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The Creek War of 1813 and 1814|
Chapter 17: The Canoe Fight
by Halbert, H. S. and Ball, T. H.
|The North American Indian has, with good reason, when on what is called the war path, been dreaded by the white inhabitants of the frontiers; for he was cunning, quick, sagacious, often merciless. He knew how to come unexpectedly upon exposed households, to strike fierce and murderous blows, and to make good his retreat, taking with him scalps and even helpless women and children. But in the earliest settlement of the Atlantic coast it was proved that, with all his shrewdness, and powers of endurance, and forest bravery, he was not, after all, a match, even handed, for the cultivated white man. In more ways than one, even in meeting them on their own ground, those words were proved true, that "the anointed children of education have been too powerful for the tribes of the ignorant."
The most noted hand-to-hand conflict between white men and Indians, in New England history, is the encounter between Captain Miles Standish, with three of his Plymouth comrades, and Pecksnot, Wetawamat, and two other Indian chiefs, all heads of a conspiracy formed to exterminate Weston's colony and then massacre the Pilgrims. Standish had gone among the Indians and waited for his opportunity. It soon came. The four Indian conspirators were "all entrapped in one cabin." The door was secured. The four white men were also within, and as a witness the friendly Habbamak. "A terrific death-grapple at once ensued. There were no shrieks, no cries, no war-whoops. Nothing was heard save the fierce panting of the combatants and the dull thud of the blows given and returned Habbamak stood quietly by and meddled not. Soon the Englishmen were successful; each slew his opponent," Standish himself killing Pecksnot, "an Indian of immense muscular size and strength," who had said not long before to the captain, "You are a great officer but a little man; **. I possess great strength and courage."* [* Martyn's "Pilgrim Fathers," page 188.] Here there were four against four, shut in by cabin walls.
The Alabama-River Canoe Fight was a conflict where the whites, apparently, had greatly the disadvantage. There were not four against four, nor yet, as in the old Latin story of the Horatii and Curiatii, three against three, but three against nine.
The well attested facts are these: (The month is November.) Small parties of the hostile Creeks were committing depredations among the Alabama River settlements--they were wanting food, were foraging,--when Captain Dale obtained permission from Colonel Carson, commanding at Fort Madison, to drive the Indians at least to the east side of the river. He had a force of thirty Mississippi volunteers under Lieutenant Montgomery, and forty militia of Clarke county, under Lieutenant G. W. Creagh. With ten more men than, according to Mrs. Hemans, the Cid, the noted Campeador of Spain had, when
" For wild sierras and plains afar,
He left the lands of his own bivar,"
Captain Dale and his two lieutenants left Fort Madison on an expedition which was to enroll at least three of their names among our noted Indian fighters. During the first day's march northward among the unoccupied plantations they found no Indians. The second day they went in a south-easterly direction to the river, crossed it by means of two canoes, at French's landing, then called Brazier's, and camped on the bank. The night was cool, the men thinly clad The next morning, when the warm sun arose, they resumed their march, Jeremiah Austill, "Night Courier," son of Captain Evan Austill, having charge of the two canoes, and with six men to aid him, commenced to pass up the river abreast of Dale and his company who were marching along the eastern bank. Soon a canoe load of Indians was seen descending the river, but these Indians on being discovered paddled immediately back and passed from sight in the dense cane at the mouth of Randon's Creek. The men on the bank also met with Indians who retreated when the guns of Dale's men were fired upon them. One Indian was killed and several were wounded. It was soon found difficult to proceed further along the eastern bank and orders were given to recross to the western side. When all had crossed over but twelve men, among them Dale, Smith, Austill, Creagh, Elliott, and Brady. and while these were preparing a late breakfast and roasting sweet potatoes in a little field, an alarm of "Indians!" came from the western bank. Leaving their breakfast they siezed their guns and reached the river bank. They soon saw descending the river "a large canoe containing a chief and ten painted warriors." The Indians back of them, on the eastern side, who had occasioned the alarm, for some reason made no attack on these twelve men, and they gave their whole attention to the large approaching canoe. Soon two cautious warriors sprang out and made for the shore. One of them Smith shot. The other made good his retreat eastward. The canoe man-of-war with the nine warriors continued to descend the river, and as only one small canoe, with a colored man named Caesar in charge, was on the eastern shore, Dale ordered the larger canoe to be manned and brought over. Eight men started out to obey the order, but alarmed, as it appeared, by the threatening attitude of the nine warriors in their large canoe, these eight returned to the western shore. Captain Dale was vexed and proposed to his men to attack that canoe load with their own little dug-out. Besides Caesar, who paddled, it would carry but three, and Dale stepped in followed immediately by Smith and Austill, the latter taking his position in the prow. Those who have ever attempted to stand up, or even to sit, in one of these little river canoes can appreciate something of the disadvantage, on the side of the whites, for three men, in such a frail support, to undertake a life or death grapple with nine stout Indian warriors in a much more stable boat, a canoe, so called, that could carry eleven or more men. The expectant Indians awaited the attack as their boat floated on, and Caesar, at Dale's command, with the vigorous strokes of his paddle, sent the small canoe directly towards the large one.
