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Mermaids and Alligators

Editor’s note: In April of 2004, Flagpole published a three-part article [1] [2] [3] by local historian Steven Scurry on the Oconee War of the 1780s – the borderland conflict between Georgians and Creek Indians over the Oconee River Valley, including the present site of Athens. In his research since then, Scurry has traced the roots of the conflict back a decade in time, to the period of the American Revolution. The following is the product of his recent research.


At the time of the American Revolution, Georgia’s western boundary didn’t extend far to the west of Savannah and Augusta. Rebelling patriots, in their chafing at British authority, saw an opportunity in the Revolution to enlarge their land claims toward the Oconee River Valley.

“Therefore all [slaves] who cannot be taken, had better be shot by the Creek Indians, as it perhaps may deter other Negroes from deserting, and will establish a hatred or Aversion between the Indians and Negroes…” wrote South Carolinian Stephen Bull from Savannah on Mar. 14, 1776. Political missionary, and military advisor, Bull came to Savannah to stoke the fire of revolution and rebellion, even as he worked to protect his emerging status as planter and politician. His plans, fortunately falling short of a race war, were intended to intimidate slaves from seeking their own liberty, at a time when many slave “owners” were espousing a gospel of freedom from British oppression. The irony and hypocrisy was not lost on Bull’s Whig associate, Henry Laurens, who nevertheless wrote in response, “It is an awful business notwithstanding it has the sanction of Law to put even fugitive & Rebellious Slaves to death…”

The slaves in question were scores gathered on Tybee, the barrier island at the mouth of the Savannah River. With the colonial order breaking down and British war ships anchored in the river sound, they simultaneously fled the growing violence in the lowcountry and seized a chance for their own liberation. The Indians referred to were Creek delegates visiting Savannah from the town of Kasitah seeking to comprehend as well as end the colonial conflict dividing their Anglo neighbors and friends. The destabilizing trends in Anglo America were felt in the Creek towns just as regular trade with Georgia and Carolina abruptly stopped. The Creek visit coincided with the first military engagement between Georgia rebels and British marines. Watching from new trenches in the city, the Creek party suffered a casualty in the nighttime fight, which in the immediate crisis moved them to align with their Georgia hosts. This is not what Creek leader Blue Salt had in mind on coming to Savannah. Rather, his was part of numerous efforts initiated by Creek leaders to patch up the serious differences between loyalist and patriot.

This incident in American Revolution-era Georgia starkly demonstrates the fault lines of power which were fracturing the colonial order. While elite planters and merchants competed for power in the collapse of British rule, the southern borderlands were emerging as another theater of conflict and war – this one for land. Native communities rushed to organize and check the sudden surge of Anglos into their country, provoked in part by the growing violence in the colonies. One British official observed, “A great number of families wishing to avoid the calamities of a rancorous civil war have migrated from the different provinces [colonies] to seek bread and peace in those remote deserts….” Adding to their anxieties, the outbreak of the Revolution eclipsed the transatlantic trade to which native towns were deeply tied.

This same month, a principal war chief of the Creek Nation, Emistisiguo, sent a gift of tobacco to Georgia leaders:

“I hope that when they see this and smoke that they will give ear to my Talk and end their dispute, for we are the Masters of this Land and they are only settled on the borders of it. We have twice given them land thinking that it might be of service to them and [I] am sorry to find it otherwise, but when they smoke this I hope they will give ear to the great King’s talks. And when I hear from them and they do not agree, I then shall know who are in the fault, and shall know who are the great King’s Enemies, and will look upon them as my enemies as well as his, and will see them, for I have not forgot the last Line run at Ogeechee…”

The King’s talk to which the war chief referred denoted the last colonial border jointly surveyed in 1773 between his nation and Georgia. The border ran along the east bank of the Ogeechee River to its head, north to “Cherokee Corner” and north again into the Broad River country. Emistisiguo and his fellow Creeks saw the revolutionary movement taking place in Carolina and Georgia in their own historical context, and in immediate relation to the 1773 land cession – a cession which, to the bitterness of many Georgians, fell short of the highly prized Oconee Valley. To those who would reject this “Beloved Talk,” the chief warned, “[I] will see them…”

This and other peace initiatives were part of an effort to renew trade ties which, to the great disappointment of the Creek people, had not improved with their 1773 land cession. At this critical juncture, the Creek’s western towns were still burdened by a vicious war with the Choctaw nation, largely sponsored, managed and recently renewed by British officials. Creek leaders sought, both far and wide, mediation and/ or arms to meet this toll on their country.

