Chapter 22: Extreme Perils and Suffering of the Natchez Refugees

Albert James Pickett: HISTORY OF ALABAMA.
(Kindly contributed by William C. Bell)




1781: During the siege of Pensacola, a series of events, of an interesting and romantic character, began at Natchez, and afterwards ended, with unparalleled sufferings, in the vast Indian wilderness, which extended from thence to the Ogechee river, in the distant province of Georgia. Some citizens of the Natchez district, the most prominent of whom were Philip Alston, Colonel Hutchens, John Alston, Captain Thaddeus Lyman, Thompson Lyman, Jacob Blomont, and Jacob Winfrey, put themselves at the head of a large party of royalists,for the purpose of seizing Fort Panmure, and expelling therefrom the Spanish troops, who had held it since September, 1780. They had learned that a powerful British fleet was off the Florida coast, whose object was the re-occupation of the country, and,believing that Don Galvez had already been defeated at Pensacola, they resolved immediately to anticipate what they supposed would be the desire of their King. Apr. 22 1781: Having assembled a large body of Choctaws, the insurgents assumed a position upon an eminence, above the town of Natchez, in full view of the fort. At night they advanced and planted their artillery so as to bear upon the works; but, when day approached, the Spanish cannonade compelled them to retire. During the succeeding twenty-four hours, the firing continued between the parties. Apr. 29 1781: The commandant sent a flag to Colonel Hutchens, representing the danger of rebellion, and promising the clemency of his government, if the people would disperse, after they should have surrendered the ringleaders. An answer was promised, to be returned the next day. During the interval, the malcontents arrested a man bearing a despatch to the Spanish commandant. It was from Captain McIntosh, a warm friend of the Spaniards, who lived in the neighborhood, and who wrote, entreating the commandant to hold out a little while longer, when he would be supported by friends from the country. His letter was destroyed, and another substituted, written by one who could imitate the autograph of McIntosh. April : It was conveyed to the Spanish commandant, and disclosed the astounding news, that the insurgents, by means of a deep ravine, which was at the base of the fort, had formed a cavern, leading directly under the fort, in which a vast quantity of powder had been placed, ready to be exploded by a train; that the people of the country were flocking to the standard of the enemy, and he, consequently, suggested an honorable surrender. Not suspecting the fraud, the Spanish commandant, in his confusion and alarm, surrendered the fort, and marched his garrison to Baton Rouge.

