The Crayon Papers/The Conspiracy of Neamathla

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The Conspiracy of Neamathla[edit]


In the autumn of 1823, Governor Duval, and other commissioners on the part of the United States, concluded a treaty with the chiefs and warriors of the Florida Indians, by which the latter, for certain considerations, ceded all claims to the whole territory, excepting a district in the eastern part, to which they were to remove, and within which they were to reside for twenty years. Several of the chiefs signed the treaty with great reluctance; but none opposed it more strongly than Neamathla, principal chief of the Mickasookies, a fierce and warlike people, many of them Creeks by origin, who lived about the Mickasookie lake. Neamathla had always been active in those depredations on the frontiers of Georgia which had brought vengeance and ruin on the Seminoles. He was a remarkable man; upward of sixty years of age, about six feet high, with a fine eye, and a strongly marked countenance, over which he possessed great command. His hatred of the white men appeared to be mixed with contempt: on the common people he looked down with infinite scorn. He seemed unwilling to acknowledge any superiority of rank or dignity in Governor Duval, claiming to associate with him on terms of equality, as two great chieftains. Though he had been prevailed upon to sign the treaty, his heart revolted at it. In one of his frank conversations with Governor Duval, he observed: "This country belongs to the red man; and if I had the number of warriors at my command that this nation once had I would not leave a white man on my lands. I would exterminate the whole. I can say this to you, for you can understand me: you are a man; but I would not say it to your people. They'd cry out I was a savage, and would take my life. They cannot appreciate the feelings of a man that loves his country."

As Florida had but recently been erected into a territory, everything as yet was in rude and simple style. The governor, to make himself acquainted with the Indians, and to be near at hand to keep an eye upon them, fixed his residence at Tallahassee, near the Fowel towns, inhabited by the Mickasookies. His government palace for a time was a mere log house, and he lived on hunters' fare. The village of Neamathla was but about three miles off, and thither the governor occasionally rode, to visit the old chieftain. In one of these visits he found Neamathla seated in his wigwam, in the center of the village, surrounded by his warriors. The governor had brought him some liquor as a present, but it mounted quickly into his brain and rendered him quite boastful and belligerent. The theme ever uppermost in his mind was the treaty with the whites. "It was true," he said, "the red men had made such a treaty, but the white men had not acted up to it. The red men had received none of the money and the cattle that had been promised them: the treaty, therefore, was at an end, and they did not mean to be bound by it."

Governor Duval calmly represented to him that the time appointed in the treaty for the payment and delivery of the money and the cattle had not yet arrived. This the old chieftain knew full well, but he chose, for the moment, to pretend ignorance. He kept on drinking and talking, his voice growing louder and louder, until it resounded all over the village. He held in his hand a long knife, with which he had been rasping tobacco; this he kept flourishing backward and forward, as he talked, by way of giving effect to his words, brandishing it at times within an inch of the governor's throat. He concluded his tirade by repeating that the country belonged to the red men, and that sooner than give it up his bones and the bones of his people should bleach upon its soil.

Duval saw that the object of all this bluster was to see whether he could be intimidated. He kept his eye, therefore, fixed steadily on the chief, and the moment he concluded with his menace, seized him by the bosom of his hunting shirt, and clinching his other fist:

"I've heard what you have said," replied he. "You have made a treaty, yet you say your bones shall bleach before you comply with it. As sure as there is a sun in heaven, your bones shall bleach, if you do not fulfill every article of that treaty I I'll let you know that I am first here, and will see that you do your duty!"

Upon this, the old chieftain threw himself back, burst into a fit of laughing, and declared that all he had said was in joke. The governor suspected, however, that there was a grave meaning at the bottom of this jocularity.

