Chapter 26: The First Yazoo Sale -- Bowles, the Freebooter

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



Dec. 1789: Georgia claimed, under a charter of Charles II., all the territory, from the Savannah to the Mississippi river, lying between 31° and 35°. She had, as early as February, 1785, established by legislative enactment, the county of Bourbon, embracing the settlements along the Mississippi, above and below Natchez; but the occupation of this country by the Spanish government prevented its occupation and settlement.

Governor Telfair approved an act of the General Assembly, at Savannah, which authorized a conditional sale of the larger portion of this wild domain, for the purpose of peopling it, and enriching the treasury of the State. For a little upwards of sixty thousand dollars, five millions of acres, now embracing the territory of the middle counties of Mississippi, were sold to a "South Carolina Yazoo Company."

Seven millions of acres now embracing the territory of the northern counties of Mississippi, were sold to the " Virginia Yazoo Company," for a little over ninety-three thousand dollars.

Three million, five hundred thousand acres, now embracing the territory of the northern counties of Alabama, were sold for something over forty-six thousand dollars to the "Tennessee Company."

Dec. 1789: Spain claimed much of this territory, by conquests made towards the close of the revolutionary war, as we have already seen, and that power and the United States were now negotiating to settle the boundaries; but Georgia took the matter into her own hands, as she has ever done with whatever concerned her, and as she always will do, as long as her soil is inhabited by its present enterprising, brave and restless population.

Aug 25 1790: Washington, becoming alarmed at the collision which he supposed would take place between the Federal Government, Georgia, Spain and the Indians, in consequence of this extraordinary sale of territory, issued a proclamation against the whole enterprise. But the "Tennessee Company" heeded him not. Its head and front, Zachariah Coxe, with a number of his friends, floated down on flatboats from EastTennessee to the Muscle Shoals. Here, upon an island, they built a block-house, and other works of defence, intending to sell out much of the best lands, north and south of the river. But the Cherokees, under the Chief, Class, probably set forward by Governor Blount, of Tennessee, who was the active agent of Washington, advanced upon this establishment, drove Coxe and his adherents out of the block-house, and consumed it by fire. Other efforts were afterwards made to colonize this region; but were defeated by the opposition of the Chickasaws, the Cherokees and the Federal Government. *

* Haywood's History of Tennessee, pp. 249-256. Indian Affairs, vol. I, p. 116.

The "South Carolina Yazoo Company" also attempted to colonize their lands, and for that purpose constituted Dr. James O'Fallan their agent-general, who went to Kentucky, raised troops, and issued commissions, in an illegal manner, with the design of taking the Natchez country from the Spaniards, and peopling the territory. At the same time, Edmond Phelan, the sub-agent of the companmy, was piloted through the Creek and Choctaw country to Natchez by an old Indian countryman, named Thomas Basket, who was to have been their interpreter. But Washington caused O'Fallan to be arrested, and ordered General St. Clair to put down, by military force, all attempts to colonize the Natchez country, against which the Spanish Minister had vehemently remonstrated. Great excitement existed; Washington was much embarassed and much abused.

The "Virginia Yazoo Company" made no attempts to settle the lands which they had purchased.

These companies all failed to meet the payments due Georgia for these lands, and that State, by subsequent enactments, rescinded the whole bargain, having in the meantime withheld grants from the purchasers, which was a condition opf sale, until the debt was fully discharged. A great deal of recrimination and abuse passed between the authorities of Georgia and these companies, and the people who had innocently suffered in fitting out private enterprises to settle the new region. So ended the first Yazoo sale by the legislature of Georgia. An account of another, and a more important and extensive one, will hereafter be introduced.*

* Indian Affairs, vol. I, pp. 116-117. Public Lands, vol. I, pp. 120-121-163.

May 1791: A Quaker of Pennsylvania, named Andrew Ellicott, appointed by the Federal Government to run the line between the Creeks and Georgians, arrived at Rock Landing, upon the Oconee, in company with James Seagrove, an Irishman, who was appointed Superintendent of the Creek nation. At this place the government erected a strong fort, and threw into it a large garrison. McGillivray was constantly urged from this point, to cause the Indians to consent to the running of the boundary line, and to assist in its execution; but the Chieftain delayed, and threw all the blame upon the hostile efforts of an extraordinary man, who must now be introduced to the reader.

