Born c. 1781
Coosauda Village (in present-day Alabama)
Died March 9, 1824
Monroe County, Alabama
Native American warrior
William Weatherford was one of several leaders of mixed Native American and European heritage who became prominent during the Creek War, which took place at the same period as—and was closely related to—the War of 1812. A Native American people who lived in what are now Alabama and western Georgia, the Creeks were divided in their response to white Americans settling on their lands; the violent resistance chosen by one faction, the Red Sticks, caused the U.S. government to take action. A man of eloquence, courage, and leadership ability, Weatherford was drawn into the conflict somewhat reluctantly. But he did choose to lead his people against the United States, with disastrous results.
Choosing to live as a Creek
In the early nineteenth century, it was not at all uncommon in Creek communities to see people who were the offspring of Creek women and men of European heritage, usually traders of British or Scottish origin. Because these mixed-race children often faced discrimination from whites but none in Creek society, which was matrilineal (kinship is determined through the mother, not the father), they often chose to live within the Creek world. Weatherford's family had European ties that went back several generations: his French great-grandfather had been the commander of a French fort located near the junction of the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers in central Alabama.
Weatherford's mother was named Sehoy III, and his father was a red-haired Scot named Charles Weatherford, who ran a trading post near the village of Coosauda, where his son was born. Young William grew to be a handsome boy with black eyes, light-colored hair, and pale skin. Although he could have passed as white, he chose to live among his mother's people and spent his early years absorbing their values. These included loyalty to one's clan (a smaller group within the tribe), respect for one's elders, and a general concern for others. In addition to his mother, Weatherford was strongly influenced by his uncle, Alexander McGillivray, a mixed-race Creek chief who taught him to speak English (he chose not to learn to read and write, however).
Creek boys practiced the skills needed to hunt and fish early in their lives, but they also spent a fair amount of their time playing sports and games. Weatherford became known for his horseback riding skills when he was still very young, and he also enjoyed playing a lacrosse-like game that was popular among the Creeks. At fifteen, he went through an initiation ritual that ushered him into adulthood, at which time he received the name he would use as a warrior: Red Eagle. Like other young Native American men, Weatherford dreamed of proving himself in battle and bringing home the scalp of an enemy (Native Americans customarily cut off the scalps of their dead enemies).
Tensions caused by white settlement
Weatherford came to manhood at a troubled time in Creek history. The tribe had split into the Lower Creeks, who favored peaceful adaptation to the presence of whites in their territory, and the Upper Creeks, who tended to resist such encroachment (gradually taking over land). In the years following the American Revolution (1775-83), the state of Georgia had entered into several treaties by which the Creeks agreed to give up pieces of their land. But not all of the Creeks approved of or honored these treaties. As a young man, Weatherford would have been aware of the growing tension not only between his people and whites, but within the Creek nation.
Weatherford's father Charles became involved in this tension by serving as a source of information for the U.S. government, informing them about what the Creeks were doing or planning to do. Another white man who took a strong interest in the Creeks was Benjamin Hawkins (1754-1816), who in 1796 was appointed by the U.S. government to serve as its agent to the Creek nation. Determined to bring what he and other Americans defined as "civilization" to the Creeks, Hawkins worked hard to persuade them to adopt white ways of government, agriculture, and lifestyle.
Tecumseh seeks Creek followers
In 1897 the U.S. government fueled resentment by building a road from Athens, Georgia to Fort Stoddert, Alabama, directly through Upper Creek territory. Meanwhile, the Lower Creeks had been cooperating with Hawkins and becoming increasingly adapted to white society. By 1811 the Upper Creeks were still angry about the road and also hostile to the Lower Creeks' acceptance of white encroachment. The stage was now set for the arrival of Tecumseh (c. 1768-1813; see biographical entry), a war chief of the Shawnee people (who lived in the Northwest Territory, or what is now Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and parts of Minnesota)—and the son of a Creek mother—who traveled south that fall to gain followers for his cause.
