The American army slowly edged closer to Pensacola 200 years ago today as it entered what is now Okaloosa County and crossed the Yellow River.
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’s army broke camp at daybreak on May 18, 1818, and resumed its westward march on what most historians today call the “Red Ground Trail.” Mapmaker Joseph Purcell, who first noted the trail in 1778, called it the “Path to Yellow Water.” The army’s encampment the night before was on this trail near the western border of Walton County a few miles northeast of today’s city of Laurel Hill. Capt. Hugh Young, Jackson’s topographer, noted the formation that gives the community its name when he reported that the morning’s march was along “a high pine ridge.” [I]
The Yellow Water Path crossed the present site of Laurel Hill and led to the banks of the Yellow River – then called the Yellow Water River – near today’s State Highway 2 bridge. Landmarks along the way include the historic Almarante Cemetery, established only about ten years after Jackson’s army passed by. Young estimated the army marched 11 miles from the previous night’s camp to the river:
Yellow Water rises about thirty miles north of the boundary, which it crosses thirty-five miles east of the Conecah. Its course thence, is S.W. to the head of Yellow Water bay, into which it empties,after being swelled to a considerable size by the accession of many large and rapid creeks of the finest water. Yellow Water is twenty-five yards at the crossing place – has a bluff on the east side and a swamp a quarter of a mile wide on the west – the current is rapid and deep – the banks and bottoms sandy. [II]
The crossing took place at a long-established ford that is just a few dozen feet from the State Highway 2 bridge. The path that crossed here had been in use since at least the American Revolution (1775-1783) and probably followed an even older Native American trail. The crossing spot was deep, but the soldiers were able to make it over without building boats or rafts as they did on the Choctawhatchee River.
The march of 11 miles followed by the crossing of the Yellow River consumed the full day for the soldiers and they camped on the higher ground just west of the ford at what is now Oak Grove, still in Okaloosa County. They resumed their march on the next morning.
The army was now two days from Escambia Bay but the soldiers had little idea of where they were or exactly where they would emerge from the wilderness. Jackson’s Native American guide, John Blunt, was not as familiar with this region as he had been the eastern Florida Panhandle and sometimes became confused in finding the way.
This was a critical problem for two reasons. First, Jackson wanted to emerge on the Escambia River north of Pensacola where he could cross quickly and strike the Spanish capital before its defenders could respond. If his army came out on the east side of the bay, it could give the Spanish time to prepare their defenses. Second, the army was growing critically short on food. The soldiers had planned for an eight-day march when they left the Apalachicola on the morning of May 11, 1818. The crossing of the Yellow River took place on the seventh day.
This series will continue. The map at the bottom of this page will help you follow the approximate route taken by the army 200 years ago today.
If you would like to experience the sights and sounds of the First Seminole War, join the crowd in Chattahoochee, FL on November 30 – December 2 for the annual Scott 1817 Seminole War Battle. Learn more in this 60-second video:
[I] Joseph Purcell, Purcell-Stuart Map of 1778, National Archives of Great Britain.
[II] Capt. Hugh Young, “A Topographical Memoir of East and West Florida with Itineraries of General Jackson, 1818,” The Florida Historical Quarterly : 158.