War Within a War
War Within a WarThe presence of Creek Indians in the Florida panhandle during the Second Seminole War kept settlers on edge for yearsBy Jason Dehart
The battles of the Second Seminole War (1835–1842) may have taken place in Central and South Florida, but the region between Pensacola and St. Andrews Bay was ground zero for a little-known but bitter conflict between settlers and Creek Indians.
“Walton County was the hardest hit of all the area’s counties,” said Brian Rucker, a history professor at Pensacola Junior College. “The United States Superior Court failed to hold its regular session in the county because of the disturbances, and the economy was seriously disrupted.”
Rucker’s “West Florida’s Creek Indian Crisis of 1837,” published in a 1991 volume of the Florida Historical Quarterly, examines this often-unexplored aspect of the Florida War, as the Second Seminole War was known in its day. He described it as a “relatively forgotten chapter in the history of Florida’s Indian wars.”
Andrew Jackson’s invasions of Spanish West Florida in 1814 and 1818 dispersed many hostile Creek bands, while others disappeared in the remote woods and bays. When Spain ceded Florida in 1821, settlers encountered these Creeks, Rucker said.
The 1823 Treaty of Moultrie Creek allowed 800 Creeks to live on reservation lands along the Apalachicola River. Small bands were scattered from St. Andrews to Choctawhatchee, Blackwater and Escambia bays. Rucker wrote that they hunted, fished, looked for grazing land and occasionally wandered into town for supplies.
The white settlers saw the Creeks as thieves and rascals who liked to steal cattle. The settlers also believed the Creeks helped and harbored runaway slaves.
In the mid-1830s, the settlers felt that Creeks, as well as Seminoles, should be forcefully removed and sent west of the Mississippi. Tensions erupted into violence in 1834, when an 18-year-old white settler was killed in an Indian camp on the Pea River in southern Alabama. A party of white men fought and chased the Indians into the swamps; one Indian was killed and two were wounded.
War Comes to the Territory
In December 1835, war began in earnest between the United States and the Seminoles in Florida. In the spring of 1836, as the two sides clashed in the peninsula, troubling news hit the Panhandle: The Creeks were rising near Columbus, Ga., and southern Alabama. Rucker said that panic spread from Columbus to Apalachicola. Florida settlers organized into militias as fear set in.
“White settlers feared that the ‘renegade’ Creeks, fleeing removal, would travel south to join forces with the Florida Seminoles,” he wrote. (Some friendly Creek warriors, however, found their way into the ranks of the U.S. Army. An entire regiment of Creek fighters was enlisted to fight the Seminoles).
In East Florida (the land east of the Suwannee River), efforts by the Army and militia to bring the Florida War to a quick conclusion were frustrated at every turn. Rucker said these setbacks “led to further fears and concerns among West Floridians.” In January 1837, more members of the West Florida militia were placed on alert.
West Florida became a haven for renegade Creeks driven out of Alabama and Georgia. For decades they had fought amongst themselves but jointly opposed removal efforts, Rucker said. Now, the Indians faced economic and social problems that were caused, according to Rucker, by “unscrupulous whites and an unsympathetic federal government.”
“The fragile ‘Creek Nation’ fell prey to the old factionalism,” Rucker said.
Historian Christopher Kimball said that these problems led to the Second Creek War of 1837.
“The Second Creek War in Alabama reached down into Florida as Creek Indians raided plantations and homesteads in the Panhandle area,” Kimball said. “In February and March 1837, Creek warriors were defeated at Hobdy’s Bridge and along the Pea River in southern Alabama, ending the hostilities of the Second Creek War.”
Depredations on Both Sides
Following this defeat, renegade Creeks fled to Florida and formed small bands. Locally, they moved along the Choctawhatchee River into Walton County, “murdering and pillaging as they traveled,” Rucker wrote.
Indians attacked and killed members of the Alberson family on Feb. 28, 1837, and one raiding party killed nearly everyone at a homestead in Gadsden County.
In response, a mounted militia group from Pensacola searched for Indians along the Yellow River and over to Shoal River. Hampered by impassable swamps and bad weather, they returned empty-handed. However, more than 30 Indians later agreed to surrender for deportation west.
Relief seemed to be within sight for the people of Pensacola.
“It appeared that the majority of the renegades had dissolved into the wilderness north of Choctawhatchee Bay,” Rucker wrote.
But white treachery reared its ugly head in April 1837, when a family of settlers at a Blackwater River lumber mill deceived and captured a family of Creeks, according to Kimball.
“Most refugee Creeks were trying to live in peace with the white settlers, and traded for much-needed goods whenever possible,” Kimball said. “The settlers used this trade against the Indians to set a trap.”
In the tragic scene that followed, some of the Indians tried to kill themselves rather than be captured.
In reprisal, Creek warriors attacked a group of seven Walton County men along the Shoal River. Only two men survived the attack, and their story whipped Walton County into a panic.
“The inhabitants feared for their lives as well as their crops and livestock,” Rucker wrote.
The local militia pursued the renegades and killed two of them near Shoal River. The back-and-forth killings made it difficult to convince the Indians to surrender peacefully, but by the end of May 1837, some 70 Creeks had surrendered and were taken west.
However, the conflict continued. That same month, 12 Walton County settlers were killed, and territorial Gov. Richard Keith Call ordered a militia company from Jackson County to enter the Walton County fray. Citizen soldiers from Franklin and Washington counties were also called up and sent west.
The Jackson County militia proved ruthless. In one particularly lethal episode, they wiped out a party of 12 Indians near Alaqua. Those Indians were said to be prisoners, mostly women and children. An Army lieutenant inspected the scene of the massacre and learned that several of the Indians had been scalped, and their earrings cut from their ears.
Other militias continued to hound the Indians. On May 19, 1837, Walton County soldiers fought a band of Creeks west of the Choctawhatchee River near what is today the town of Bruce. When the Indians fled into the swamp, the soldiers chased after them. Rucker wrote that the site is still known as “Battle Bay.” Three militiamen and about 10 Indians were killed in this skirmish. A couple of months later, another skirmish took the life of five Creeks and one militiaman.
The constant pressure by the local militias weakened Indian morale. In October, the Indian threat appeared to be over in Northwest Florida, but attacks and counterattacks continued into the 1840s, even after the Florida War was over. The desire by whites to remove the remaining Indians would set the stage for the Third Seminole War in the 1850s. But the Creek uprising of 1837 remains a bitter part of Emerald Coast history.
“For the white frontiersmen it was a tragic episode – families brutally murdered, property destroyed and stolen, and settlements terrorized with fear,” Rucker wrote about the 1837 violence. “For the Indians it was a more lasting tragedy – many were killed, hundreds were deported to the West, and the remaining natives were condemned to poverty and the loss of their heritage and culture. Atrocities were committed on both sides, and both white and red savages were to be found.”