The tragic fate of the Cherokee tribe is well documented. What is less widely known, and probably less researched, is the fairly rapid destruction of the Creeks—a nation whose territory included most of what is today Alabama and southern Georgia—and the role played by Andrew Jackson in their demise. In a style more readable than that of most historical works, Old Hickory’s War tells a story of pride, intrigue, greed, and violence that attended the Creek War of 1813-14 and its aftermath, including Jackson’s invasion of Florida in 1818.
After the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812, American settlers headed into the old Southwest Territory frontier, where they often came into conflict with Indians. Following Jackson’s victory over the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend in March 1814, Old Hickory gained the cession of Creek land—22 million acres of potential prime farmland—with the Treaty of Fort Jackson.
The Creek Indian agent, Benjamin Hawkins, played a key role in the treaty-making, which he thought would be an aid to his program of acculturation of the Creeks to white civilization. He genuinely desired to help the Indians he eared for, but the result proved a disaster for the friendly Allied Creeks, while the hostile Red Stick Creeks, most of whom had fled to Seminole territory, went unscathed. As it is generally conceded that Jackson hated all Indians, there is no surprise in his unconcern for the injury done to the Allied Creeks. The driving force behind the treaty was the insatiable American desire for land; what befell the Indians was irrelevant.
Jackson was pleased with the Creek Cession (he immediately appropriated some of the best land for himself) but his imperial eye was on an even more valuable prize: Spanish Florida. Spain’s power in Florida had been on the wane for decades, and with revolutions in South America occupying the mother country’s attention, military resources were in short supply in both East and West Florida. Furthermore, runaway black slaves, British adventurers, pirates, and Indians (mainly Red Stick Creeks and Seminoles) hostile toward Americans found an ideal refuge in Florida. This situation gave Jackson the excuse he needed to invade Florida on his own initiative, without official approval from Washington.
The tale of intrigue involving the invasion is complex, too serpentine to cover in a short review: the principals include the pusillanimous administration of President James Monroe, who balked at making important decisions; an overly principled Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun; Henry Clay, who denounced Jackson on the floor of the House; and the iron-willed Jackson himself. Jackson’s contempt for civilian control of the military is a key aspect of this story, and so is the diplomatic pressure that Secretary of State John Quincy Adams brought to bear on the Governor of Florida, Don Luis de Onis, after Jackson’s technically illegal invasion of his territory. The political plots and counterplots are reminiscent of the workings of a modern-day college English department, while the intricacy of the machinations involved makes this history read at times like a mystery novel.
Old Hickory’s War is meticulously researched and well documented; there are 51 pages of endnotes, a 14-page bibliography, and a detailed but flawed index (curiously, no entries exist for either Creeks or the Creek War). Two helpful maps are supplied, but they omit significant place names mentioned in the book (for example, some of the forts and an area called Prospect Bluff). These minor blemishes aside. Old Hickory’s War is a fascinating work, helping to put in historical perspective the American empire of the 1990’s.
[Old Hickory’s War: Andrew Jackson and the Quest for Empire, by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler (Mechanicshurg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books; 320 pp., $24.95]
Leave a Reply