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The Oconee War

Georgia joined the union to get federal protection from the Creeks and relentlessly pushed to acquire more Creek land. The Creeks resisted, and Georgia’s new governor, George Handley, was unable to establish military superiority. In this concluding installment, the new United States government becomes increasingly involved in the dispute between Georgia and the Creeks, whose leaders travel to the federal capital, New York City, and meet with President George Washington. Out of that historic meeting comes a treaty establishing boundaries guaranteed by the U.S. government. Sadly, in spite of the Creeks’ faith in the promises of President Washington, that agreement provides only a temporary respite for the Oconee land.

Georgia Gov. Handley turned to the new U.S. commissioners, pleading for them to get a cease-fire from the Creeks. For the mission they chose former trader George Whitefield. He was instructed to promote a treaty between the Creeks and the new federal government and secure a truce in the meantime.

In the Creek nation, Whitefield found sentiments unchanged since his predecessor James White’s visit the year before. The towns desired peace, but Georgia provocations continued to feed war.

Hopothle Mico, “The Talassee King” of the Creeks.

As council speaker, Yoholo Mico reported events since White’s mission. The towns had expected Congress, “… to get the Georgians removed from the lands, without which there could be no peace.” He offered, “We did not intend or wish a general war, but that being done, everything could return to its old channel… We are sorry for what has happened; it has been the quarrel of brothers… but as we are masters of the ground we only contend for our rights.”

The talk of the upper town council delivered by Mad Dog was the same. Whitefield represented the new government as ready to address Creek rights, and so the towns consented to a September conference, when a new talk could be fashioned. By June, 1788 the Creek offensive on Georgia had ceased.

Both Sides Maneuver

While the Spanish governors were leaning on Creek leader-trader Alec McGillivray to treat with the Americans, an anonymous shipment of arms arrived in Apalachicola Bay from a certain society wishing to support the Creeks in their struggle. The society’s spokesman, William Augustus Bowles, would soon become a “wild card” of sorts in the war. With tightened arms imports at St. Augustine and Pensacola, the contribution was gladly received.

Predictably, Georgia’s upcountry gangs were emboldened by the cease-fire and renewed their hunting-camp raids. James Alexander, the self-styled agent for disgruntled “Virginians,” stalked nearly to the Flint River to deliver their talks. It was a simple note tacked to a trailside tree. The gunpowder-scrawled message promised revenge before peace. In light of this, and incoming reports of hunters fired on in the basin, Alec responded to a letter from the commissioners that the Creeks would conduct themselves on Georgia terms.

To Abraham Baldwin, Governor Handley wrote, “I shall engage that peace be observed by the citizens of this state as far as in my power to enforce.” It was a candid admission of limited influence and tagged the fragility of the truce.

That summer the Cumberland settlements to the north sent agents to work out their own peace with the Creeks. The disintegrating state of Franklin, on the other hand, was rallied by Governor Sevier for one last expedition against some poorly defended Cherokee towns. Refugees showed up in Creek towns with news that their Beloved Chief Tassel had been murdered with other Cherokee elders while in Sevier’s custody. Well armed Creeks flew against the “Franks” to support a Cherokee rally which drove the Franks into a flight for survival. U.S. officials, embarrassed by their long inaction toward these defiant settlers and their predatory Cherokee raids, finally flexed muscle. They sent federal troops to enforce and protect the Cherokee border according to the Hopewell Treaty and tried to convince the Creeks that their assistance would no longer be required. The Americans were clearly nervous over such expressions of inter-tribal military cooperation. Though there was little love lost over the fate of the Franks, the Cumberland settlers were afraid that the melee might break their fragile Creek truce.

Governor Handley’s troubles multiplied when he was unable to gather the legislature and procure the funds needed for the upcoming conference. He gambled on a spring delay and for once worked aggressively to restrain the back-country militia.

Time Runs Out

The winter of 1788 into 1789 was volatile in the Oconee basin. The state made quiet efforts to rebuild posts, but many settlers were reluctant to return without a federally enforced peace. The basin remained a theater for arson and horse stealing as the war shifted to the diplomatic front. The Creeks were justifiably concerned that the state would use the truce to refortify and rearm the basin. Alec wrote to the commissioners that a complete pullback from the basin was a condition for the proposed conference.

