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Creeks and Seminoles: The Destruction and Regeneration of the Muscogulge People (Indians of the Southeast)

1 rating: 5.0
A book by J. Leitch Wright Jr.

"This last work by J. Leitch Wright, Jr., is fascinating, fine scholarship and a significant contribution to native American historiography. . . . The author''s ''ethnicity'' argument provides an interesting alternative analysis of the course of Creek … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: J. Leitch Wright Jr.
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
1 review about Creeks and Seminoles: The Destruction and...

Best I've Seen on the Creek/Seminole "Nation" So Far

  • Jun 28, 2008
There are quite a few works on the Indian tribes of the Southeast and on Indians more generally but this is the best I've read so far on the tribal group that came to be called the Creek nation who lived in what is today South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Meticulously describing and documenting the vast complexity that underlies this American Indian grouping, J. Leitch Wright clarifies how the Indians known in American history as the Creeks came into existence as the result of the shattering of the old Mississippian culture by the Spanish conquistadors in their march through the American southwest. The Muskogee peoples, Wright indicates, were the remnant groups of that culture who fled eastward and intermingled with various indigenous tribal groups (the Hitchiti speaking tribes) and other remnant groups who drifted southward. The Muskogee speakers were proud and numerous compared with the indigenous groups and other latecomers and so came to dominate those others. But the Muskogees were not, themselves, a single ethnic group because, at an earlier date, other remnant groups had sought and found shelter with them.

The Muskogees did, however, have a sense of superiority over their Mississippian hangers-on who fled east with them (calling them "estinko" which entered the English language as "stinkards") and, unfortunately, they carried that attitude with them into the east. As a result, though the Indian settlements which came to be called "Creek" by the white colonists (possibly taking their name from a group of Hitchiti speakers called Ochese who gave their name to a small body of water where they lived, "Ochese Creek") were mixed from the beginning, the Muskogees tended to dominate. Wright traces the history from colonial to revolutionary to early republic times, showing how the disparate "Creek" groups (he calls them "Muscogulge") gradually split along the Muskogee/non-Muskogee divide with the non-Muskogees consisting of diverse Hichiti, Yuchi and even Shawnee groupings and the Muskogees consisting of the Mississipians and their estinko satellite peoples, agumented by other Indian groups who joined and were ultimately absorbed by them after their arrival in the east.

All of this was made even more complex with the admixture of Africans who escaped the slavery of the English colonists (and later Americans). Because of the Indian practice in that part of the world of determining family relations matrilinearly (the wife and her children were counted as part of the wife's clan, the husband remaining with his own), many of the blacks who were offspring of mixed marriages were counted as tribal members through clan participation if their mother was a member of one of the Indian clans. But if Indian men took African women, who had no Indian clan, for wives, their children were counted as outside the Indian ethnic network. Thus children of mixed parentage could be considered either as Indians or outsiders. The ongoing influx of escaped slaves kept the black segment of the Muskogee population in a somewhat confusing state of flux. At the same time, various white colonists who took Indian wives produced children who came to count themselves as Indians rather than white though they might look more white than Indian and be more acculturated toward white tradition than Indian. Many of the later Creek leaders were the products of such mixtures including Alexander Macgillivray, William Weatherford and William Powell (better known as Osceola).

Wright traces the shifting tides of Indian fortunes and the changes due to white expansion that essentially turned large segments of the Muskogee moiety into "civilized" settlers who, though their heritage and blood was largely of the Creek "nation," took up white farming and business practices. But these changes were incomplete since large parts of the Indian groups retained a commitment to the way of life they had developed during the nation's formative period, with commercial hunting replacing the older hunter-gatherer existence. As the Indians became more dependent on white manufactured goods they had essentially become slaves to hunting for skins and pelts to sell to the white and mestizo (mixed white and Indian) traders and, over time, hunted out the areas in which they lived so that they had to roam farther and farther afield.