Back in Savannah, Blue Salt’s party joined patriots under Archibald Bullock, soon to be president of Georgia’s rebel government, who in the spirit of their Boston Tea Party comrades donned Indian garb, daubed their bodies in war paint and raided Tybee Island. Rather than finding the “Rebellious Slaves” – these had boarded a loyalist ship in the harbor – they surprised a group of bathing marines. Bullock’s raiders brought an English scalp as a war trophy back to Savannah.

British officials and loyalists were making their own plans for using Creek and Cherokee fighters in the budding war. Initially the project involved transporting military supplies overland from Florida to isolated loyalists in the Carolina piedmont. With ports in Virginia, Carolina and Georgia in rebel hands the nearest route was through Creek country. More easily said than done, British Indian Superintendent John Stuart wrote, “But… in order to get the Creeks to act it will be absolutely necessary to bring about a reconciliation between them and the Choctaws.” This reversal in British practice, from fueling a Creek-Choctaw War to encouraging pan-Indian confederation – an indigenous movement well under way by this time – was all in the spirit of 1776.

The Continental Congress was fortunate in tapping George Galphin to manage patriot affairs with the southern Indian nations. Trade and family ties in the Creek Nation gave him privileged access to their town leaders. He obviously could not match his loyalist counterparts when it came to supplying goods and trade, but astutely judged that Creek diplomacy was inclined toward neutrality. It remained his obsession in 1776 to encourage this inclination – trade, in whatever small measure, would be his tool. Writing to the congress, he was explicit, “Gentlemen I wou’d have you take it into your most serious Consideration which of the two Evils will be the least, either to supply the Indians with Goods, or run the risque of an Indian War…”

His carefully planned May conference with Creek leaders in Augusta was held to explain the nature of the revolutionary conflict and to assure them that the congress worked in good faith on the matter of trade, simply needing time to restore the “Beloved Path” (the Georgia/ Carolina trade) to its former status. Creek leaders echoed some of the frustrations of their resident traders who had not gained the debt relief which the 1773 land cession aimed for. One, Nitigee, insisted that new Georgia leaders promptly clear these accounts. In a realistic view of their trade crisis, Galphin dare not begrudge their growing trade with Pensacola, even though this remained a British port and the platform of a southern strategy to militarize Native America.

Questions of trade and war soon clashed in Creek councils, while British arms were moving through their lands, but with both patriots and loyalists sweating to bring goods and curry favors, the Creeks held a middle ground. From the nation a British agent wrote that the Creeks “complain much against the Virginians, as they call all those people now in rebellion; yet they do not seem hearty in joining against them but would much rather wish to enjoy the advantages of a neutrality by being paid by both parties.” This rather crude characterization missed the point. Although they could not know the outcome of this Anglo war, Creek leaders certainly grasped its significance and danger. To the frustration of many British officials, the decided Creek policy of their national council that summer opposed offensive action against rebel Georgians, while the British port cities of St. Augustine and Pensacola would be guarded for what remained of the trade. A rational policy, but due to events over which they had no control, this was a luxury they could not sustain.

Hardly had the Augusta congress got underway when Galphin watched his worst fears take shape. Another voice, which the agent probably did not expect to hear during the conference, explained:

“I have heard your Talks and they are good, now I [Head Warrior of Cowita] am going to Speak to you. I have been One day Considering on the matter [breaking news of a relative’s murder]. I lamented in Melancholy Silence both yesterday and today. Now I say, if you intend the Path betwixt this and Our Nation should be white [as in peaceful] You must give satisfaction for my relation, whom some of your people have killed, or Blood will be spilt. I tell you so now but if you give Satisfaction it will be straight as formerly.”


