The inmates of Fort Sinquefield had retired to Fort Madison. Colonel Carson at Fort Glass, it may be again stated, was the military commander between the two rivers. More than a thousand persons were now at these two neighboring stockades, Glass and Madison.
It became desirable, as great anxiety was here prevailing, to send a special communication to General Claiborne at Mount Vernon. Whether the selection was made by choice or whether it was a voluntary offer of services is not now known, but certainly a good messenger was found in the person of Jeremiah Austill, nineteen years of age, son of Captain Evan Austill, and now commencing an active and dangerous career in the service of the white settlers. Mounted on a fleet cavalry horse he set out alone in the still hours of night. It was needful to proceed cautiously so as not to lose the way and in order to avoid any lurking Indians that might spring out from some night ambush. In a straight line the distance to Fort Carney was about thirteen miles. And from Fort Carney to Mount Vernon twenty four miles. By the only route that a horse could travel the whole distance must have been more than forty miles.* [* I passed over alone, on horseback, in the hours of a not very bright day, the first part of this same line as far as Salt Mountain, and found it to be, in the day time, a wild, long, lonesome road. T. H. B.] The solitary and wary horseman passed on, meeting with no adventure till he reached the river bottoms, and there found himself uncertain whether he was above or below Fort Carney. Riding as near as practicable to the river bank, he gave a good imitation of an Indian war-whoop. Soon there came to his ears in quick response, the loud defying bark of some fifty dogs. He thus learned the exact location of the fort and turned his horse in that direction. It was distant about half a mile. He soon reached the gateway, announced himself, and found a warm welcome from the startled men, women, and children, who were all glad to find that the war-whoop which roused their dogs had not proceeded from Muscogee lips. After partaking of a warm supper and allowing his horse some time for rest and food, both horse and rider were ferried over the Tombigbee, and again the courier was on his way. Passing west of the Sun Flower Bend, and then of McIntosh's Bluff, in the dawn of the morning he reached Mount Vernon. General Claiborne was astonished, after receiving the dispatches, to learn that the young courier had made that night trip alone, and was disposed to blame Colonel Carson for sending no escort. But the bold, young Austill replied, that his ears were quick to catch sounds and that his eyes were keen, as quick and keen as the ears and eyes of the native Red men, and that companions would only have increased the danger; and that his own recourses and the sagacity and speed of his horse were the hopeful things on which to rely if attacked by the Indians. He bore back to Colonel Carson an order, designed, as it afterwards appeared, to be discretionary, but interpreted then as peremptory, to abandon forts Glass and Madison and retire west of the Tombigbee to St. Stephens. At this old French and Spanish station were embankments and earthworks, and it was considered, so far as the Creeks were concerned, impregnable. There was severe disappointment and there was even dismay at Fort Madison, on the reception of this order, for it seemed, to the thousand assembled there, that Claiborne was abandoning the whole body of settlers in Clarke county. Their crops needed to be gathered. Their plantations were at this time deserted, the Indians they knew were committing depredations, burning houses, driving off their cattle, turning the hogs into the corn fields that they might be well fattened for the feasts which the Indians were designing that fall to hold; and these white settlers saw before them a prospect of suffering from the want of food. A consultation was held. Some eighty citizens enrolling themselves under the two captains, Evan Austill and Samuel Dale, determined to remain with their families at Fort Madison and protect themselves and their homes. It was a sad parting as some five hundred or more set out with Colonel Carson and his troops for St. Stephens. Then those who remained at Fort Madison took additional precautions. They placed slanting pickets around on the outside of their stockade. They contrived to keep up a light, which was forty feet high, and this light--not electric--made by that fat, heavy lightwood of the long leaf pine, illumined a circle into which no Indian could step with safety.
The following is an extract from a letter written by Judge E. Austill of Mobile, son of Major J. Austill, dated Mobile, March 6, 1894. It was written in answer to some inquires which I made.
"I have often heard my father speak of the light at Fort Madison, and have no doubt you got the account from him as to the height. I remember the particulars as follows: When the garrison of soldiers and most of the people left Fort Madison those who determined to remain elected my grandfather captain. He had a tall pine pole erected in the middle of the fort, and built around it a scaffolding with a hole in the center so that it could be raised by pushing it up the pole. On this, earth was placed so that the burning pine would not ignite the boards. On this a light was kept burning at night, and you will remember that our fat pine throws a light a long way.* [* Yes, we have hunted together in that "Bigbee" region too many nights for me to forget that. T. H. B.]
This was resorted to, to prevent the necessity of putting out pickets at night and reducing the fighting men. All those pioneers were in the habit of shooting deer at night by shining their eyes,-- fire hunting, as it was called--and their aim to the limits of that lighted circle would have been deadly."
These pioneer settlers, with no troops to help them, did not mean to repeat the Fort Mims experiment of trifling with the Indians. They knew the Indians too well to despise them. Captain Austill bad been with his family for fourteen years at the Cherokee agency in Georgia, civilizing and helping the Cherokees. He knew the Indian character well. The younger Austill had grown up among the Cherokees. Captain Dale had been for years familiar with Cherokees and Creeks. He had great respect for the Indian character. The Creeks called him familiarly Big Sam. Judge Meek calls him the Daniel Boone of Alabama. These were the right kind of men to be here in command. Well has Judge Meek said of these, now pioneer citizen soldiers: "They were men well calculated, both by nature and habits of life, to meet such an emergency. With no dependence but the axe and the rifle, they had brought their families through the wilderness, and made them homes upon the table plains and rich alluvial bottoms of our two principal streams. The character and habits of the Indians they understood well, their stratagems in warfare, their guile and cunning. With a flexibility of nature that still retained its superiority, they accommodated themselves to these, and were prepared, as far as their limited numbers would go, for the necessities of either peace or war. To a spectator, the strange buckskin garb, the bunting shirt, leggings and moccasins, the long and heavy rifle, the large knife swinging by the shot-bag, the proud, erect deportment, but cautious tread, and the keen, far-seeing, but apparently passive eye, of the settler in the fork of the Alabama and Tombickbee, upon the Tensaw, or about Fort St. Stephens, would have spoken much of the moral energies and purposes of the man."
Of this class were the eighty men at Fort Madison, proposing to defend against Muscogee warriors their families and their homes.
Some two weeks after the departure of the troops, General Claiborne went up to St. Stephens, and seeing the situation of the settlers between the rivers, he sent Colonel Carson and his men back to Fort Madison.
Such was the lone night ride, in the early autumn, of the young Austill, and such its results; and although the message borne was not so momentous, the ride itself, not yet immortalized by any bard, was one of greater danger and over a much wilder region than was, in April of 1775, that "midnight ride of Paul Revere."
NOTE--Captain Evan Austill who settled in that Fort Madison neighborhood in 1812 died in October the 18th 1818 forty nine years of age "from exposure in Florida in the Indian strife." A marble slab stands by the roadside near the site of Fort Madison and the plain inscription upon it tells the passing traveller the place of the repose of his dust. It was for him a fitting burial place. Long may those few acres of land remain undisturbed by axe or spade or plow. T. H. B.