Marianna’s forgotten Creek War fort

by Dale Cox

The oldest known photos of Marianna date to long after the Creek War of 1836. This image was taken from the vicinity of the courthouse looking west up Lafayette Street. Dale Cox Collection

The outbreak of the Creek War of 1836 in Alabama and Georgia took the border counties of the Florida Panhandle by surprise. In Marianna, where citizens feared they might face attack from Muscogee (Creek) warriors trying to fight their way through to join the Seminoles in central Florida, the news brought panic.

The Second Seminole War was already underway and it was not going well for whites on the frontier. Angered over plans by the United States to force their removal to what is now Oklahoma, Seminole, Miccosukee and maroon (Black Seminole) warriors attacked and destroyed Brevet Maj. Francis Dade’s command on December 28, 1835. Osceola and another party of warriors shot and killed U.S. Indian Agent Wiley Thompson and Lt. Constantine Smith at Fort King (today’s Ocala) on the same day.

News in the Spring of 1836 that part of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation was now resisting removal demands and had attacked settlements along the Chattahoochee River between Columbus and Fort Gaines ignited fears that the entire territory of Florida might be overrun. The news brought panic to Marianna, where citizens worried that Native American warriors lurked behind every tree and bush surrounding the city and called for help from as far away as Mobile, Alabama:

Legend holds that Fort Marianna stood on the site of today’s historic Chipola Apartments building.

From the Mobile Chronicle.
A public meeting of our citizens was held at the Court House at 6 o’clock on yesterday evening to devise ways and means of relieving the inhabitants of the Creek nation from the dangers and perils by which they are surrounded. Resolutions to that effect were adopted, and roll opened for volunteers to march directly to Marianna, which place is said to be surrounded by the Indians of both the Creek and Seminole tribes. A resolution was likewise passed calling upon the City Council to advance the money necessary to defray the expenses of the expedition. [1]

The panic grew when rumors spread that the peaceful inhabitants of the two American Indian reservations in the county planned to join with Creek warriors from Alabama in attacking local settlements.

Econchattimico and John Yellowhair, the chiefs of the reserves, had no such plans and – in fact – had gone so far as to surrender their firearms in an effort calm their jittery neighbors. The disarming did nothing to relieve the widespread fear of attack and Jackson County residents called for help from neighboring Gadsden County. A group of armed volunteers from Quincy rode to help:

I am just about to mount my horse to respond to a call for men to protect our frontier from the Creek Indians, who have commenced open hostilities within the last ten days. An express reached here last night, that the Apalachicola Indians, who are located about twenty miles to the West of this place, and number about 300 warriors, have been reinforced by the Creeks from Alabama, and give every evidence of a hostile movement. We may be involved in a fight before night. [2]

Ethan Allen Hitchcock, who as a captain passed through Marianna in 1836 as the fort was being built. He later rose to the rank of general. Library of Congress

No battle took place and the Quincy volunteers found no sign of warlike intent when they reached the Jackson County reservations. Econchattimico, in fact, had sent some of his own warriors to help the U.S. Army in its fight against the Seminoles. The panic nevertheless continued to rage.

In Marianna itself, citizens went to work building a fort for their protection. Little is known about the stockade, but its construction is mentioned in several sources from the time. Among them is the Charleston Courier, which reported on June 4 that “Much excitement has existed at Marianna, where a fort has been built, and every preparation made to resist an attack.” [3]

More information about the building of the fort is found in the diary of Capt. Ethan Allen Hitchcock. A U.S. Army officer, he passed through Marianna in May 1836 while on his way from Camp Sabine in Louisiana to Washington, D.C., where he was to inform President Jackson of the capture of Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna by the Army of Texas at the Battle of San Jacinto.

Hitchcock first learned of the panic in Marianna when he reached Pensacola on his way east:

On arriving at Pensacola, however, the whole town was found in great commotion because a messenger had just reached there from the town of [Marianna] upon the Alligator Route, and reported that the Indians were coming down the country murdering and burning and leaving devastation in their path. He had been sent to ask for assistance. This caused a great excitement among the passengers, most of whom immediately resolved to return to New Orleans. I asked to see the messenger and he was brought to me. It was obvious that he was greatly scared and excited, but he seemed to have no fact of importance to base his alarming conclusions on. [4]

An earlier version of the Chipola Hotel, which stood on what legend holds was the site of Fort Marianna. Dale Cox Collection

Concluding that the courier was overstating the danger, Capt. Hitchcock continued across Pensacola Bay by steamer and caught a stage coach with only its driver and a fellow passenger named Anderson as company. In what is now Washington County they came across a family fleeing the perceived threat, but its members could provide no reliable information:

Next day before noon we reached the town of [Marianna], where the people were greatly alarmed and busily engaged ‘forting-in’ as it was called. They had cut logs twenty feet long and were setting them up in a stockade around the town, leaving loopholes to fire through. This makes a pretty good sort of defence against Indians, whose mode of warfare rarely induces them to make an attack on a place having the least appearance of an artificial defence. Instances have been known where half a dozen men, protected by a little earth thrown up in a few minutes in the night, have held at bay a hundred Indians all day and then escaped. Indians, in fact, are very timid warriors where there is any necessity of exposing themselves. [5]

A loophole in the reconstructed stockade wall of Fort Mims in Alabama. The walls of Fort Marianna were similar in design.

The captain appears to have forgotten the fate of Fort Mims during the Creek War of 1813-1814. Red Stick Creek warriors stormed that outpost in a battle that left more than 250 of its occupants dead. The First Seminole War of 1817-1818 also included examples of Native American attacks on fortified positions such as Fort Scott and Fort Hughes in today’s Decatur County, Georgia.

Other than Hitchcock’s description of Fort Marianna as a stockade of logs with “loopholes to fire through,” nothing is definitively known about its design and construction.

Local legend holds that the fort stood on the site of today’s Chipola Apartments in downtown Marianna. It was supposedly later roofed over and used as a hotel, making it the first in a series of such businesses that occupied the site. Whether or not the legend is true is impossible to determine from the available documentation.

The panic in Marianna slowly subsided as it became clear that no forces of armed warriors roamed the Jackson County countryside.  The Charleston Courier reported of the city in June 1836 that “no apprehensions [are] felt for its safety.” [6]

Note: To learn more about the Native American history of Jackson County, please consider Dale Cox’s book The History Of Jackson County, Florida: The Early Years.

[1] Republished by The Floridian (Tallahassee, Florida), May 28, 1836.

[2] Letter from a Volunteer dated Quincy, Florida, May 22, 1836, published in the Boston Courier, June 13, 1836.

[3] Charleston Courier, June 4, 1836.

[4] Ethan Allen Hitchcock, Fifty Years in Camp and Field, p. 105. Note: In writing his memories some years after the fact, Hitchcock confused the name “Marianna” for “Helena,” possibly due to his familiarity with towns bearing those names in Arkansas.

[5] Ibid., p. 106.

[6] Charleston Courier, June 4, 1836.