The capture of Robert C. Ambrister and Peter Cook opened the door for a highly successful raid down to the mouth of the Suwannee River 200 years ago today on April 17, 1818. A second attack took place east of the river on the same day.
This article continues our commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to read other articles in the series.
Cook’s decision to cooperate with his captors gave them a chance to learn that he and Ambrister had arrived at the mouth of the Suwannee on the schooner Chance, which belonged Alexander Arbuthnot. The latter individual was already in custody at Fort St. Marks (San Marcos de Apalache), having been found there when Brevet Maj. David E. Twiggs seized the post on April 7.
After learning from Cook the location of the Chance and the strength of her crew, Lt. Gadsden left Old Town 200 years ago today to seize the vessel:
…Lieutenant James Gadsden, aide-de-camp to the commanding general, descended the Suwany river to its mouth, with Captain Dunlap’s and a few of Captain Crittenden’s companies of the life-guard, and a small detachment of regulars, and captured, without difficulty, the schooner of A. Arbuthnot, which had brought supplies of powder and lead to the Indians and negroes settled at Suwany. This vessel afforded the means of transporting our sick back to St. Marks. [I]
An 1829 map of Florida shows that Arbuthnot’s store or port was on the west side of the river at or just below today’s community of Suwannee. He also had a second establishment on the river a few miles below Boleck’s and Nero’s towns. Supplies were brought to the port at the river’s mouth by schooner and then carried up to the second store by canoe.
Jackson had hoped that Lt. Commander Isaac McKeever of the U.S. Navy would blockade the mouth of the Suwannee River, but the naval officer reported that the weather did not cooperate:
…In conformity with a request of the General I proceeded to sea again on the morning of the 10th Instant and shaped my course along the Eastern coast, but from the opposition of the weather, I was induced that night to haul my vessel to the Westward and having touched at the mouth of the Appalachicola, and delivered dispatches with which I had been entrusted for fort Gadsden, I made the best of my way to Mobile Point. [II]
The blunder committed by Ambrister when he stumbled into the American sentries negated the need for the USS Thomas Shields to take up a position off the river’s mouth and Gadsden captured the Chance without difficulty. On board he found Arbuthnot’s son, John Arbuthnot, and several others.
As Gadsden was moving downriver on his raid, Jackson sent Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines across the Suwannee with orders to pursue the retreating inhabitants of Nero’s and Boleck’s towns:
…On the morning of the 18th General Gaines was ordered, with a select command, and a number of warriors under General McIntosh, to cross the Suwanny river in pursuit of the enemy; but found, on advancing about six miles, that they had dispersed in every direction, from the numerous trails, and too far advanced to overtake them, his command being short of supplies. A detachment of the warriors, having advanced some distance, fell in with a small party of the enemy, killed three warriors, took some women and children and five negroes. [III]
Gaines and McIntosh probably went across the Suwannee at the crossing shown below the Seminole and Black Seminole towns on Capt. Hugh Young’s map of the battlefield. This ferry was in the vicinity of today’s U.S. 98/U.S. 19 bridge that connects Old Town with Fanning Springs. Fort Fanning was built on the east side of the river at this crossing 20 years later during the Second Seminole War and the park where it stood provides a great view of the Suwannee.
Fanning Springs State Park is just across the road from Fort Fanning Historic Park and offers swimming, picnicking, cabins, camping, a boardwalk to the Suwannee and nature trails. To learn more about Suwannee and other great places in Dixie County, please click VisitDixie.com.
Use the map below for directions from Old Town to Fanning Springs and Suwannee:
[I] Col. Robert Butler to Brig. Gen. Daniel Parker, May 3, 1818.
[II] Lt. Commander Isaac McKeever to Commodore Daniel T. Patterson, April 28, 1818.
[III] Butler to Parker, May 3, 1818.