The Bahamian residents Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert C. Ambrister met their fates before U.S. Army execution squads 200 years ago today at Fort St. Marks (San Marcos de Apalache) in St. Marks, Florida.
This article is part of a series commemorating the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to read other articles in the series. Special thanks to Col. Steve Abolt of the 7th U.S. Infantry Living History Association for input on early 19th century military executions.
The final decision of the military court that heard the cases against the two men called for Arbuthnot to “be suspended by the next until he is dead” and for Ambrister to receive 50 lashes and then serve 12-months hard labor while shackled to a ball and chain. The sentence went to Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson for final approval. (Please see Guilty verdicts in the Arbuthnot & Ambrister trials)
He then made one of the most controversial decisions of his life.
Jackson approved the hanging of Arbuthnot, but disapproved of the court’s reversal of its decision to execute Ambrister:
The Commanding General orders, that Brevet Major A.C.W. Fanning, of the corps of artillery, will have, between the hours of eight and nine o’clock, A.M. A. Arbuthnot suspended by the neck with a rope until he is dead, and Robert C. Ambrister to be shot to death, agreeably to the [original] sentence of the Court. [I]
Col. Robert Butler, Jackson’s adjutant, issued the orders from “Camp Four Miles North of St. Marks” early on the morning of April 29, 1818. This camp was just north of today’s U.S. 98 bridge over the Wakulla River near the former Panton, Leslie & Company trading post site. It was also very near the town of the late Prophet Josiah Francis, which was three miles north of the fort on the Wakulla River.
In fact, Old Hickory later used his executions of Francis and Homathlemico as justification for his decision to reverse the court’s decision on Ambrister’s fate. “My God would not have smiled on me,” he said, “had I punished only the poor, ignorant savages, and spared the white men who set them on.” [II]
Ambrister awakened on the morning of April 29 – 200 years ago today – believing that his life was secure. He soon learned otherwise:
…About sunrise an officer informed the prisoners of their fate. Whatever may have been Ambrister’s previous hopes or fears, the shock was evidently severe.
“What!” he exclaimed, “Am I to be murdered? How have I deserved this?”
Overwhelmed for a moment, he uttered similar exclamations. Upon the officer remarking,
“Ambrister, since you must die, die like a man.”
“I will,” he exclaimed, “but to think that I should die now like a culprit! But Fortune has her favorites, and Fate must have her victims – I will show you that I can face Death manfully.”
Pacing the floor of the apartment for a few moments in silence, he then turned to Major Hess, who had been his advocate before the court-martial.
“Major, you say General Jackson has marched with his army; is it not possible that he has left a pardon or a respite for me?”
“I fear not,” replied the Major.
“Then,” said Ambrister, “I am ready; you shall see that I am not afraid to meet the Grim Monster.” [III]
According to Dr. J.B. Rodgers, who remained at Fort St. Marks to treat sick and wounded U.S. soldiers when the main army marched, Robert C. Ambrister silently stepped out and took his place behind the officer and musicians who led him to the foot of his already prepared grave.
The march to the grave was done to the sounds of muffled drums and fifes. The name of the tune played by the musicians was not recorded in the known accounts of Ambrister’s death. The soldiers selected for the firing squad presented their muskets to either a commissioned or non-commissioned officer who handled the loading duties. All of the weapons but one were prepared with full loads. The remaining musket was charged with powder only. The purpose of this bit of ceremony was to assure that no soldier knew for sure if he had fired a fatal shot, although in truth it was a hollow gesture as there is a distinct difference in recoil between a loaded round and a blank one.
Once he arrived at the hole that would become his grave, the final parts of the military’s execution ceremony were enacted:
…An orderly stepped forward to place him in position, and, being at a loss for a bandage, Ambrister pulled one of the cravats from his neck and courteously handed it to the orderly, who immediately tied it over Ambrister’s eyes. Ambrister then requested that he himself might be allowed to give the fatal signal; to which the officer in command replied,
“Sir, there is an officer present that knows his duty.”
“Then,” said Ambrister, “it only remains for that officer to perform that duty.”
