The famed frontiersman Davy Crockett is not usually associated with Florida. In the winter of 1814-1815, however, he took part in a military campaign that carried him deep into the woods of the Panhandle.
The War of 1812 was then underway and Crockett was a soldier in a regiment of Tennessee mounted riflemen. Rumors were afoot that the British planned an attack somewhere along the Gulf Coast and there were confirmed reports of Redcoats drilling in the streets of the Spanish city of Pensacola.
Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson stormed the Spanish capital in November 1814, forcing troops under Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls to withdraw. The British partially destroyed the fort of San Carlos de Barrancas – on the site of today’s Fort Barrancas – preventing Jackson from holding the city. Content with driving the British out, he withdrew back to Alabama two days later.
Jackson knew that a large force of Red Stick Creek warriors had joined the British and were in full retreat across the Panhandle for the British Post at Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River. Later called the “Negro Fort” and still later Fort Gadsden, this fort was a supply and logistical base where the British provided arms, ammunition, food, clothing and military training to their Red Stick, Seminole, Miccosukee and other allies. Nicolls also worked there to form a battalion of British Marines by enlisting escaped slaves, free men of color and a handful of white and Hispanic recruits.
To wipe out the Red Sticks before they could reach the Apalachicola and then, if conditions warranted, destroy the British Post itself, Jackson unleashed a large force under Maj. Uriah Blue of the 39th U.S. Infantry. Among the soldiers making up this command was David Crockett of Tennessee.
The frontiersman’s account of Blue’s raid is included in his autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of Tennessee, and reads like one of the tall tales that he was famous for telling. Unfortunately, this story was as true as it was brutal.
According to Crockett, Blue’s column left Fort Montgomery, near the Tensaw Community in Alabama, and crossed the line into Spanish Florida. When the army reached the Escambia River north of Pensacola, he was sent with a small detachment of Tennesseans and some allied Choctaw, Chickasaw and Creek warriors to scout ahead for signs of Red Sticks:
…We camped on the opposite bank, and early in the morning we set out. We had not gone far before we came to a place where the whole country was covered with water, and looked like a sea. We didn’t stop for this, tho’, but just put in like so many spaniels, and waded on, until we reached the pine hills, which made our distance through the water about a mile and a half. Here we struck up a fire to warm ourselves, for it was cold, and we were chilled through by being so long in the water. [I]
Crockett’s party moved north along the east side of the Escambia River in what is now Santa Rosa County, Florida. After warming themselves, they continued on for about six miles. Scouts that had been sent out to the left to examine the river banks suddenly came running in with news that they had found a Red Stick camp:
…Here we paused for a few minutes, and the prophets pow-wowed over their men awhile, and then got out their paint, and painted them, all according to their custom when going into battle. They then brought their paint to old Major Russell, and said to him, that as he was an officer, he must be painted too. He agreed, and they painted him just as they had done themselves. We let the Indians understand that we white men would first fire on the camp, then fall back, so as to give the Indians a chance to rush in and scalp them. [II]
The allies approached the Red Stick camp. Russell and his 16 Tennesseans – Crockett among them – forming the center of a line of battle. A force of Chickasaws formed to their left and the Choctaws to the right. Before long they heard the sounds coming from the Red Stick camp. Moving forward to attack, however, they soon found that their enemies were camped on an island. They were pondering this situation when suddenly the sounds of war whoops and gunfire could be heard in the distance.
Russell rushed his men forward to find that two of his scouts had killed two Red Stick men after obtaining information from them:
…When we reached them, they had cut off the heads of both the Indians; and each of those Indians with us would walk up to one of the heads, and taking his war club would strike on it. This was done by every one of them; and when they had got done, I took one of their clubs, and walked up as they had done, and struck it on the head also. At this they all gathered round me, and patting me on shoulder, would call me “Warrior-warrior.” [III]
Russell’s warriors then scalped the two battered heads and the force continued its advance, soon coming across a trace that led down to the river. The Tennesseans, Choctaws and Chickasaws followed this path and soon discovered a slain Spanish man, his wife and their four children. Red Sticks had scalped all six. Crockett recalled that he “began to feel mighty ticklish along about this time.”
The troops reached the river without seeing any more Red Sticks, however, and followed it back down to a point opposite the island where the Creek camp was located. A canoe was found and about 40 of Maj. Russell’s warriors crossed over and captured the camp. There they found only one Red Stick warrior, two women and ten children. The warrior escaped, but the women and children were taken as prisoners.
Crockett carried a message downriver that night from Maj. Russell to the main camp where Maj. Blue was waiting. The frontiersman passed through the darkness without incident and remained in camp the next day when part of Blue’s force moved down the east side of Escambia Bay to Garcon Point. There they attacked a force of Red Sticks, killing some and taking others as prisoners.
The captives from both incidents were sent back to Fort Montgomery, although Crockett believed that some were killed by their captors and never reached the post.
His operations along the Escambia complete, Maj. Blue turned the main column east for the Choctawhatchee River where a Red Stick chief named Holmes was believed to be hiding. Crockett took part in this march, which soon proved to be the most difficult of his military career.
[I] David Crockett, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of Tennessee, 1834: 107.
[II] Ibid., pp. 107-108.
[III] Ibid., pp. 109-110.