Captivity and Sufferings of Mrs. Crawley
by Robert Register
On August 9, 1814, Major General Andrew Jackson signed the Treaty of Fort Jackson with the Chiefs of the Creek Nation. Jackson's treaty mentions Creek aggressions against citizens of the U.S. "at the mouth of the Duck River, Fort Mims and elsewhere..." Here Jackson used the tragic saga of Mrs. Martha Crawley of Duck River to justify tearing 23-million acres away from the Creek Nation.
This is her story...
In June of 1812, the Creek-American War had not begun, but war clouds could be seen on the horizon. Congress had issued a declaration of war against Great Britain on June 18, so news could not have reached Hillabee Haujo's men at Black Warrior's Town, but one did not need a formal declaration of war to assess the hostile disposition of the young Creek Warriors who gathered around the cooking fires on that warm evening 200 years ago this year.
Mrs. Martha Crawley of Humphrey County, Tennessee, certainly appreciated the threat these young men represented as she stirred their hominy cooking on the fire. Three weeks earlier this courageous pioneer woman had witnessed these fellows' skills of destruction with fire and gunpowder. These angry, thoughtless young punks were ungovernable and their indiscretions would lead their tribe into a bloody civil war of annihilation.
Mrs. Crawley was in her home waiting for her husband to return when she heard the monstrous screams of the young Indians coming through her open door. Quickly shutting the door, she held it against the attacking Creeks. Her visitor, Mrs. Manly, sat in the living room of the house clutching her eight-day old infant. The last thing she told Mrs. Crawley was that it would be impossible to keep the Indians out. At that moment the war party burst through the door, slamming Mrs. Crawley behind the door and hiding her. From the temporary sanctuary of the space behind the door, she witnessed acts that would "chill the blood of any human being."
Helplessly, she watched one of her own children hide in the potato cellar as one of the Creeks snatched Mrs. Manly's baby from her arms and threw it into the fireplace. Mrs. Manly was then shot and scalped. Mrs. Crawley witnessed two of her own children, two of Mrs. Manly's children and a young man name Hays brutally murdered.
When discovered hiding behind the door, Mrs. Martha Crawley begged for her life. The Indians let her live. Maybe they needed her to cook for them on the trail south to Black Warrior's Town, or maybe those boys had their fill of killing that day.
The captive Mrs. Crawley and Hillabee Haujo's men took three weeks to cover the trail to the beautiful falls of the Black Warrior. It was now June and they had been back only one day when one of the squaws told Mrs. Crawley that the men were digging her grave and that she would be put to death right after she'd cooked supper. No longer needed for her cooking skills on the trail, Mrs. Crawley knew time was of the essence and the boiling pot of hominy was central to her plan of escape.
There are many sources that detail her captivity and escape, but the most compelling document is her own sworn deposition. On August 11, 1812, Mrs. Martha Crawley appeared before the Justice of the Peace of Humphrey County, Tennessee, and testified about her treatment during her captivity. According to her testimony, Mrs. Crawley was hurriedly taken by her captors to the mouth of Duck River, where bark canoes stashed on the river bank enabled the party to escape the Nashville militia which was assembling seventy miles to the east.
Mrs. Crawley spent her first night tied to a tree by her neck and arms. The next day they headed south for Bear Creek on the Tennessee River. After a twelve day journey, they arrived at the point near the northern terminus of the Alabama-Mississippi state line. At this place, the men spent the day smoking and drinking with some Chickasaws headed by George Colbert. Colbert, for whom Colbert County takes its name, had a family that ran a ferry across the Tennessee River on the Natchez Trace. As Chief of the Chickasaws, Colbert probably regretted ignoring Mrs. Crawley while enjoying refreshments with her gangster captors, especially after he received a letter from Andrew Jackson dated June 5, 1812. Jackson was not happy with the report that the rumor mill was sending him concerning Chickasaw Chief Colbert's indifference to Mrs. Crawley's distress. Jackson wrote:
Friend and Brother!
Mark what I tell you!
The white people will do no wrong to the Indians and will suffer the Indians to do no wrong to them. The Creeks have killed our women and children:
We have sent to demand the murderers, if they are not given up, the whole Creek nation shall be covered with blood:
fire shall consume their towns and villages:
and their lands shall be divided among the whites.
