A Brief Overview of the Creek Indians

The designation “Creek” is a European concept which emerged during the eighteenth century to designate the Indian people who were living along the creeks and rivers in Alabama, Georgia, and northern Florida. While these people have a cultural continuity which reaches back to the mound building cultures of this area, the concept of a Creek “Nation” or “Confederacy” is something which did not emerge until after the European invasion. In reality, the Creek were several autonomous groups.

Archaeologist Cameron Wesson, in his chapter in Between Contacts and Colonies: Archaeological Perspectives on the Protohistoric Southeast, reports that during the time period of the first European contact, the Creek

“were a confederacy that encompassed several distinct ethnic groups, including elements of the Alabama, Apalachee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Hitchiti, Koasati, Natchez, Shawnee, Tunic, Yamasee, and Yuchi.”

According to historian Colin Calloway, in his book The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities:

“The Creek confederacy was a voluntary association of towns or, in Muskogee, italwa, bound together by custom and mutual interest and not by centralized coercion.”

Creek towns did not have physical boundaries in the manner of European towns: the towns were a group of people who were associated with a particular political or ceremonial center. The concept of town when applied to the Creek was perhaps closer to the European concept of tribe. Each town was autonomous and had its own ceremonial fire.

In addition, the Creek villages were characterized by two distinct and mutually unintelligible languages: Muskogee and Hitchiti. In addition, there were Creek towns in which the dominant language was Shawnee, Koasati, Alabama, or Yuchi.

The Yuchi joined the Creek confederacy in the early eighteenth century. In his biography The World’s Richest Indian: The Scandal Over Jackson Barnett’s Oil Fortune, historian Tanis Thorne reports:

“Within the Creek confederacy, the Yuchi maintained their distinct language, customs of patrilineal descent, and other cultural traditions in their own politically autonomous communities.”

The Creek confederacy is generally divided into two large geopolitical divisions: the Lower Creek towns along the Flint and Chatahoochee rivers and the Upper Creek towns along the Coosa and Tallapoosa branches of the Alabama River.

The “foreign” tribes which were incorporated into the Creek Confederacy included: Okchai, Osochee, Pakana, Tomahitan, Tukabahchee, and Wetumpka.

Migrations

The Creek (Musgokee) oral tradition speaks of their origin as being far to the west.  According to the oral tradition, there was a long migration which brought them across the Mississippi River and into the areas which are today known as Georgia and Alabama. While settled here, they also ranged into Tennessee, South Carolina, and Florida. After the American government forced removal on them, they re-established themselves outside of the Southeast in what is now Oklahoma.

Archaeologist Charles Jones, writing in his 1873 book Antiquities of the Southern Indians, Particularly of the Georgia Tribes. reports:

“When questioned as to their origin, the Muscogees responded that the prevailing tradition among them was, that their progenitors had issued out of a cave near the Alabama River.”

William Weatherford, Red Stick Leader

The designation “Creek” is a European concept which emerged during the eighteenth century to designate the Indian people who were living along the creeks and rivers in Alabama, Georgia, and northern Florida. While these people have a cultural continuity which reaches back to the mound building cultures of this area, the concept of a Creek “Nation” or “Confederacy” is something which did not emerge until after the European invasion. In reality, the Creek were several autonomous groups. The aboriginal homeland of the Kosatis had been in the Tennessee River Valley, but in the late seventeenth century, they fled their homeland and joined the Creek confederacy in Alabama to gain protection against Indian slavers.

The Kosatis, like other Indian nations in the Southeast were matrilineal. This meant that each person was born into the mother’s clan. Thus in 1781 (some sources list 1780), William Weatherford, also known as Red Eagle, was born into the Creek Wind Clan. His mother was Sehoy III, the half-sister to Creek leader Alexander McGillivray. His father was Charles Weatherford, a trader who is described as being “of partial Indian descent.”  When the Creek National Council voted in 1798 to expel traders, Charles Weatherford was exempt due to the influence of the Wind Clan. However, by 1799 he had left his family.

