American Domain

In the treaty of 1783, acknowledging the independence of the United States, Great Britain agreed to certain limits, among which were the Mississippi river and the latitude of 31°, in the southwest. But this was not taken seriously by the governments of Spain or France, nor even by that of Great Britain. The American idea of republican and democratic government of a region of such vast area, without a king, could not be considered in a serious manner by the European monarchies. Consequently Great Britain maintained military posts at Detroit and elsewhere, and Spain retained possession of western Tennessee and southward. At the collapse of the union of the States, they would make the Ohio river the boundary of Canada and Louisiana.

Consequently, it became necessary for the United States to make the actual conquest of the West, including the region of Mississippi.

In the peace of 1783 no provision was made for the Indians who were the actual possessors of the west, beyond the Oconee, and upper Ohio.

The Choctaws had been faithful allies of Great Britain, and had taken an active part in hostilities against the Spanish. The Chickasaws had aided the Choctaws against the Spanish, and by force of arms had compelled George Rogers Clark to abandon Fort Jefferson, built in 1780 in the neighborhood of Columbus, Ky. The Creeks and Cherokees had made war on the American frontier, and held some prisoners and considerable property.

The prompt cession of western lands to the United States by Virginia and more northern states simplified the problem of asserting American jurisdiction in the northwest. But in the southwest the refusal of Georgia to adopt this policy complicated the problem. It was doubtful under the articles of confederation whether the United States congress had a right to treat regarding Indian boundaries in the wilderness claimed by any one of the states. This was one of the most vexatious questions of that day. Georgia was uncompromising in claiming exclusive domain back to the Mississippi. and did all she could in assertion of a power to sell the land without regard to the Indian title. There can hardly be any doubt that to follow that course would have involved the United States in war with Great Britain, Spain and France, and resulted in the loss of the whole west.

Probably because of this question – certainly there was a serious delay – Spain was the first to make treaties with the southern Indians, at Mobile and Pensacola in 1784. Next year the “commissioners plenipotentiary” of the United States called the nations to make peace and acknowledge subordination. As for the Creeks, McGillivray replied in effect that he was sorry the United States had not spoken sooner, for he had accepted the protection of Spain. The other three nations made treaties at Hopewell and Seneca in 1785-86. Georgia, by legislative act, declared these proceedings of the United States null and void, and ratified a treaty of Galphinton, made by her agents with a few Creek “scallawags,” by which they acknowledged the sovereignty of that state. North Carolina took similar action regarding the treaty at Seneca.

The Miro-McGillivray treaties of 1784 were construed by Spain (letter of Gardoqui, 1793) as solemn treaties by which the four nations ” acknowledge his Catholic Majesty as their only sovereign and protector,” under which the Spanish governors were bound to ” take care to counterwork the designs of some who have endeavored to separate them from their allegiance with Spain,” These treaties served to hold the west, south of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, under the actual control of Spain and the Pensacola and Mobile English merchants.

The French were not only concerned as a matter of national policy, but there was actual French participation in the struggle that followed, aside from the Louisiana influence. There had been for a long time, trading’ posts maintained by the French on the Wabash river, also near the sites of the present towns of Tuscumbia and Florence. On the charge that the French incited the Cherokees to fight the Cumberland settlers, the posts were destroyed by Colonel Robertson in 1787, the goods confiscated, and the traders made prisoners.

In 1783 the Cherokees, redoubtable and cruel warriors, held the valley of the Tennessee above Mussel Shoals. Their strength was estimated at above two thousand gun men. “The Chickasaws occupied and claimed the country east of the Mississippi, from the mouth of the Ohio to the mouth of the Yazoo, and westward to the Cumberland mountains on the north and to the Tombigbee and Black Warrior on the south. Their strength was estimated at twelve hundred warriors. The Choctaws, one of the most powerful nations of the South, occupied all the country south of the Chickasaws and west of the Cherokee and Creek territories. Their limits comprised all the regions drained by the Lower Tombigbee and the western tributaries of the Black Warrior, and westward to the Mississippi, including the whole country drained by the Pearl and Pascagoula rivers. Their fighting men were estimated at six thousand.” – (Monette’s Valley of the Miss.) According to another estimate (by the Indian commissioners of 1785) the military strength of the Four Nations was as follows: Cherokees, 2,000; Creeks and Seminoles, 5,400; Chickasaws, 800; Choctaws, 6,000. The Creeks, or Muscogees, called Tallapoochees by the Spanish, lay between the Choctaws and the Altanahaw river, and also occupied Florida under the name of Seminoles or Wanderers. They were as strong numerically as the Choctaws and at this time were much more active. Their half-breed chief McGillivray, was one of the ablest diplomats on the continent. His home was at Hickory, on the east branch of the Mobile, the west branch of which came from the Choctaw and Chickasaw country. He was the central figure of the Southern nations, from 1780 until his death at Pensacola, February 17, 1793. Upon that event William Panton wrote to his father, Lachlan McGillivray, then living in Scotland: “It so happened that we had an interest in serving each other, which first brought us together, and the longer we were acquainted, the stronger was our friendship. I found him deserted by the British, without pay, without money, without friends, and without property, saving a few negroes, and he and his nation threatened with destruction by the Georgians, unless they agreed to cede them the better part of their country. I had the good fortune to point out a mode by which he could save them all, and it succeeded beyond expectations. … I advised, I supported, I pushed him on, to be the great man. Spanish and Americans felt his weight, and this enabled him to haul me after him.”

