The trials of Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Ambrister got very confusing 200 years ago today as the military court at Fort St. Marks took the bizarre step of starting the second trial before the first was over.
This article is part of a series that marks the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to see the entire timeline of stories.
The court had declared a recess in Arbuthnot’s trial to give him time to prepare his defense. Instead of waiting until 4 p.m. for him to present that defense, however, the members moved to begin the trial of Ambrister. He faced two counts. The first was “aiding, abetting, and comforting the enemy, supplying them with the means of war,” to which he entered a not guilty plea. The second was “leading and commanding the Lower Creeks in carrying on a war against the United States,” to which he entered a plea of “guilty and justification.” [I]
The prosecution began immediately, with both John Lewis Phenix and John Arbuthnot testifying that they had seen Ambrister ordering out warriors from Boleck’s and Nero’s towns to fight Jackson’s approaching army. Both reported that the defendant issued ammunition to the Seminole and Black Seminole fighters and Phenix testified that Ambrister had been in British uniform and carrying a sword. [II]
The prosecutor entered a letter from Ambrister to Governor Charles Cameron of the Bahamas into evidence. Dated April 20, 1818 – as Jackson was marching from St. Marks to the Suwannee – it included an urgent request for ammunition from the Bahamas to help the Seminoles fight the U.S. Army:
…The Americans may march through the whole territory in a month, and without arms, &c. they must surrender. Hillisajo, or Francis, the Indian Chief, the one that was in England, tells me to let your Excellency know, that the Prince Regent told him that whenever he wanted ammunition, your Excellency would supply him with as much as he wanted. They beg me to press upon your Excellency’s mind to send the above mentioned articles [i.e.gunpowder, musket balls, lead, cannon] down by the vessel that brings this to you; and let the Prince Regent know of their situation. [III]
Peter B. Cook then testified that he had seen Ambrister give paint and some ammunition to the Indians and Black Seminoles, but had not seen him giving them orders.
Other letters were also introduced, including one to Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls which reported that there were about 300 black warriors on the Suwannee. Some of them, according to Ambrister, trained under the British at Prospect Bluff.
Additional witnesses gave similar testimony to that offered by Phenix, John Arbuthnot and Cook. The court retired to consider the case and found Ambrister guilty of exciting the Lower Creeks to war against the United States “by sending their warriors to meet and fight the American army.” He was also found guilty of leading warriors against troops of the United States. The panel ordered that he be executed by firing squad.
One of the members then asked for reconsideration of Ambrister’s sentence. A second vote was held and the members of the court reduced the sentence to “fifty stripes on his bare back” plus confinement “with ball and chain to hard labour, for twelve calendar months.”
Then, at 4 p.m., the court jumped back to the case of Alexander Arbuthnot. In a long statement, he promised not to try the patience of the panel:
…My only appeal is to the sound and impartial judgment of this honourable Court, the purity and uprightness of their hearts, that they will, dispassionately and patiently, weight the evidence they have before them, apply the law, and on these, and these alone, pronounce their judgment.
The court found him guilty on both of the counts against him and sentenced him “to be suspended by the neck until he is dead.”
And so, after it spent the day ricocheting between the two cases, the military court decided that Ambrister would be spared but that Arbuthnot’s life would be sacrificed. This was the situation at the close of day on April 28, 1818. The findings of the court went to General Jackson’s headquarters for review and by the next morning Old Hickory dramatically changed the punishments ordered by his officers.
This series will continue tomorrow with the executions of Arbuthnot and Ambrister.
To learn more about incidents at St. Marks including the trials, please consider the book Milly Francis: The Life & Times of the Creek Pocahontas.
The trial of the two Bahamians took place at today’s San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park. Please click here to learn about the history of the old Spanish fort.
The park is open Thursday-Monday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Use the map below to help you find it.