Divorce was common among the Creeks and since clan relationships were more important than those of the nuclear family, it was rarely traumatic to children. Sehoy was a successful and wealthy businesswoman who owned about 30 slaves. With regard to her son, Christina Snyder, in her book Slavery in Indian Country, writes:  “William excelled at the Creek masculine arts of hunting and stickball, and his reputation as an eloquent speaker may have been what prompted his contemporaries to dub him ‘Truth Teller.’”

In 1813 a civil war broke out within the Creek Confederacy. There were two factions among the Creeks: the Red Sticks (called this because their war clubs were painted red), led by Peter McQueen and William Weatherford, who wanted war with the Americans, and the White Sticks, led by Big Warrior, who wanted peace.

A number of Creek spiritual leaders, influenced by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his brother The Prophet, preached a nativistic doctrine. These leaders include Hilis Hadjo (Josiah Francis), Cusseta Tustunnuggee (High-Head Jim), and Paddy Walsh. These prophets sought to restore a time when the produce of a woman’s farm and the meat from a man’s hunt sustained every Creek household. Christina Snyder writes:  “Despite his upbringing, William likely believed, as other Red Sticks did, that the Creek Nation’s turn toward plantation agriculture, political centralization, and racial slavery was misguided.”

William Weatherford (Red Eagle) and his warriors attacked Fort Mims on the Alabama River. Weatherford’s force has been estimated at 1,000 warriors. Here the Red Sticks killed about 400 non-Indians (some sources indicate that they killed as many as 500) and freed the slaves. Consequently, many runaway black slaves joined the Red Sticks. However, many Creek warriors were killed and wounded in the battle. The Creek prophet Paddy Walsh was blamed, for he had failed to make the warriors invincible as he had promised.

At the Battle of the Holy Ground, American troops attacked the Red Stick village of Econochaca on the Alabama River. Pursued by the Americans, Weatherford, riding his grey horse Arrow, charged off a high bluff and landed safely in the river some 20 feet below.

In response to the attack on Fort Mims, Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi raised armies to invade Creek territory. In 1814, at the battle of Horseshoe Bend, General Andrew Jackson’s troops (which included Cherokee as well as his Tennesseans) defeated the Creek Red Sticks, killing 800 Creek warriors. As a result of this defeat, the Creek were forced to sign a treaty in which both the peaceful White Sticks and the militant Red Sticks gave up 23 million acres of land. While White Stick leader Big Warrior had fought with the Americans, Jackson threatened him with handcuffs unless he signed the treaty. While the friendly Creek were told that the United States would remember their fidelity, within a few months the Americans no longer made any distinction between the “friendly” Creek and the Red Sticks.

William Weatherford (Red Eagle) had not been at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. General Jackson hunted for Weatherford for weeks in vain, but was unable to find him. Later, in Jackson’s own camp, surrounded by armed soldiers who had vowed to capture William Weatherford and put him in chains, General Jackson was approached by a tall Indian who simply said in fluent English: “I am Bill Weatherford.” There was no accurate recording of the General’s surprised response. Weatherford seemed to have simply materialized in the midst of an enemy camp. He had somehow walked past the supposedly alert sentries, through the throngs of soldiers, and appeared at the General’s side.

The two men, accompanied by General Jackson’s aide who recorded the conversation, went in the General’s tent. Weatherford told General Jackson:  “I can oppose you no longer. I have done you much injury. I should have done you more…my warriors are killed…I am in your power. Dispose of me as you please.”  General Jackson replied:  “You are not in my power. I had ordered you brought to me in chains….But you have come of your own accord.”

The two men then shared a glass of brandy. General Jackson promised to help the Creek women and children and Weatherford promised to try to preserve the peace. Weatherford then left the tent, walked by the soldiers, and disappeared into the brush.

Following the Red Stick War, William Weatherford, with the help of his Wind Clan relatives, established a large plantation in southern Alabama and assumed the lifestyle of a wealthy planter. During this time, he would often stop to eat at a wayside tavern run by Mrs. William Boyles. One evening four strangers entered the tavern and sat at Weatherford’s table. Not knowing who he was, the strangers began talking about wanting to find that “bloody savage, Billy Weatherford.” They were probably more than a little surprised when the man at their table said:  “Some of you gentlemen expressed a wish while at dinner to meet Billy Weatherford. Gentlemen, I am Billy Weatherford, at your service!”  One of the strangers timidly shook his hand while the others simply looked frightened.