In a letter to McGillivray, South Carolina Governor Pinckney offered to mediate the Creek-Georgia war. In reply, Alec wrote to outline the dispute from the close of the Revolution and despaired that Congress now appeared to be swayed by Georgia’s position. This position was boosted when the state joined the union and was in view when Georgia representatives demanded that the new government protect the state from the Creeks.

Taking note of repeated threats from the U.S. commissioners, McGillivray inveighed that his people were driven to arms by necessity to protect their lands, writing, “Such forcible considerations with us, may weigh nothing in the minds of those who think Indians are only animals fit to be exterminated; and this is a language which I know is held in many places in your country; but let us be what we may; let it be attempted when it will, it will be found no easy enterprise.”

Coweta hosted a spring council to discuss the nation’s next step. Attending was a Cherokee delegation led by Dragging Canoe and Hanging Maw of the Chickamauga towns. They had come to coordinate policy toward the Americans. Alec confirmed that additional military supplies were available in Pensacola and St. Marks, and a clandestine supply of British guns was anticipated at a Flint River town. No word came into the nation from the new government now meeting in New York, and the American talks proved that the commissioners were unable and/or unwilling to meet Creek demands over the Oconee.

Reluctantly, according to Yoholo Mico, the council returned authority back to the war chiefs to resume the fight. “Red Stick” counting bundles were sent through the towns to announce and mark “the Broken Days” to the war’s renewal. Traders were forbidden passage to Georgia to effect a surprise. Scouting parties went out, sowing confusion among the distracted militia. The main forces prepared to follow, this time driving the basin south to north.

U.S. commissioner Pickens of South Carolina and a new commissioner, Georgia Chief Justice Henry Osborne, sent George Galphin across the battle zone. He reached Coweta days before the general offensive and was stunned on viewing the hordes of armed men poised to finish the war. Doubting his mission, but together with his well-regarded Creek brother John, they exerted enough influence to reconvene a council and delay the assault. Sons of the late trader, the beloved George Galphin and the daughter of a leading Creek family, they were uniquely suited for the task. They delivered a talk that managed a conciliatory tone and gave weight to Creek claims. A fresh pledge to address the land dispute and to restore the “Beloved White Path” (reopen trade), was enough for the Creek leadership to meet the commissioners. For the moment, however, the meeting was delayed, as advance war parties had engaged militia near the Broad River and at Shoulderbone.

Failed Diplomacy

Over the summer a ferocious debate ensued at the center of the new national government in New York City, with Georgia representatives in the House questioning the state’s wisdom in joining the new government. Congressman James Jackson demanded the union defend Georgia from the Creeks or else, “we must, if too weak ourselves… league with the arms of Spain or Britain.”

The political climate pulled President Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox to get directly involved. Suspicious of Georgia’s land-speculating designs in the west, and doubting the legitimacy of former Creek treaties, they had picked diplomats to supplant the locals, Pickens and Osborne.


The Creeks lived in settled, closely allied towns. Creek houses were solidly constructed for life in the towns.

Benjamin Lincoln, David Humphries and Cyrus Griffin reached the port of Savannah with federal troops, making an impressive delegation to represent the United States. With massive provisions to transport, they hired wagoneers but were unable to lease riding horses for themselves. Horse stealing in the back-country discouraged the risk, so the diplomats had to purchase what they could.

When they reached Augusta, word came from Rock Landing on the Oconee that the Creek delegates had been two weeks waiting: Pickens and Osborne were struggling to keep them together. With the treacherous Shoulderbone conference still fresh in their minds, the chiefs were accompanied by a large Creek military escort.

Following a brief meeting with the Governor, the commissioners dashed for the Oconee to enter the talks. They did not come alone. This was one meeting the Georgia Legislature would not miss, and the solons came along, too.

