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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: The Creek People

It was around 1680 that English traders started talking and writing about the "Creek" Indians. They first applied this name to the people who lived near Ochesee Creek in northern Georgia, where there was active trading of European manufactured goods for deerskins. Over time these American Indians moved west toward the Chattahoochee River (see Map 1), but the English still referred to them as the "Ochesee Creeks," or simply "Creeks."

European Americans gradually applied the shortened name to American Indians from many different tribes in present-day Georgia and Alabama. Sometimes they divided the Creek into "Lower" and "Upper:" the former applied to those who lived farther south and east, while the latter referred to the people near the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers.

It is not difficult to understand why many European Americans lumped dozens of tribes into one group. These American Indians did live in the same section of the Southeast, a fat "L"-shaped area beginning in northwestern Alabama and extending south to the Florida border and east to central Georgia. They followed a similar lifestyle, relying on farming before the mid-18th century, then focusing on commercial hunting to obtain deerskins for trade. Those called Creek participated in a loose political confederation in which one tribe generally supported another in time of war. Finally, these Indians clearly differed from the regionís other powerful tribes, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw. Since European Americans did recognize this last difference, during negotiations the Creek occasionally used the name the British had applied to them to differentiate themselves from other tribes.

Practices little known to European Americans created some unity within the Creek confederacy. Representatives from different towns, or talwas, met regularly to make decisions for the confederacy. Annual festivals and athletic contests brought talwas together. The clan system, which ran throughout the various tribes, also encouraged closer ties. Every child became a part of one of these groups, all of which were named after an element of nature. If a member of the Wind clan, for example, traveled to a different village, the members of the Wind clan there took care of him.

Even with these shared experiences, however, the people European Americans called Creek rarely referred to themselves that way. That word suggested a degree of unity most people did not feel. Even into the 19th century, they generally described themselves as members of one of the regionís roughly 50 talwas, or as part of a tribe that composed the Creek: they said they were Coweta, for example, or Alabama or Tuskegee.

Other factors limited unity among the Creek confederacy. First, the constant attempts of Georgiaís government to obtain more land tended to divide the Lower Creek, who were generally closer to European American settlement, from the Upper Creek, who lived in Alabama. Second, and perhaps more significant, were culture. There was a deep split between the tribes who considered themselves "Muskogee" and those who did not. Muskogee originally indicated American Indians who had migrated from the west and shared a language, but by the 18th century it referred to a set of cultural practices. Muskogee often saw themselves as superior to non-Muskogee, which created tensions that grew over time. The two factions also lived apart: Muskogees tended to be Lower Creek, while those who followed other practices were generally Upper Creek.

European contact affected the Creek in ways that reached far beyond renaming them. Hernando de Soto's 1539 exploration of the region, the first by a European, set off a dramatic decrease in the native population. Though wars killed some American Indians, most deaths came from European diseases such as smallpox. Although exact figures will never be known, the number of Indians around 1800 may have been only one-fifth its pre-1500 level. This decline drastically reduced their ability to resist the ever-increasing European American population.

Rivalries between European nations also intruded on the Creek. At various times during the 18th century, Britain, France, and Spain all tried to gain the Creek as allies in battles against their European rivals. In 1704, for example, the governor of South Carolina recruited 1,000 Creek soldiers to join the British in destroying Ayubale, Spainís strongest settlement in Florida. By the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the Creek found themselves bordered by the British to the east, the Spanish to the south, and the French to the west.

Even though the Creek occasionally found alliances profitable, overall they refrained from involving themselves in non-Indian conflicts. The Revolutionary War provided an example of this behavior: though they preferred the British, few Creek fought. European officials often gave lavish gifts in order to keep the peace. In the first part of the 18th century, both the French and the British sent the chief of the Coweta frequent shipments of manufactured goods; after 1776, the U.S. and the Spanish each paid Creek leader Alexander McGillivray in the hope of gaining an allies.

The Creek did go to war at times. Sometimes they battled other tribes, particularly the Cherokee, with whom they had a long-running feud. They generally fought European Americans only when they felt threatened, declaring war on the U.S. in 1786 only after white settlers continued to move into territory that treaties had promised to the Creek.

Around the turn of the 19th century, several events increased tensions between and among European Americans and American Indians. Although the Louisiana Purchase supposedly gave the United States control of land from the Atlantic to the Rockies, in reality American authority over the new territory was limited. Frontier families felt threatened both by the British and by Indians, and they believed--often with some justification--that those two worked together to undermine U.S. interests.

The U.S. government thought that the best way to assert its control and protect its citizens was to encourage rapid settlement with loyal citizens. Obtaining the necessary land, however, required dealing with the Indians who lived in that area. Often these negotiations spurred hostilities, since the U.S. frequently forced tribes to give up lands guaranteed by previous treaties.