May 1781: But the exulting insurgents were, in a few days, deprived of the fruits of their victory. The news reached them, that General Campbell was defeated, and that the whole of West Florida had been surrendered to Spain. Consternation seized every one. They knew that they should receive no mercy at the hands of those whom they had harassed by rebellion and conquered by stratagem. Abandoning the fort they fled to the cane swamps, with their wives, children, horses, and movable effects, with the determination of cutting their way to the British settlements on the Savannah.* The avenues by the Mississippi were closed against them by the Spaniards below and the American whigs above. In a short time more than one hundred individuals, besides slaves, mounted upon horses, and with other horses laden with their effects, set off to avoid the Spaniards, whom they had expected hourly to arrive at Natchez. Many of the children were small, and some were at the breast. They began their painful and distressing flight by striking towards the prairie country in the present State of Mississippi. Wishing to avoid the Chickasaws and Choctaws, into whose power they feared to fall, a circuitous route was wholly unavoidable, and they wandered from point to point, as their desperate circumstances led them. It was during an unusually dry spring, and the prairies, which they had now reached, afforded them no water. At one time they suffered from the want of it with an intensity more than ordinary human beings, it would seem, could bear. Bordering upon desperation and becoming bewildered, the general direction, which they had endeavored to keep, was abandoned, and they now strolled over the country, with parched lips, under the burning rays of the sun, and amid the heart-rending cries of the children. June 1781: Ever and anon their eyes fell upon distant clumps of trees, and their spirits revived, in the hope that there certainly would be found the sweet beverage of nature. Pushing on to the delusive spot, they found it as moistureless as the land over which they had traveled. Mrs. Dwight, a heroine upon this eventful march, was descended from one of the best families of New England. She exhorted the miserable caravan to persevere in their efforts to find water, although more than thirty-six hours had passed since they had wet their mouths. They now halted and erected a small camp. The men, leaving the women and children in the camp, hunted for hours for water, but towards evening returned with their tongues exposed and fell down in despair. The noble Mrs. Dwight now set out, in company with several men and women. Fortune led her to the foot of two adjoining hills. The surface of the ground was spongy, and here by her directions they began to dig. Hitherto they had not resorted to this plan, but had wandered from point to point, expecting to find running streams. The signs of moisture increased, and presently slow drippings commenced. Redoubling their exertions they struck a fountain. "Thank God!" was the shout of all. A messenger rapidly bore back the tidings. The miserable wretches rose from the ground and rushed to the spot. Dr. Dwight, the husband of the lady mentioned above, stationed a guard over the spring, until, by bathing the temples and the palms of the hands, they could drink a few drops, without fatal consequences. With their horses, also, who seemed as if they would tear up the very earth, and destroy everything that obstructed their passage to the water, they adopted the prudent course, of allowing small quantities at a time. All night, a continual drinking went on. The next day, filling their vessels from this spring, they continued northeast, and, on that day, happily reached some of the sources of the Tombigby. But now their provisions were exhausted. They killed and devoured the few things which crossed their route, and the meat of a large terrapin, divided into small pieces, once saved their lives. They had but little ammunition, which was reserved for defence alone. Having lost their compass, they could only follow the sun, which was sometimes obscured by clouds. It rained occasionally, now that they had crossed the prairies. Now and then they came across small hunting parties of Indians, who, at night, robbed them of their pack-horses and plundered their effects. In addition to all these misfortunes, a loathsome disease spread in the camp. Finally, after wandering nearly to the Tennessee river, and then marching in a nearly southern direction, they reached the Tombigby, about the site of the present town of Aberdeen, where they crossed upon rafts, constructed of dry logs. They next made the Warrior, at the Tuscaloosa Falls, which they crossed, by alternately wading and swimming, from rock to rock. Unfortunately, from this point, they assumed an improper direction. Fearing to follow any trail, they, after a long time found themselves among the mountains of Blount county, Alabama. Having come thus far, again, towards the Tennessee, they thought that they might reach Georgia, by way of the Cherokee nation, and they continued in that direction, until, one day, in a distant valley, they saw some persons approaching. All was breathless suspense. Presently an old Indian-trader, with two Chickasaw Indians, rode up, for they were now June upon a trail. Shocked at the condition of the miserable caravan, the trader generously gave them all the provisions he had, and shared among them his last gallon of taffai.** He warned them not to attempt to reach Georgia through the Tennessee mountains, for they would meet with insurmountable obstacles, and be cut off by the Cherokees, many of whom were now in the interest of the whigs; but advised June them to assume a southern direction, and enter the Creek nation, the inhabitants of which were entirely under the influence of Colonel McGillivray, who was a man of humanity, and a friend of King George. Turning immediately southward, they once more struck through the woods, re-crossed the mountains, and, after incessant toil and hunger, passed over those which border the Cahawba. Most of them had to walk, and lead their horses over the perilous rocks, while their naked feet bled at every pore. Finally, the caravan arrived upon the banks of the Coosa, in the upper part of the present county of Autauga, a few miles below the Big Island. Here the river was wide and deep, and its bottom rocky. But occasionally it was partially obstructed by small clumps of rocks, between which rushed the rapid current.

* Memoirs and Adventures of Phelps, Appendix, pp. 4-5. Monette, vol, 2, pp. 462-3.
** A mean New England rum, the only spirituous liquor drunk, in those days, by the Indians.

July 1781: The feeble wanderers lay down upon the wild banks, without energy to construct a raft. Indeed, some believed that a raft would be torn to pieces by the rocks. Mrs. Dwight, who continued to infuse a spirit of resolution into the party, which had, thus far, overcome all difficulties, put her self forward, and declared that, if but one man would accompany her, she would attempt the passing of the river, when, perhaps, on the other side, they might find a canoe, or some better crossing place. Her husband, roused by her intrepidity, swore that he would not suffer his wife to risk her life for the good of the company without sharing in her perils. These two, with one other, then plunged their horses into the river, and the current carried them some distance down to a dry bed of rocks. Proceeding over these, to the farther end of the ledge, the two horsemen plunged from a steep rock and disappeared under the water, but presently arose, and their faithful horses carried them to the opposite shore. Mrs. Dwight, shutting her eyes, then made the fearful leap, and arose with her hands hold of the horn of her saddle. She, too, happily reached the opposite shore. Then the fearless party gave a whoop, to encourage their anxious friends, whom they had left behind. A mile above this they found a large, old Indian canoe, which had been stove against the rocks. Stopping the seams with whatever they could obtain, the two men went over the river in it, to their comrades, leaving the spirited Mrs. Dwight with the horses. Then the wide and angry Coosa roared and lashed its shores, separating her from every friend she had upon earth.