THE "CANOE FIGHT" ACTION OPENS
The three Americans with their guns in their hands attempted first to pour in a broadside, but one gun only was discharged, and that with little effect, the priming having been dampened in the other two. Caesar was now ordered to pull up along side, and then the real conflict began. It was the twelfth day of November, a day to be remembered in Alabama Indian border strife, when on the beautiful Alabama in that noted river bend, with nine American spectators on one bank and sixty-one on the other, and how many concealed Indians in the dense canes none knew--Judge Meek says nearly three hundred--this conflict of three against nine was waged. Neither Americans nor Indians could help their fellows. They could only await the issue of this unequal encounter. It was a perilous moment as the little canoe closed upon the other, with Austill, a young man of nineteen in the prow, watching how or where the first blow might fall. He was not left in uncertainty long, for as the prow of the American canoe touched the other, and before he could strike a blow or grapple with a red warrior, the rifle of the chief who, when the canoes were about two feet apart, had exclaimed in English words, "Now for it, Big Sam," came like lightning heavily down upon his head. That the blow did not kill him is strange. Dale and Smith sprang instantly to his rescue, and with their heavy rifles and strong arms soon dispatched the powerful chief. His words of challenge were his last. Cesar then brought the canoes side by side, and so held them during the remainder of the sharp but short fight. It was give blows and take in rapid succession, Austill having immediately regained his feet and his prowess, and doing his part in the fearful fray. In the thick of this fierce onset he was again struck down, now by an Indian war-club, but was rescued by Dale, and once more regaining his feet he wrenched the war-club from the Indian warrior and with it dashed him into the river. Smith performed his full part in the conflict, and soon every Indian warrior was slain. Eight dead bodies were cast into the flowing waters of the Alabama when this "tiger strife was over," and Austill with the war-club had already sent one warrior adrift upon the river.
THE CANOE FIGHT WAS OVER
It was difficult at the time, it is impossible and needless now, to detail the part performed by each of these three heroic men in that conflict. Like the old "dauntless three," Hearts, Parties, and Herminius, who kept the bridge so well in the days of ancient Rome, these three "border men, true representatives of one variety of American heroism, share together the fame of their exploit, as that day they stood together in their small boat in the confusion of the desperate struggle." That they should all survive, and that nine brave Indian warriors, with the apparent advantages all on their side, should perish, shows again what was exemplified in the days of Captain Miles Standish, that the American Indian, dreaded though he well may be as a foe, is not a match even handed for the bold and hardy pioneer white man.
" Samuel Dale was at this time forty-one years of age, was about six feet and two inches in height, and weighed one hundred and ninety pounds. He possessed a large, muscular frame, and had no superfluous flesh."
"James Smith was now twenty-five years of age, five feet and eight inches in height, very stout and finely proportioned, weighing one hundred and sixty-five pounds.
" Jeremiah Austill was nineteen years of age, six feet, two and one-fourth inches in height, very sinewy, with no surplus flesh, and weighed one hundred and seventy-five pounds.
" Such, physically, were the men who proved their superiority," when, to them, fighting seemed to be a duty, "over red warriors of the brave Creek nation, men who, in a hand-to-hand conflict, shared the advantages which were needful for ancient heroes and for knights in the Middle Ages, of well trained and hardy muscle."* [* "Clarke County" page 168.]
Two or three score of such men, springing as "boarders" upon the deck of a British man-of-war, with or without such a leader as John Paul Jones or Commodore Perry, would soon have cleared the deck and brought the colors down.
By means of the captured canoe the nine men on the east side, now crossed the river. The men all went as far up the river as Cornell's Ferry, and finding no more Indians, returned that night to Fort Madison. The canoe fight was ready to go into American history along with Perís victory on Lake Chaplain gained two months before.* [* The nearest parallel to the Canoe Fight which I have found occurred near the opening of the "Pequod War". John Gallup was sailing on the Connecticut "in his little shallot of twenty tons" with one man and two boys when he discovered John Oldhams pinnace off Block Island, which the Indians had lately captured, and fourteen of them were on the deck. Martyn says "Pilgrim Fathers", "Then one of the most remarkable instances of gallantry recorded in the annals of border warfare occurred." Gallup steered directly for the pinnace with a fresh wind struck it "stem foremost nearly upset it" and six frightened Indians "jumped overboard and were drowned". He did the same thing again and four more jumped and sank. Four only remained. He drowned two of these and two finally escaped.]
Whether the Connecticut River action or the Alabama Riser action displayed the more daring the reader must judge.--T.H.B.
Of the three men engaged in this conflict, from whose hands one only, of the eleven at first seen in the canoe, escaped, some further notice may justly be given. Of James Smith but little seems to be known. He was born in Georgia, was a pioneer settler in the river region, is described as a very brave and daring man, and is credited with having "contributed very materially to the success of the canoe engagement." He removed to East Mississippi and there died.
