The Panic of 1813

By Col. John A. Watkins

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On August 30, 1813, the Creek Indians, enraged at 
white encroachment, attacked Fort Mimms in southwest Alabama.  News of the attack, and the ensuing massacre of several hundred white men, women, and children, spread throughout the territory. The following manuscript describes reactions of settlers in the Jefferson County area of Southwest Mississippi.


Those who at the present day dwell in cities, or in the midst of an old and well established civilization, cannot appreciate the trials, privations, and dangers incident to a frontier life seventy-five [now 185 years] ago.

Immediately after the Spanish cession of the Mississippi Territory to the United States there was a steady tide of immigration, chiefly from Georgia, the two Carolinas, and Virginia, which in a brief space of ten years swelled the population from 10,000 to more than 40,000, exclusive of Indians.

The lands in Jefferson County, being very fertile, well watered and heavily timbered, were rapidly entered and occupied by a class of men well fitted to pioneer a healthy civilization, and develop the wealth of our newly acquired possessions.  Log cabins were speedily erected, cane cut down, trees converted into rails, and these again to fence a few acres of ground, where, following the plow, corn sprang up, as if by enchantment, yielding a rich harvest as the reward of energy and industry.

In a few years, the face of the country was entirely changed, and if the wilderness did not "blossom as the rose," fields of cotton, fine horses, cattle and hogs testified that the laborer had been richly rewarded for his voluntary sacrifice of his "old home," and the associations of his youth.

Jefferson County was nominally composed of five districts as well defined as its boundaries.  The southwest district was known as the Maryland settlement, of which Judge WOOD was the representative;  to the northwest, Dr. Rush NUTT, Asa HUBBARD and James MAGILL stood sponsors for the Gulf Hill;  Willis McDONALD, John BOLLS, Asa WATKINS, and Kinsman DIVINE represented the north central division;  Isaac ROSS, Randal GIBSON, and Nathaniel JEFRIES, the Rid Lick settlement, while in the southeast the Scotch had formed a colony.  The Gaelic language was spoken by many of them, perhaps at this day they read the Bible in that language, for my old friend Daniel SINCLAIR, himself a Highlander, says that Gaelic was the language spoken by Adams in the Garden of Eden.  Here were CAMERONS, McCLUTCHIES, McINTYRES, TORREYS, and a host of other names, that give unmistakable evidence of their nationality.

Jefferson County in 1895

In the process of time, towns and villages sprang up on the main line of travel, affording such facilities for trade and commerce as the limited wants and resources of the country required.  Greenville, Union, and Selsertown were located at convenient distances from each other, on the Old Robinson Road, and continued to flourish for many years, until, antagonized by the increased production of cotton and the demands of commerce, they ceased to be a necessity, and gradually passed away, leaving scarcely a trace of their former existence.

In 1813, August 30th, the Creek Indians attacked Fort Mimms, and as it was negligently protected, nearly all the inmates, soldiers, women and children, said to number of 550, were put to death.

The news of this massacre spread rapidly in Mississippi, as nearly all the soldiers who defended the fort were from that Territory, and I might add that a majority of them were from Jefferson County.  The danger was so threatening that Governor HOLMES, on his own responsibility, called for volunteers to form a battalion of mounted men to be composed of one company from each of the counties of Adams, Wilkinson, Amite, and Jefferson.

The massacre of Fort Mimms occurred on August 30, and the battalion called out by Gov. HOLMES reported for duty on the 23rd of the following month, and at once hurried to the seat of war.  This was the famous Jefferson Troop designated at the War Department as dragoon, commanded by Major Thomas HINDS, which subsequently became prominent in the Indian war, and the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

The heavy drafts made upon the sparsely settled territory left it in such a defenseless condition, that, had the Creeks followed up their success at Fort Mimms and formed, as they desired, a juncture with the Choctaws, they would have swept over the country with the destruction of a tornado.

Rumors that an advance had been made by the Creeks, and that in their progress they had been joined by the Choctaws, began to be whispered around, at first so vague that they could be traced to no reliable source, but in a few days assuming a form to which fear gave an impulse that resulted in a panic that I can only attempt to describe from the recollections of more than 75 years ago.

The report of massacres by the Indians, and an advance by them on the white settlements, came to our neighborhood through James H. WATSON, who, on the previous day had been to Port Gibson.  He gave immediate notice to the neighborhood, and though many doubted, it was deemed prudent to adopt the necessary precautions for the security of the women and children.

Preparations were hastily made to send them to Washington [Adams County], where a few companies of volunteers were stationed, ready at a moment's notice to move wherever their services were required.  By the time the non-combatants were to move, the Indians were said to be at Rocky Springs [Claiborne County], 18 miles above Port Gibson, and the next breeze had wafted them to the Grindstone Ford [on Bayou Pierre].  Some farsighted people could even see the smoke of Colonel BURNETT's house, a distance of seven miles.