In the course of that day and the next, the whole party w ere safely boated over. Proceeding some twenty miles farther, they approached the Creek town, called by the traders the "Hickory Ground," embraced in the southern suburbs of the present Wetumpka, on the east bank of the same river which they had crossed. It is impossible to imagine a more forlorn band, or one more agitated by hopes and fears. This was the first Indian town which they had the boldness to approach, since they left Natchez, for, indeed, during the whole of their travels, they expected, every moment, to be tracked out, and all suddenly butchered. They now held a consultation, and it was decided to despatch three of their most plausible men, as ambassadors, to implore the compassion and hospitality of the July inhabitants. With palpitating hearts, these men rode on, leaving their companions behind to await the issue. As they rode up to the square, the squaws were hoeing their green corn, and the warriors reposed by the sides of their cabins. The reader has often seen the fierce mastiff, as he slumbered in the yard, or the tiger of a menagerie as he dozed in his cage arouse out of his sleep, erect his ears, move his tail, and throw his fiery eyes upon strangers as they entered. He can then imagine the sudden and fierce looks which the lusty warriors bestowed upon these haggard, way-worn and miserable men. Colonel McGillivray, unfortunately, was from home, for this place was one of his residences. The Indians scanned their saddles closely, and, as they were like those of the Georgians, they believed they were whigs. In vain they asserted they were royalists, and good friends of the Creeks. About seventy of the savages formed a circle around them. In vain did they allege the defenceless state of themselves, their company behind, with their wretched women and children, their destitution of provisions, and the frank and friendly manner in which they had entered their town. The expedition appeared to be mysterious, the motives which led to it inexplicable, and the unfortunate saddles, upon which they rode, contradictory to all their professions. A vehement July debate began among the Indians, of which only a few ill-boding words were understood, such as Virginians! long knives! no good! from all appearances, the fate of the wanderers was sealed. Instantly every warrior seized his knife, every face became distorted with wrath, every eye lighted up with fierce and gloomy vengeance.

July 1781: Colonel McGillivray had a body servant. He was a smart black fellow, named Paro, who understood the English language as well as he did the Indian tongue. He had been off on a journey, and, at this moment, rode up among the excited throng. He demanded the cause of the tumult. They replied that these strangers were Georgians, were bad men, no friends to them or to their father, the King of Great Britain, and ought to be putto death. The ambassadors now appealed to the negro, and gave him an account of the nature of their journey. He expressed himself fully satisfied, and endeavored to disabuse the minds of the savages. But they remained inflexible, when Paro called them fools and madmen. On account of their fear of McGillivray, they did not resent his offensive language, but assured him that the death of the strangers, and their friends behind, was resolved upon. A warrior, more moderate than the rest, said to the white men, "IF YOU TELL THE TRUTH, MAKE THE PAPER TALK." The ingenious Paro caught the idea, and asked the men if they had not kept a journal of their travels. They replied, No! He then asked if they had any paper about them, with writing on it, and said anything would do. One of them found an old letter in his pocket, which, according to the directions of Paro, he pretended to read, slowly and solemnly, giving a complete history of their flight from Natchez, and the cause of it. Paro, all the time, interpreted it to the Indians, with great animation. As the recital went on, their countenances gradually softened, and, before it was finished, the gloom gave way to a smile, and the ferocity was succeeded by friendship. The whole body put up their knives, and coming, one by one, to the ambassadors, shook them cordially by the hand, and welcomed them to the town. They presently brought in the whole caravan, lodged them in their houses, fed them at their tables, and "poured oil upon their wounds."

Aug. 1781: When this party of royalists had sufficiently recruited, they proceeded on their route, crossed the Tallapoosa, Chattahoochie and Flint, and then divided their company, and separated. One of the parties shaped their course down towards East Florida, and finally reached Savannah in safety. The other party were taken prisoners by the whigs, but shortly afterwards were released. Strange to say, not one died, or was killed, upon the whole route from Natchez, which was accomplished in one hundred and forty-nine days.

Several of the Lymans, called the "unhappy family," were in this singular expedition. Two of the daughters of the late General Lyman died after reaching Savannah. Three of his sons were also in company. When the British evacuated Georgia, one of them went to New York, another to Nova Scotia, and the third to Providence. They all died with broken hearts. Few have been born to higher hopes; few have begun life with a fairer promise of prosperity than their honorable father, and, for a time, no American possessed a more extensive reputation. *

* Travels in New York and New England, by Theodore Dwight, S.T.D., LL.D., late President of Yale College, vol. 1, pp. 306-316. Memoirs and Adventures of Phelps, Appendix, pp. 2-17. I also held conversations with several old Indian traders, of the Creek nation, two of whom, when youths, were at the Hickory Ground when these retreating royalists arrived there.

