Rural Alabama is not a place where you would expect to find a battlefield of historical significance from the War of 1812, but there is one. Northwest of Tensaw off of Highway 80 in Baldwin County is a small historical site that memorializes a terrible event that took place there.
There is no visitor center or park rangers. No bookstore or museum. No snack machines. Until recently, not one geocache could be found within a mile of the place. There are a few outlines where buildings once stood and a partially re-constructed wooden palisade. It is isolated, quiet and a little bit creepy. Most people have never heard of it. Even Internet information is scarce. This is Fort Mims. On August 30, 1813, almost 1,000 Creek Indian warriors slaughtered 500 men, women and children in what can only be described as an orgy of killing. It remains to this day the largest and most brutal Indian massacre in American history.
The seeds of Fort Mims were sowed right after the American Revolution. The Creek Indians lived in modern day western Georgia and Alabama. The British, the Spanish and the French were all trying to influence events in the region and chip away at the new nation's territory. They were also looking for allies should war come again. To accomplish this, they all sought alliances with the Creeks. The British were particularly aggressive in these efforts. The Americans. of course, sought their own influence with the Creeks and had a decided advantage. The white settlers and the Creeks lived in peace. Most of the settlers were of Scotch-Irish descent and marriages between Anglos and Creeks were common. This resulted in a sizeable mixed blood population and it was not unusual for such persons to have both an Anglo and a Creek name. One such individual was William Weatherford, whose Creek name was Red Eagle.
Weatherford was an impressive person and natural leader. He stood 6' 2" in a time when your average male was about 5' 5". He had jet black hair and black eyes that "...could bore a hole right through you." He never learned to read or write but spoke Creek and English with native fluency and was a gifted orator.
The long-simmering feud between the U.S. and England turned into the War of 1812. The British actively solicited the Creeks with offers of weapons and money. Some of the Creeks went for it. One of the factions which sided with the British was called the Red Sticks, named for their red war clubs. Their leader was William Weatherford aka Red Eagle. The Red Sticks had no love for the British but were weary of white settlement, the watering down of their bloodlines by inter-marriage and the loss of hunting grounds. Considered the radical faction of the Creek Nation, they began terrorizing the southern frontier.
As tensions mounted in the region, settlers banded together for defense and began building defensive fortifications. Since the US Army was fully engaged with the British, it fell to local militia to man the forts. One such cantonment was at the house of Samuel Mims. Mims was a prominent local businessman and farmer who had gotten wealthy by establishing and running a toll ferry across the nearby Alabama River. His farm had crops and livestock. A palisade was constructed that enclosed an acre of ground with the Mims house in the center. Soon there were over 500 people living within its walls including 120 militiamen commanded by Major Daniel Beasley. Shelters were constructed along with utility buildings and a blockhouse at the southwest corner. There was also a well, so they had fresh water inside the walls. They were confident that they could handle anything that came along.
As dangerous and volatile as the region was, open warfare had been avoided so far. That was about to change. In July, 1813, the militia found out that the Red Sticks had been to Pensacola to receive a large shipment of weapons from the British. There were also rumors on the frontier that the British were paying money for scalps.
The militia decided to attack the Creek party. A hastily formed force, led by Colonel Joseph Caller, was sent to intercept and attack the Red Sticks and their pack train. This militia force consisted of 180 whites, mixed bloods and friendly Creeks. One of Caller's officers was Captain Dixon Bailey. Bailey was an experienced and savvy Indian fighter and of mixed blood himself
On July 27, 1813, the Creeks were ambushed as they were bedding down on the banks of Burnt Corn Creek. The militia's initial success was stalled when they stopped to root through the supplies they had just captured. The Creeks were able to regroup and counterattack, driving off the soldiers and saving some of their supplies. Captain Bailey distinguished himself in the battle and kept it from turning into a disaster after the militia assault fell apart.
The Red Sticks viewed this pre-emptive attack as an act of war and immediately started planning their paybacks. Captain Bailey was the second-in-command at Fort Mims and had been recognized. The revenge target would be Bailey's command. The militia attack at Burnt Corn Creek had only succeeded in escalating a bad situation into a hot war, with both sides blaming the other for starting it. The battles that followed came to be known as the Creek Indian War. It is considered part of the War of 1812.
For several weeks, everyone was on high alert and expecting an attack. Gradually though, the intensity wore down and people got back into their old routines. The frontier seemed quiet but unbeknownst to the Mims defenders, Red Eagle was conducting detailed scouting and planning his attack.
In the week before the attack, there were several sightings of Creek warriors. Patrols were sent out but found nothing. Soon the reports were dismissed out of hand. The day before the attack, the Creeks were staged and hidden less than a mile from the fort. That night, about 300 of them moved to a ravine 400 yards from the east gate, which was the only gate open in the stockade. The larger and better covered west gate was permanently closed. The Creeks chopped it open during the battle.
The remaining 500 Creeks encircled the fort and concealed themselves in the thick forest and brush. The 300 in the ravine would rush the gate to start the attack as the other 500 came over or through the wall.