Friend and Brother!
You tell us you are the friend of the whites.
Now prove it to me.
Send me the names of the Creeks who have killed our women and children:
Tell me the towns they belong to; and the place where they carried the women.
I am your friend and brother.
5 June 1812
After leaving Bear Creek, another week on the trail took the Indians and their captive across the Tennessee Valley Divide, down the Tombigbee and east to Black Warrior's Town. Soon word that a captive American woman was being held at the falls of the Black Warrior traveled downriver to St. Stephens and into the Choctaw Indian Trading House of George Strother Gaines. The bearer of the news was Tandy Walker, Choctaw agency blacksmith and one of the most extraordinary backwoodsman on the Alabama frontier. Since 1811, Walker had secretly informed Gaines of Ocheocheemotla's schemes to support the British in a new war where Ocheocheemotla would pillage Gaines store at St. Stephens on the Tombigbee.
Gaines' wife also heard Tandy Walker's information and she pleaded with this daring frontiersman who spoke the Muskogee language to rescue Mrs. Crawley and bring her down the river to St. Stephens.
While Tandy Walker paddled up the Black Warrior to attempt the rescue of Mrs. Crawley, there was no time to be lost in getting her out of Black Warrior's Town. The squaw's warning about the freshly opened grave let Martha know it was time to act. After stirring the thick hominy, Martha Crawley told one of the men by sign language that the hominy was too thick and she asked permission to take a tin cup to the spring for water.
She made her escape in the dark woods but instead of wandering aimlessly through the night, she hid in a hollow log. Daybreak found her uncertain and confused. It was afternoon before she decided upon her strategy. She would follow the setting sun toward the Tombigbee. Martha knew where that river was located. She and her captors had traveled south down the Tombigbee after leaving Bear Creek and she was certain that this pioneer trade route from the Tennessee River to the settlements around St. Stephens was her only hope for finding Americans who could protect her from the Indians.
Hungry after two days of subsisting on blackberries as well as wet and weary from her attempt to cross the swamps, Martha turned back east. By nightfall she approached an Indian town on the Black Warrior. The first Indians she saw gave her some exciting news. Her prayers had been answered. The Indians signaled that there was someone in their town who spoke English.
Could this be an American trader capable of effecting her rescue? Filled with anticipation, this pioneer woman followed the Indians to their town and she entered the dark door of the English speaker.
Anticipation turned to panic. There was no English being spoken in that house. In the dimly lighted cabin room, all Martha saw was a bunch of Indians.
Immediately she used sign language to tell the squaw she needed to step outside. With the squaw's permission, Mrs. Crawley began her second attempt to escape and ran into the night.
This time she did not seek the refuge of a hollow log. Now she walked all night and into the next day. At about one o'clock in the afternoon, an Indian with a gun walked up to Mrs. Crawley as she walked through the woods. He signaled for her to follow him back to the town on the Black Warrior. Martha refused. A little animal noise came from the armed Indian's lips and it was answered immediately by an identical noise from the woods. Martha Crawley and her new captor were soon joined by other Indians and for the third time she was heading back to the Black Warrior.
On this trip back to town, Martha did meet an English speaker. He was standing by a cowpen. Tandy Walker had arrived from St. Stephens under the pretense of coming upriver for a beef cattle buying trip. By offering a reward of $25 to anyone who could find Mrs. Crawley, Tandy had turned his buying trip into a dramatic rescue of a captive American woman.
With war with the Creeks inevitable, Walker probably never squared up with the Indians over the $25 reward. He and Martha took his canoe down river and soon Mrs. Crawley was mending her sore hands and feet in the comfort of Strother Gaines' Choctaw Indian Trading House located in the old Spanish fort of St. Stephens.
After recovering, Martha returned to her home on the Duck River with a group of Mr. Gaines' friends who were heading north to Tennessee through the wilderness.