Thomas Jeffersonís policy of "civilizing" American Indians caused further difficulty. Jefferson extended his belief in a nation of small farmers to the Indians and advocated giving each one a small plot of land. American Indians would gradually learn not only to farm like European Americans, but to live like them, including adopting Christianity and English.

Yet the Indians had little interest in Jefferson's proposal. Only a few American Indians completely rejected European culture; most agreed that European foods and technology improved their lives. Pigs, poultry, pears, peaches, horses, guns, and iron tools all gradually became part of daily life. Marriages between white men and Creek women were not uncommon, and some of the children these unions produced even led talwas.

Most Creek wanted to keep traditional ways. Though they might learn English, they generally spoke their own languages. Most preferred their religion and festivals over Christianity. They believed the tribe, not the individual, should control property, and that much of the land should remain as forest. In the woods the Creek could hunt the deer whose skins they traded to the Europeans for manufactured goods. Yet under Jefferson's system, land tribes previously used for hunting would become available for sale to European American settlers spreading west.

Concerns over culture and land extended beyond the Creek. Throughout the Ohio and Tennessee river valleys, tribes discussed with themselves and each other how to respond to pressure from European Americans. In the early 1800s, a movement historians have called "Pan-Indianism" gradually arose. Led by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, also known as the Prophet, it argued that all tribes had to put aside past differences and work together in order to stop further European American expansion. The two men, who were based in what is now Ohio, recruited other tribes to join in armed resistance against further encroachment.

The Creek differed over how to respond to Pan-Indianism. In general the Lower Creek, who had more contact with European Americans, rejected Tecumsehís call. They believed they could continue to adapt to new ways and were not prepared to fight a long war against a much larger population.

Many Upper Creek also turned Tecumseh down, but some wanted to fight. One of their leaders was Red Eagle (William Weatherford), the nephew of a earlier chief who had tried to unify the confederacy in the late 18th century. Like many Creek, he was a mestizo, someone with both European and American Indian ancestors.

Red Eagle and the other Creek followers of Tecumseh became known as "Red Sticks," a name whose basis remains unclear. One possible explanation comes from the Creek practice of categorizing talwas as "white," which meant they supplied peace negotiators, or as "red," which meant they supplied warriors. The red towns counted out sticks as a way to determine the proper date to commence battle. Other historians have suggested that Red Sticks refers to the war clubs Tecumsehís party carried.

During 1813 a civil war began between the Upper and Lower Creek over how to respond to the Europeans. Serious fighting began after a group of Red Sticks who had just visited Tecumseh killed seven European American settlers in Tennessee. To prevent a war with the Americans, the Creek council ordered the murderers hunted down and executed. That action enraged the Red Sticks, who stopped at a Spanish trading post in Pensacola to obtain weapons so they could retaliate against the Lower Creek, whom they held responsible for the council's decision. However, they received no new guns, only powder and shot for those they already had.

A Mississippi militia quickly began to pursue the Red Sticks and surprised them at Burnt Corn Creek. This battle was inconclusive, but the Red Sticks became even angrier when they discovered that among the militia were many Lower Creek. The Red Sticks responded by attacking Fort Mims in southern Alabama, killing 250 people, some of whom were women and children. Although most of the dead were Lower Creek cooperating with settlers and their government, there were enough European Americans among the dead to provide an excuse for state militias and the U.S. government to declare war on the Red Sticks.

The War of 1812 provided further justification for attacking the Red Sticks. Many European Americans, particularly those living near the frontier, saw battles such as the one at Fort Mims as additional examples of European nations stirring up trouble through American Indian allies. They were convinced that it was only a matter of time before the British, as part of their attempt to win the War of 1812, also started passing out weapons to the Upper Creek.

In the fall of 1813, Mississippi and Georgia militias made feeble attempts to put down the Red Sticks. Soon Andrew Jackson organized his Tennessee militia for a full-scale campaign against the Creek. The soldiers had much to fight for: if the Red Sticks were defeated, they would lose their land, which would be sold to new settlers. After two autumn victories, however, the enlistments of many of Jacksonís men expired. He therefore had to wait for more troops and supplies.

During the winter Red Stick warriors, along with some women and children, had come to Horseshoe Bend. There they hoped the encircling river, their religious leadersí magic, and a log barricade they had built across the neck of the peninsula would provide them protection.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Was it accurate to refer to "the Creek" as a tribe? Why or why not? What does its use say about British attitudes toward the native population?

2. How did contact with European Americans affect the southeastern Indians?

3. What were some of the important divisions within the Creek confederacy?

4. What gradual developments and immediate events led to the Creek Civil War?

Reading 1 was compiled from J. Leitch Wright, Creeks & Seminoles: The Destruction and Regeneration of the Muscogulge People (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992); the National Park Serviceís visitorís guide for Horseshoe Bend National Military Park; William C. Sturtevant, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 4, History of Indian-White Relations (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988), 35-37.

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