One of the most enigmatic figures in Florida history was captured by Andrew Jackson’s forces 200 years ago today. Robert Ambrister stumbled into an American sentry post on the night of April 17, 1818.
This article is part of a continuing series that commemorates the 200th anniversary of First Seminole War. Please click here to access the entire series.
The army spent the day exploring the towns on the Suwannee, rounding up cattle and gathering supplies. Boleck’s town and Nero’s village had more than 300 cabins between them and stretched for more than three miles along the west side of the river.
The critical event of the day, however, did not happen until nightfall:
…Our sentinels, on the night of the 17th, took prisoners two white men (Ambrister and Cook) and one negro, who had just returned from Arbuthnot’s vessel at the mouth of Suwany; from the latter we obtained a letter written by A. Arbuthnot to his son, in which he enumerates the army of the United States under the general’s command, and requires him to inform his friend Bowlegs that resistance would be fruitless against such an overwhelming force, and to make over the river with all despatch; admonishing his son, at the same time, to remove and secrete every thing which could be moved. [I]
Robert Ambrister was a former lieutenant in the British Royal Marines who had served with Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls and Capt. George Woodbine at Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River. He was from a well-placed family in the Bahamas and according to some sources was even the nephew of the governor of New Providence.
He – along with Alexander Arbuthnot – was regarded by Jackson as an instigator of the war. The general may have been right. Ambrister was associated with George Woodbine in a shadowy plan to seize Florida from Spain and definitely had been providing arms, ammunition and training to the Indians and Black Seminoles at both San Marcos de Apalache (St. Marks) and the Suwannee.
Peter Cook, who was captured at the same time, had been a clerk for Arbuthnot before quitting in a dispute with his employer. He subsequently associated with Ambrister and acted under his orders when he led a force from the Suwannee to attack Fort Hughes on December 15-18, 1817 (please see Two battles shake the frontier).
The black man captured with Ambrister and Cook was Polydore. The slave of a Spanish woman in St. Augustine, he escaped in 1814 and went to Prospect Bluff where he joined the British Colonial Marines. Among the defenders of the Negro Fort, he was badly wounded when it was destroyed by U.S. artillery fire. Polydore escaped after the battle and went to Nero’s town on the Suwannee where he recovered from his injuries to some degree, although he remained partially disabled for the rest of his life.
The letter referenced in the above report by Jackson’s adjutant played a critical role in subsequent events. The general and others believed that it had allowed Boleck and Nero to get most of their people away ahead of the American attack. It had apparently been delivered from Arbuthnot at St. Marks to his son, John Arbuthnot, at the mouth of the Suwannee by Polydore.
More attention will be given to this document in future articles on the military trials of Arbuthnot and Ambrister, but here is the key section that excited the minds of the American officers:
The main drift of the Americans is to destroy the black population of Suwany. Tell my friend Bowlegs, that it is throwing away his people to attempt to resist such a powerful force as will be down on Sahwahnee; and as the troops advance by land, so will the vessels by sea. Endeavour to get all the goods over the river in a place of security; as also the skins of all sorts; the corn must be left to its fate. So soon as the Sahwahnee is destroyed, I expect the Americans will be satisfied and retire: this is only my opinion, but I think it is conformable to the demand made by General Gaines to King Hatchy some months since: in fact, do all you can to save all you can save, the books particular. [II]
Peter Cook quickly realized that there was little future in maintaining his loyalty to Ambrister and agreed to provide information to the Americans. He immediately told them that the letter had been read aloud to the chiefs and warriors on the Suwannee.
“From Cook we learned that this letter was read to the negroes and Indians, when they immediately commenced crossing their families,” wrote Col. Robert Butler, Jackson’s adjutant, “and had just finished as we entered their towns.” [III]
Ambrister and Cook were held by the Americans on the night of the 17th. Arbuthnot was already confined at Fort St. Marks (San Marcos de Apalache) where he awaited the return of the army from the Suwannee.
Jackson’s actions on the river, however, were far from over.
This series will continue. To catch up on any parts of our series that you might have missed, please visit our Seminole War 200th Anniversary Timeline.
If you would like to learn more about the First Seminole War, join us in the Florida Panhandle on April 27-28 for a special symposium featuring three top historians! Please click here for more information.
Also mark your calendar now the Scott 1817 Seminole War Battle reenactment in Chattahoochee on November 30-December 2. Learn more in this one-minute video:
[I] Col. Robert Butler to Brig. Gen. Daniel Parker, May 3, 1818.
[II] Alexander Arbuthnot to John Arbuthnot, April 2, 1818.
[III] Butler to Parker, May 3, 1818.