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The Oconee War

The first part of this series (April 7), outlined the shape of the Creek-Georgia conflict over the Oconee’s eastern basin. The state’s claim to the land was based on two treaties (Augusta and Galphinton) made with select Creek leaders. Subsequent Creek councils repeatedly dismissed the claim on the grounds that the Creek leaders involved did not have authority to make land cessions to Georgia. Beginning in the spring of 1785, the Creeks put muscle into their warnings, forcefully reasserting authority over the Oconee.


Photo Credit: Steven Scurry

The shaded area is part of the conflict zone between the Creek confederation and the state of Georgia. The future site of Athens lies at the upper end, between the North Oconee and the Middle Oconee.

The Georgia legislature in February 1786 made arrangements for a new state capital on the Ogeechee River, funding it on projected land revenue.

The university’s Board of Trustees in the same month met to initiate the Greenesborough project, which would locate a new town in the Oconee basin on the Richland Creek college survey. A board agent was directed to select eight lots for a church, an academy, a courthouse and a jail: then sell another 20 lots at public auction payable to the trustees.

The town would become a port of entry for the Oconee country and would introduce law and civil society among new immigrants. The money raised from the sale of lots would finance a new state university. The projects and the funding, though, soon suffered a blow, and Greenesborough became a casualty in the Oconee war.

Meanwhile, Abraham Baldwin, the enthusiastic president of the intended university, set out for the Ogeechee to construct the first college building on a 300-acre reserve. The site was contiguous to the proposed state capital, Louisville. Baldwin had decided to reside there to oversee the building project, but news of a renewed and intensified Creek offensive dashed the prospects.

Refugees soon streamed east across the Ogeechee so that, in a few days, wrote Baldwin, “… there was not a family beyond us. I did not think it to the purpose to stay long in that situation.”

The Creeks React

At a bivouac on the Towaliga River to the west, the Creeks met to plan strategy. The War Chief Mad Dog of Tuckabatchee joined men from Coweta and parties from Chiaha led by Folotuichi. They broke into three divisions to sweep the upper basin toward “Cherokee Corner” (just east of present-day Athens on Hwy. 78), the mid and lower basin to “William’s Pasture” and the Ogeechee.

They found more settlements than the year before but few “Virginians.” What little resistance they encountered they overwhelmed. Elijah Clarke rounded up a Wilkes County party to intercept Creek warriors in the upper basin, but on viewing their force beat a hasty retreat to Augusta, where he sought reinforcements. Volunteers were not forthcoming.

Meanwhile, in another sphere of conflict, the towns opened a second front against Euro-Americans in the Cumberland and Tennessee country. Settlements there were swelling in part with “Virginians” escaping organized and revenue-collecting government. In practice, the region was an inter-tribal hunting preserve, although the Cherokee nation insisted on a special claim confirmed in their 1785 Hopewell Treaty with the United States. American settlers were in violation of this treaty, but at the time Creek guns were retarding their designs.

Georgia leaders were in a quandary. The shock of refugees in Augusta moved the governor to plan for a Creek invasion. He solicited leaders in the Franklin settlements on the Holston River (north of the Creek country) for a coordinated invasion, but interest in bringing more immigrants to Oconee was paramount, so state officials publicly obfuscated the significance of the conflict.

Creek scouts reconnoitered the Oconee basin and found state militia building an outpost on Shoulderbone Creek. The Creeks appraised an imminent invasion from the state and prepared a vigorous defense. Vulnerable family members were sent south to the old Apalachee country while caravans to St. Augustine and Pensacola returned with munitions to restock town magazines. By treaty, the Spanish governors were bound to such aid, but not all towns were supplied. These special arms imports were delivered only to Creeks holding tickets from the mercurial Alec McGillivray, which allowed him to exclude Kasitah and Tallassee from receiving arms. This exclusion continued while these towns courted Georgia. The official neutrality of these towns did permit, however, the late-coming Georgia agent, Daniel Murphy, to enter the nation.

“Yellow Hair,” as the Creeks called him, was there to promote the Augusta and Galphinton treaties while he privately gathered intelligence and attempted to set up a spy network of alienated traders living in the nation. His original commission was to reside there, but his quick departures and an abrupt shift in state plans suggested doubt over the success of invasion. Effective Creek intelligence had foiled any surprise.