Of Samuel Dale, known as Captain Dale and then General Dale, abundant material for a life record exists. He was evidently a remarkable man. A brief abstract of events in his life is all that can here be given. Claiborne, with some flowers of rhetoric, has written his life very fully. He was born in Virginia in 1772. In 1784 his father removed to Georgia and occupied a farm near the Creek Indians. In a few years his father and mother both died leaving to him the care of seven children younger than himself. He became a trader among the Indians, then a guide and mover of families to the river settlements. Before the "Creek War " he himself removed to the Alabama River region. After that war he held office not a little. In 1816 he was a member of the convention to divide the Territory. In 1817 he was a member of the Alabama Territorial Assembly. He represented Monroe county, which for some time extended west of the Alabama to the water-shed, in the years 1819, 1820, 1821; 1823, 1824; 1826, 1828, 1829. In 1824 he was a member of the committee to escort Gen. La Fayette to Alabama's capital. The Alabama Legislature conferred on him the rank of brigadier general. In 1830 he was appointed by the Secretary of War one of the commissioners to remove the Choctaws. In 1831 he removed to Mississippi. In 1836 he represented Lauderdale county. He died at Daleville, Mississippi, in May, 1841. Such were some of the positions held by the man who suggested and led the canoe fight. He is represented as having declared that in every hour of danger he was cheered by a firm trust in God.
Jeremiah Austill, known as Major Austill in all the later years of his life, was also a much more than ordinary man. Born in South Carolina in 1794, spending several years of his youth among the Cherokees, when eighteen years of age he came with his father's family into the Mississippi Territory. After the Creek war closed he became a clerk at St. Stephens, in the store of his uncle, Colonel David Files, then Quarter Master for the army. After the death of his uncle, in 1820, he became Deputy Marshal. He removed to Mobile and was appointed Clerk of the Court of Mobile. He was also appointed city weigher. He represented Mobile in the state legislature. In 1824 he commenced business as commission merchant. In 1837, in that great financial crash, he closed, having then four hundred customers, and finding himself involved in a loss amounting to one hundred and seventy thousand dollars. He reasoned in regard to his customers from his knowledge of Indian character, but he found, to his loss, "that in similar circumstances the white man would not deal like an Indian." He admired the Indian business characteristics as he had learned them among the Cherokees. He bought in 1840 the Tombigbee River plantation on or near which was located Fort Carney. He made his home there, on the upland, among the pines, a mile or two from the river, in 1844.
His marriage was preceded by circumstances somewhat romantic. This quotation is from "Clarke and Its Surroundings," p. 464.
"When on that memorable night in 1813, as bearer of dispatches to General Claiborne, he entered Fort Carney, the gate was opened by John Eades, and a daughter of his, a young, dark-eyed maiden--she was then eight years of age--glanced at the tall youth who took his supper with them, and who was so boldly performing a perilous enterprise."--His keen eyes must have fallen, at least for a moment, upon her bright face---"This maiden afterwards attended the academy at St. Stephens, and there as a school girl she met the young clerk, who thought to himself that one day she would surely, become his wife. But another maiden came in between them and through a combination of circumstances to her young Austill was married. Before many years had passed she died and left no child to represent her. Again the tall sharer of the honors of the canoe fight met with her, whom he had seen in the fort and who as a school girl had stolen his first affections, and before long they were married. A long and happy, but changeful life they have spent together. They have had two sons and three daughters."
In receiving or forming mental impressions Major Austill was peculiar. In 1818 he was in New York city for his health, having recovered from an attack of yellow fever in New Orleans which had reduced his weight from one hundred and eighty pounds to ninety-six. While in New York he had a presentiment that his father was dead. He hastened home, making the return trip in twenty three days, which was then considered a speedy transit. He found that his father was really dead. Again, in 1841, when residing in Cottage Hill, near Mobile, at three o'clock in the morning a stranger appeared to him in vision or dream saying "Dale is dead. He died this morning at three o'clock." Several days afterward he received a letter from a stranger containing these words.* [* I am unable to account for these and similar impressions. I was well acquainted with Major Austill. I am sure of his trustworthiness and I had this account from his own lips in 1877. T. H. B.]
As that young girl in Fort Carney in 1813 has had a special mention of whose well ordered home in 1854 I was myself an inmate it will surely not be unfitting to append here this note. The notice that follows was written by that editor friend, Isaac Grant of Grove Hill and published in his paper June 19, 1890.
"Mrs. Margaret E. Austill late of Singleton this county died in Mobile last Saturday the 14th., in the eighty-sixth year of her age. She was the widow of the late Jerry Austill of this county, one of the heroes of the celebrated Canoe Fight on the Alabama River during the Creek Indian War. She was the mother of Ex-Chancellor Austill of Mobile. One by one the links connecting the present generation with that of our territoryís early settlement are being broken. Only a few of them remain."
After carrying on his plantation for many years Major Austill died December 8, 1879, in the eighty-sixth year of his age, "possessed of the respect and confidence of all the people, and revered for the long life of usefulness, honor, and patriotism he had lived on the soil of Alabama."