William Augustus Bowles, a native of Maryland, at the age of fourteen, entered the British army, as a foot soldier, and, after a year's service against his countrymen, sailed with a British regiment to Jamaica, in 1777, as an ensign, and from thence went to Pensacola. Here he was deprived of his rank, for insubordination. Disgusted with military discipline, and fond of a roving life, he contemptuously flung his uniform into the sea, and left Pensacola in company with some Creeks. He lived upon the Tallapoosa for several years, and acquired the Muscogee language to great perfection. He visited the Lower Towns, and there married the daughter of a Chief. His elegant and commanding form, fine address, beautiful countenance of varied expressions, his exalted genius, daring and intrepidity, all connected with a mind wholly debased and unprincipled, eminently fitted him to sway the bad Indians and worse traders among whom he lived.

Bowles led a party of Creeks to Pensacola, in 1781, and assisted General Campbell to defend that place from the attacks of Don Galvez. He went to New York, joined a company of comedians, and sailed to New Providence, of the Bahamas. Here he alternately acted upon the stage, and painted portraits, for which he had taste and genius. Lord Dunmore was then the Governor of the Bahamas. Panton, Leslie & Co., despatched to John Forbes, one of their associates, living at New Providence, a schooner, in which were six thousand piastres. Lord Dunmore seized upon this money, as contraband property. Panton instituted a complaint to the British Court, when the money was ordered to be returned. Dunmore ever afterwards hated Panton and his co-partners. He selected Bowles as an agent, to establish a commercial house upon the Chattahoochie, which would check the prosperous commerce of these merchants. Bowles shortly appeared among the Lower Creeks, and threw the weight of his influence against Panton, and against McGillivray and the Georgians, all of whom he despised. But Milfort was sent to the Chattahoochie, with an order for Bowles to leave the nation in twenty-four hours, on penalty of losing his ears. He fled to New Providence, and from thence was sent to England, by Dunmore, in company with a delegation of Creeks, Seminoles and Cherokees, to enlist the English government in the cause of these nations by repelling American aggression. The British Court treated him with kindness, and heaped upon him valuable presents. He soon returned to New Providence, and began a piratical war upon the coasting vessels of Panton, having taught his warriors to navigate the Gulf. He captured some of these vessels, laden with arms and ammunition, ran them up in bayous, where he and an abandoned set of white men from the prisons of London, together with hosts of savages, engaged in protracted debaucheries, and day and night made the woods echo with horrid oaths and panther screams. Panton's boxes of merchandise were torn open, distributed among the Indians, and carried to all parts of the nation. Such piratical successes soon gave him popularity in the Creek country.* He now boldly advanced to the heart of it, denouncing General McGillivray as a traitor to his people, and sought to overthrow him and place himself in power. He had many bad men of influence with the Indians, who endeavored to stir up rebellion. The most conspicuous of these were Willbanks, a native of New York and a refugee tory, and a half-breed Cherokee named Moses Price. His emissaries contended that neither the Americans nor Spaniards had any right to control the Indians, for that England had not ceded any of their country to either power, and that General McGillivray had endeavored to sell his people, first to Spain and next to the Federal Government. Indeed, at this period McGillivray, for the first time in his life, began to lose the confidence of many of the Chiefs and common Indians, who were indignant at the provisions of the New York treaty, which they openly disavowed. The Spanish authorities were angry with him, and Panton was deceived by him. Bowles even bearded him in his den. All this time the Federal Government was annoying him with urgent solicitations to comply with the treaty. Truly one might suppose that General McGillivray was an unhappy man, and was soon to fall from his high position. At length he departed for New Orleans, when Bowles and his emissaries exultingly declared that he had fled, never again to show his face upon the Coosa. He went frequently to New Orleans, Mobile and Pensacola during the winter, and was treated with great attention by the Spanish authorities, notwithstanding the treaty of New York. The secret one, of course they knew nothing of, nor did Panton. He professed to be sick of his trip to New York, and requested not to be given the title of General. Here he arranged for the capture of Bowles, and soon the freebooter was brought to New Orleans in chains, and from thence sent to Madrid, in Spain, where we must leave him for the present.

* Du Lac's Voyage dans les deaux Louisianes, in 1801, 1802, 1803, pp. 458-460. Milfort's Sejourn dans le nation Creck, pp. 116-124.

June 1792: It was not long before measures were adopted to expel the American inhabitants, principally traders, from the Creek nation. Governor Carondelet decreed that they were all to take the Spanish oath of allegiance, and "fight for the King from the head waters of the Alabama to the sea. "James Leonard, who had recently arrived at Tensaw, refusing to take the oath, was stripped of his property, and, while arrangements were making to send him to Moro Castle, in Havana, he made his escape to Rock Landing, upon the distant Oconee.

