and “sense giver” among the Seminoles. He also served as an interpreter and finally as a fighter when the Second Seminole War erupted in 1835. He was captured during that conflict and spent the rest of his life in what is now Oklahoma.
The Battle of Old Town was small as such encounters go but had a dramatic impact on the future of Florida, the Southeast and the Seminole people.
Boleck and Nero’s withdrawal east across the Suwannee allowed them to begin a slow movement down the peninsula. Some of the Miccosukees went with them, as did the survivors of Peter McQueen’s band. They reformed in Central Florida where other Alachuas and Black Seminoles were already living. The rest of the Miccosukee and other groups would join them there after the Treaty of Moultrie Creek in 1823, thereby reuniting the Seminole and Miccosukee people ahead of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842).
Darkness was falling by the time that the battle came to an end. Jackson resumeed his activities along the Suwannee on the next morning. This series will continue.
The map below will show you how to reach Old Town from Steinhatchee Falls where the army crossed the Steinhatchee River on April 15, 1818. The battle took place in the area immediately east and southeast of the community and the northern edge of the scene be viewed by hiking or biking the Nature Coast State Trail from the Old Town Trailhead to the Suwannee River bridge. The trailhead is at 71 NE 81st Avenue, Old Town, FL 32680. Click here for a free downloadable map.
While in the Old Town area, be sure to drive across the river and visit Fort Fanning Historic Park and Fanning Springs State Park. Both are located in the town of Fanning Springs just 3.6 miles east of Old Town. Also nearby is Manatee Springs State Park. As you head east along U.S. 98/U.S. 19 you will be passing through the site of the towns which stretched for more than 3 miles north and south along the river.
[I] Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, April 20, 1818.
[II] Col. Robert Butler to Brig. Gen. Daniel Parker, May 3, 1818.
[IV] George Birch, Diary of Maj. George Birch, 1809-1825, manuscript.
[V] Butler to Parker, May 3, 1818.