The Creek War of 1813-1814: A Survey of Selected Literature
Campaign, Theatre or War?
The war involving the United States of America (USA) and the Creek Indians of 1813-1814 has its fingers in many historical pies. Does one consider the fighting a mere theatre or campaign of the War of 1812 or a separate war on its own? Were the Creeks part of an American Indian confederation or acting out a long festering civil war? If part of a confederation, were they allied with the British like their northern confederates? If so, should the British have forced the Americans to honour the Treaty of Ghent’s provisions on restoring land after the cessation of the War of 1812 as they did in the north? These are all legitimate questions, but the subtleties of the causes and effects of the War of 1812 make them almost indiscernible definitively.
In conflating these issues, however, the fighting and its consequences often get lost in too many other narratives that have larger aims. The fighting between a faction of the Creeks and the USA had an obvious start at the Battle of Burnt Corn, distinct campaigns by the Americans with no other purpose than to engage the Creeks, and a formal ending with the Treaty of Fort Jackson. Finally, would the war have occurred even if there was not a War of 1812? Almost definitely. Therefore, for the purpose of this essay, I will treat it as a separate war fought by an independent faction of the Creek Indians against the USA in an attempt to compare and analyse the various ways the conflict has been presented in written history. What this means, pragmatically, is that I will be comparing books with sections of books and chapters of books depending on the orientation of the book itself. Since so much of the history of the war has been written in the course of examining some of the actor’s lives, biographies will likewise be compared with war narratives and even geographical histories.
The literature on the Creek War goes back to within 40 years of the war itself and has taken a near 360 degree turn. The early works were essentially works of local history and one focussed on the Creek War almost exclusively. These works not only viewed the war as a separate entity, but were conspicuous in trying to give a balanced account by including input from the Creek Indians who participated. In the first half 20th century, the works tended to go down one of two routes, Andrew Jackson or the War of 1812. In the Jackson works, the general who concluded the war with the Creeks at Fort Jackson takes center stage and the narrative is mostly about the will of ‘Old Hickory’. In the works on the War of 1812, the story intertwines Tecumseh and the war to the north in the beginning and the British and the battles for Mobile and New Orleans in the south at the end of the War of 1812. In both of these avenues, the voices of the Creek participants are few and often overly generalised. If the turn has not been full, it has at least been substantial, with recent books that focus on the war with the Creeks (and by extension the Seminoles) and provide a primary source link to the British, American and Spanish actions. In other words, the Creek War is linked to the British effort in the south, but far more tenuously than many previous War of 1812 works had examined, helping the Creek War stand more on its own. I’ll examine selected works of these four strands in order.
Early, Local History
Any Creek War library will include, and probably start with, Albert James Pickett’s History of Alabama and Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi from the Earliest Period. Pickett published his wide-ranging book in 1851. Pickett moved to Alabama with his parents in 1818 at the age of 8 and knew many of the actors in the war. Although it looks a little simple by today’s notation standards, Pickett makes clear that he is trying to create a direct link to the words of the participants through personal interviews and/or examination of manuscripts and original sources. Unfortunately, he misses his own mark regularly where pages flow by with nary a source note (for example the Battle of Talladega). It breezes along in a small town newspaper kind of way, like everyone knows everyone else, which is probably how Alabama felt in 1851. An exception is the ‘Canoe Fight’ which has gone down in American folklore. Three American militiamen and a slave fought and bested eleven Creeks in a fight between two canoes in the middle of the Alabama River. In this case, Pickett provides a direct link through multiple sources to one of the more fantastics stories to come out of the war. Pickett has provided the basic story line for virtually every Creek War writer hence, so deserves the credit for being first, but it would not stand up to historical scrutiny today.
The same applies to H.S. Halbert and T.H. Ball’s The Creek War of 1813 and 1814. Halbert and Ball both lived and worked in the area of Alabama where much of the Creek War occurred. They published their book in 1895, but many of the interviews and oral histories go back into the 1870s. One is left wondering how much was written from memories gathered twenty-five years previous to their commitment to print. What notes there are are often in line and often show a heavy reliance on just a few major sources. At other times, the authors provide an introductory note to a chapter or section that broadly defines the works consulted and where they were found, but again very little specifics. Once again, many subsequent authors have used Halbert and Ball for inspiration in building a story line, but have had to find the specific historical sources themselves.
Jackson, the Great Man
One thing that both Pickett and Halbert & Ball do provide is an inclusion of all of the various campaigns directed at the deep back country of the upper Creeks. Two campaigns marched from Tennessee (east and west), one originated from the Tensaw district around Mobile and one began in central Georgia. I mention these facts, because the next group of books tend to underplay any campaign besides the one from west Tennessee, led by Andrew Jackson. Although the malady has been getting better in recent years, many of the books on Jackson have little to say about the broader Creek War.
The most prolific biographer of Jackson is Robert Remini. Remini is the author of a three volume biography as well as several more specific titles relating to Andrew Jackson. In this case, I will be a little unfair to Remini as his more detailed books take more care to mention the other campaigns, but his The Battle of New Orleans : Andrew Jackson and America’s First Military Victory is the Remini exception that proves the Jackson rule, especially older Jackson works. In the first chapter, Remini sets the stage for the Battle of New Orleans by recounting the Creek War that had been concluded by the Treaty of Fort Jackson. In six pages of narrating the main events, Remini never mentions any other campaign besides Jackson’s. Anyone who knows the Creek War through an Andrew Jackson biography is at risk of not knowing anyone else was involved. I’ll not be too hard on Remini, though, as he is known as an keen researcher into all of the primary materials.
