Seminole War
The Trials of Arbuthnot & Ambrister at St. Marks, Day 1 (Seminole War 200th)

The trials of Arbuthnot and Ambrister began 200 years ago today when the former was called before a court of military officers at Fort St. Marks (San Marcos de Apalache).

The trials of Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert C. Ambrister began 200 years ago today at Fort St. Marks (San Marcos de Apalache in St. Marks, Florida.

This article is part of a continuing series that commemorates the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to see the entire timeline of stories.

Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson returned to the St. Marks vicinity on the evening of April 25, 1818, making camp about four miles north of Fort St. Marks. On the next morning – 200 years ago today – Jackson ordered that two of his prisoners be tried before a military court:

The following detail will compose a special Court, to convene at this post, at the hour of twelve o’clock in the morning, for the purpose of investigating the charges exhibited against A. Arbuthnot, Robert Christie Ambrister, and such others, who are similarly situate, as may be brought before it. [I]

Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines was president of the court that tried Arbuthnot and Ambrister. National Archives

Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines was named to serve as President of the Court. Assigned as members were Col. King (4th U.S. Infantry), Col. Williams (Tennessee Volunteers), Lt. Col. Gibson (Tennessee Volunteers), Maj. Muhlenberg (4th U.S. Infantry), Maj. Montgomery (7th U.S. Infantry), Col. Dyer (Tennessee Volunteers), Lt. Col. Lindsay (Corps of Artillery), Lt. Col. Elliott (Tennessee Volunteers), Maj. Fanning (Corps of Artillery), Maj. Minton (Georgia Militia) and Capt. Crittenden (Kentucky Volunteers). Lt. J.M. Glassell of the 7th U.S. Infantry was assigned to serve as court recorder.

Pursuant to the order, the court convened at 12 noon and Alexander Arbuthnot was brought before the panel of military officers. A Bahamian trader, he had been captured when Jackson captured Fort St. Marks on April 7th (please see U.S. troops storm San Marcos de Apalache).

Arbuthnot faced multiple charges:

  1. “Exciting and stirring up the Creek Indians to war against the United States and her citizens; he (A. Arbuthnot) being a subject of Great Britain, with whom the United States are at peace.”
  2. “Acting as a spy, and aiding, abetting, and comforting the enemy, supplying them with the means of war.”
  3. “Exciting the Indians to murder and destroy William Hambly and Edmund Doyle, and causing their arrest, with a view to their condemnation to death and the seizure of their property, on account of their active and zealous exertions to maintain peace between Spain, the United States, and the Indians, they being citizens of the Spanish Government.” [II]

The trader entered a plea of Not Guilty, was granted counsel and the trial began.

The trial took place in one of the stone rooms of the old Spanish fort. The ruins are still visible today.

The first witness for the prosecution was John Winslett, who testified that Arbuthnot had signed a letter to the Little Prince of the Lower Creeks in the spring of 1817 in which he offered to assist in recovering lands taken by the United States in the Treaty of Fort Jackson. Winslett believed that Arbuthnot was offering to act as an agent between the Indians and the government of Great Britain.

John Lewis Phenix then testified, telling the court that he was at Boleck’s (Bowlegs’) Town on the Suwannee on April 6th or 7th when a letter arrived from Mr. Arbuthnot. He reported seeing the document, but did not hear it read aloud.

The court then retired into closed session after one of its members questioned whether it had the authority to hear the charges against Arbuthnot as regarded William Hambly and Edmund Doyle. The rest of the panel agreed, apparently deciding that they had no authority to try a case involving the two Spanish citizens.

Only the base of the old Spanish wall remains today. At the time of the trial, this wall rose to an impressive height and had cannon mounted on top.

Peter Cook next testified as the doors reopened. He told the court that he served as clerk to Arbuthnot and knew that “a large quantity of powder and lead” had been brought to the Suwannee and “sold to the Indians and Negroes” during December 1817 or January 1818. After that time, another shipment of powder had been brought in by Robert C. Ambrister and turned over to the Black Seminoles at the Suwannee.

Cook further identified a series of letters written by Arbuthnot, including one that gave specific information on the movements of American forces and recommended that Boleck evacuate his town immediately. Others represented the Miccosukee, Seminole, Red Sticks and Black Seminoles to Governor Cameron of the Bahamas, Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls of the Royal Marines, Charles Bagot the British Minister at Washington, and others.

On the back of one of the letters was an enumeration of the bands and warriors at war against the United States and a request from Cappachimico (“King Hachy”) and Boleck (“Bowlegs”) that they be supplied by the British government with:

The old Spanish moat was filled by Confederate forces during the War Between the States. They built earthworks around it and called it Fort Ward.

A quantity of gunpowder, lead, muskets, and flints, sufficient to arm 1,000 or 2,000 men; muskets, 1000, arms smaller if possible; 10,000 flints, a proportion for rifle, put up separate; 50 casks of gunpowder, a proportion for rifle; 2,000 knives, 6 to 9 inch blade, good quality; 1,000 tomahawks; 100 lb. vermillion; 2,000lb. lead, independent of ball for musket. 

Another document verified by Cook was signed by a number of chiefs who gave Arbuthnot power of attorney to speak on their behalf. Among those who gave their marks to the document were Cappachimico of Miccosukee, Neamathla of Fowltown, Peter MQueen, Josiah Francis and Major Howard of Chehaw.

The day concluded at 7 p.m. with questioning of Mr. Cook by members of the court and the presentation as evidence of a number of additional letters and documents. [III]

This series will continue tomorrow with day two of Arbuthnot’s trial.

The sites where the trial took place can be seen today at San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park in St. Marks. Arbuthnot and Ambrister were held prisoner in one of the rooms of the old stone bombproof of the fort, the ruins of which still survive. It is believed that the trials also took place in one of the stone rooms.

Please click here to learn more about the history of San Marcos de Apalache. The map below will help you reach the park, which is open Thursday-Monday of each week from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

[I] Col. Robert Butler for Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, General Order of April 26, 1818.

[II] Lt. J.M. Glassell, “Charges Versus A. Arbuthnot, now in custody, and who says he is a British Subject,” April 26, 1818.

[III] Lt. J.M. Glassell, Transcript of the trial of Alexander Arbuthnot, April 26, 1818.

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