In the tense summer of 1786, the war captain, Folotuichi, was in St. Augustine confirming Spanish support, while Alec was in New Orleans to strengthen the same. A subsequent Creek Council shaped another talk to demand the state entirely withdraw from Oconee by October. Georgia responded with a friendly invitation to a peace conference at Shoulderbone Creek that same month. The state was learning something of diplomacy.

The strategy worked to buy more time for the “Virginians” to gun-up and fortify their claims, while it strengthened the neutral faction under Tallassee King and Nea Mico.

The state’s military buildup at Shoulderbone was a special concern for the Chattahoochee towns. The site was within three days of the Flint River where the Yuchi, Chiaha and Kasitah were expanding settlements.

The Oconee struggle was taking a toll on Creek society as they tried to meet the needs of hunting, farming and community between military excursions. Turning adversity into profit, some enterprising men entered the plunder trade. Horses and cattle were easily sold in Florida markets and were a quick means for hunters to clear debts with their traders. But Creeks did not have to go south for such trade. Markets for Georgia plunder were readily available in Carolina and in the American settlements on the Cumberland River. There were French traders on the Tennessee and even the recovering class of Georgia traders concerned themselves little with the origin or legal status of goods. At times, African-American slaves were swept up in this borderland trade which shaped American history in fascinating and consequential ways. Their destinies were far more flexible in Creek towns than on the Georgia plantations.


Turnout for the Shoulderbone conference was respectable. Although the “upper towns” on the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers virtually boycotted the gathering, there were enough leaders of consequence attending to form the beginnings of a new relationship with the state. Alec declined attendance favoring negotiations with Congress and citing valid concerns over personal safety. But what began with such promise soured as Georgia abused an advantage.

Whatever expectations Creek leaders brought to the conference vanished as state military officers escorted them through a psychological gauntlet of two armed companies lining the road to the post. State commissioners welcomed the Chiefs like old friends, but the presence of more than a thousand armed Georgians did not signify a friendly reunion. With an effective military occupation of the area combined with the confinement of Creek leaders in the fort, the state was not inclined to compromise. Georgia assumed a role of conqueror, dictating treaty terms which now required the execution of Creek aggressors and the expulsion of their suppliers. Adding to the insult was a requirement that the towns provide safe passage for Georgians through Creek territory to budding state sponsored settlements west and north of the nation. As for land, it simply confirmed the “Clarke treaties.”

Worried over the conference’s aftermath and unwilling to yield a current advantage, the Georgia commissioners placed a final and nefarious requirement for the treaty’s consummation: the chiefs must leave five of their own countrymen with the state — hostages against future Creek aggression — prisoners until the treaty provisions were met. As fully presented, their “choice” was either a total acceptance of the state’s treaty and its condition or the so-called “peace” conference would defer to General Twiggs and his ragtag Georgia army — and as the commissioners tactfully put it, the Chiefs would then have only themselves to blame for subsequent events.

The commissioners returned triumphant to Augusta, treaty in hand, hostages in tow. Confidence in the coup and the sad reality of the state’s budget moved the governor to disband the Shoulderbone army and resume the business of land speculation. The crestfallen Chiefs returned to their incredulous townspeople. Yellow Hair tagged along for a distance apparently trying to add names to the treaty.

Tallassee King went to the conference at the “high water” of his influence and returned with nothing but knickknacks and a waning reputation. He could claim one small victory in that none of his fellow townsmen were taken by the Georgians. Wrote McGillivray to Spanish Governor Zespedes in Mobile, “All this had been lately confirmed by some Charlestown papers… and fully explained the whole of their ungenerous, cowardly and treacherous intentions and which is only worthy of those that are the sweeping of the continent.” Shoulderbone all but cured any good will still harbored by the Creeks. The “Virginians” would soon cure the rest.

No Recourse

Dark rumors assailed the Creek people while the men struggled through a long and dangerous winter hunt. By spring, as they came in from the woodlands, relatives of the Shoulderbone hostages were near hysteria and clamored for action. Imprisonment was viewed in the Creek society as a death-rivaling fate; the suicide of one young hostage would soon demonstrate this. Growing stresses circulated through the towns into a cascade of outrage, and, but for the timely arrival of the new U.S. agent for “Indian affairs,” the Creeks were about to break out on the Oconee settlers and the state.


Stimafutchi fought at Jack’s Creek, on the Apalachee. He would not look out of place in the present-day 40 Watt Club.