1781: Colonel Hutchens, with one of his friends, also fled from Fort Panmure to the swamps. Receiving information that the Indians were in pursuit of him, he set off, with twenty men, upon horses, intending to overtake the larger party, whose peregrinations we have just described. They left their families and most valuable effects. Hutchens abandoned an excellent plantation, with twenty workers upon it, an immense body of land, and seventeen hundred head of cattle. The Spaniards confiscated the whole of it, except a bare support for his wife. On the second night of their flight, the Choctaws overtook them, and killed all of them but Hutchens and one other man, who fled towards Georgia and arrived there naked, sunburnt, starved, and worn down with fatigue. John Alston, and another small party, escaping to the Creek nation, were there arrested by the Indians, carried to Mobile, and from thence to New Orleans, where, after being tried for rebellion, they were condemned to die. But the governor pardoned them. During the fall of 1781 the property of all these unfortunate people was confiscated. *

* Phelps' Memoirs, Appendix, pp. 17-19.

In the meantime, the wild region upon the Cumberland river was explored, and some temporary establishments formed at the bluff, on which is now situated the city of Nashville. Captain James Robertson was the hero of these bold adventures, and had several times, with a small party of 1779 men, cut his way from extreme East Tennessee to that country, passing over the lofty Cumberland mountains and through dangerous Indian settlements. Returning to the Holston, after having made several of these trips, he raised a large company of emigrants, and built boats at Long Island. When they were nearly ready to be launched, he placed himself at the head of a horse party, and set out over the mountains for the Cumberland, intending to leave signs upon the trees at the head of the Muscle Shoals, after going from Nashville to that place. These signs he intended for the purpose of letting the voyagers know whether it would be practicable for them to disembark at the Muscle Shoals and go to the Cumberland by land.

Dec. 22 1779: A large number of flat boats, filled with emigrants and their effects, began the voyage from Long Island, upon the Holston. Those recollected will be mentioned, for the gratification of descendants. The large Donaldson family, who, after reaching the Cumberland, settled upon Stone's river, and became connected by affinity with General Andrew Jackson, all embarked on this occasion. Among the others were Robert Cartwright, Benjamin Porter, Mary Henry, Mary Purnell, James Cain, Isaac Neely, John Cotton, --- Rounsever, Jonathan Jennings, William Cutchfield, Moses, Joseph and James Renfroe, Solomon Turpin, --- Johns, Francis Armstrong, Isaac Lanier, Daniel Dunham, John Boyd, John Montgomery, John Cockrill, Mrs. Robertson, the wife of Captain Robertson, John Blackman and John Gibson. These persons had families with them, besides slaves.

In consequence of great difficulty in descending the Holston and many unavoidable delays, the rude fleet did not reach the month of the French Broad until March 2. 1780. It was then the habit to tie up at sunset, encamp upon the banks and around large fires, and to make the wild forests resound with noise and merry peals of laughter. All were now happy and filled with the most pleasing excitement. But when they approached the Cherokee towns below they observed great caution. When near Nickajack they were fired upon from both banks of the river by the savages, but keeping in the middle received no material injury. However, unfortunately, a boat belonging to Stewart, containing his family and negroes, amounting to twenty-eight souls, who had been compelled to keep behind a few miles on account of the small pox which they had taken, were all killed by the Indians, while their companions in advance could afford them no assistance. In passing the celebrated "Suck" the boats were again fired upon, when several of the voyagers were severely wounded. In the midst of the dismay and confusion a young woman, named Nancy Glover, seized the oar of her father's boat and steered it safely through the narrows, exposed to all the firing, and receiving a severe wound, of which she never complained. When the terrified voyagers had passed this place they entered a wide and smooth sheet of water, and were out of danger. But just at the termination of the narrows the boat of Jonathan Jennings was stove upon a large rock. The voyagers were forced to leave these unhappy people. The Indians coming upon them, all the effects were thrown out of the boat in great haste, and it was shoved off with Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Peyton in it, who singularly made their escape. The Indians captured Jennings, his son, a negro, and a young man with them, and carried them to Chickamauga, where they soon burned the latter to death by a slow fire. They knocked Jennings down with a club, but his life was spared by Rodgers, a trader, who ransomed him. After being again attacked near the head of the Muscle Shoals, they finally reached those cataracts, where a consultation was held. Being unable, upon a diligent search, to find the signals of Captain Robertson on the north bank, they resolved to trust their boats to the angry waves below. Fortunately the swollen state of the river carried them safely over the extended shoals. Reaching the mouth of the Tennessee on the 20th of March, an affecting and painful separation took place--Colonel Donaldson and more than half the voyagers going up the Cumberland, and the remainder to Natchez and the Illinois.*

* Haywood's History of Tennessee, pp. 85-94. Mrs. Rachel Jackson, the wife of General Jackson, and the daughter of Colonel Donaldson, who was then but a little girl, was with this party.

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