Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson moved his army over the Choctawhatchee River 200 years ago today in Holmes County, Florida.
This article continues a special series that commemorates the 200th Anniversary of the First Seminole War.
The Choctawhatchee is the major river in Northwest Florida between the Apalachicola/Chattahoochee and Escambia Bay and it offered a formidable barrier to the American army. According to Capt. Hugh Young, it was 150 yards wide where the soldiers crossed, a measurement that is consistent with the Choctawhatchee at Curry Ferry today:
…Choctahatchie rises about fifty miles above the Florida line. It has two branches – the eastern one of which, called the Pea river, unites with the main prong two miles above the boundary. Thence its course is a little west of south to its mouth at the east end of St. Roses [i.e. Choctawhatchee] Bay. South of he boundary there is not much first rate land on Choctahatchie but in the TerrY. [i.e. Alabama Territory] both its branches run through a tract of fine land that commences on the Alibama and the head of Escambia. [I]
Few details survive about the actual crossing but it probably happened in a similar way to method employed by the army to get across the Ochlockonee River earlier in the campaign. As was the case when he crossed that stream, Jackson had no way to preposition boats to aid in ferrying his men across. Lt. John Banks of the Georgia militia wrote in his diary that “all hands set to work building canoes” on the night that the army reached the Ochlockonee and the soldiers likely did the same thing when they reached the Choctawhatchee on the evening of May 14, 1818. [II]
The army also had a 6-pounder cannon and an ammunition wagon to get across. Capt. Young specifically wrote that the Choctawhatchee was “not fordable,” so the men undoubtedly cut timber to build a raft for this purpose. It was a dangerous and tricky proposition to move so much weight across a wild river on a hastily built raft but they managed it.
The west bank of the river at the crossing point is lower than the east but normally still dry. Young noted that the soldiers landed “in a thicket three-quarters of a mile wide with a growth of cane but sandy and dry.” [III]
The general area of the thicket described by Capt. Young is visible as a 70-foot contour on topographic maps of the vicinity. The 1950 U.S. Geological Survey quadrangle map for Izagora, for example, also shows the road that the army used to march northwest away from the Choctawhatchee on the next morning (May 16, 1818).
Andrew Jackson was familiar with the name if not the appearance of the river. Many of the Red Stick Creeks that he battled during the Creek War of 1813-1814 retreated down the Choctawhatchee during the closing phases of that conflict, especially after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. British officers reported in 1814 that Muscogee refugees were starving in the river swamps with many reduced to “mere skin and bones.” (Note: For more on the humanitarian crisis that took place on the Choctawhatchee in 1814, please see the book Milly Francis: The Life & Times of the Creek Pocahontas).
The general also received reports in 1818 that Econchattimico, Holmes, Atasi Mico and other leaders at war with the United States were somewhere on the Choctawhatchee River. The army, however, found no signs of them during its passage through Holmes County.
The soldiers camped on the west side of the river 200 years ago tonight. Dwindling food supplies were a major concern for Jackson and his officers. Pensacola was still days away and the army had little room for error in its cross-country march if the solders were to avoid disaster.
This series will continue tomorrow with the story of the march through western Holmes and into eastern Walton Counties. To catch up on any articles that you might have missed, please visit Seminole War 200th Anniversary.
To learn more about the history of Curry Ferry, where the army crossed the Choctawhatchee River, please enjoy this free mini-documentary from Two Egg TV:
[I] Capt. Hugh Young, “A Topographical Memoir of East and West Florida with Itineraries of General Jackson, 1818,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Jan., 1935): 156.
[II] Lt. John Banks, Diary of John Banks, 1936.