There could be no progress toward a settlement of the problem of domain until the adoption of the “more perfect union,” under which General Washington was inaugurated as president in 1789. Messrs. Osborne and Pickens were soon appointed temporary Indian commissioners, and on August 29, 1789, the president appointed Benjamin Lincoln, Cyrus Griffin and David Humphrey, ” commissioners plenipotentiary for negotiating and concluding peace with the independent tribes or nations of Indians within the limits of the United States, south of the river Ohio.” President Washington in person made a communication to the senate in August, 1789, setting out the history of what had occurred under the Confederation, how Georgia had made three treaties with the Creeks, which the latter repudiated, and the United States had made treaties with all the tribes, which Georgia and North Carolina repudiated and did not observe. Georgia had early ratified the United States constitution, but North Carolina had not yet done so.

The instructions given the commissioners by the president covered many points, notably the Indian policy of the United States, that the Indian nations within the limits of the United States, acknowledged themselves under the protection of the United States of America, and of no other sovereign, whosoever; also, that they are not to hold any treaty with an individual state, nor with individuals of any State.” The treaties made by Georgia were to be confirmed if possible, and arrangements made for the protection of the frontier settlers. The commissioners met at Savannah in September, and sent out messages to the Four nations. They held a congress with the Creeks at Rock Landing later in the month, but failed to make a treaty, for which they blamed McGillivray. At Richmond in October, they had a meeting with Piamingo, who carried back messages of friendship to the Chickataws and Choctaws.

These commissioners reported that the Cherokee nation contained about 600 gun men, the Chickasaws about 700 and the Choctaws about 3,000. “Their arms are bad (Choctaws), scarcely any ammunition and themselves naked. The Cherokees and Chickasaws cultivate the ground more than the other Indians, and possess cattle, proportionally, in greater numbers. The Choctaws hunt only, are brave and hardy people in the woods, but indolent to a great degree at home.”

McGillivray, and a score of other Creeks, among them Chinnabie, “the chief Natchez warrior,” were persuaded to go to New York in 1790, where they closed a treaty with the United States, August 7th. Not mentioned in the treaty, the United States promised $2,900 and McGillivray, a colonel in the Spanish army, was made a brigadier-general in the United States army, with salary and uniform. The Creeks promised to give up prisoners, acknowledged protection of the United States, and of no other sovereign whatever, etc., as asked of them. They were assured that the Yazoo land projects, authorized by Georgia, were outside the pale of law and settlers under them would have no protection. A line was denned, by which the Creeks yielded the coast of the Tallassee country for settlement, and the “rich gore” of land between the Ogeechee and Oconee. Andrew Ellicott was appointed to survey the line, but being otherwise engaged, his brother Joseph accompanied Lieutenant Heth for that purpose in 1791. ”

Nothing indeed could more strikingly show how difficult and malignant the state of things was, and how stubborn were the obstacles which Spanish interference with the Indians and the bitter temper of Georgia towards them threw in the way, than the fact that the combined names of Washington and McGillivray, corroborated by the strong necessities of the case, and the plainest dictates of policy, availed not to render the treaty acceptable to either side. The Georgians, although they had gotten by it the whole of the so much coveted Oconee country, recalcitrated because it retroceded to the Indians the Tallassee country between the Altamaha and St. Mary’s [only the back country], and also because of its perpetual guarantee to them of all their remaining unceded territory.” – (Chappell, Miscellanies of Georgia.)

