DAVISTON, Ala. — Melba Checote Eads stomps her foot on the soft, green earth. “This is our land!” she says powerfully, then adds, “I don’t mean to be ugly, but this” — she motions toward the 300 or so Muscogee Creeks who have gathered at Horseshoe Bend National Military Park — “is a testament that we lived, we survived.”
Like Eads, most of the Creek men and women who have gathered here to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, or the Battle of Tohopeka, as it is known in Creek, had never visited the battleground. It was too far from their home in Oklahoma and too hard. “I never wanted to come here,” Eads admits, "until my people came.”
For the anniversary, on March 27, the National Park Service invited the Muscogee Creeks to return to the battlefield and tell the story of a period in history that has long been whitewashed by patriotic propaganda. Doyle Sap, superintendent of Horseshoe Bend National Military Park said, “they are here today as our honored guests to remember and commemorate the battle and the lives lost here.”
The Battle of Horseshoe Bend was the culmination of a conflict between the Creek Confederacy and the United States. It saw the largest loss of Native American life in one battle in American history. In the treaty that followed, the Creeks ceded more than half their land, creating what is now the southern portion of the state of Georgia and resulting in the formation of the state of Alabama. The American victory at Horseshoe Bend also propelled Andrew Jackson into the national spotlight and almost a decade later to the presidency.
A one-lane road leads visitors in a loop through Horseshoe Bend National Military Park. The road curves along the river; on the other side is a slope crowded in pine trees. The battle gets its name from a sharp turn in the Tallapoosa River, where a piece of land protrudes like a thumb into the river. The land around the river was the heart of Creek territory, but by 1811, white settlers had begun moving onto the frontier, and the Creek Nation was divided over how to react to American settlements.
“Some [Creeks] thought it was best to wait and see what little they could get,” explains Claudio Saunt, a professor of history at the University of Georgia. “Others thought it was best to fight,” Saunt says of the Red Sticks, or the Upper Creeks, and this schism erupted into the Creek Civil War in 1813.
That summer, a force of 700 Red Sticks attacked Fort Mims, today the sleepy town of Tensaw, in south Alabama, where some 500 members of the militia and settlers were stationed. In the course of a bloody battle, 250 of the settlers, including women and children, and 200 Red Sticks were killed. The attack became known as the Massacre at Fort Mims, which is still how it is referred to in textbooks.
Kathryn Braund, who teaches history at Auburn University and has written several books about the Creek Civil War, says, “I call it an attack, because it was an attack on a fortified position.”
Stories of the gruesome fight at Fort Mims traveled the frontier and rallied settlers against the Creeks. In Tennessee, Andrew Jackson, then major general of the Tennessee militia, recruited volunteers with the threat that the “Red Sticks would advance toward your frontier with their scalping knife unsheathed, to butcher your wives, your children, and your helpless babes.”
Thousands of volunteers signed up to fight, but, Braund explains, it’s not only the idea of defending the American frontier that leads to America’s involvement in the Creek Civil War.
“I think for a long time there has been the realization that there’s a land grab going on,” she says. In the early 1800s, Creek land stretched over 40 million acres across the Southeast, from Alabama to central Georgia, dipping down into the Florida panhandle. “Americans resented and resisted the idea that this would be Creek land, where there would be Creek law, where Creeks would rule. That’s what this is all about as much as anything: that this is going to be Alabama and it’s going to be an American culture,” Braund says.
In the fall, the Red Sticks set up camp at the bend in the Tallapoosa River and began constructing a barricade that spanned the width of the neck of the bend, 1,200 feet, and reached from five to eight feet high.
Through the winter and into the spring, Jackson’s army of around 3,300 men traveled Creek territory, burning empty villages and fighting minor battles with the Red Sticks. The general’s troops arrived at Horseshoe Bend on the morning of March 27. Later, he would say of the barricade and choice of battleground, “It was selected with judgment and improved with great industry and art.” His troops fired on the barricade for two hours but could not break through.
“I think the Creeks expected a fight and expected to be able to hold out,” Braund says. “And if they couldn’t, they expected to be able to get in their canoes and escape down the river. Who knew that the Americans would come with three times the number they had had before.”
Jackson’s forces outnumbered the Red Sticks three to one and were bolstered by Cherokee, Choctaw and Creek warriors. A few Cherokee crossed the river and attacked the Creek village from the opposite side, burning houses and killing men and women. It is estimated that about 800 Creeks and 50 Americans were killed. There is no record of how many Creek women or children died.
The consequences of the battle were both quick and vast. The Treaty of Fort Jackson, which was signed by 34 chiefs who were allies of Jackson and only one Red Stick, ceded 23 million acres, to the U.S. The treaty also granted the U.S. the right to build roads and military posts on Creek land and control all trade.
“[The Creeks] suffer this tremendous defeat, so there is a lot of anger. But in essence they are defeated people, so they don’t have much of an option,” Saunt says. “They need to withdraw from the lands that have been ceded, where they had not only been living but hunting as well. It’s squeezing them into a much smaller area, which means they have fewer resources to rely upon.”
Less than 20 years later, the Creeks would be stripped of the remainder of their land. The U.S. government would pass the Indian Removal Act, forcibly moving all Southeastern tribes out West.
After the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, American troops sunk the bodies of fallen soldiers into the river to prevent the Creeks from desecrating them. They left the bodies of the Creek men and women lying in the open field. Years later, American settlers who moved onto the land reported finding bleached bones strewn over the open field.
In 1909, in the run-up to the centennial of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, lawmakers in Alabama wrote to Washington asking for a memorial to be established.
They wrote, “It would be another public expression of the patriotic and educatory value of the lessons of the past” and “a lasting memorial to the brave men who fought, and to those who fell in those trying days when hostile Indian aggression threatened our frontier civilization.”
Below the hill, the barricade dividing the battlefield into Creek and American no longer stands. In its place, is a row of white pickets, but otherwise the battlefield is nothing more than a clean sweep of grass sloping down to the river.
At a table set up on the park ground, Darlie Dirksen, a Muscogee weaver, displays traditional baskets she weaves with long-leaf pine. Long-leaf pine don’t grow in Oklahoma, where she lives, so she has to order it from Louisiana. This is the first time Dirksen has visited Horseshoe Bend. “Before you come back here, you wonder, will you be accepted? But I feel connected to this place like I didn’t think I would.”
In the afternoon, following the commemoration, leaders of the Muscogee hold a stomp dance on the ground where the Red Stick village once sat. It is the first time a stomp has been held in the clearing since the battle.
In a speech, Edwin Marshall, chief press officer of the Muscogee Creek, asks member of the Ofuskee tribe to stand and be recognized. The Ofuskee are one of the tribes who fought at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, and a dozen men and women stand silently.
Dirksen admits that some older tribe members hold deep grudges toward white Americans and the U.S. government, but she hopes that this commemoration will be the beginning of a reconciliation between the two nations.
“It’s not wrong or right way of thinking, but we have to get past these grudges. And this commemoration is part of that,” Dirksen says. “We don’t come here to re-enact a battle. We come to commemorate a battle and our loss. Some of the people here, their grandparents or great grandparents died in this battle; theirs were the bleached bones on the ground.”