1792: McGillivray returned to the banks of the Coosa, still in power and authority. It was suspected that he had intrigued with the Spanish authorities. Not long afterwards, one Captain Don Pedro Oliver, who was a Frenchman, but wore the Spanish military uniform, made his appearance in the nation, and was stationed at the Hickory Ground, upon the Coosa. His pay was one hundred dollars a month, and he was accompanied by an interpreter named Antonio. These things looked very suspicious to the federal agents upon the Oconee. It was believed by many that General McGillivray did not openly act against the American government, but that he was doing it secretly, through Captain Oliver and others. It was certain that, upon the representations of Carondelet to the Court of Spain, respecting the treaty of New York, and the remonstrances of Panton to that power, in regard to its neglect of the Chieftain, his Catholic Majesty made McGillivray Superintendent General of the Creek nation, with an annual salary of two thousand dollars! In July, to this amount was added a salary of fifteen hundred dollars by the same power.* He was, at this time, the agent of Spain, with a salary of thirty-five hundred dollars; the agent of the United States, with a salary of twelve hundred dollars; the co-partner of Panton, and the Emperor of the Creek and Seminole nations. He was almost unrivalled in intrigue, and we doubt if Alabama has ever produced, or ever will produce, a man of greater ability.** We wish we could defend his conduct with a clear conscience, but we cannot. It was eminent for treachery, intrigue and selfish aggrandizement. However he may have been wronged by the Americans, he ought to have acted in good faith with them, after he had made the treaty with Washington. But McGillivray was like many ambitious and unscrupulous Americans of our day, who view politics as a trade. But, notwithstanding he displayed eminent selfishness in his relation towards these rival powers, he was generous to the distressed, whom he always sheltered and fed, and protected from the brutalities of his red brethren. He had many noble traits, and not the least of which was his unbounded hospitality to friends and foes.

* Papers filed in the District Court of Louisiana
I have only introduced a few of McGillivray's letters, to show the order of his mind. The American State Papers contain many of his ablest letters, addressed to Congress and to the Secretary of War.

During the summer and fall of 1792, General McGillivray secretly caused large meetings to be held over the Creek and Cherokee nations, at which he appeared to be only a visitor, while Panton and Captain Oliver, in speeches, forbid the running of the line between them and the Georgians, in the name of the King of Spain, and decreed that no American trader should enter the nation. Governor Carondelet was also active in endeavoring to defeat the provisions of the New York treaty. He sent to the Creek nation a large body of bloody Shawnees, armed and equipped, who took up their abode at Souvanoga, upon the Tallapoosa. McGillivray moved his negroes to Little river, gave up his house to Captain Oliver, whom he had so well established in the affections of his people, and was gone a long time to New Orleans and Pensacola. The Spaniards not only had in view the prevention of the advancement of the Americans on the east, but determined to oppose the settlements upon the Mississippi, to effect all of which they attempted to unite the four nations of Indians on their side. They strengthened all their forts, and authorized Captain John Linder, of Tensaw, and other active partisans, to raise volunteers. Carondelet gave Richard Finnelson and Joseph Durque passports to go through the Spanish posts to the Cherokee nation as emissaries to incite those Indians to make war upon the Cumberland people. John Watts, a half-breed of Willstown, was also an active agent. There was, suddenly, great excitement produced over the whole Indian country. One Chief declared at Willstown * that he had taken the lives of three hundred Americans, but that now he intended to "drink his fill of blood. " The Cumberland people fell victims on all sides, while the settlers upon the frontiers of Georgia shared the same fate. During all this time McGillivray and the Federal authorities at Rock Landing were engaged in fruitless correspondence--the former professing his willingness to carry out the provisions of the New York treaty, but never doing it. Everything conspired to defeat the hopes of Washington. Even Captain Oliver had become intimate with Willbanks and the rest of the adherents of Bowles, and used them against the American interests. McGillivray also carried on a correspondence with the Secretary of War, in which he displayed his usual powers of diplomacy.**

* Willstown, named for a half-breed Chief called Red Head Will, whose father was a British officer, was an important Cherokee village. The grave of Red Head Will is within two hundred yards of the residence of Jesse G. Beeson, who owns the entire site of Willstown, situated in Little Will's Valley, DeKalb county, Alabama.
** Indian Affairs, vol. 1, pp. 305-315-288-290-432.

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