A charismatic person and a very effective speaker, Tecumseh dreamed of an alliance of many different Native American peoples, all of whom would put aside their differences to present a united front to resist white settlement of their lands. By now the War of 1812 was about to start, and Tecumseh hoped to use this conflict between Great Britain and the United States to Native American advantage. He hoped to convince the Creeks to join him in helping the British—whom Tecumseh believed would treat Native Americans fairly—beat the Americans.
Before leaving his home in what is now Indiana, Tecumseh had met with Indiana's governor, William Henry Harrison (1773-1841; see biographical entry), informing him that his people would not accept the presence of whites on their lands. On his way to the Creek territory, Tecumseh stopped to visit the Chickasaw people in what is now Mississippi, but they wanted to keep the peace with the United States. He also was unable to convince the Choctaws. On September 20 Tecumseh arrived at the village of Tuckabatchee, where the Creeks were holding a major meeting called the Grand Council.
Violent incidents increase
Tecumseh made a very powerful speech to the assembled Creek leaders, urging them to come together with other tribes to resist the whites. Weatherford was present at the meeting and rose to speak against Tecumseh's proposal. He said that violently resisting the United States could only end in disaster for the Creeks. The Americans, he pointed out, had already beaten the British once during the American Revolution and would surely do so again. Weatherford asserted that all whites were the enemies of Native Americans, and that the Creeks should remain neutral in the coming war or, if forced to take sides, align themselves with the United States.
Although he had not convinced Weatherford or the Lower Creek leaders, Tecumseh did find followers among the Upper Creeks, especially among their younger warriors. A full-fledged resistance or reform movement sprang up, with several individuals following the lead of Tecumseh's brother Tenskwatawa by claiming to be "prophets" whose magic would provide warriors protection from harm during battle.
Beginning in the spring of 1812, a series of violent incidents occurred that would eventually bring tensions to a head. Two white men were murdered and, on Hawkins' urging, their Upper Creek killers were ordered executed by some Lower Creek chiefs. In early 1813 a group of Creeks who were returning from a visit to the Northwest Territory murdered seven white families who were living in a settlement at the mouth of the Ohio River. Hawkins demanded that the killers be turned in to the U.S. government for prosecution, but instead the Lower Creek chiefs began having the band of murderers killed themselves. The Upper Creeks retaliated by killing several would-be executioners and destroying villages of Creeks who associated with Hawkins.
Agreeing to lead the Red Sticks
The hostile Upper Creeks now began to be known as Red Sticks, a name that refers to the Creek custom of displaying a red war club to indicate war. During the summer of 1813 Weatherford agreed to lead the Red Sticks; however, he may have been forced into this through threats against his family's safety. By this time, Weatherford was thirty years old and a prosperous plantation owner and breeder of fine race horses who frequently hosted guests—both Native American and white—at his home. He had married, but had lost two wives, Mary Moniac and Sapoth Thlaine, and was the father of four children. He had much to lose, and he neither approved of the Red Sticks' cause nor expected it to have a good outcome. Nevertheless, he declared that he would share his people's fate, whatever it might be.
In July another prominent mixed-race Creek named Peter McQueen (c. 1780-1820) led a Red Stick party to Pensacola in Spanish-held Florida. The Spanish authorities, who hoped to use the Creek War to strengthen their own position in the region, had offered to furnish the Red Sticks with guns and ammunition. Meanwhile, a U.S. militia officer named Colonel James Caller had learned of the expedition and led a force of about 180 soldiers to attack it. On July 27 they met McQueen's party, which was returning from Pensacola, at Burnt Corn Creek. The U.S. force had the upper hand at first but then the Red Sticks rallied, and Caller's troops had to retreat.
Even though the Americans got away with most of the supplies the Red Sticks had just received from the Spanish, the Red Sticks considered this a victory for their side. The Battle of Burnt Corn bolstered their confidence, while at the same time sounding a warning bell for the United States. The governors of Tennessee and Georgia quickly authorized fifteen hundred militia from each state to put down the Creeks, who they believed were being urged into violent confrontation by the British and aided by the Spanish. In addition, they knew that a victory against the Creeks could open even more land to white settlement.