U.S. agent James White came by way of Augusta, where he was given a rather rosy picture of current affairs. Officials there were confident in the “tranquility” captured at Shoulderbone. When he reached the Chattahoochee, however, a War Council had convened at Ossitche. As he brought a message from Congress, he was invited to speak. The well received talk was followed by an invitation from Georgia to come help “run” the new boundary-line. In a rare breech of decorum, the chiefs interrupted the agent to bitterly ask if the state wished to make more prisoners of them.

White’s public interviews there and in other Chattahoochee towns quickly revealed that the Georgia treaties were generally viewed as exercises in extortion. The speaker of the council, Yoholo Mico, was unequivocal in his statements — the overriding obstacle to peace was the seizure of Creek land. Without redress and a removal of trespassers in the basin, the war would resume with passion. White’s visit among the confederated towns flipped his perspective on the Oconee controversy. At his departure he pledged to represent to Congress the Creeks’ “discontents in their proper light” and to secure the liberty of the Creek hostages. In turn, the council agreed to a three-month truce proposed by the agent, at which time they would expect a reply. Nea Mico urged White to caution the new governor, George Mathews, that the ongoing detention of their people served only to isolate him and alienate any well-wishers still left in the nation. White’s investigation was ominous for the state, but he took with him a germ of compromise which would eventually operate in a future treaty.

A spring issue of the Georgia State Gazette informed the public of an April 16 suicide. A commemorating poem with a touch of sarcasm concluded, “The probable cause/ Of such unnatural flight/ To the land of spirits/ We may attribute to insanity/ But where the Soul/ Knew no control/ And liberty/ Made all men free/ No chain could bind/ A savage mind/ Through leathern string/ It took its wing/ To regions, Where imagination tells/ How Christians live/ And where this savage dwells.”

The dead man’s name was Skiupki Hutki — it was his sixth month as a state hostage. Officials immediately released the others.

Operating independently and intersecting the Ossitche council’s truce was the old custom of clan justice. It drove two men to balance the loss of relatives killed the year before at a trading camp on the Altamaha. They took the lives of two Georgians camped on Shoulderbone Creek and helped themselves to 14 horses in the area. An African-American slave returned with them to the towns.

State officials never seriously thought to apply the Shoulderbone Treaty provision which attempted to end indiscriminate retaliations on both sides. Instead, on getting word of the killings, Col. Henry Karr, under Elijah Clarke’s command, ordered companies of the state’s new First Division across the Oconee River for retaliatory attacks on all “Indians” found. It was an executive order. One company refused the order, citing their volunteer status as being for defensive service alone. Another company under Major Philips intercepted a hunting party from Kasitah. These Creeks had taken advantage of the Ossitche truce to hunt in the basin and trade with settlers in the area, confident in their town’s long-promoted friendship with the state. They were spared only by the daring though treasonous action of a Georgia volunteer who vowed to shoot the first man moving to harm them.

Georgia scouts under the infamous command of James Alexander, located other hunters beating a precipitous retreat from the basin. Appeals of friendship and their Kasitah identity were met with violence. Eleven men were killed in this attack, and news of it broke like a wave across the Creek country.

A War Council

Bloodletting on the Oconee occurred while the Creek leadership had assembled in the “Great House” in Tuckabatchee. They gathered to welcome and receive guests from the north representing the Huron, the Oneida, the Iroquois, the Shawnee and the Mohawk. These northern diplomats came to offer a belt of wampum to strengthen the friendship and confederacy between themselves and the Creek nation. The Mohawk Chief addressed the assembly:

“Brothers, we have heard in our country of the disputes you have with the Georgians about your lands; it made our hearts glad to hear that you struggled hard against them, and spilt the blood of those bad people… This put us in mind of what we ought to do. We sent to our different tribes to meet at the Great Waterfall [Niagra] to consult together for stopping the Americans… We next and last held a Great Council near Detroit, where the Chiefs of 24 nations including the Wabash and Ohio, met and consulted. It was agreed upon that we should follow the example of our warlike and numerous brothers the Creeks and we are sent to consult with you concerning the good of all.”

He described the recent destruction of a Shawnee town and the murder of that town’s beloved chief who had been a consistent friend of the Americans and continued,

“This we have told you that you may not be deceived by their smooth talks. If such be the way they treat their friends, ought not the knowledge of this unite us all to effect the destruction of so wicked a people, whose hearts are rotten?”