All is not lost with Jackson biographers, though. Another writer who takes a broader view of Jackson’s effect on the old southwest is John Buchanan with his Jackson’s Way: Andrew Jackson and the People of the Western Waters. Buchanan explains Jackson’s character as a product of the people of the old southwest and the unrelenting surge of those people into the southern Indian lands. Although not in great detail, which is fair enough given the book is about Jackson, Buchanan gives creditable space to the march from Georgia, the campaign from the Tensaw and east Tennessee. Another recent book that takes the measure of other American’s contributions to the Creek War is Sean Michael O’Brien’s In Bitterness and Tears: Andrew Jackson’s Destruction of the Creeks and Seminoles. O’Brien also provides the linkage to the Seminole war of 1818, but that is out of our scope in this essay.
The Broader War Narratives
Next are the works on the War of 1812 in general with sections committed to the Creek War. One of the most respected authors of the War of 1812 is Reginald Horsman who wrote The War of 1812 and The Causes of the War of 1812. Horsman gives a balanced and respectable, if short, summary of the Creek War whilst stating his belief that it was ‘only indirectly connected to the main Anglo-American struggle’. A contemporary of Horsman is Harry L. Coles who also titled his book The War of 1812. Although well told and having a respectable 15 pages on the Creek War, Coles provides no notations and only a suggested reading list for each chapter.
Of a more recent publication, A.J. Langguth’s Union 1812 commits a chapter to the Creek War. However, it takes a celebrity cant to telling the story by using the characters of Davy Crockett (famous frontiersman) and Sam Houston (later President of Texas). Crockett and Houston indeed were involved in Jackson’s Creek campaigns, but hardly played decisive roles. Although Langguth is an academic, he uses a non-standard notation style which makes it very difficult to follow his citations. This practice along with his penchant for character based story telling detracts from its academic quality.
Local, Connected and Detailed
As an antidote to the non standard citation style and character driven narratives, we have J. Leitch Wright Jr.’s Creeks and Seminoles which takes a broad view of the nation that made up the ethnic group we have called the Creeks. Although Wright only addresses one chapter to the war, it is refreshingly different by providing context from the Creek side of the conflict. Wright, an academic at Florida State University, cites his sources and his research is happily detailed which gives the book a feel of real authenticity. Paired with its original voice about the ethnic voices within the Creek nation, we are able to see how the Creeks developed both a strong nativist streak and a more ambivalent strain to white settlement amongst other rivalries. He also sheds some light on how far some of the Creeks were integrated with the Shawnee war effort to the north.
Finally, there is Struggle for the Gulf Borderlands: The Creek War and the Battle of New Orleans 1812-1815 by Frank Lawrence Owsley Jr. This is probably the most complete and original work on the Creek War. Owsley gives a detailed account of the causes and military actions from each campaign and also integrates the Gulf of Mexico campaign after the Treaty of Fort Jackson. So far, so much the same. However, Owsley performs a real service to the long suffering Creek War reader. Owsley has gone back to all of the primary sources, British, American, Creek and Spanish, to construct a detailed picture of how the Creek War spilled over into the Gulf campaign naturally, if haphazardly. Owsley goes even further. He says that the Gulf campaign begins and ends with the British connections with the Indians as military forces and that winning the Gulf campaign was the largest success of the whole War of 1812. Owsley’s citations and bibliographical information are a dream for the serious student of this conflict.
The literature of the Creek War has seen an evolution from local, informal history to the war history through the actions of a great man, to relegation to a small chapter in a larger story to the return to local history that documents extensively its connections with the outside world. With this upward spiral, we can see trends that help us all write better history. We must look to the primary sources first and fill in the story line with secondary sources. We need to find the context that makes the local more networked. we have to challenge assumptions of identity and motives. And most of all, we must show our work!
Buchanan, John (2001), Jackson's Way: Andrew Jackson and the People of the Western Waters (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.)
Coles, Harry L. (1965), The War of 1812 (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press)
Halbert, H. S. and Ball, T. H. (1895), The Creek War of 1813 and 1814 (Montgomery, Alabama: White, Woodruff & Fowler)
Horsman, Reginald (1972), The War of 1812 (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode)
Langguth, A. J. (2007), Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence (New York: Simon & Schuster)
O'Brien, Sean Michael (2003), In Bitterness and in Tears: Andrew Jackson's Destruction of the Creeks and Seminoles (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger)
Owsley, Jr., Frank Lawrence (1981), Struggle for the Gulf Borderlands: The Creek War and the Battle of New Orleans 1812-1815 (The University of Alabama Press)
Pickett, Albert James (1851), History of Alabama and Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi from the earliest Period (Charleston: Walker and James)
Remini, Robert. V. (2001), The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America's First Military Victory, (Penguin (Non-Classics))
Wright, Jr., J. Leitch (1986) Creeks and Seminoles: Destruction and Regeneration of the Muscogulge People, (University of Nebraska Press)