Josiah Francis as seen in a self-portrait painted in 1817. British Museum

In today’s second part of a week-long series we look at the Battle of Burnt Corn Creek and how it led to the Red Stick Creek attack on Fort Mims. This year’s living history event and reenactment commemorating the attack will take place on Saturday and Sunday at the fort site near Tensaw, Alabama. 

by Dale Cox

Please click here to read Fort Mims (Part 1): Tecumseh’s visit to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

The Prophet Josiah Francis is a much-debated figure of the Creek War of 1813-1814 and the First Seminole War of 1817-1818. He was a highly effective evangelist of the nativist religion introduced by Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee prophet, and led the massive Red Stick movement that developed in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in 1812-1813.

Having destroyed his own home and cattle herds, Francis moved with his family and a small core of followers to a new village called Holy Ground. This town bordered a creek just off the Alabama River and it was here that the Prophet and his retinue first began to dance the “Dance of the Indians of the Lakes.”

Francis was a charismatic leader and his following quickly grew to include most of the warriors from the towns of the Upper Creek country. Red war clubs were raised in villages loyal to the Prophet and his followers came to be known as “Red Clubs” or “Red Sticks.” Tensions grew between them and the supporters of the Big Warrior and other members of the Creek Council. Col. Benjamin Hawkins became involved after the Little Warrior and a party killed a group of white settlers near the mouth of the Duck River in Tennessee. They were on their way back from a visit to Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh when someone incorrectly told them that war had erupted between whites and Native Americans.

Hawkins demanded that the Council punish those responsible for the murders and an execution squad was sent out under the Coweta war chief William McIntosh to exact justice. Little Warrior and his followers were killed and a white captive, Mrs. Martha Crowley, was returned to her people.

The Lavalle House in Pensacola looks much as it did when Peter McQueen’s party arrived in the city in 1813.

The executions set the Nation afire. Francis and other Red Sticks blamed the Big Warrior for killing their friends and a series of confrontations followed, quickly growing into a full scale civil war. The Prophet’s army moved on Tuckabatchee, laid siege to the ancient town and forced the Big Warrior and his followers to withdraw to Coweta on the Chattahoochee River by summer 1813.

The fighting nearly depleted the supplies of ammunition possessed by both sides. Big Warrior appealed to Hawkins for help while Francis sent the Tallassee war chief Peter McQueen to Pensacola with instructions to obtain a new supply from the Spanish government there.

Gov. Mateo Gonzales Manrique was irate with with the United States over Gen. James Wilkinson’s recent capture of Mobile, which the Americans claimed was part of the Louisiana Purchase. Pensacola was poorly supplied, however, and Manrique had little to offer McQueen and his Red Sticks. A subordinate prophet called High-head Jim danced and convulsed and the Tallassee leader alternately pleaded his case and threatened the Spanish leader. The city’s garrison was called to arms but violence was averted when a supply of ammunition and other items was assembled for the Creeks.

Blue Heron (Farris Powell) portrays a Red Stick warrior during a recent reenactment of the Battle of Burnt Corn Creek.

American settlers along the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers heard of McQueen’s mission and sent spies into Spanish Penacola to learn more:

Some time since, information was received that a half breed, by the name of Peter McQueen, with about, three hundred warriors, had gone to Pensacola for the purpose of procuring arms and amunition from the Governor of that place, to enable them to make war upon the settlements of the Tombigby. Persons of respectability were immediately dispatched to Pensacola to ascertain whether the Indians were supplied with arms and amunition by the Governor, and if possible, to discover what were the intentions of the Creeks generally. Those persons stayed until the Indians had received three hundred pounds of powder and a proportionate quantity of lead from the Governor. They were not satisfied with this—said they must have more, and openly declared they were going to war with the Americans, and that on their return they would be joined by seven hundred warriors at the Whetstone Hill, (about 100 miles from this place where they would distribute their amunition and return against the Tombigby Settlements. [i]

As Peter McQueen prepared for his return to the Upper Creek country, Col. James Caller left the American settlements with five companies of Mississippi Territorial Militia. His force included both white and metis or mixed race soldiers. These troops marched without waiting for orders from higher officers, clearly concerned that the Red Sticks intended to attack their homes. Whether this was their plan is debatable, but that was the intelligence that Caller and his men had received.

The five militia companies were small and mustered only around 175 men combined. They were heavy on officers and short on rank and file soldiers. Even so, they heavily outnumbered the warriors in McQueen’s small supply party.

Burnt Corn Creek winds its way through southern Alabama.

The two forces collided on July 27, 1813. The Red Sticks stopped to rest and eat their midday meal near a small spring on Burnt Corn Creek north of present-day Brewton, Alabama. They were taken by surprise when Caller and his men suddenly charged them:

On Tuesday last, about 12 o’clock, A. M., they met the Indians in the edge of the Escambia swamp, about 80 miles from this place, attacked and drove them into the swamp, and took most of their pack horses. From the best information I could receive, I suppose ten or twelve of the Indians were killed and eight or nine wounded. The Indians were in the swamp, and our men in the open woods. The Commander thought it prudent to order a retreat. The whites generally broke and ran in great confusion, and Col. Caller, although he used every exertion which a brave officer could do, and was supported by several officers and privates, was unable to rally his men or restrain their precipitate flight. The Indians discovered their confusion, and pursued them nearly a mile in the open woods, and nothing saved our men from a general slaughter but the inability of the Indians to overtake them. [ii]

The Battle of Burnt Corn Creek was a disaster for the whites and metis. Not only did the Red Sticks drive them from the field, but they also recovered part of their ammunition supply. Col. Caller wandered lost in the woods for days and his men returned to the settlements in twos and threes instead of as a conquering army:

A militia soldier fires during a recent reenactment of the Battle of Burnt Corn Creek in Brewton, Alabama.

Making matters worse, Muscogee blood had been spilled. Like the Scots-Irish settlers of the frontier, the Creeks were bound by the strictures of an “eye for an eye” culture. Francis and his war leaders urged an immediate strike on the Big Warrior’s remaining forces, but the families of warriors killed at Burnt Corn Creek demanded vengeance in blood for their loved ones. After much debate the Red Sticks decided to move on the whites and metis who had attacked them.

The logical target for their campaign was Fort Mims, a rough log stockade thrown up around the home of an Indian countryman named Samuel Mims. Many of the men involved in the Burnt Corn attack were there. They took their families into the fort for protection and Maj. Daniel Beasley of the Mississippi Territorial Militia was sent with additional troops to defend it.

Beasley was ordered to prepare the stockade for defense and did start building a log blockhouse at its southwest corner. He also enlarged the crowded stockade by adding a section on its eastern side. A subsequent inspection, however, revealed that Fort Mims was woefully prepared for the coming onslaught. Like many Americans on the frontier, the major likely assumed that the Red Sticks would not  attack a fortified position.

Unfortunately for Beasley and the settlers who depended on him, the Native American prophets, chiefs and warriors were under no such illusion.

This series will continue tomorrow.

The 205th anniversary of Fort Mims will be commemorated by living history events and reenactments this Saturday and Sunday (August 25 & 26) at the fort site near Tensaw, Alabama. Please visit www.fortmims.org for more information.

To learn more, please enjoy the documentary Battle for Fort Mims from Two Egg TV. Watch it for free on Amazon by clicking the listing below. You do not have to be an Amazon Prime member to watch.

[i] Col. Joseph Carson to Brig. Gen. Ferdinand L. CLaiborne, August 3, 1813.

[ii] Ibid.