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Marveling at Mims: The trouble in paradise

By John Brightman Brock

A reenactment is planned for the bicentennial Aug. 30-Sept. 1.  Photo by John Nelson
A reenactment is planned for the bicentennial Aug. 30-Sept. 1.
Photo by John Nelson

One day, in the year 1813, fear changed everything.

Cries of “Indians in the fort!” resounded inside hastily constructed timber walls in the Tensaw region of Alabama. Those gathered on the Samuel Mims Plantation, near Stockton, had screamed in disbelief and later in horror as 250 of the 400 inhabitants were slaughtered in a fiery clash of cultures.

The settlers, protected by 100 Mississippi Territorial Volunteers, had gathered after reports of Red Stick Creek Indians procuring guns, possibly from the British or Spanish. This was followed by a report that the militia had failed to intercept them at a place called Burnt Corn Creek. Now the Red Sticks, known for their red-tipped war clubs, turned their fears of an encroaching white culture onto the fort, including nationalized Creeks and African slaves.

The hand of fate seemed cruel that Aug. 30, as rain-hardened sand held open the fort’s eastern gate allowing 700 Indians to enter at noon, fight and hours later destroy by fire Fort Mims, located in present-day Baldwin County. The blaze grew hot enough to melt cast iron, ravaging many of the fort’s wooden structures and fences, and horridly illuminating the scalpings of hundreds of settlers before the Red Sticks left with their captives.

A burial party would not arrive until three weeks later, constructing mass graves that remain in memorial to the beginnings of the Creek Indian War.

A struggling young America, already at war with the British, would later avenge the deaths of those killed that day. News of “Massacre at Fort Mims!” would sound the death knell for these Red Stick Creek Indians, who had attacked the fort in civil war action against Creeks who had settled with the whites.

A shocked nation dispatched an angry Gen. Andrew Jackson and his army, which devastated the Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend on March 27, 1814. Remaining Creeks were taken from the land and more than 20 million acres were ceded to the United States, signaling an end to Creek Indian traditional hunting grounds where they had hunted deer for many years.


A volatile clash of cultures

The enraged Red Stick Creeks had actually “raised the red stick of war” against their own National Council, says Kathryn E. Holland Braund of Auburn University, who edited a book of essays on the war, Tohopeka: Rethinking the Creek War and the War of 1812.

“The War of 1812 was going on,” says Braund. “There had been tremendous Creek opposition to the Federal Road. The people in what is now South Alabama were expecting an Indian war and perhaps even wanted it as an excuse to claim more territory and dislodge the Spanish and even the Indians. And on the Creek side, there were divisions. When the Creek National Council sent warriors to execute other Creeks for crimes committed against Americans, it resulted in a civil war among the Creeks.”

The Red Sticks saw American demands for things like roads as an encroachment on their sovereignty. “They feared the increasing settlements of whites all around them and resented the demands for land by Americans. And they opposed the accommodation the Creek National Council represented. Many of these members of the National Council were profiting from the accommodation with Americans while most Creeks weren’t,” Braund says.

The tipping point came when the Creek National Council began to take unprecedented powers and usurp clan authority by executing people, she says.

“A sizeable portion of the Creek people raised the red stick of war against their own leaders and laid siege to Tuckabatchee (where the Creek National Council convened in current day Elmore County). A contingent went to Pensacola for supplies to use against their own people; and the Mississippi Territorial Militia thought a preemptive strike would prevent an attack on the Tensaw settlements by destroying the arms the insurgents possessed.

“It backfired, and the Red Sticks changed their target to Fort Mims as an act of revenge,” Braund says. “The ensuing fierceness of the attack on the fort shocked Americans … especially the size of the death toll. News of the attack transformed a Creek civil war into an American war against the Creeks.”


Artifact trail

Excavations have unearthed evidence of several buildings in the fort, including the Mims house, the kitchen, a blacksmith shop and a cabin. Archaeologists collected artifacts, among them a large cast iron kettle as evidence of the fire set that day, with a chunk of the iron kettle completely melted.

After years of random excavation diluted the site’s remains, however, archeologists like Bonnie Gums, with the University of South Alabama in Mobile, have been able to further piece together the massacre. Gums, who works with archeologist Dr. Gregory A. Waselkov, published their official chronology in 2007 as “Archaeology at Fort Mims: Excavation, Contexts and Artifact Catalogue.”

Sometimes digging, sometimes using ground penetrating equipment, their onsite work discovered stark evidence of the disastrous turmoil inside the fence, says Gums. They found that two months before the massacre, settlers had built the fort fence in about a day around a 200- by 200-foot land area, then laying timbers side by side, possibly as a fence.

But previous researchers in 1953 “took a bulldozer to it to find the walls … not the best way to do it,” Gums says. The five acres that holds the fort had been deeded to the state with the stipulation that they make it into a park in 10 years, and “after nine and a half years, the state had done nothing.” She said those researchers went in there in a hurry to find any evidence the fort had existed. Those findings were inconclusive.

A decade later, the Department of Conservation excavated the site, this time discovering two wells inside the fort area and artifacts. After digging out the wells, they found an ax head in the bottom of one well, bearing the initials ZM, believed to belong to Zachariah McGirth, a survivor, Gums says.

So, in 2000, when the Alabama Historical Commission asked Waselkov and Gums “to gather everything that’s ever been done at Fort Mims,” they took more than five years, including 25 days on site, before publishing their findings. They determined that “walls” found in 1953 were actually burned trees from the massacre; so they decided to look for themselves – to find the walls.

They discovered real evidence of west, north and east walls of the fort, after evidence of the south wall had been discovered in a 1970s excavation. The key to finding the remains of walls, actually, was defining a “darker stain in the ground,” Gums says. “They (settlers) had built a trench … it’s easier to build a trench than to build a post hole. The trench was only a couple of inches deep, less than a foot; it wasn’t very stable. They would have stuck timbers in there, and packed the timbers in place, to stay in place.”

The Mims plantation actually existed from the late 1790s, and had been a plantation for about 15 years prior to the fort and the massacre. “It was really a fort for only about two months. So many artifacts we found were in the ground prior to the battle, meaning they were plantation artifacts,” Gums says. The ones found from the battle were burned, melted bottle glass, burned ceramics, burned and melted lead … we can pretty much say were from the battle that day.”

Bicentennial will feature battle reenactment

Descendants of the survivors of the Fort Mims massacre will make their way to Baldwin County for a bicentennial reenactment Aug. 30-Sept. 1, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Activities each day will start with a reenactment of the Battle of Burnt Corn Creek in the mornings, and the Battle of Fort Mims in the afternoons. Re-enactors will be there with tents, blacksmithing, period music, booths and will provide covered wagon rides led by mules.

Claudia Slaughter Campbell, president of the Fort Mims Restoration Association, expects a large turnout. It will be portrayed on the actual anniversary date and time, 200 years later, she says. “Descendants of Fort Mims from all over the nation will be making their pilgrimages to this site in north Baldwin County to honor their ancestors who were in some way a part of this day in early American history.”

Directions to Fort Mims: (45 miles from Mobile) 12 miles north of Stockton on Highway 59, turning west on County Road 80 for three miles until you see the signs.