So saying, he straightened himself to his full height, both hands behind him, holding his hat, and being evidently able to see his executioners from under the bandage on his eyes. The signal was immediately given. The platoon fired, some shots taking effect in the head and others about the region of the heart. Ambrister fell forward and died without a struggle. [IV]
Maj. A.C.W. Fanning, the officer who told Ambrister to “die like a man,” now turned his attention to Alexander Arbuthnot. As gruesome as the first execution had been, Arbuthnot’s was worse.
Led by the major, military musicians and guards to his own schooner, Arbuthnot was “suspended by the neck.” This process was even worse than a traditional hanging in which the victim died by having a trap sprung or a “platform” such as a wagon, box, stump or horse suddenly pulled from beneath him so that he would drop fast enough to break his neck.
To be “suspended by the neck” aboard a ship meant that someone threw the rope and noose over a yard-arm of the vessel. The noose was then placed around the neck of the victim and men pulled on the other end of the rope to lift him from his feet. Once suspended, he remained dangling there until he strangled to death.
This is what happened to Alexander Arbuthnot:
Within thirty minutes of the time of the execution of Ambrister, Arbuthnot was to be seen suspended by the neck at the end of the yard-arm of his vessel, some twenty feet above the water, quite dead. There were present a number of the Indians, that had come into the fort to sue for peace, that were greatly astonished to see the end of their leaders; and besides, were greatly astonished and amazed to learn that General Jackson had hanged their prophet Francis, or Hellis Hajo, and Himollemico, their leading spirits. [V]
The participation of a full platoon of soldiers in the executions might reflect the army’s nervousness over the presence of so many surrendering Red Sticks. Smaller squads normally performed such duties.
Dr. Rodgers wrote that Arbuthnot bore a resemblance to a better known figure in American history:
…Arbuthnot was about five feet ten inches high; long, flowing white hair; handsomely dressed in a suit of black clothes. Indeed, it is fair to say, that in person he would remind the observer of Aaron Burr, the writer having seen both the personages at about or near the same age. He was decidedly an educated man of fine colloquial powers. After twenty minutes’ suspension, he was let down, enveloped in a blanket, and placed by the side of Ambrister, without the presence of one to shed a friendly tear over their sad fate. [VI]
Among those who saw the executions that day was Milly Francis, the daughter of the Prophet Francis. She intervened to save the life of a Georgia militiaman named Duncan McCrimmon – often misspelled “McKrimmon” – when he was held captive in her village. She now saw firsthand a distinct lack of mercy on the part of the officers who described her people as “ignorant savages.”
Dr. Rodgers said that Milly was about to cross the drawbridge leading into the fort when the platoon escorting Ambrister marched across in her direction. She then saw the third and fourth executions that she had viewed in just three weeks. Milly also had seen the hangings of her father and Homathlemico:
…She was a brunette, with long flowing hair, keen black eyes, and a finely-formed person. She was dressed in the manner of white women. At times she manifested no concern for the death of her father, and at other times she would be plunged into inconsolable grief. On this occasion she spoke to no one, and no one spoke to her. Mr. Hambly could not extract from her one word. [VI]
Milly Francis saw more violent death before she was 18 years old than most of us see in a lifetime.
Tradition first recorded in the 19th century tells that the graves of Ambrister and Arbuthnot are about 50 yards due north of the main gates of the old fort. This site is now in the general vicinity of the picnic area at San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park.
Andrew Jackson did not witness the executions. His army was already on the march for Fort Gadsden before the two men met their fates. Controversy over the killings of Ambrister and Arbuthnot dogged Jackson for the rest of his life. The war, meanwhile, was about to enter a critical new phase.
This series will continue. Please click here to learn more about the history of San Marcos de Apalache.
If you would like to read the remarkable story of Milly Francis, please consider the book Milly Francis: The Life & Times of the Creek Pocahontas. It is available in both paperback and Kindle formats.
San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park is open Thursday-Monday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is at 148 Old Fort Rd, St. Marks, FL. The map below will help you to find it:
[I] Col. Robert Butler, by order of Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, General Order of April 29, 1818.
[II] Quote from Benjamin F. Butler’s eulogy of Andrew Jackson per James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, Volume 2, 1859: 485.
[III] Dr. J.B. Rodgers, Diary of Dr. J.B. Rodgers, quoted by Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, Volume 2, 1859: 477-478.