Mico Chlucco, also called the Long Warrior, in a portrait by William Bartram. This man’s family established New Oconee in the Alachua Prairie of northern Florida in the mid-18th century, and he was involved in the defense of East Florida during the American Revolution.

Before the meeting, Galphin had learned of a backcountry Anglo plot to intercept the Creek mission, take their urgently needed ammunition, and ignite a Creek war. With this frightening news, Galphin realized that the greater threat to Creek and Cherokee neutrality came less from British efforts to militarize them than from his own rebel neighbors who had already declared their part in the Revolution – war for land. This was made official by an ambitious petition later that summer addressed to the commanding general of patriot forces in the South: “That your petitioners, living on the frontiers of the western parts of the Province of Georgia… are much exposed to the barbarous attacks of the Creek Indians….” This interesting document continued with a glowing account of the Oconee River country (pointing to motive), and a rumored willingness of the Creeks to part with it, then turned with peculiar and self-serving logic into a declaration of war: “That your petitioners submit to your Excellency’s wise consideration how far prudent it might be to make an attempt to exterminate and rout those savages out of their nation… and in such case your petitioners will be ready, at the hazard of their lives and fortunes, to unite together for so desirable a purpose.” This appears to be the first documented war declaration for the conquest of the Oconee lands – a vicious borderland conflict, later called the Oconee War.

The formality of the document followed serious provocations. In June Georgia militants attacked a Creek family near the Oconee, killing the wife and son of Tallassee Mico. Wrote Galphin, “They have every temptation to break with us, and yet I think I could keep them peaceable, if it was not for the people upon the ceded land.”

Although intimately related to the struggle for independence, this borderland war, with others farther north, remained a distinct and consequential theatre in the American Revolution – the war’s other war. This crisis provoked a renewed effort among American Indian leaders to confederate their communities from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and coordinate an end to Anglo incursions into their territories. The Cherokees were faced with particularly aggressive refugees and opportunistic land speculators – a British agent witnessed their alarm:

“They became exceedingly alarmed by seeing a row of stockaded forts, 15 miles distant from each other, erected by the rebels along their frontiers and at a small distance from their towns. They saw the back inhabitants in rebellion and everywhere in arms, the friends of government [Tories, loyalists] distressed, disarmed, and driven from their houses, many of whom were pursued by the rebels into their towns whither they had fled for shelter and protection. The Indians at last flew to arms, attacked, killed or took prisoners many of the pursuing parties…”

An infusion of British arms, meant to serve British objectives, was simply applied to the Cherokees’ immediate distresses. Had the royal naval assault on Charleston succeeded that summer, the Cherokee may have been able to sustain recovered territory. This did not happen, and the singular Whig victory in Charleston freed rebel arms to retaliate against the Cherokee towns – their homes burned and crops destroyed by harvest time. Starving refugees in Creek towns, and a demonstrated British weakness in the South, weighed against notions of taking up a loyalist cause, but the problem of Anglo intruders continued to vex native communities in the South and beyond.

As the humiliated British Navy sailed from the Carolina coast, Georgia’s rebel fighting force was soon augmented by several companies of continental soldiers under the command of General Charles Lee. Inspired by the successful defense of Charleston, Lee, with enthusiastic promotion by Georgia Whigs, took the offensive to lead an invasion of British East Florida – in part as means to intimidate the Creeks from joining the loyalist cause. The expedition had hardly left Savannah when it became apparent that civil leadership in the state was divided and weak – at odds with its own military commanders and unable to supply enough stores, horses and boats for Lee’s operation. Dissent and a thirst for plunder corroded the venture into pillaging forays across the St. Mary’s River. In a sharp critique of Georgia’s revolutionaries, Lee contrasted their military ambitions with their abilities, writing, “Upon the whole I shou’d not be surpris’d if they were to propose mounting a body of Mermaids on Alligators.”

While Native American fighters, in a defensive role, drove rebels back into Georgia, Loyalist governor Patrick Tonyn was anxious that more Creeks had not come to his aid. He blamed the British Indian Superintendent, John Stuart, for hosting their chiefs to West Florida at the height of the rebel threat in East Florida. A passionate advocate of using American Indian forces, Tonyn pleaded, “The Americans are a thousand times more in dread of the Savages than of any European troops. Why not avail of their help?” The governor went on to speculate that Stuart had personal reasons for discouraging Creek militancy in the British service; his family was detained by Whigs in Charleston as a hedge against him requesting such service: “The letters he wrote to his agents… contained directions to strike no stroke with the Cherokees or Creeks until they heard further from him, and for each nation to dispatch messengers to demand the enlargement of Mrs. Stuart and his family, which are sent. He stands in need of a strong spur.”

One incident on the St. Mary’s that summer gives a strong indication of where Creek sentiments remained. Loyalist rangers and Seminole-Creek warriors were rummaging through an abandoned post on the south side of the river when they came under fire from Georgia patriots on the north. A lively exchange of musket-fire ensued with trees screening the Georgians on one bank, buildings shielding their political adversaries on the other. The narrative resumes, here in a letter penned by the naturalist and explorer William Bartram:

“The conflict continued for some time when the Chief of the Indians threw down his Gun and boldly stepped out from the corner of a House he took off his Hat and whirling it up in the Air as he advanced to the River Side, amidst showers of Bullets, he spoke aloud to the Georgians, declaring that they were Brothers and Friends and that he knew not any cause why they should spill each others Blood. Neither I (said he) nor my Companions the Red-Men, will fire another Gun. He turned about, shouted, and immediately le’d off the Indians. This put an end to the contest at that time.”

The lessons of 1776 were profound for the Creeks. Cherokee action against Anglo (i.e., “Virginian”) usurpers came at a terrible cost. The weakness of British military abilities in the South – no British troops came to support the Cherokee fight, and the King was unable to strengthen or protect his loyalist subjects in Carolina – caused some Creeks to question the sincerity of the loyalist rhetoric altogether. Earning tremendous credit, Stuart finally oversaw a Creek-Choctaw peace settlement in October, and opened what appeared to be regular trade. Yet, while Creek hunters that autumn fanned out across their vast hunting reserves, hoping for some measure of normalcy, they were faced with the escalating violence among their Anglo neighbors and the militarization of their borderlands.

Creek leaders could no longer view their English neighbors as “one people” but as a tumultuous clamor of factions, made especially clear in the contrast between the official narrative of the dispute given them by agents of the Continental Congress (“this is a family quarrel”), and the treatment they were experiencing on the troubled road to Augusta. This particular class of rebels (again, “Virginians,” as the Creeks called them), defied congressional efforts to encourage borderland peace, threatened Galphin as an enemy to their brand of revolution, and were violently determined to bring the Creeks into what they themselves would characterize as a “general madness.”

“I have sat quietly a long time without joining either party, but the Virginians are now come very near my nation and I do not want them to come any nearer,“ Emistisiguo communicated in a letter of Nov. 19, 1776. ”…If the red warriors to the northward would hold a red stick against the Virginians there, I would hold one against them here.” In the winter ahead, Creek fighters would carry the “red stick” into their eastern borderlands, changing the military ambitions of those Georgians who would “rout those savages” and take the Oconee lands into a desperate struggle to hold their own – lands “they are only [recently] settled on the borders of….” This was a fight which would outlast the Revolution and profoundly shape Georgia history for the rest of the 18th century.

In the decades which followed the Revolution, historians have tried to constellate the Creeks into opposing pro-British or pro-American camps. Accusations of “disloyalty” and “duplicity” are common in both Tory and Whig sources, finding expression in more recent narratives. Shallow conclusions like this fail to gauge the diplomatic and economic complexities which they faced during the Revolution, but were typical of the colonial mindset then, and often of the Eurocentric mindset today. Like other Native American communities, the Creeks, when they went to war, fought in their own way and for their own ends. In spite of difficult odds and power struggles which threatened to bring civil war into their own towns, the Creeks managed to keep the battlegrounds of the Revolution out their own country – a tribute to the political talent of their leaders in times of crisis, and a demonstration of loyalty to their people and devotion to their lands.