Georgia repudiated the treaty as unconstitutional, the Creeks declared it was unauthorized, Governor Miro wrote that it was ” null in effect” because the Creeks could not make such a treaty without the participation of Spain; the English element, represented by William Panton as well as by his enemy, that remarkable Maryland adventurer, William Augustus Bowles, was fighting for exclusive trading privileges.

On account of opposition to the execution of this treaty, General Knox, Washington’s secretary of war, wrote to the governor of Georgia in August, 1792: ”

The constitution has been freely adopted; the regulation of our Indian connection is submitted to Congress; and the treaties are part of the supreme law of the land. It would be criminal negligence in the Federal administration to pass over the gross infraction of public tranquility, and the insult to the public honor which are said to be in contemplation. I am authorized to declare to you sir, in order to testify the determination to uphold you in the most vigorous exertions under the laws of your State, that those of the United States will be strictly enforced and executed upon the offenders, without distinction.”

There was some progress, however, through the cession of what is now Tennessee by North Carolina. This was organized as the Territory of the United States south of the River Ohio, with William Blount, of North Carolina, as governor and Indian agent. He made the treaty of Holstan with the Cherokees in 1791, also dealt with the Chickasaws and Choctaws, the governor of Natchez at the same time claiming equal rights to negotiate with all these nations. Within the limits of Georgia, on the St. Mary’s, James Seagrove was established as United States Indian agent.

The policy of the United States was to maintain peace at any cost with the southern nations, until the Maumee confederacy of the Northwest, backed by the British, could be subdued by force of arms, as they were proof to negotiation. The task was difficult. The army under Harmar was defeated at the head o£ the Maumee in 1790, and St. Clair’s army, was almost annihilated, in the western Ohio swamps in 1791. With St. Clair were Piamingo (Mountain Chief) and Chooshemataha (Billy Colbert) and Tootemastub-bee (George Colbert) and a number of Chickasaw warriors. The Cherokees, on the other hand, were in close touch with the hostiles, and part of them anxious to assist.

After this disaster Washington called to the command, Anthony Wayne, a Pennsylvanian soldier who, after driving out the British and capturing Savannah, in 1782, became a citizen of Georgia and took his seat in 1791 as a congressman from that state, but was unseated on a contest by James Jackson. In 1792 and 1793, while Wayne was making his cautious but impressive advance toward the Northern stronghold of Indian and foreign hostility, the crisis arrived in the South.

In February, 1792, General McGillivray was asked for military assistance by the secretary of war, who wrote him: “The same propositions are made to the Cherokees, and the Chickasaws and Choctaws. Piamingo, the mountain leader of the Chickasaws, acted with our troops the last campaign, and he will probably join the army the next campaign, with a body of three hundred of his warriors.” The message to the Choctaws, asking them to send some warriors to Fort Washington (Cincinnati) explained the reverse of 1791 and announced the determination of the United States to punish the bad Indians who were the enemies of the Choctaws also. With the message were sent the great white belt, “two great silver medals,” two arm bands, two uniforms, etc. These medals bore the features of the president and the inscription, ” George Washington, President, 1792,” and others the inscription, ” Friendship and Trade, without end.” This was a subject of remonstrance by the Spanish ambassadors.

Similar honors with thanks for former service were conveyed to Piamingo and his nation. The names of twenty-four Choctaws who served with Wayne are preserved in the American State papers, (VII. 134).

Word was sent to the Maumee council in the same year: “Let the Indians at the said council know fully that the United States are friends with the Creeks, to whom we give $1,500 annually; with the Cherokees, excepting a few outcasts, who have been leagued with the Shawanees, to whom we also give $1,500 annually; that we have treaties of peace with the Choctaws and Chickasaws, to whom we shall probably assign an annual allowance, as they have proved themselves our friends.”

But McGillivray had his hands full; he wrote to agent Seagrove in May of that year that Bowles, the British emissary, the “lying captain,” had gone from among the Creeks, but Capt. Pedro Olivier, the Spanish agent, had arrived, and told them “he has orders to prevent them from running any line, or doing other business with the Americans. “It is no wonder,” McGillivray wrote, “that the Indians are distracted, when they are tampered with on every side, and I am myself in the situation of a keeper of Bedlam, and nearly fit for an inhabitant.” He said he was hastening “to go and get an explanation from the proper persons, and the reasons for their interference.” Seagrove, on his part, put no confidence in what McGillivray said. The Creek statesman went, as he said, and Ben James, the Choctaw, wrote to Governor Blount June 30, that McGillivray is now at New Orleans, and it is not for the good of the United States that he is there, nor yet for this nation.” James wrote also that he was in danger himself, being pointed out as an American. He dared not apply to the Spanish for protection, because they must help the Creeks.