How these vague reports originated will never be known.  Like the "three black crows," they grew as they proceeded, until the alarm became universal.  As nearly all the young men capable of bearing arms had gone to the seat of war, few capable of making a defense were left to protect their homes and families, but they were of a class who, if then did not recklessly seek danger, did not shirk from the conflict where there was occasion to test their courage.

As the danger was considered imminent, runners were dispatched in every direction warning the inhabitants and directing them to seek safety in flight.  Such as were capable of bearing arms collected in small squads and repaired to a rendezvous which had previously been agreed upon, where they could devise the best means of defense.

I was then a small boy, and remember well the alarm and consternation that nearly all suffered when it was announced at the door of the schoolhouse, the "Indians are upon us," and ordering us all to go home in "double quick", and by the shortest route.  Some were overcome by fear, wept and raved, while others, of whom I was one, rejoiced at the prospect of a holiday.  Be this as it may, we all hurried home to find out mothers in tears and tribulation.

Such effects as could be removed had been thrown into the wagon, while articles more cumberous were removed to a place of comparative safety in the surrounding cane breaks.  Looking back after a lapse of  75 years to that period of gloom and apprehension, I can barely restrain a smile at the ludicrousness of the scenes presented on that occasion;  and yet it is the smile of sadness, for of the hundreds who met that day capable of defending their homes, not one survives to relate the story of fear and flight;  they are all gone, and of the younger members of the Hegira, two old ladies, now living near where the old field school house stood, are the sole representatives.  These visions of by-gone years come over the memory like the dim shadow of some fleeting cloud that, for a moment, intercepts the sun, without obscuring his light.

The early settlers of Mississippi, like a majority of emigrants to new countries, were a hardy, industrious and independent class of men, and though not blessed with a superfluity of golden treasure, they possessed in abundance the material that constitutes the wealth of a nation vis:  pigs, poultry, and children, sustained by industry, economy and perservence.

It happened in the honored neighborhood of my birth that the supply was ample, especially of children.  This, however, is a digression, for while I have been moralizing, the oxen have been yoked and put to the wagon;  baggage and children have been tumbled in promiscuously and without any regard to the comfort of the latter, horses have received their cargo of livestock, two or three being mounted on each;  and now the cavalcade is underway - if I may use that term which applied to oxen.

Our faces were turned towards Washington, a distant 25 miles, this being our promised land;  but in vain did we look for the cloud that was to conceal our flight from the enemy.  The day was bright and beautiful;  the sun smiles on its course cheerily, and the whole aspect of nature was so mild and placid that if fear had not overcome every other emotion, the outpourings of many a heart would have been offered up in gratitude to the Author who had been so bountiful in the dispensation of His blessings.  At a distance of two miles from home two roads met at a place then and now known as the "Raccoon Box."

At the Raccoon Box, our party was joined by 20 or more families, all on their way to headquarters.  Carts, wagons, children, horses and dogs were so promiscuously thrown together that the elderly dams found much difficulty in keeping together their numerous offspring.

After much confusion and any amount of loud talking, the caravan finally began to move.  The road was narrow, scarcely permitting the passage of two wagons abreast, but it frequently happened that the driver in the rear fancied he heard an unusual noise which might not be a savage yell of delight, and would make a bold attempt to pass to the front, but the attempt was rarely successful, as those in the van were not willing to give any advantage to their less fortunate companions who had to close the long lines of this heterogeneous procession.

The scene was ludicrous beyond description.  Here three white-haired urchins were pelting an old plow horse into a fast walk;  while there a young mother, similarly mounted, was carrying ne child in her lap while two others were holding on desperately to avoid a fearful tumble;  while further on a rickety old cart drawn by two stalwart oxen was loaded with beds, boxes and children thrown together by chance  - the latter crying lustily to be released from their vile imprisonment while the rod was occasionally applied to keep them quite. Being a good walker then, as in later years, I avoided the ills to which many of my own age fell heir.

When the alarm was first given, many of those who were able to make a defense met by previous agreement at a point known as Clifton, the present residence of Israel COLEMAN, which is on the old Robinson Road leading from Natchez to Nashville.

Here in the forenoon of that eventful day, so long remembered by many as an epoch in their lives, about a doze of the neighboring farmers met for consultation.  It was decided that a part of this force should proceed without delay win the direction of Port Gibson, where they had no doubt of meeting with reliable information.

Let me here remark that many of those present on that occasion did not believe the truth of the report, but acted from providential motives in sending the women and children to a place of security, while, if true, they would be in a position to arrest the advance of the Indians long enough to give the fugitives time enough to reach their destination.