Mrs. Crawley's story does not end with her return to Humphrey County and to the smiling faces of her surviving children. In the newspapers and political offices of the Old Southwest, Martha had become a cause celebre'. On June 25, 1812, Willie Blount, Governor of Tennessee, wrote Secretary of War John Armstrong to demand an invasion of the Creek Nation and claimed Martha had been stripped and paraded naked through the Indian villages along the route south to the Black Warrior's Town(In his extensive research on the Creek War published in Petitioner's Exhibit No. 410, Creek Nation East of the Mississippi versus the United States, Dr. James Doster, professor of history at the University of Alabama, writes,"I find nothing in the published statements of Mrs. Crawley or other eye witnesses to support this [Blount's] statement)." The Tennessee legislature also believed that it was a time "to kill or be killed," and called for troops to eliminate the Creeks.
A Nashville newspaper, THE CLARION, declared that the Creeks"have supplied us with a pretext for the dismemberment of their country."Andrew Jackson, enraged by President Madison's delay in delivering him his commission to be a Major General of United States Volunteers, wrote Governor Blount on July 10:
When we make the case of Mrs. Manly and her family and Mrs. Crawley our own-
when we figure to ourselves our beloved wives and little prattling infants, butchered, mangled, murdered, and torn to pieces, by savage bloodhounds, and wallowing in their gore, you can judge of our feelings. What feelings can a government have, who can hear the recital, and await the slow progress of dispatches thro the channel of a mail to an Indian agent..
Ironically, the actions of the Creek Indian agent, Benjamin Hawkins, may have contributed more to war than Jackson's threat to "penetrate the Creek towns, untill the Captive, with her Captors are delivered up, and think myself Justifiable, in laying waste their villages, burning their houses, killing their warriors and leading into Captivity their wives and children, untill I do obtain a surrender of the Captive, and the Captors." Agent Hawkins assembled a Creek council that administered the death penalty to Mrs. Crawleys captors in August of 1812. This kind of leadership of the Creek Nation by Hawkins split the Indians and led to the formation of the Red Sticks.
One year later Jackson got his wish. The Creek-American War commenced when the Red Stick forces of Red Eagle (a.k.a. Billy Weatherford) attacked Ft. Mims. More than 300 people "were butchered in the quickest manner... The children were seized by the legs, and killed by batting their heads against the stockading. The women were scalped, and those who were pregnant were opened, while they were alive, and the embryo infants let out of the womb."
Angie Debo in her book on the Creeks, THE ROAD TO DISAPPEARANCE, writes about the impact of Ft. Mims,"...when the savage din died down, one hundred-seven soldiers, one hundred-sixty civilians and one hundred Negroes were lying dead and their bloody scalps were dangling from the belts of their exultant foes." The Creek Nation had been unable to restrain their own young hoodlums so now the militias of Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi with their unquenchable appetite for Indian land had the excuse they needed to burn and murder Indian friends and foes alike.
On about September 12, 1813, Colonel John McKee, later to become Tuscaloosa County's first U.S. Representative, was in Nashville when the messenger from General E.P. Gaines, Strother Gaines' brother, arrived with the news of Fort Mims. One of General Jackson's first orders directed McKee to gather Choctaw and Chickasaw warriors to march a diversionary force against Black Warrior's Town at the Falls of the Black Warrior.
McKee, with the assistance of John Pitchlynn, who lived on the Tombigbee near the mouth of the Oktibbeha, assembled six hundred Choctaws and Chickasaws for the Black Warrior expedition, and on January 7, 1814 this army reached its objective.
They found Black Warrior's Town deserted. Standing at the falls of the Black Warrior as his men burned what was left of the abandoned town, which was twice ordered burned by General Andrew Jackson, the professional land surveyor in McKee must have considered how nature had provided that the falls of the Black Warrior would make it the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico
for the Tennessee Valley. In dealing out vengeance for Mrs. Crawley, Colonel McKee had sealed his own fate.
Four years later he began building his plantation, Hill of Howth, near the junction of the Black Warrior and the Tombigbee. Three years after that he became Tuscaloosa's first prominent citizen when he opened the land office and sold the first lot in downtown Tuscaloosa.
So the next time you consider the rocky shoals underneath the backwater of the Black Warrior River, think about the Indian captive at the Black Warrior's Town and how her torment shaped Tuscaloosa history.