Gregory A. Waselkov. A Conquering Spirit: Fort Mims and the Redstick War of 1813-1814. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006. ix + 414 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8173-1491-0.
Reviewed by Stephen Warren (History Department, Augustana College)
Published on H-War (April, 2008)
The Redstick War as Microhistory
On August 30, 1813, approximately 400 Creeks, métis, African American slaves, and American soldiers lost their lives in the attack on Fort Mims. Approximately 250 of the fort's defenders died in close combat, which featured scalping, evisceration, and a massive fire that consumed the dead and dying even as they fought to save themselves. Most attackers came from the Upper Creek towns of Alabama. Soon after Fort Mims, Andrew Jackson, William Claiborne, and John Floyd of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia, respectively, began an invasion of the Redstick towns that had sustained the attack on the fort. After Fort Mims, Choctaw and Creek opponents of the Redsticks supported the American invasion of Creek territory. By the end of April 1814, sixty towns within the Upper Creek Confederacy had been destroyed, along with two thousand of the eight thousand people who had resided there when the war began. Some survivors escaped into the Florida Everglades, where they continued their struggle against the United States into the 1830s. In 1814, both the Redsticks as well as the Indians who had assisted the United States, signed the Treaty of Fort Jackson, which relinquished twenty million acres to the United States.
As an archaeologist who has done extensive fieldwork at the Fort Mims site, Gregory A. Waselkov brings considerable knowledge of daily life on the Alabama frontier to this study. His command of the regional economy is complimented by his understanding of Creek culture, which had begun to fray in the aftermath of the American Revolution. Indeed, a cultural war within Creek society ultimately caused the massacre at Fort Mims.
Fort Mims was situated in what was known as the Tensaw district, an area just north of Mobile but south of the 1765 Indian boundary line that separated Creek territory from both Spanish and American settlement. Métis entrepreneurs, including Lachlan McGillivray, his son Alexander, William Weatherford, and an Englishman who had married into a Creek matrilineage named Richard Bailey, settled there. Residents of Tensaw gained a measure of autonomy from Creek clans as well as Americans and Spaniards. They raised indigo, rice, cotton, and tobacco, but cattle became the most profitable commodity produced in the district. Residents of Tensaw, thus, embodied the economic and cultural changes that had disoriented Creek society toward the end of the eighteenth century. In these years, matrilineal clans became less able to regulate wealth and property ownership. For impoverished Creeks, Tensaw became an open wound, a visible manifestation of their divestment from power and influence.
But residents of Tensaw were more than protean Americans. Substantial kinship and economic ties to the British and Spanish in Florida informed their relative autonomy from the United States. Like the Redsticks, these Creeks saw the British and Spanish as important counterweights to land hungry Americans. Nevertheless, Tensaw planters, such as Alexander McGillivray, separated themselves from their kin who continued to reside in the Upper Creek towns. The Creek métis planter class established a Creek national council and used the close regulation of marriage to concentrate wealth among a handful of their relatives.
It is in this context of economic and political change that many impoverished Creeks embraced the message of revitalization carried south by the Shawnee warrior, Tecumseh. Waselkov chronicles the larger context of Woodland revitalization movements, the racialized discourse of the prophets, and the Second Great Awakening, which influenced the message they crafted. Tecumseh's mother, Methoataaskee, was a Creek, and Tecumseh's parents had been raised in Shawnee towns within the Upper Creek Confederacy. With relatives at the Creek capital of Tuckaubatchee, Tecumseh could claim Creek identity through his mother's matrilineage. This ethnically diverse world of the nineteenth century produced a wide array of such ironic combinations, as opponents of American expansion borrowed some of the ideas of their enemies to redefine the boundaries between them. However, local ambitions, which included restoring the authority of matrilineal clans vis-à-vis th emerging national council, became the basis of the Redstick War.
While race and slavery certainly became critical fault lines within Creek society, Waselkov's research also suggests that these factors did not always predict individual choices. For example, Weatherford, a prominent métis resident of Tensaw, joined forces with the Redsticks and coordinated the assault on Fort Mims. Peter McQueen, a Scots-Muskogee métis from the Creek town of Tallassee became a prominent Redstick leader. Far from the Manichean dichotomy suggested by such opponents of the Redsticks as Jackson, the racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity of the Upper Creek Confederacy requires an equally subtle historical accounting.
Even with nine hundred warriors at the gates of Fort Mims, the massacre might have been avoided. But Captain Daniel Beasley of the Mississippi Territorial Volunteers consistently discredited the reports of slaves at Fort Mims who warned him about an imminent attack. The slaves at the fort spoke both Muskogee and English and, as a result, understood the multiethnic frontier better than relative newcomers, such as Beasley. Even so, Beasley dismissed their reports due in part to the fear of a conspiracy of interests between African Americans and Muskogees. When slaves carried the alarm to Beasley, all he heard was the threat of race war. Those sounding the alarm were subsequently flogged.
A Conquering Spirit is an exemplary work of microhistory. Waselkov takes this discrete event, the massacre at Fort Mims, and sets it in a number of rich contexts to make a larger case about American history in the early Republic. For Waselkov, Fort Mims is an epitomizing event, because it reveals the deep fractures within the Creek social order brought on by decades of intermarriage and economic change. At the same time, the devastation visited on the Creek people, both of the Tensaw district and their enemies, signals a new "racialist thought" on the part of such Americans as Jackson, who were convinced that whiteness and civilization were intertwined (p. 25). As a consequence, nineteenth-century chroniclers of the massacre at Fort Mims masked the incredible diversity of Tensaw and reduced the conflict to a simple war between American planters and Creek "savages" who were unwilling to adopt American ideals. A Conquering Spirit reveals the strangeness of the past and, as such, offers a welcome reprieve from the caricatured representations that are all too common in most discussions of frontier violence.
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Stephen Warren. Review of Waselkov, Gregory A., A Conquering Spirit: Fort Mims and the Redstick War of 1813-1814.
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