Humphries took an aggressive lead in negotiations, and a condescending tone did not escape notice. He was repulsed by the ceremonial beverage shared to open Creek meetings, and while it amused Creek leaders, it seemed to have bruised his ego. It was soon apparent that Washington’s men were unprepared and impatient. Humphries expressed surprise when the frustrated chiefs took issue with the proposed boundary, as it neatly conformed with the state’s desires. Alec took particular issue with a proposal to extend U.S. authority over the Creek nation, which would essentially nullify their treaties with Spain or any other nation. Provocative remarks by Humphries and a tendered insult nearly brought Alec to blows. The conference was falling apart. Many of the attending Creeks, anxious to begin fall hunts, had left by the time Alec proposed an end to the talks. Under the pretext of finding better forage for their horses, Alec and the upper town chiefs moved from the river. Horrified by the impending breakup, Gen. Pickens and Senator William Few overtook the party, urging their return, to no avail. The chiefs reassured them that the truce would continue through the winter, when talks with cooler minds could resume.

From Rock Landing the commissioners wrote the Secretary of War, “We have the mortification to inform you that the parties have separated without forming a treaty.”

Expressing sentiments of the Creek delegates, the Oakfuskee chief White Lieutenant said, “We went there; we were made fools of and came back without doing anything.”

Word of the talk’s collapse spread quickly in the state. Hopeful settlers despaired, leaving the basin before the expected resumption of war.

When the U.S. Senate met in January, 1790 it looked into the commissioners’ performance at the Rock Landing episode. As one senator concluded, “… ’tis a spoiled piece of business; and by way of justification of their conduct they seem disposed to precipitate the United States into war. The not uncommon fruits of employing military men.” When Secretary Knox entered the chamber with war plans, Senator McClay of Pennsylvania sarcastically noted, “Here’s a fine scheme on paper… to go to war with the Creeks because the commissioners being ignorant of Indian affairs failed of making a treaty, after having spent 15,000 dollars to no manner of purpose… Give Knox his army and he will soon have a war on hand.”

Georgia lobbied Congress and the president for an invasion against the Creeks. At the time, however, expenses involved and the difficulty in raising an army were prohibitive. The Creeks were confidently armed and had both public and private support to draw from. These realities bode an uncertain outcome in war, and with Congress unwilling to sanction an invasion, Washington pursued a secret mission. He selected Col. Marinus Willet to secretly enter the nation explaining, “… that the people of Georgia were not friendly to peace… If a person acquainted with Indian affairs could enter the country… without the knowledge of the people of Georgia, a war might be prevented.”

Another Try

Willet and a servant arrived in Charlestown in early spring of 1790 and set off for the upper Savannah basin, avoiding Augusta. Fear overcame the servant and Willet allowed him to return to New York. He hired a local German to replace the servant, and together they reached General Pickens’ plantation at Seneca, South Carolina. Pickens introduced Willet to a Cherokee youth named Young Corn, who would guide them through his country to the Creek towns in the Coosa basin. They forded the Tugaloo River, crossed mountains to the town of Santee and traveled west to the Coosa headwaters, where several Cherokee towns had been recently established. They met the Cherokee leader Yellow Bird at Long Swamp, site of a 1783 treaty that had helped launch Elijah Clarke’s treaty-making career. A month from Charlestown, in early June, they reached the first Creek towns. Whether by coincidence or good intelligence, Alec was on hand in nearby Hillabee.

A subtext of Willet’s mission was Washington’s desire to frustrate ongoing real estate schemes in the Southern states. Georgia had recently moved to sell claims on the Yazoo and Tennessee Rivers on the questionable authority of Choctaw and Chickasaw cessions. The buyers were land holding companies whose sleepless agents were even soliciting McGillivray’s interest and approval as well as the Spanish governors’. Political allegiances for these companies were bested by profitable business endeavors. Only days before Willet’s arrival, a Creek-Cherokee party had intercepted three armed boats on the Tennessee, bringing men for a new settlement attempt at Muscle Shoals. The company boats blasted their way through but lost several men in the skirmish.

To New York City

Willet was the right man to enter this volatile mix. His age and experience as both warrior and diplomat lent him a moderation of character that appealed to the Creeks. He invited the principal men of the nation to come with him to New York and resume talks directly with the President. Councils in the upper and lower towns responded favorably and accepted the President’s invitation. The entourage began a cross-country journey from Little Tallassee on the Coosa River, growing as it moved east through the nation and on north. The group paused at Stone Mountain to rendezvous with Bird Tail King, Yoholo Mico, and other principals from the Chattahoochee towns. Here Willet noted in his journal on June 9, “I have now passed all the Indian settlements and shall only observe that the inhabitants of these countries appear very happy… health and fragrance breathe around.”