The attack on Fort Mims
The Red Sticks now decided that they would attack two U.S. forts in the area, Fort Mims and Fort Pierce, to avenge the attack against them at Burnt Corn Creek. Weatherford was asked to formulate a plan of attack and he did, though still convinced that this war was pointless. More than seven hundred warriors gathered at Flat Creek and began the fifty-mile journey to Fort Mims. As they approached the fort, Weatherford urged them to spare the women and children he knew were inside, but this request would not be honored.
Fort Mims had really only existed for about a month, for it had been hastily constructed after the Battle of Burnt Corn as a refuge for panicky settlers in the region who were worried about Native American attack. Inside were about 300 people, including 120 militiamen and 16 regular soldiers. Fort Mims was not very well protected, and some recommended improvements had not been made. The officer in charge, Major Daniel Beasley, kept the fort's gate open at all times and asked his troops to do no more than play cards all day.
On Sunday, August 29, several reports of Native Americans gathering nearby had reached the fort, but since no evidence could be found, they were ignored. The fort's noon bell had been designated as the Red Sticks' signal to start their attack, and as soon as it sounded their war whoops could be heard by those within the fort. Beasley ran to shut the gate and was killed on the spot, and the Red Stick warriors leapt over his body to enter the fort. Soon a terrible massacre was underway within the fort, with women and children killed alongside the male settlers and soldiers. It was later reported that Weatherford deeply regretted this slaughter of innocent people but could do nothing to stop it.
It was estimated that about 250 to 275 of the occupants of Fort Mims were killed or taken prisoner during the attack, while somewhere between 20 and 40 escaped. Between 200 and 300 Red Sticks also were killed during the attack. News of the massacre at Fort Mims (in which the total number killed was often exaggerated) spread across the United States, and white settlers who lived in Creek territory were, of course, particularly terrified. In Tennessee, militia general Andrew Jackson (1767-1845; see biographical entry) was put in command of one of several militia forces to be sent to fight the Creeks. Meanwhile, Weatherford set up his headquarters at Holy Ground, a place where the Creeks performed religious rituals. He also sent out a message that any Native Americans who did not help the Red Sticks would be punished.
A campaign to stop the Red Sticks
On October 12 Jackson's force met up with troops commanded by Brigadier General John Coffee (1772-1833) near Huntsville, Alabama. Despite a severe shortage of food and supplies, Jackson formulated a bold plan that involved attacking Red Stick villages in succession and finally reaching and taking Pensacola, thereby halting Spanish aid to the Red Sticks. On November 2, Jackson sent Coffee and with 900 soldiers to the village of Tallushatchee. The troops formed a loop around the village, catching the Red Sticks in a deadly cross-fire in which 186 were killed (including some women and children); 84 women and children were taken prisoner. On the American side, only 5 were killed, and 41 wounded.
When Weatherford heard that the village of Talledega had decided to side with Jackson, he immediately sent his warriors to surround the village. Hearing of this, Jackson moved to defend the village with two thousand troops. Arriving on November 9, he sent his army into the same loop or crescent formation that had been so effective at Tallushatchee. In the battle that followed, seven hundred Red Sticks escaped due to a break in the U.S. line, but about three hundred were killed, while Jackson lost less than twenty soldiers.
Though disheartened by these defeats, the Creeks were consoled by the knowledge that their policy of burning crops and supplies before the Americans could take them had caused further suffering for the U.S. troops. However, another crushing blow came in December when a force under General Ferdinand L. Claiborne (1773-1815) won a victory at Holy Ground that disgraced the Red Stick prophets, who had claimed that the enemy could not harm that sacred place. Weatherford was present at this battle, and reportedly made a daring leap—mounted on his horse, Arrow—from a high bluff into the Alabama River while fleeing from pursuing U.S. troops.