I do not recollect the names of all who participated in this movement;  but I do know that Daniel FRISBY, Thompson B. SHAW, Kinsman DIVINE, Asa WATKINS, Robert B. FARLEY, and Henry LEDBETTER were of the number.

It is not necessary for me to tell all they saw and heard on the road.  A bear leisurely crossed the road in front of them, and though the temptation was strong to give him the penalty of bullet, policy protected him.

About nine miles from Port Gibson, they found Robert TRIMBLE and one of his Negro men overhauling the armory and putting all their available artillery in good fighting trim, the old gentleman vowing that he would stand a siege, with the chance of having his house burned, sooner than flee before an imaginary event.  Proceeding on their way, they reach Port Gibson to find it almost deserted;  only a few of the inhabitants were to be seen, of which number Mr. Ben SMITH was one.  He was one of the principal merchants of the place, and was well known to the fighting party from Jefferson County.  Mr. SMITH did not believe that there was a shadow of truth in the report, "but gentlemen, if you are of a different opinion, walk in and supply yourselves with powder and lead;  and as your courage may have sunk a little below fever heat, I have some good old 'Bourbon,' - walk in and help yourselves - while you are getting up steam I will play 'leather breeches,' for I know that some of you will want to dance, as soon as the whiskey has taken effect."  Mr. SMITH was an amateur fiddler.  I have often heard him play and witnessed the dancing of the men of that day in his back room.  Here, in more peaceful times, he and Mrs. BLENNERHASSET, of Aaron BURR notoriety, were in the habit of exercising their skill on the violin, and rumor says that he could put as much Bourbon under her belt as the best drinker in the country.

With this whiskey and ammunition, our party, fully satisfied that there were no hostile Indians on this side of the Tombigbee River, took leave of Mr. SMITH, and hurried to overtake their families, and just at sundown cam up with them near Greenville.  Many of those who had taken flight in the morning, still impelled by fear, did not pause 'till they reached Washington, while all of those from our neighborhood turned back;  but as it was some distance to their homes, the women found shelter under the hospitable roof of the father of the Rev. John C. JONES, whilst the youngster bivouacked under the broad canopy of heaven, from whence the bright starts shone down on their quiet slumbers, after the fatigue and excitement of day, which was long remembered by many who now sleep beneath the cold earth, their very names, perhaps, forgotten by the present generation.

As I write of what happened in my own neighborhood, I shall only go out of the county to relate two trifling, but well authenticated, incidents.  Shdrach FOSTER fled with his household to a dense cane brake, and could with difficulty be restrained from killing a child, whose cries, he feared, might guide the Indians to his place of retreat.  He killed his dog and threatened the life of the first one who spoke above a whisper.

William B. BLANTON, on his way home, overtaken by night and Bourbon, turned his horse loose, and after groping in the dark for some time took refuge in a hollow log, where he slept soundly till after sunrise, when, to his surprise, he discovered that the log was not ten feet from the road, from which he could have been in full view, had the Indians or any one else passed that way.

Such are some of the effects of fear, one of the strongest impulses of our nature, and the least under the control of reason.

Though no immediate danger was apprehended from an invasion of the Indians, it was deemed prudent to adopt measures for future security.  A meeting was held by the neighboring farmers, at which it was determined to erect, in some central location, a fortification sufficient for the protection of the women and children, and for the common safety of the settlement, generally.  In furtherance of this object, they met and erected four block-houses, which were protected by strong palisades, much after the style of the present picket fence, though much higher and of stronger materials.  The fort occupied a gently swelling ridge, but in the hurry it was forgotten that the spring which furnished the only water supply was about fifty feet outside of the fortification, and that in the event of a siege it would be inaccessible.  This was an oversight, but it was cured by time, as the Indians never made their appearance.  I was present when the first tree was cut down, and saw the last picket planted.  This was in the winter of 1813-14.

In 1815. the Tennessee troops bivouacked one night at Fort Shaw, which made it holy ground.  It was the first and last fortress that ever arose obedient to fear or patriotism in Jefferson County.

For several years, on one of the block-houses was used for educational purposes, and here the young idea was taught to shoot, under the inspiration of the birch, which at that day was regarded as a necessary promoter of mental and moral culture.  Subsequently the houses were pulled down and converted to other uses, the land was subjected to the plow and a this day [1881] few, from their personal recollections, could point to the spot where, in 1813-14, Fort Shaw proudly waved the Starts and Stripes.  Of those who assisted in its erection, not one survives.  Two old ladies living hear where the fort stood and the writer and believed to be the last survivors of that eventful period, in this special neighborhood.

When this article was published forty years ago [1850] it was approved by two of the best traditional historians in the country and pronounced true.

                                                                                                John A. WATKINS, Col.
                                                                                                486 St. Charles Ave.
                                                                                                New Orleans, April 10, 1890



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