William Weatherford died in 1824. Christina Synder writes:  “William Weatherford was a planter and slaveholder, and by right of matrilineal descent reckoning, he was also unequivocally a Creek Indian who hunted, warred, and traded as his ancestors had for centuries. Without contradiction, he lived as both warrior Truth Teller and gentlemen planter Billy Weatherford.”

 

The Mysterious William Weatherford, Creek War Leader

In 1813 a civil war broke out within the Creek Confederacy. There were two factions among the Creeks: the Red Sticks (called this because their war clubs were painted red), led by Peter McQueen and William Weatherford, who wanted war with the Americans, and the White Sticks, led by Big Warrior, who wanted peace.  

A number of Creek spiritual leaders, influenced by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his brother The Prophet, preached a nativistic doctrine. These leaders include Hilis Hadjo (Josiah Francis), Cusseta Tustunnuggee (High-Head Jim), and Paddy Walsh. These prophets sought to restore a time when the produce of a woman’s farm and the meat from a man’s hunt sustained every Creek household.

William Weatherford (Red Eagle) and his warriors attacked Fort Mims on the Alabama River. Here the Red Sticks killed about 400 settlers and freed the slaves. Consequently, many runaway black slaves joined the Red Sticks. However, many Creek warriors were killed and wounded in the battle. The Creek prophet Paddy Walsh was blamed, for he had failed to make the warriors invincible as he had promised.

In response to the attack on Fort Mims, Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi raised armies to invade Creek territory. In 1814, at the battle of Horseshoe Bend, General Andrew Jackson’s troops (which included Cherokee as well as his Tennesseans) defeated the Creek Red Sticks, killing 800 Creek warriors. As a result of this defeat, the Creek were forced to sign a treaty in which both the peaceful White Sticks and the militant Red Sticks gave up 23 million acres of land. While White Stick leader Big Warrior had fought with the Americans, Jackson threatened him with handcuffs unless he signed the treaty. While the friendly Creek were told that the United States would remember their fidelity, within a few months the Americans no longer made any distinction between the “friendly” Creek and the Red Sticks.

William Weatherford (Red Eagle) had not been at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. General Jackson hunted for Weatherford for weeks in vain, but was unable to find him. Later, in Jackson’s own camp, surrounded by armed soldiers who had vowed to capture William Weatherford and put him in chains, General Jackson was approached by a tall Indian who simply said in fluent English: “I am Bill Weatherford.” There was no accurate recording of the General’s surprised response. Weatherford seemed to have simply materialized in the midst of an enemy camp. He had somehow walked past the supposedly alert sentries, through the throngs of soldiers, and appeared at the General’s side.

The two men, accompanied by General Jackson’s aide who recorded the conversation, went in the General’s tent. Weatherford told General Jackson:

“I can oppose you no longer. I have done you much injury. I should have done you more…my warriors are killed…I am in your power. Dispose of me as you please.”

General Jackson replied:

“You are not in my power. I had ordered you brought to me in chains….But you have come of your own accord.”

The two men then shared a glass of brandy. General Jackson promised to help the Creek women and children and Weatherford promised to try to preserve the peace. Weatherford then left the tent, walked by the soldiers, and disappeared into the brush. At that point William Weatherford disappears from the historic record.  

American Indian Women: Mary Musgrove

When European colonists first began arriving in North America they were often startled to find that American Indian women were not the property of their husbands. The Europeans were often shocked by the fact that American Indian women freely expressed their sexuality, that they took active leadership roles in their societies, and there were few limits and what they could do. In the subsequent centuries, American Indian women do not often appear in the standard histories. What follows is a short biography of a Creek woman who was both an entrepreneur and a leader.  