The Battle of Horseshoe Bend
Battles fought in January at the villages of Emuckfau and Enotachopco also ended in defeat for the Red Sticks, paving the way for the final blow. The strongest concentration of Red Sticks was at Horseshoe Bend (called Tohopeka by the Creeks), a place where the Tallapoosa River bends into a loop, forming a peninsula of land surrounded on three sides by the river. There the Red Sticks had about one thousand warriors, plus almost three hundred women and children. They put up a breastwork (a protective barrier) at the opening of the settlement.
During the opening months of 1814, Jackson's assault on the Creeks were put on hold due to problems with supplies and dwindling troop numbers (the terms of service of many of the militiamen who had accompanied him to Creek territory had ended). However, in March, bolstered by reinforcements, he was ready to proceed again. On March 26 he arrived at Horseshoe Bend with almost three thousand soldiers, who immediately began firing at the Red Sticks' breastworks. Meanwhile, some of the Native Americans allied with Jackson swam across the river at the back side of the village and stole a number of Red Stick canoes. The canoes were used to ferry U.S. troops back to attack the Red Sticks from behind.
Despite having many more men than the U.S. side, the Red Sticks had fewer guns and could not fight as effectively. Seeing how badly things were going for the Red Sticks, Jackson offered them a chance to surrender, but they refused. They had a reputation for fighting to the death, and in this circumstance most of them would live up to that reputation. Finally the battle ended in a victory for the United States. More than eight hundred Red Sticks had been killed, and more than three hundred were taken prisoner.
A dramatic surrender scene
The Battle of Horseshoe Bend was a crushing defeat for the Creeks, effectively destroying their will to continue the fight. Though elated over the victory (and rewarded with a promotion to major general), Jackson was disappointed that Weatherford had not been captured. In fact, Weatherford was not present at the battle, having left the village a few days earlier (apparently he was convinced the Americans would not attack there).
Jackson now quickly constructed Fort Jackson on the site of the same French fort that Weatherford's grandfather had once commanded. When Creek chiefs began arriving at the fort to work out truce agreements, Jackson demanded that they turn in Weatherford. Hearing of Jackson's order, Weatherford decided to turn himself in and spare the chiefs the trouble. He rode to Fort Jackson on Arrow, shooting a deer on the way. Arriving at Jackson's tent, Weatherford introduced himself, catching the U.S. general very much by surprise.
Weatherford reportedly told Jackson that he would like to keep fighting but that his people were now scattered, forcing him to surrender. He asked no mercy for himself, but requested that Jackson aid the Creek women and children who had fled into the woods after the battle and were struggling to live. Pleased with Weatherford's courage, Jackson offered him a drink, and Weatherford gave Jackson the deer he had shot. They had a long conversation, but when it became apparent that the soldiers and Native American allies in the fort were growing increasingly hostile to Weatherford's presence, Jackson sent him on his way.
The Creek war was now over and, as Weatherford had predicted, it had ended in disaster for the Creeks. With the Treaty of Fort Jackson, the entire Creek nation (including those who had fought alongside the Americans) were forced into signing away twenty million acres of their land. Weatherford settled on a farm in lower Monroe County, Alabama, raising horses and respected by his neighbors. He married Mary Stiggins in 1817 and went on to have five children with her, making a total of nine by his three wives.
In late February 1824 Weatherford was on a hunting expedition when someone killed an albino deer. Declaring that this was an omen of death, Weatherford immediately returned to his home. Three days later, he died. Weatherford was buried near the village of Little River, close to his family's plantation on the Alabama River.
For more information
Griffith, Benjamin W., Jr. McIntosh and Weatherford: Creek Indian Leaders. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1988.
Martin, Joel W. Sacred Revolt: The Muskogees' Struggle for a New World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.
Keefe, John M. "William Weatherford." Encyclopedia of the War of 1812, edited by David S. Heidler, and Jeanne T. Heidler. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1997.