At the same time whites continued to move in and press on their territory and to resent the fact that escaped African slaves often found safety and freedom among the Indians. At a certain point, the growing white population, requiring more and more agricultural land (especially after invention of the cotton gin which made cotton plantations profitable and further pushed out the rapidly diminishing fur and skin trade), lusted for Indian territory. There had been substantial movement back and forth between Muscogulge territory in South Carolina, Georgia and what would become Alabama and the Spanish colony of Florida. As the whites in Georgia pushed to strengthen the Muskogee segment of the "Creeks", the old divisions came to the fore and fighting broke out between the two sides. Many disaffected Hitchiti speakers and others of the Creek Nation had been shifting to what had heretofore been hunting grounds in Spanish Florida and, with the divisive struggle initiated by white pressure and support for mestizo Muskogee chief, William McIntosh, more and more refugees fled to Florida. There Spain had followed a practice of providing protection for escaped American slaves from the north in exchange for their bearing arms to defend the Spanish colony against its foes. The Creek Indians, who had been trickling in, were also welcomed in this way, bringing their own mixed race heritage. The earliest of these Indians (largely Hitchiti speakers) had been called Seminole, apparently a corruption of a Spanish term, "cimmarrones," for wild ones. Gradually the many different Indian groups that showed up, largely from one branch or the other of the Creek polity, came to be called "Seminole" in general.

With the War of 1812, the British tried to use the Creek Indians and the Seminole and the escaped Africans living in Florida against the new republic but they broke off their efforts, with the closing of the war, before they had completed this process, leaving the Seminole (of all ethnic groups) and their African allies high and dry. Eventually the new republic repaid the Indians and Africans for siding with the British by going after them in Spanish territory. The Americans wreaked great havoc, destroying Fort Mose, the so-called Negro Fort in the Florida panhandle, and, under Andrew Jackson, marching on and destroying the main Seminole towns in northern Florida in what has been called the First Seminole War, forcing the Indians and Africans to scatter, mostly toward the south.

The Spanish quickly realized they could not hold Florida and sold it to the new United States and this precipitated an influx of white settlers who, like their predecessors and relations in Georgia and Alabama, coveted Indian land. Like their countrymen to the north, as well, they brought the plantation culture with them along with the institution of slavery that supported it. They not only feared the free African towns in the new territory of Florida because these attracted and sheltered runaways, thereby encouraging losses from their slave populations and, possibly, slave revolts, they also found the free Africans and mixed-bloods (Indian and African, called "zambos") a valuable resource for replenishing their slave stock. The new republic, while continuing to allow slavery on a state by state basis, had banned importation of any new slaves and so the source of new slave manpower was now closed to them. On the other hand, Florida appeared to have a feral population of former slaves and their descendants, ripe for the taking.

All these factors, along with the ongoing struggles and divisions back in the Creek lands as whites continuously pressed and encroached upon the native population, using the McIntosh Muskogee faction to dominate the others and deliver up their lands, led to a series of wars including the Creek wars and the Second Seminole War in Florida. The Creek Red Stick rebellion, an outgrowth of the earlier pan-Indian movement of Tecumseh in the north, was broken by Andrew Jackson, and William McIntosh, the Muskogee leader who was his ally, was rewarded at the expense of the largely non-Muskogee Red Sticks who had opposed him. McIntosh Creeks soon came south to Florida to support the U.S. Army in its prosecution of the Second Seminole War, the war in which the Creek warrior Powell became famous as the Seminole war chief, Osceola (Asi Yahola), when he was taken by treachery under a flag of truce to ultimately die in American captivity.

The Second Seminole War dragged on for seven years and, because of the challenging terrain of Florida, proved the most costly of all of America's Indian wars both in terms of blood and treasure. But it eventually led to the whittling down of the Seminoles and their allies as groups were captured or surrendered over those years to be shipped to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Andrew Jackson, now U.S. president, pursued an Indian removal policy (by legislation enacted in Congress in 1830) which forced all the tribes to relocate west across the Mississippi. This applied to the Creeks and their neighboring tribes (including the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Cherokee) as well as to the Seminole, themselves mostly refugees from the old Creek polity. It was the effort to enforce this policy in Florida that largely sparked the Second Seminole War though its larger causes included white settler land greed, fear of free blacks and a desire for a new source of slave labor.

In the end, the Seminole were mostly, but not completely, transferred to Oklahoma where the old Creek divisions reared up again as the Seminole struggled to avoid being consolidated under Creek governance. Wright is a little light on all the details of the subsequent conflicts in the new territory but this material is amply documented elsewhere so it's not a major omission. What Wright does provide is a comprehensive and detailed look at who the Creeks were, how they came to be and the forces that led to the numerous conflicts, the Creek downfall and the subsequent history of this Indian nation in the West. Wright is especially good at sorting out the various moieties and linguistic practices and is objective in his judgments, pointing up both the faults and strengths of all the parties. The whites don't get off scot free, to be sure, but the mixed motives, the double dealing and the self interest of all parties are amply described.

author of The King of Vinland's Saga and A Raft on the River

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