The Creek Council welcomed their guests:

“Brothers, we are glad of your safe arrival in this country… What you have heard of our quarrels with one of the 13 fires of America is true. Those people on finding that the English had left our coasts, thought it a good time to take advantage of us… It is true that our hearts were sunk within us for a little while, but we roused ourselves, and resolved… bravely to face the danger, great as it appeared, and struggle strongly to maintain our free state, and to preserve our lands…”

Explaining the nature of Spanish support and trade, they continued,

“Brothers, you do well not to be rash, but to warn the Americans of your discontents, to obtain satisfaction which they will do, if their beloved men and Chiefs are reasonable. When you have an answer, let us know, and we will advise with you.

“Brothers, we take a strong hold, with both hands, of the end of the great wampum of union; let the other end also be fast held by those near the Great Water Fall, and by all the Red People in the land between us… whereby we shall form a strong chain of defense to save our lands, protect our wives, and rear our children, that they may long possess the inheritance we shall leave to them.”

A flurry of talks bounced between Kasitah and Augusta concerning the murdered hunters. Governor Mathews blamed the Creeks for breaking the Congressional truce, while Nea Mico assailed the Georgians for violating the Shoulderbone Treaty. It made little difference, as the talks addressed a vanishing audience; and yet Kasitah offered to hold his arms, giving the state until August to honor the treaty provision for murder: the lives of the guilty.

A July 4 celebration of Savannah’s civic leaders at the Coffee House included the somber toast, “A truce with land speculation and Indian wars!” The correlation was as obvious to them as it was to Georgia’s special agent for the state’s western projects. William Davenport had been touring the Chickasaw and Choctaw towns, and aside from attempts to lure them into armed conflict with their Muskogee relatives, the Creeks, he was busy organizing new Georgia counties for settlement.

Men from Coosada, led by the cunning war captain, Red Shoes, ambushed Davenport’s company found building an outpost west of the Creek towns. Davenport and six in his party were killed, effectively ending the attempt.

Such setbacks were part of the willing price of business for many interested land profiteers. Wrote one well informed state officer, “Speculation, as I have hinted before, has certainly extinguished in many men, passing for gentlemen, every spark of Probity and Integrity.” The seeds of the future Yazoo land scandal were planted.

Events north of the nation took a violent turn when some Cumberland settlers attacked and looted French traders at the Muscle Shoals of the Tennessee. Traders usually enjoyed a measure of diplomatic immunity. For the indelicacy of killing six traders along with some tribal relatives, Creek warriors pursued the bandits back to Nashville, punishing their neighbors along the way.

The long summer of 1787 was winding down. The Creek towns harvested a surplus crop and celebrated renewal in their annual New Fire holidays. Anticipated word from Congress on Creek claims against Georgia never came. Political wrestling in Philadelphia over the shape of a new constitution and the reality of a new union riveted the delegates’ attention behind closed doors.

In Georgia, Governor Mathews expected the coming storm. He summoned the legislature to an emergency session and called on state militia to patrol the borderlands. While Cumberland settlements were breaking up and withdrawing to the Holston, North Carolina Governor Caswell was hunting down the rebellious Franklin Governor Sevier and his supporters in an attempt to extend authority over this crumbling state. The American settlements were dangerously close to civil war. The Creek towns had rarely been more unified – their men never better armed.

More War

Action began in the upper basin, above High Shoals on the Oconee River’s Apalachee fork. Creek raiders ambushed and routed a company under Lt. Col. Barber, while a larger party tested the Greene County militia near Greensboro. General Elijah Clarke led 150 Wilkes County men on an offensive across the Forks, while Creeks waylaid reinforcements to the Scull Shoals station downriver. Thirty horses were stolen from Barnett’s Fort at the upriver shoals, stranding the company stationed there. The Executive Council in Augusta issued a “State of Alarm.”

Creek reinforcements from Atasi made war camp on a stream west of High Shoals (Jack’s Creek). Their war captain and Nini Wakitchi were planning to join operations over the Forks when they were surprised by Clarke’s company coming up their own path. Clarke’s son, John, joined a pitched battle while Col. Freeman’s party flanked the Creek camp. Nini Wakitchi fell with several others while they slipped into a creekside canebrake. From this refuge they kept up a sporadic volley while Clarke’s men plundered the camp. Short on supplies and not daring to stay overnight in the area, the Wilkes Co. party buried their dead and carried their wounded from the basin. Recovering in his Long Creek home, Clarke declared a victory in a letter to the governor. For the Georgians still in the basin his claim would seem callous and premature.