August 30 dawned as another sunny, hot and steamy Alabama summer day. The gate opened. People worked in the fields and came and went on business. Children played. Soldiers played cards. Nobody was expecting an Indian attack, especially at mid-day.
At noon, the dinner bell rang calling in everybody for lunch. Red Eagle waited a few minutes to make sure everyone was inside then launched the attack. The Creeks sprinted across the 400 yards of open field and vegetable gardens using available cover and not making a sound. The defenders were caught completely by surprise. Survivor accounts told of the Indians being within 50 yards of the gate before anybody saw them. Then all Hell broke loose. The attackers were inside the gate before it could be closed. The first defender to die was Major Beasley, who met them head on just inside the gate as he rallied his men.
Captain Bailey, who was the target of the Creek vendetta, took command. He had found through hard-won experience that Indian attacks started out ferociously but tended to fade away if met with stiff resistance. The whole idea of a sustained five hour Indian attack was not in their playbook. Bailey rallied and and organized the defense expecting that the attack would run out of steam. However, the Red Stick warriors were fired up and determined to carry this thing through to the end.
The partially reconstructed inner east gate. The ground on either side of the opening corresponds with #22, 23 and 24 on the diagram. The marker itself marks the spot where Major Beasley was killed, # 25 on the diagram.
The Creeks who sprinted inside were armed with clubs and tomahawks for rapid close-in killing. Other Creeks with rifles circled the perimeter and began firing from the outside through the firing apertures and gaps in the logs. The women and children took cover where ever they could find some or joined in the fight themselves. Much of the fighting was hand-to-hand. Led by Captain Bailey, the defenders put up a ferocious resistance, killing or wounding as many as 300 Creeks. The attackers chopped several holes in the palisade so they could enter from another direction and better encircle the dwindling defenders. The battle raged for almost three hours but the citizen soldiers were finally overwhelmed by sheer numbers and no where to go.
The Creeks broke off the attack but stayed near the fort. For the next two hours, they looted, recovered their dead, treated their wounds and ate and drank. During that two hour interlude, the settlers chopped a hole in the palisade behind the loom house at the center of the north wall. Fifteen people were able to escape into the thick vegetation known as canebrake. There could have been more but most were too terrified to move. Then the Creeks came back to finish the job. Still vengeful from the encounter at Burnt Corn Creek and enraged at the deaths of so many of their warriors, they returned to the now undefended fort and butchered everyone in it with tomahawks, knives and fire.
The Mims house had a root cellar that was crammed with people. The house was torched. People who escaped the flames were killed and mutilated. The scene repeated itself at the kitchen, the loom house and other structures. Everything burned to the ground except the blockhouse, which was only partially destroyed.
The only people spared were the black slaves, who were taken prisoner and made slaves of the Creeks.
Two weeks after the massacre, a militia force arrived to count and bury the dead. What they found certainly ranks as one of the most gruesome scenes imaginable. Bodies and body parts lay everywhere. Many had been scalped and mutilated. Predators and scavengers had torn bodies apart and consumed them. As the detail picked through the burned out buildings, they found more human remains though barely recognizable as such. In the root cellar of the Mims house, the fire had been so hot that everything in it - metal, clay, wood, human, everything - had been incinerated to a fine powder with only small shards remaining to identify what had once been there.
When word of the Fort Mims massacre got out, General Andrew Jackson led a force of Tennessee militiamen and Cherokee Indians against the Creeks. He pursued them for months without a decisive engagement. On March 27, 1814, he finally cornered them and finished them off at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River near present day Alexander City, AL. At that battle, the Creeks used their captured black slaves as human shields but Jackson's men killed them too. The battlefield is now a National Military Park.
The defeated Creek forces were forced to give up their lands, which were immediately opened to settlement. Some of them went off to Florida, where they continued to fight in the First Seminole War. Others were exiled further west to Arkansas and eventually to Oklahoma.
William Weatherford aka Red Eagle surrendered. Some historical accounts relate that he wasn't real keen on the attack after he found out that the Red Sticks had blood relatives in the compound, but his concerns were brushed aside. Jackson spared him in exchange for brokering peace talks with the Creeks. Weatherford was paroled and returned to Monroe County, AL, where he became a successful planter until his death in 1824. His grave site is about one mile from Fort Mims.
Captain Dixon Bailey survived the battle but was severely wounded and soon died of those wounds. His young son, who was sick with some unknown ailment at the time, escaped out from behind the loom house during the two hour lull but ran into the Creeks and was clubbed to death.
Andrew Jackson of course went on to be President of the United States, mostly on his reputation as a warrior.
The Fort Mims Restoration Association has done a lot of work on the site and has a re-enactment every year. The bicentennial year is 2013 and plans are already being made for a big gathering.
This historical site is what Off The Beaten Path is all about - finding little known but significant places and bringing them to the public. If you are down in Alabama, this small commemorative park is well worth a visit. There is a self-guided trail with markers that tell the whole story. I hope you find Fort Mims as interesting as we did.
The GPS coordinates for the parking lot are N31.1798º, W87.8380º. Click on the coordinates to bring up an interactive Google map.
Semper Fi....Out here....Alpha6 aka Boris