Among the Southeastern tribes, such as the Creek, tribal membership was traditionally determined by the mother. In a matrilineal culture, people belong to their mother’s clan. In Creek culture, blood relations were determined through the mother’s line and the father was not considered a blood relative, but rather a relative by marriage. Thus when European traders married into the Southeastern tribes, their children acquired tribal citizenship. When the English trader Edward Griffin married a prominent Creek woman, his daughter, born about 1700 and later known as Mary Musgrove, was considered to be Creek. Since her mother was a member of the Wind clan, Mary was also a member of the Wind clan.  Her Creek name was Coosaponakeesa.

Mary’s mother was related to the prominent Creek leaders Brims (she was his sister) and Chigelli. Later in life, using the European concept that leadership must be based on royalty, she would claim to have royal heritage.

Coosaponakeesa grew up in the Creek village of Coweta in present-day Georgia. While her first language was Creek, like many other Southeastern Indians of this time, she also learned English.

Since her father was a trader, Coosaponakeesa was able to observe and learn about the deerskin trade and about the differences between Indian and European colonial customs.

In 1710, following the death of her mother, her father took custody of her. Coosaponakeesa was taken to South Carolina to be baptized and educated in the principles of Christianity. After her father read her a story of a royal woman from the bible, she decided that she would be named Mary and she was therefore baptized with this name. She returned to Coweta in 1715.

In 1717, Coosaponakeesa, also known as Mary Griffin, married John Musgrove, the son of Captain John Musgrove, Sr. and a Creek woman. Captain Musgrove, a trader and planter, had been sent by the Governor of South Carolina to negotiate a treaty with the Creek Nation and had become friendly with the Creek leader Brims. Thus the marriage of Brims’ niece with Colonel Musgrove’s son was seen as a political alliance.  

Following her marriage she took the name Mary Musgrove. The couple set up a trading post near the Savannah River. Being fluent in both Creek and English, she worked with her husband as an interpreter. In addition, her kinship ties brought business into the trading post.

Mary had three sons with John Musgrove, none of which lived to adulthood.

In 1733, James Oglethorpe and a group of trustees were granted a charter by King George II to start a settlement colony in Georgia. Mary soon became Oglethorpe’s primary interpreter. The establishment of the new colony allowed the Musgroves the opportunity to expand their business enterprises. The English formally granted John Musgrove land at Yamacraw Bluff on the Savannah River, about four miles upstream from the new town of Savannah.

As the principal interpreter for James Oglethorpe, Mary was in a unique position to act as a cultural liaison between the English and the Southeastern tribes. She was instrumental in the peaceful founding of the colonial town of Savannah. She not only translated words, but she taught the English (primarily Oglethorpe) about Indian ways and how to get along with the Indians. From the English she received financial compensation for her work as well as some prestige as their primary interpreter. She continually used her position to foster peace between the English and the Creek leaders.  

Mary was also an important liaison between the English and other Southeastern tribes. In 1736, for example, she was Oglethorpe’s interpreter in a council which was held with both the Creek and the Chickasaw.

When John Musgrove died in 1735, Mary moved the trading post to Yamacraw Bluff. The trading post, known as the Cowpens, became one of the major centers for the deerskin trade between the English and the Indians.

Mary Musgrove remarried in 1737. Her new husband, another Englishman, was Jacob Matthews. Matthews had been an indentured servant to John Musgrove. He was several years her junior. The couple was married in a European-style wedding officiated by an Anglican minister. They established another trading post at Mount Venture on the Altamaha River. Jacob Matthews was not highly regarded by the English colonists who viewed him as a drunk and an opportunist.

In 1737, Creek leader Tomochichi transferred several tracts of land to Mary. She had requested the transfer to facilitate her livestock business. In Creek culture, women were allowed to have property separately from their husbands. The British, however, refused to acknowledge this internal transfer of Creek land. While the British utilized her services as a translator, they had difficulty acknowledging a woman’s right to own property. The British also decreed that the Creek Nation could only cede land to another nation, not to an individual.

In 1739, James Oglethorpe held a large council with the Creek in Georgia. As usual, Mary assisted him in the translations. As a result of the council, the Creek reaffirmed their land grants to Georgia and the Georgians promised to respect Creek boundaries and territories.

