On this day in history, March 27, 1814, the Upper Creek Indians suffered a decisive loss at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, or Tohopeka to the Creek Indians. This is probably not a battle you learned about in school but it was immensely significant. It represented the single largest loss of Indian life in any single engagement with U.S. forces, some 800 dead. The battle effectively created the state of Alabama through the Treaty of Fort Jackson. In that treaty, the Creek were “forced to cede 23 million acres … —half of central Alabama and part of southern Georgia,” according to Wikipedia. The battle also propelled Andrew Jackson into national prominence, and the spotlight followed him all the way to the White House.
A description by the National Park Services said the Battle of Horseshoe Bend could best be described as a slaughter. Forces led by Andrew Jackson of the Tennessee militia outnumbered the Creek fighters by about three to one. Jackson’s forces also had the advantage of two small cannons and Native American allies.
Some quick background: The Upper Creek, also known as the Red Sticks, had been fighting to stop the western expansion of white settlers onto their lands and to protect their traditional ways. The Lower Creek, or White Sticks, had sought a peaceful solution to conflicts with settlers and the U.S. government. These kinds of divisions were common within tribes when members faced the strong colonial force.
The fighting at issue took place during the War of 1812, and the British had a self interest in supporting the Red Sticks in their battle with U.S. forces.
There were two notable battles leading up to Horseshoe Bend: the Battle of Burnt Corn and the “Massacre” at Fort Mims. In the Battle of Burnt Corn, the Americans ambushed the Red Sticks on a return trip from Florida where they had secured arms from the British. The Red Sticks attacked Fort Mims in retaliation. Some settlers had gone to the fort for protection. Death estimates vary. Sources estimate approximately 100 Red Sticks died in the attack (Wikiepedia) and 250 defenders died (Encyclopedia of Alabama). The Red Sticks also took a number of prisoners. The attack created panic on the frontier and increased public pressure on the government to step up the fighting.
Jackson had 2,600 troops with him approaching Horseshoe Benn, “most of whom hoped that a victory would open native land to European American settlement,” according to a National Park Service account. In addition, Jackson had 600 “friendly” Indian fighters, both Cherokee and White Sticks. The Red Sticks had approximately 1,000 fighters, and 350 women and children.
When the fighting was done, roughly 800 Red Stick fighters were dead, or 80 percent of the men. On the government side, roughly 60 troops and friendly Indian fighters died. An additional 154 troops were wounded, some mortally.
It is significant to point out that in the white telling of this history, the attack of Fort Mims is typically referred to as a massacre while the Battle of Horseshoe Bend is not. However, the casualties were far more lopsided at Horseshoe Bend.
Further, after the fighting ended at Horseshoe Bend, the military committed atrocities. According to Wikipedia:
After the battle, Jackson’s troops made bridle reins from skin taken from Indian corpses, conducted a body count by cutting off the tips of their noses, and sent their clothing as souvenirs to the “ladies of Tennessee.”
This battle did not end the fighting, but it was the decisive loss. According to the National Park Service:
After Horseshoe Bend, the European American population of Georgia and Alabama continued to skyrocket. In the latter state [Alabama], for example, the non Indian population rose from 9,000 in 1810 to 310,000 in 1830.
Alabama became a state in 1819, five years after the Battle of Horseshoe bend.
In 1909 the state of Alabama asked the U.S. Senate to create a military park and memorial on the site of the Horseshoe Bend Battlefield. In a letter, the Memorial Commission goes over the top in its description of the battle, saying it was “not only among the great engagements of modern warfare, but also among the epoch-making events in world history.”
As a Post Script, the Native allies did not fare well fort their support of the U.S. troops. In the Treaty of Fort Jackson, the White Sticks lost their land just like the Red Sticks, according to Wikipedia.
The website for the Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee notes that the “Cherokee homefront” supplied American troops throughout the war. As for the Battle of Horseshoe Bend: “it can probably be said it was as much a Cherokee victory as an American one … The loss of the Cherokee was out of all proportion to their numbers, their fighting having been hand-to-hand work without protecting cover.”
However, when the Cherokee returned home from the fighting, they found their homes “ravaged in their absence by disorderly white troops,” the website said. (Two years later, the U.S. government would reimburse them for the damages.)
As for Jackson, he would go on to become the Cherokee’s greatest enemy. As President, he passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led to the forced removal of the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears.