Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Andrew Jackson's 250th Birthday: His march through Jackson, Calhoun & Holmes Counties in Florida

Andrew Jackson as he appeared late in life.
(Matthew Brady photo, Courtesy Library of Congress)
Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States, would have turned 250 years old today. In the Florida county that bears his name, however, the anniversary will pass quietly.

Jackson County has no events planned to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Jackson's birth.

The only part of Florida to touch two other states - Alabama and Georgia - Jackson County was established just three years after Old Hickory made his only visit to the area. He came through in 1818 during the closing phase of the First Seminole War.

Florida was still a Spanish colony in 1818, but the borderlands had been the scene of open warfare since U.S. troops attacked the Creek Indian village of Fowltown in Decatur County, Georgia. The Battle of Fowltown was really two separate events that took place on November 21 and 23, 1817. The action was the first battle of the Seminole Wars.

Creek, Seminole and maroon (Black Seminole) warriors retaliated on November 30, 1817, by attacking a U.S. Army supply boat on the Apalachicola River at Chattahoochee, Florida. The first U.S. defeat of the Seminole Wars, the action is remembered today as the Scott Massacre of 1817 and ended with the deaths of around 34 men, 6 women and 4 children.

Outraged over the Scott attack but unconcerned over the U.S. raids on Fowltown, President James Monroe had Secretary of War John C. Calhoun order Major General Andrew Jackson to the frontier. Jackson was authorized to invade Spanish Florida to "punish" those responsible for the attack on Lt. Richard W. Scott's command.

The site of Fort Scott as it appears today.
The commander of all U.S. troops in the South, Jackson was at the zenith of his military career in 1818. He had defeated Red Stick Creek forces at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1814-1815. He reached Fort Scott at today's Lake Seminole on the evening of March 9, 1818, and assumed command of the troops there on the next morning.

The first phase of Jackson's Florida campaign saw him march into Spanish Florida and battle the Native American alliance at the Battles of Miccosukee, Econfina and Old Town while also capturing the Spanish fort of San Marcos de Apalache. He executed the Creek Indian leaders Josiah Francis and Homathlemico while also capturing and ordering the executions of two British subjects, Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert C. Ambrister.

The general was at Fort Gadsden, the fort he had built on the site of the earlier "Negro Fort" or Fort at Prospect Bluff, when he decided to march into West Florida. Reports had reached him that Creek refugees were being fed and supplied by the Spanish at Pensacola.

Click here to see a great first person interpretation of Andrew Jackson by Billy Bailey of Florida Caverns State Park.

Jackson left Fort Gadsden with an army of 1,092 men and two cannon and marched back up the Apalachicola River to what is now Torreya State Park. Boats had been prepositioned there by soldiers from Fort Scott and the general crossed his army over to Ocheesee Bluff in today's Calhoun County on May 9, 1818. The crossing of so many men was dangerous and took all day to complete.

The next morning, guided by the Creek chief John Blunt for whom present-day Blountstown is named, the army turned northwest and entered the county that now bears his name. The following is excerpted from my book, The History of Jackson County, Florida: The Early Years:
Jackson Blue Spring, where Gen. Jackson's army camped on
May 10, 1818 while marching through West Florida.

The army turned to the northwest on the morning of May 10th and crossed into Jackson County. Their route led them across the approximate site of Grand Ridge to Blue Spring where they camped for the night. Captain Hugh Young, Jackson’s topographer, called the spot “Big Spring,” a name that it held for a number of years. He described it as being “forty yards in diameter and of considerable depth with a rock bottom and a clean rapid current.” 

The soldiers in Jackson’s army marveled at the beauty and richness of the surrounding countryside. Young himself kept careful records of the quality of the lands through which they marched. 

The army continued forward on the morning of May 11, 1818. Crossing the hills between Blue Spring and the Chipola River, they reached the Natural Bridge of the Chipola River in today's Florida Caverns State Park by noon. It was here that a supposed incident involving Andrew Jackson took place. 
The Natural Bridge of the Chipola River is seen at left. The
sink into which the river descends to begin its underground
journey is at the center of the photo.

According to the oft-recited legend, Jackson’s army was moving forward in two columns. One column, led by the general himself and guided by John Blunt, crossed the river at the natural bridge. The second column, maching more to the north, was forced to halt and build rafts so the men and artillery could get across the river. Jackson’s column reached the planned rendezvous point west of the river and the general, known for his temper, supposedly became irate when the second column failed to appear on schedule.

When the bedraggled men of the flanking column finally trudged into camp, legend holds that Jackson berated their officers, demanding to know the reason for the delay. His temper soared even higher when they explained the reason for their lateness. The general had seen no river. The legend holds that it was not until John Blunt explained the phenomenon of the natural bridge that Old Hickory could be placated.

It is a fascinating little story and one of the few about Andrew Jackson that survive in the county today. Mrs. Janie Smith Rhyne, a Jackson County writer and historian of the 20th century, even memorialized the event in poem:

“About first candle-light he spied
His draggled cavalcade
Emerging from the northward swamp –
No sooner seen than sprayed

With oaths as hot as shrapnel shells.
They pled, ‘We built a raft
To cross the river;’ Jackson yapped
‘No river there, you’re daft!’

‘I crossed no stream.’ ‘Then come;’ they led
Him to Chipola’s bank.
He saw, and spat another oath;
Then all his mind seemed blank.” 

The "River Rise" where the Chipola River resurfaces after
flowing beneath the Natural Bridge. It is also part of Florida
Caverns State Park in Marianna, Florida.
There seems to be more legend than truth about the story. Captain Young, Jackson's topographer, did not record it in his journal. He wrote instead that the men were well aware that they were crossing a natural bridge and even offered his own opinion as to how it had been formed:

The Natural Bridge is in the center of a large swamp and appears to be a deposit of earth on a raft or some similar obstruction. The passage is narrow and the creek, with a rapid current, is visible both above and below. 

Young, of course, was mistaken about the formation of the bridge. It is really formed by the sudden disappearance of the Chipola River down a sink and into a series of limestone passages. It flows underground for a short distance before rising back to the surface. Nineteenth century loggers cut a canal across the top of the feature to allow them to float timber across to downstream mill. The logging run takes away a bit of the original appearance of the bridge, but it is still quite visible today.

The absence of any mention of the legendary natural bridge incident in Young’s account is curious. A careful examination of his memoir, however, shows that the legend probably grew from an incident at the Natural Bridge of the Econfina River near present-day Perry, Florida. Jackson and the main body of his army crossed over that bridge but had to wait for a second column to catch up. When the soldiers arrived, they explained that it had been necessary for them to build rafts to cross a river.  

The real incident at the Econfina Natural Bridge was somehow claimed by the early settlers of Jackson County and relocated to the Natural Bridge of the Chipola. A number of the soldiers in Jackson’s army came back to settle Jackson County and it is possible that their descendants remembered their story about and natural bridge incident and assumed they were talking about the one at Florida Caverns.

Kelly Banta of Florida Caverns State Park (L) discusses the
history of the remarkable caves with historian Dale Cox (R)
in a scene from a coming documentary.
A second legend about Jackson’s passage through Jackson County appears to have more of a basis in truth. 

Local tradition holds that Creek and Seminole families watched his crossing of the natural bridge from hiding places in the caves and rock shelters of Florida Caverns State Park. Native American families still living in both Jackson County and Oklahoma preserve strong oral tradition about the incident. A representative of one family described in 2007 how older members of the family would take children to the area of the natural bridge and point out caves in which their ancestors said they had hidden while the soldiers marched past.  

One such cave is today's Old Indian Cave. This cave was once called the Natural Bridge Cave and is located in a commanding outcrop of limestone from which the natural bridge is clearly visible. The multiple entrances to the large cavern would have provided hidden places from which Creek and Seminole families could have seen the troops marching past.

Click here to watch a video exploration of Old Indian Cave at Florida Caverns State Park.

Beautiful formations at Florida Caverns State Park.
After crossing the natural bridge, Jackson’s army continued on past Blue Hole Spring and Rock Arch Cave before turning to the northwest again and marching out of what is now Jackson County near present-day Graceville. The trail they followed took them through some of the fine farmlands between the Chipola River and Holmes Creek. The country was impressive and they knew that once the Seminole War was over, the area would be wide open for settlement. Men from the Williams and other families returned to the Chipola River country even before Florida was transferred from Spain to the United States. 

Jackson’s topographer, Captain Hugh Young, clearly had the future settlement of the area in mind as he recorded his observations of the country through which the army passed. Describing the area below and around present-day Grand Ridge, for example, he noted that it was “good pine land with reddish soil.” With regard to the land west of the Chipola River through which the army marched, he wrote that it was “excellent land” with a “mixed growth of oak, pine and hickory with several sinks affording abundance of excellent water.” 

Curry Ferry, where Jackson's army crossed the
Choctawhatchee River, remains a Holmes County landmark.
The U.S. Army crossed Holmes Creek near present-day Graceville and then marched along the old Pensacola - St. Augustine Road through what is now Holmes County. Jackson crossed the Choctawhatchee River at Curry Ferry Landing and then continued on westward to Pensacola and eventually the Presidency.

Click here to watch a video on the history of Curry Ferry in Holmes County, Florida.

Although he spent only a few days passing through Jackson, Calhoun and Holmes Counties, Andrew Jackson played a pivotal role in the settlement of the area. His march gave rank and file military men a chance to scout the countryside. Many came back within two years to clear fields and build homes, ignoring the fact that the land in question still belonged to the Creek Nation and that Florida was still a Spanish colony. 

It was not until 1823 - one year after Jackson County was established by the Florida Territory's Legislative Council - that Native American leaders signed the Treaty of Moultrie Creek and gave up their rights to most of the lands that form the county today.

To learn more about the First Seminole War, please enjoy this video and be sure to check out the books at the bottom of the page:

Please click here to learn more about Florida Caverns State Park:

1 comment:

Daniel said...

What a wonderful summary of the history and all the places Jackson went through. The past is all around us.