The chiefs skirted the Oconee headwaters, crossed the Broad and Tugaloo and reached Hopewell on the Kiowee River. Tallassee King and Great Warrior of the Natchez met them here, completing an illustrious delegation of 29.

The Creeks’ overland journey brought them to Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina. Their dinner was interrupted when a tearful woman broke through the curious crowd to reach Alec. It was a reunion. Her husband had been killed in the Oconee war when she and her children were taken captives into the nation. Alec purchased their liberty, and they lived as guests in his home for a year before returning to family in the American settlements. Willet was so overcome by the encounter and the tragedy behind it, he left the dinner, later writing, “The meeting was truly affecting.”

Crowds grew as the delegates advanced to Richmond and Philadelphia, where they toured the city and were treated to theater. The war had gathered national attention, and the chiefs were adjusting to celebrity status. The journey was becoming a long American courtship, which made a lasting impression on the Creeks.

From Elizabethtown Point, they boated the Hudson to New York City for a noon landing on July 20. They were in for a surprise. Greeting them at the wharf were members of the Tammany Society in full American Indian regalia, typical of this social and political order. This escort led them up Wall Street through the biggest New York gathering since Washington’s presidential parade. The Creek parade passed Federal Hall, picked up Secretary of War Knox, then proceeded on to Washington’s residence, where he greeted them on the steps.

It seemed that everyone wanted an encounter with these visitors. They were romanced with extravagant dinners, balls and theater; and in spite of excessive efforts to prevent it, foreign agents made contact with McGillivray in both Philadelphia and New York. Spain was as driven to preserve her Creek alliance as the U.S. was to supplant it. British agent George Beckwith made contact, in part, to inquire over the strange designs of William Bowles.

A Treaty At Last

In this swirl of subplots, McGillivray and Knox wrestled point to point over the shape of the treaty. Washington was on hand to weigh in on issues that stalled negotiations, and the ever curious Alexander Hamilton sometimes haunted the hallways. McGillivray was in for the diplomatic struggle of his life and, in spite of the presence of other Creek leaders, he never felt more alone.

For the Creeks, the odds were not favorable, and the question of sovereignty vexed McGillivray until a compromise was fashioned. It was partly designed to upend the Yazoo and Tennessee land schemes by establishing federal authority over the old southwest. The sensitive issue of the coveted Creek trade was postponed, though a contingent plan was entered that pledged a free Atlantic port if the rumored Spanish – British war disrupted trade in the Gulf. For the Creeks in general, land remained the issue of consequence. They had spent precious blood over the Oconee, preserving their “native rights.”

Bitterness lingered in Congress that Georgia was provoking a federal war on the Creeks only to enjoy the rewards alone, but the president and his staff were keenly aware that the state’s attachment to the union could weaken if Oconee claims and titles were nullified. Knox and Washington insisted that the state’s Oconee settlement projects had gone too far to reverse, but that the Creek nation was entitled to a just compensation. The U.S. would purchase the Creeks’ east bank claim, and by right of preemption Georgia jurisdiction there would be established. The Altamaha was another matter. The chiefs were unequivocal in reserving this claim. The treaty overruled Georgia’s Galphinton claim, and the move was such a strong demonstration of good will by Washington that Creek leaders would recall it for years to come.

A serious problem remained. The Oconee River’s upper basin is defined in three main branches (the Forks). From Tallassee King’s first meeting with Georgia leaders a consistent Creek reserve was held on the area. Following the state, Knox agreed that the boundary ought to run the western fork – the Apalachee. McGillivray warned that the Creek people would at most consent to run the border at the middle fork. Eventually the text of the treaty conformed with Knox’s position and would damage Alec’s standing in the Creek leadership back home. It would take another five painful years to define this contested stretch of the border. Of greater immediate consequence for all parties was the guarantee the New York Treaty made for the Creek’s territorial claims. To some it appeared a step toward statehood for the Creeks and eventual union. Following New York, Georgia ended at the Oconee River, and the Creek towns had both Spain and the United States supporting their territorial rights.

The chiefs attended the Senate in Federal Hall with Washington and his staff, where they signed the treaty and then witnessed its fateful ratification.

The homesick Creek diplomats returned by sea. At St. Mary’s some enthusiastic Georgians crowded McGillivray, seeking permission to settle in his new state. He enjoyed the irony. Under heavy rains the chiefs divided according to hometown destinations. Alec’s party was accompanied by a new federal agent, Caleb Swan. He was there to report on the confederacy and to observe the delegates’ reception in the Creek towns. A dangerous flood stalled them at the Alapaha River. Demonstrating changes in Creek society and skills, they tried but failed to fashion a dugout-style canoe for dry crossing – something their fathers could likely have done. A stray cow was soon found, the skin of which was fashioned into a bull-boat to ferry supplies. In a harrowing crossing, four horses were pulled under tangles of flood debris.

News of the New York Treaty was angrily received by Georgia leaders. Ratification did not discourage organized attempts to break it. Local and state militia joined political action associations to renew conflict and push for trans-Oconee claims. Before this backcountry rebellion was derailed, Elijah Clarke, in a fit of revolutionary renewal, had entered the French service in a plot to overthrow the Spanish jurisdictions in Florida. When Washington intervened, the plans degenerated into another incursion onto Creek land. With a generous French commission, Clarke staked his reputation on a military state sentimentally called, “The Trans-Oconee Republic.” This strange twist found the Creek leader McGillivray holding an officer’s commission from both Spain and the United States, while Clarke was a French general in Georgia.

Shortly after the delegates’ return, Mad Dog declared “Broken Days” for Creek leaders to gather in the Tuckabatchee Great House and hear the New York talks. (By then a Creek village had changed its name to New York.)

Alec delivered the talks and presented the treaty, going into detail over the Creek/ Georgia border. While the delegation was in New York, there were important changes back home. Several Shawnee families from Ohio had resettled with relatives on the Tallapoosa. The murder of a Coweta hunter near Oconee had long gone unanswered by the Georgia governor. Allies of William Bowles spoke of immanent British military aid. Creek men had again engaged armed speculators of the Tennessee Company along that river’s bend. Although it made no difference to the Creeks, this time the warriors were serving U.S. interests. Peace could not hold.

This was the troubled context of that October council. Alec emphasized the importance of what was achieved in New York, but while they retained the Altamaha country, many believed that too much of the Oconee was lost. In symbolic protest dissenting chiefs threw their tobacco (spoiled by the talks) into the Great House fire and walked away.

The evening that followed the divided Creek council a full moon rose, giving the early snow-dusted land a ghostly white luster. But the moon that night was soon overshadowed in eclipse, bringing the people from their homes in customary protest against forces beyond their reach.

Embittered Peace

That winter the Creek confederation had a victory to claim. From council fires and the forests and fields of Oconee, the Creeks had carried their fight to the “City of the 13 Fires,” where they were welcomed by the authors of a new nation. For years to come, Creek leaders stubbornly appealed to Washington’s beloved talk, long after other Americans had thrown it away.

In 1790, the Oconee was a water boundary between two radically changing societies, but a contest for The Forks was already taking shape. It took the deployment of federal troops along the Oconee to enforce an embittered peace and help support the New York Treaty. More than once, though, U.S. troops and Georgia militia came close to armed conflict. Painful armtwisting by the Washington administration compelled Governor Matthews to confront defiant Georgians under Elijah Clarke, preventing a complete breakdown of the federal treaty with the Creeks. (The Oconee boundary was not fully established until the 1796 Treaty of Coleraine.)

The Creeks were despondent over the federal government’s interpretation of the boundary in the upper basin, as it was at odds with their own understanding of the New York talks. They relinquished their claim to The Forks only after revealing depths of sentiment and details of fear.

The tides of power were once again shifting on the American continent, and the Creeks, long accustomed to holding the crossroads of power in the South, were struggling to understand the new realities. Losing The Forks, they said, “was like pulling out our hearts and throwing them away.”

The Oconee war was a defining event in the first years of American independence, and Georgia history cannot be fully evaluated without an understanding of its significance.