Seminole War
The Burning of the Suwannee Old Towns (Seminole War 200th)

The last parts of the towns of Boleck (Bowlegs) and Nero were burned 200 years ago today.

Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson wrote to the governor of Georgia 200 years ago today to inform him that the Seminole and Black Seminole towns on the Suwannee River had been destroyed.

This article is part of a continuing series that commemorates the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to read other articles in the series.

Gen. Jackson was still at Boleck’s (Bowlegs’) town on the morning of April 19, 1818. The work of destroying that town and the neighboring Black Seminole town of Nero was done and he ordered Brig. Gen. Glascock and the Georgia militia to march for home:

I have reached and destroyed this and the other town in its vicinity, and having captured the principal exciters of the war, I think I may safely say, that the Indian war for the present, is terminated. This happy circumstance enables me to dispense with the further services of the brigade of Georgia militia, commanded by brigadier gen. Glasscock, and at their solicitation, have ordered them directly to Hartford, to be mustered, paid and discharged. [I]

Many of Jackson’s soldiers took their last view of the Suwannee River 200 years ago today before moving 3/4 of a mile west in anticipation of their march back to St. Marks.

The Georgia brigade marched directly from Old Town on the Suwannee River for Fort Early on the Flint. There was no established road connecting the two places, but they widened Indian trails as they went.

The Georgians were followed that afternoon by Brig. Gen. William McIntosh with the main body of the U.S. Creek force. They were instructed to “destroy Hoponnie’s town and all his warriors, to take every description, so as effectually to destroy him.” [II]

Hoponnie or Opony was a Lower Muscogee (Creek) chief who lived on the Flint River not far from present-day Albany, Georgia. Many of his warriors were reported to have joined the Native American force at war against the United States, although the chief himself denied this.

The burning of Boleck’s and Nero’s towns snuffed from existence one of the most promising Native American and maroon (escaped slave) communities in Florida. Nero’s town, in fact, had probably been the largest free African-American settlement in North America. Capt. Hugh Young, Jackson’s topographer, was impressed by its size and prosperity:

Abraham, a noted Black Seminole leader, was among the inhabitants of Nero’s community at what is now Old Town, Florida.

…The negroes at Sahwanne were fugitives from Georgia and St. Augustine and were living in quiet and plenty without a single temptation to depredate in our territory. Their distance screened them from the single efforts of their masters to recover them and the abundance of cattle and corn obviated every plea on the score of subsistence. They were situated handsomely on the west bank of the Sahwanne, thirty-six miles from its mouth – in a hammock of thin but productive soil where they raised corn, potatoes, peas, beans and rice. Their cabins were large and better constructed than those of the Indians and many of them had neat gardens enclosed by paling and affording good fruit and vegetables. Their form of government was similar to that of the Indians. The chief was a Mulatto whose talents formed his only tie of authority and who knew that the respect and affections of the negroes were the only security to the continuance of his magistracy. In numbers they were about two hundred men with the usual proportion of women and children. [III]

Nero’s community was actually larger than Boleck’s town, but is not as well remembered today. Part of this is because 19th century writers intentionally downplayed successful free black communities. There was also a fascination with the Seminole leaders named Bowlegs and Boleck was the first of these. “Boleck’s Town” when pronounced aloud sounds like “Bowlegs’ Town.”

The departure of the Georgia brigade and McIntosh’s Creek troops left Jackson with his regular forces and the Tennessee volunteers. Capt. George Birch of the 7th U.S. Infantry wrote in his diary that the main column began the march back to St. Marks 200 years ago today:

The last vestiges of the Suwannee “old towns” were put to the torch 200 years ago today.

…[A]fter collecting all the cattle and corn and burning the Towns, we commenced our march back on the 20th of April 1818…The road to Suwany is miserable. The army had to wade nearly half the way in water and when out of the water we were cut to pieces by the saw palmeter, the Cabbage Tree grows all over that country. [IV]

The march on April 20 was not a long one. Col. Robert Butler reported that the main army moved only “about three-quarters of a mile” – probably to allow the burning of the part of Boleck’s town where troops had camped – in anticipation of stepping off for St. Marks on the next morning. Butler also placed the departure of McIntosh from the column as taking place on the 24th, which indicates that he may have accompanied the column as far back west as the road to Miccosukee. [V]

While Jackson informed Gov. Rabun that he thought the war was over, it was not. He would soon receive intelligence that convinced him to march his army across the Apalachicola River into Northwest Florida and “on to Pensacola.”

This series will continue.

 

[I] Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson to Gov. Rabun, April 20, 1818.

[II] Columbian Museum (Savannah newspaper), May 9, 1818.

[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): 100.

[IV] Capt. George Birch, “Diary of Maj. George Birch,” manuscript.

[V] Col. Robert Butler to Brig. Gen. Daniel Parker, May 3, 1818.

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