Jacob Matthews died in 1742. Two years later, Mary married the Reverend Thomas Bosomworth. While Mary was a successful trader with vast land and livestock holdings, the class-conscious English colonists felt that Bosomworth had married below his station. His status coupled with her cultural skills proved to be a powerful combination. Together they traveled to the Creek villages with messages from Oglethorpe and the English King. They brought back to the English leaders the messages from the various Creek leaders. They often hosted both Creek and American visitors in their home. In general they mediated between the Indians and the colonists.

Mary and Thomas set up a new trading post at the Forks (the confluence of the Ockmulgee and Oconee Rivers). Thomas brought six African slaves with him to the new post.

In 1743, Oglethorpe left Georgia and returned to London. He left Mary £100, an unfulfilled promise of £100 per year, and the diamond ring from his finger. While Oglethorpe had relied on Mary to keep the Creek leaders allied with English interest, the English leaders who followed him did not trust her, in part because she was a woman.

The Creek chief Malatchi granted Mary and her husband three islands: Ossabaw, Sapelo, and St. Catherines. Once again, the British refused to acknowledge these grants.

In 1745, Mary Musgrove Bosomworth petitioned the Georgia Trustees for recognition of Tomochichi’s cession of a tract of land to her. She also asked for back payment for the 12 years which she served the colony as an interpreter. The Trustees refused to recognize her land claim. With regard to her claim for back payment, they decreed that a debt owed by her husband must be paid before any settlement could be made.  

In 1747, Creek leader Malatchi acknowledged to the British colonial authorities the land claims of his cousin Mary Musgrove.

In spite of their dispute with Mary over land claims and back pay, the English colonial officials still needed her help. In 1747 they asked her to lead an expedition to ameliorate a dispute between the Creek and the English settlers in South Carolina and Georgia. The English officials, however, felt that they could not have a woman lead such an expedition and they instead appointed her brother-in-law as the official leader.  

In 1749, Mary and her husband decided to travel to England to directly petition for compensation for her services to the colonies. A rumor soon circulated through the Creek villages that she was going to England under duress. Some rumors claimed that she was going in chains. In response to the rumors, Creek leader Malatchi traveled to Savannah to check on his cousin. The British, ignorant of the role which women play in Creek culture, assumed that Malatchi wouldn’t travel so far just to check on the status of a woman. They thus ignored his arrival which was an insult to his position as a Creek leader.

With feelings rising on both sides, the Creek leaders were treated to a customary dinner. During the meal, Mary Musgrove announced that she was the “empress” or “queen” of the Lower Creek, and that she was a British ally rather than a subject. The British refused to accept this claim and Mary Musgrove and Malatchi left in anger.

Following the incident at Savannah, about 200 Creek under the leadership of Malatchi met with the British governor and presented to him a paper stating that Mary Musgrove was their queen. The British simply dismissed her as “an insignificant squaw.” She refused to leave the council and began shouting. After a confrontation with the Creek warriors, the enraged British had the colonial magistrates arrest her. Her husband, Thomas Bosomworth, publicly apologized for her and promised that there would be no future outbursts.

By 1752, Mary and Thomas went to Charles Town in South Carolina to find transportation to England so that they could plead their case in person before the Board of Trade. However, the governor of South Carolina delayed their departure by asking for their assistance in establishing peace between the Creek and the Cherokee.

They finally traveled to England in 1754 and were able to present Mary’s case directly to the Board of Trade. The Board of Trade referred the case to the Georgia courts.

In 1755, Mary Musgrove identified herself to the British colonial authorities as the head of the Creek Nation. She reminded the British that in Creek culture, inheritance is through the female line. Thus her “royalty” came from her mother who was the brother of the Creek mico Brims and the Creek war leader Chekilli. Her father was English.

The English finally settled Mary Musgrove’s claim for past services and recognition of land claims in 1759. The settlement was a fraction of that which was owed. In exchange for St. Catherines Island and £2,100, she relinquished her claim to the other islands.

Mary Musgrove died on St. Catherines Island in 1763. While she served the British as a translator, she received little compensation for these services. While the Creek acknowledged her as a “queen,” the British refused to recognize that a woman could have political power.