Across and below the Forks, Greene County militia were isolated and disoriented. Creeks torched Forts Landers and Fitzpatrick as a general rout ensued. The loss of Fort Philips at the Oconee terminus of the Greenesborough road allowed the Creeks to burn their way unopposed through the basin. The men targeted all settlement improvements and even destroyed fencing to disrupt private claims.

Greene County suffered from a blending of the general hostilities over the state supported encroachments with a particular fury because it was haven to James Alexander’s gang, who slew the Kasitah victims. Their relatives came for blood.

As a port city for newcomers and the university’s special investment, Greenesborough was an overt challenge to Creek claims on the basin. As a staging ground for militia activities, it was a proven danger to Creek hunters. The assault was devastating. A brave but foolish stand there cost dozens of Georgian lives. With the town defenses overthrown, the Creeks torched the public buildings, including the courthouse and a prototype school. They looted and destroyed businesses and homes. They took captives. Traumatized survivors were further distressed by a Wilkes County relief party under Col. Williamson. While they surveyed the extensive damage, they turned their horses out to forage on the standing crops which had survived the Creek raid. The attack also put an end to the plan to sell lots in Greenesborough to raise the money for the University of Georgia, delaying until the next century the construction of the school.

Southeast of Greenesborough, Creek parties were striking deep into Washington County. Posts along the Ogeechee and at Williamson’s Swamp were critically under-armed. In a letter to William Pierce, a Georgia delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Governor Mathews requested military aid, pleading, “Such is our situation that we are engaged in a war without the means requisite to prosecute it.” Unable to convene the legislature, he confided, “I am at a loss what steps to pursue.”

Into October the war swept the length of the basin to the Altamaha, threatening to break up profitable coastal plantations. Settlers driven from the lower basin sought refuge in South Carolina. Without needed supplies, militia were abandoning posts throughout, while their commanders publicly denounced superiors for not supporting the volunteers.

The state legislature belatedly met at the end of October and attempted a response to the chaos with a bill to “Suppress the Violence of Indians.” The act gave carte blanche to Georgians to kill or capture any “Indian” found, and called for the immediate recruitment of 1500 state troops to act in coordination with local volunteers. Management of the troops and discipline were outlined with a marked emphasis on obedience. The incentive for such an unpopular job was more Creek land, which the state intended to extract from them once they had been “properly suppressed.”

The failure of the state’s disastrous Creek policy was resoundingly demonstrated when Georgia lashed out at the United States Congress, heaping blame for the war’s renewal on the government agent, James White. But the bark was no bite. The new constitution could offer what George Washington observed in a letter to the Secretary of War. He wrote, “… but in the situation Georgia is, nothing but a desire of becoming allies of the Spaniards or Savages could disincline them to a Government which holds out the prospect of relief from its present distresses.”

On January 2, the Georgia General Assembly ratified the new constitution and joined the union. The event was appropriately announced in Augusta with cannon fire.

The effectiveness of Creek actions against Anglo-Americans chilled the Florida governors. Although Pensacola’s Auturo O’Neil reluctantly helped facilitate Creek arms imports, he was quick to perceive in their successes his own government’s vulnerability. Concerned with Creek independence and paranoid over McGillivray’s motives, he urged his superiors to open alternate lines of influence in the nation. A Spanish attempt to stem arms imports as a way to lure the Creeks into a settlement with Georgia caused a dangerous rift in Spain’s Creek policy.

Georgia’s new governor George Handley inherited the war, pledging to advance recruitment of state troops while he resumed a scheme with Franklin’s outlaw governor for a joint Creek invasion. Georgia offered the harried “Franks” settlement in the great bend of the Tennessee for their military aid. In both quarters, however, the Creek towns remained on the offensive. Georgia militia and the state’s new troops were plagued with contradictory orders, desertions and mutiny. While efforts were made to rebuild defensive outposts in the basin, the militia were patrolling a progressively desolate landscape. In despair the governor wrote, “We find our defensive measures of little effect.”

(To be concluded in Part Three)