In the early 1800s, the Upper Creek Indians (the Red Sticks) of present-day Georgia and Alabama were deeply troubled by the continuing encroachment of white settlers onto their lands. Tribal leaders counseled restraint and also urged neutrality in the developing rift between the United States and Britain. In 1811, however, the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh visited the southern tribes and urged formation of a confederation to end the diminishment of Indian lands and ways of life. He won many ardent supporters among the younger warriors.
When war erupted in 1812, a series of raids was launched against frontier farms and settlements, and losses were heavy. This regional sidelight to the War of 1812, known as the Creek War (1813-14) located in Attalla, reached crisis proportions in August 1813. Fort Mims, a small outpost north of Mobile, was overrun; warriors ignored pleas for restraint from their leader Red Eagle (also known as William Weatherford) and slaughtered more than 300 settlers and militia men.
Word of the "Fort Mims Massacre" was received by the ailing Andrew Jackson in Nashville. He was recuperating from a gunshot wound suffered in a brawl with Thomas Hart Benton. Jackson managed to raise a Tennessee militia force of more than 2,000 men and supplemented it with another 1,000 Lower Creek and Cherokee warriors. Beginning in the fall of 1813, Jackson's ill-trained force engaged the enemy in a series of indecisive battles. He stiffened the spines of his unreliable soldiers by executing several men who had panicked under fire. That action exerted an immediate salutary effect on the militia, but it would later be used by his critics in a number of political campaigns.
The campaign's conclusive battle was fought on March 27, 1814. It occurred near an Upper Creek village on a horseshoe-shaped bend in the Tallapoosa River near present-day Alexander City, Alabama. Jackson permitted the native women and children to cross the river to safety before he attacked. Then his men nearly wiped out the enemy force. Jackson wrote later that the carnage was "dreadful." The Upper Creek lost more than 550 killed, while Jackson's combined forces lost only 49.
The Battle of Horseshoe Bend was significant in several ways:
- The power of the Upper Creek was broken and the brief Creek War came to a close. The tribe was forced to relinquish more than 23 million acres of their homeland and move farther west. Unfortunately for them, their suffering was not over; they would be pushed into the present western areas of Arkansas and Tennessee, and finally in the 1830s to Oklahoma, a land that held no appeal for their starkly diminished numbers.
- Extremely rich lands taken from the tribes in Georgia and Alabama were quickly opened to white settlers. The area rapidly became a prime source of cotton, the engine of the Southern economy, and helped to revive the flagging institution of slavery.
Jackson's reputation began to take on legendary status during the Creek War. When his militia unit was disbanded, he received a commission as a major-general in the U.S. Army. Without authorization, he led his forces across the international boundary into Florida and seized a Spanish fort at Pensacola (November 1814). His superiors were infuriated, but the frontiersmen roared their approval. Soon thereafter, Jackson achieved national fame in a heralded victory over the British at New Orleans (January 1815).
See also Indian Wars.