Carondelet, at New Orleans, had advised Chickamauga Charles and other Cherokee chiefs who visited him, that they should keep peace while the king of Spain treated with the Americans to fix a permanent line for /them. Carondelet asked them to furnish a statement of their claims also the claims of their allies in the North, “so that they may be comprised in the same treaty.” (Letter dated, N. O., Nov. 24, 1792.)

Knox wrote to Blount August 15, 1792, “It is really painful to reflect, after all our efforts for peace with the Southern Indians, that affairs in that quarter are so critical. It would seem, from representations, that a few more sparks would light up a pretty general war.”

From his observations General Robertson of Tennessee, wrote, ” I have not the smallest doubt, could the Chickasaws and Choctaws have been persuaded to join, that all the Indians between the Mississippi and Apalachian mountains would have been at war with the United States.”

Carondelet soon sent out word among the Four Nations by a Cherokee, Finnelson, and Deraque, that McGillivray had been made a large allowance to resign his American commission. These messengers were taken to Pensacola by William Panton, who agreed to spread the word among the Choctaws and Chickasaws, particularly to drive out American traders.

After this came the Natchez Indian conference by the Spanish, immediately followed by the Nashville conference by Blount with the two Mississippi nations. It was evident that these nations were divided among themselves, but the United States had strong friends in Piamingo and the Colberts, among the Chickasaws, and John Pitchlyn and Ben James among the Choctaws.

In the latter part of September, the five lower Cherokee towns, known as Chickamaugas, went on the war path. Blount called out fifteen companies of militia under General Sevier. On the 30th a strong party of Creeks, Chickamaugas and Shawanese attacked Buchanan’s Station, four miles south of Nashville, but were repulsed. A fine Spanish sword was found among the relics of the fight.

Ambassadors from the Shawanese urged all the Four Nations to join them in keeping up the war on the United States, and Spanish agents spread the report that Blount was asking for peace simply that the Northern Indians might be first destroyed, when the Southerners would be wiped out.

There was greater tension in the diplomatic field, also the Spanish commissioners at Philadelphia, Jaudenes and Viar, in June charged the United States with inciting the Chickasaws to war on the Creeks, and with supplying them arms for that purpose; with aiming to occupy a post at the Ecores a Margot (Memphis); with giving medals to Indian chiefs and meddling in the affairs of Indians in alliance with Spain. In October Secretary Jefferson was warned that “disagreeable consequences may probably result” if the United States did not desist from fixing limits for the Indians. This was the subject of a special message to Congress, and resulted in the sending of a special messenger to Madrid. Jefferson’s ultimatum was: “If Spain chooses to consider our self defense against savage butchery as a cause of war to her, we must meet her in war, but without fear; and we shall be happier to the last moment to repair with her to the tribunal of peace and reason.” In the same period, the Cherokees obtained seven horse-loads of war material from Pensacola, which was used in the attack on Buchanan’s station, and depredations by the Chickamauga pirates.

The crisis of affairs arrived in the early part of 1793. Declaring that they were “standing in the middle of a great blaze of fire,” the Chickasaws declared war on the Creeks. The Creeks prepared to retaliate, the Chickasaws in their thirty forts were defiant, and there was also a general alarm on the Georgia frontier. Then everything suddenly quieted. The warlike Creeks let the Chickasaws defy them. Major-General Twiggs, at the head of the Georgia militia, marched into the Creek country, saw nobody, ran out of provisions, and marched back. One Indian was killed, a friend of the United States commissioner. The Federal government had warned Governor Telfair of Georgia that “a general and open Creek war, in the present crisis of European affairs, would be a complicated evil of great magnitude.” This was the season of the beheading of Louis XVI. It may be suspected that the efforts of William Panton, deputed just at this time by Governor Carondelet to make peace between the Chickasaws and Creeks, had a good deal to do with the quiet that followed, and that Spain was as anxious as the United States, just then, to avoid war.

In 1793 Gen. Elijah Clark, as notable a patriot as the northwestern hero of the same name, was organizing a Georgia army to invade Florida under the French flag. Next year he diverted the movement to the establishment of a new State west of the Oconee. On the request of President Washington, the Georgia troops were used to compel the abandonment of this enterprise. Judge George Walton instructed a grand jury to investigate Clark’s proceedings, but in his charge he revealed the intensely jealous feeling that prevailed on the frontier. “It is not to be wished,” he said, “that the Federal government should have occasion to exert its power upon any such occasion. It might, one day, give color to pretensions not consonant with the interests of the State.”

Baron Carondelet took the position in 1794 that the Cherokee nation, which inhabited the Upper Tennessee valley, having no towns nearer the Spanish posts than Mussel Shoals, having entered ” into a treaty of alliance and friendship with Spain,” had asked “that the great king should be a mediator between it and the United States for a final and permanent marking of limits. To this he replied (in a letter dated July 4, 1794, and captured at Nick-ajack) “The great king, comformably to the 3, 7 and 8th articles of the treaty concluded at the Zazon [Yazoo?] by which it puts itself under his protection, is at present occupied in the arrangement of all his differences, and requests the Cherokee and Creek nations to suspend all hostilities and remain on their own lands, content with defending themselves in case of being attacked there, for a nation cannot, from time to time, prevent evil disposed white men, without orders, from committing mischief on some red men. But on a complaint to the chiefs of the white men, justice will be rendered them, and it is only in case of a refusal, that they are entitled to take it themselves. The great king desires that the nation shall live in peace with the United States; the powder, balls, guns, clothes, vermilion, bracelets, etc., which he gives to the nation, are only the voluntary effect of his goodness, and, that it may not be jealous of others, the arms are for hunting, and the clothes to preserve them from cold. . . . Should an attempt be made to deprive his friends of their lands, or drive them from their villages, then the great king will give them arms and ammunition in abundance, to defend themselves and make war; he will make it with them, to force their enemies to restore what they have usurped and to leave his allies in peace.”

Thus the situation remained, of course, with outrages now and then, not all by the Indians, by any means. In the fall of 1793 there was a slaughter of Cherokees at Hanging Maw, that seemed unprovoked. Fourteen horse loads of ammunition were sent up from Pensacola for the Cherokees to use in self defense, and Jefferson was informed that Spain must protect her allies. Finally news came of the victory won by General Wayne, among his troops being a party of Chickasaw and Choctaw scouts, over an army of Northwestern Indians and British auxiliaries from Detroit, on the Maumee river, near a British post maintained within the limits of the United States, August 20, 1794. Even after that there was some trouble. In November, Colonel Sevier’s station at Clarksville was attacked and three of his children killed. In January, 1795, one of the Colberts led a hundred Chickasaws to the Miro district to hunt out the hostile Creeks and secured a number of scalps. But in December of 1795 General Wayne made with the Northwest Indians the famous treaty of Greenville, that settled the question in that region, and on June 29, 1796, Benjamin Hawkins, George Clymer and Andrew Pickens, commissioners of the United States, made the equally important treaty of Coleraine with the Creeks, ratifying the treaties of Hopewell (1785) and New York (1790).

Georgia had declared these treaties null and void, and she sent commissioners to Coleraine, a post within the bounds of Georgia, on the St. Mary’s river. They brought a military escort, which the United States troops refused permission to land within the treaty limits. The Georgia chairman declared that they considered themselves ” to have been in a degree insulted, and consequently the State which we belong to.” The United States commissioners reported that the chairman’s statements were “extravagant and absurd,” and that the guard “was really intended by one of the commissioners at least for show, and to put them, in some sort, as they have been known to express themselves, on a footing with the commissioners of the United States, to prop the vanity and consequence of self-created pride, at the expense of insulting the authority of the United States.”

In connection with this clash of authority it is well enough to remember that President Washington in 1794 called out the militia of several states to suppress a rebellion against United States authority in western Pennsylvania.

Throughout this period of uncertainty about the west, the people of the frontier, in Kentucky, and Tennessee, were discussing five methods of relief: separation from the Union and the formation of an independent republic, which should have the military and commercial support of Spain; annexation of the west to Spanish Louisiana; western war with Spain, for the capture of New Orleans and West Florida; western war with Spain in association with France, which would lead to the reestablishment of French Louisiana, up the Ohio river and east to Mobile; and the other method, to which the sober-minded held, to wait for the Federal government to procure relief. The complaints of the western people were loud and constant, and were not unheeded. As the crisis of 1795 approached President Washington was collecting information for a campaign on the Mississippi, as war with Spain seemed inevitable. But, as it turned out, the demonstration of American determination and strength in the Northwest was sufficient.

The Spanish pretensions were settled by the treaty of 1795, along with the limits and river navigation. The differences regarding Indian jurisdiction between Georgia and Great Britain and the United States continued to make trouble for some years afterward. (See Treaty of Ghent.)

Back to: Mississippi History

Source: Encyclopedia of Mississippi History, by Dunbar Rowland.

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