For two months, everything went on smoothly: the Indians repaired daily to the log-cabin palace of the governor, at Tallahassee, and appeared perfectly contented. All at once they ceased their visits, and for three or four days not one was to be seen. Governor Duval began to apprehend that some mischief was brewing. On the evening of the fourth day a chief named Yellow-Hair, a resolute, intelligent fellow, who had always evinced an attachment for the governor, entered his cabin about twelve o'clock at night, and informed him that between four and five hundred warriors, painted and decorated, were assembled to hold a secret war-talk at Neamathla's town. He had slipped off to give intelligence, at the risk of his life, and hastened back lest his absence should be discovered.

Governor Duval passed an anxious night after this intelligence. He knew the talent and the daring character of Neamathla; he recollected the threats he had thrown out; he reflected that about eighty white families were scattered widely apart, over a great extent of country, and might be swept away at once, should the Indians, as he feared, determine to clear the country. That he did not exaggerate the dangers of the case has been proved by the horrid scenes of Indian warfare that have since desolated that devoted region. After a night of sleepless cogitation, Duval determined on a measure suited to his prompt and resolute character. Knowing the admiration of the savages for personal courage, he determined, by a sudden surprise, to endeavor to overawe and check them. It was hazarding much; but where so many lives were in jeopardy, he felt bound to incur the hazard.

Accordingly, on the next morning, he set off on horseback, attended merely by a white man who had been reared among the Seminoles, and understood their language and manners, and who acted as interpreter. They struck into an Indian "trail," leading to Neamathla's village. After proceeding about half a mile, Governor Duval informed the interpreter of the object of his expedition. The latter, though a bold man, paused and remonstrated. The Indians among whom they were going were among the most desperate and discontented of the nation. Many of them were veteran warriors, impoverished and exasperated by defeat, and ready to set their lives at any hazard. He said that if they were holding a war council, it must be with desperate intent, and it would be certain death to intrude among them.

Duval made light of his apprehensions: he said he was perfectly well acquainted with the Indian character, and should certainly proceed. So saying, he rode on. When within half a mile of the village, the interpreter addressed him again, in such a tremulous tone that Duval turned and looked him in the face. He was deadly pale, and once more urged the governor to return, as they would certainly be massacred if they proceeded.

Duval repeated his determination to go on, but advised the other to return, lest his pale face should betray fear to the Indians, and they might take advantage of it. The interpreter replied that he would rather die a thousand deaths than have it said he had deserted his leader when in peril.

Duval then told him he must translate faithfully all he should say to the Indians, without softening a word. The interpreter promised faithfully to do so, adding that he well knew, when they were once in the town, nothing but boldness could save them.

They now rode into the village, and advanced to the council house. This was rather a group of four houses, forming a square, in the center of which was a great council-fire. The houses were open in front, toward the fire, and closed in the rear. At each corner of the square there was an interval between the houses, for ingress and egress. In these houses sat the old men and the chiefs; the young men were gathered round the fire. Neamathla presided at the council, elevated on a higher seat than the rest.

Governor Duval entered by one of the corner intervals, and rode boldly into the center of the square. The young men made way for him; an old man who was speaking paused in the midst of his harangue. In an instant thirty or forty rifles were cocked and leveled. Never had Duval heard so loud a click of triggers; it seemed to strike on his heart. He gave one glance at the Indians, and turned off with an air of contempt. He did not dare, he says, to look again, lest it might affect his nerves; and on the firmness of his nerves everything depended.

The chief threw up his arm. The rifles were lowered. Duval breathed more freely: he felt disposed to leap from his horse, but restrained himself, and dismounted leisurely. He then walked deliberately up to Neamathla, and demanded, in an authoritative tone, what were his motives for holding that council. The moment he made this demand the orator sat down. The chief made no reply, but hung his head in apparent confusion. After a moment's pause, Duval proceeded:

"I am well aware of the meaning of this war-council; and deem it my duty to warn you against prosecuting the schemes you have been devising. If a single hair of a white man in this country falls to the ground, I will hang you and your chiefs on the trees around your council house! You cannot pretend to withstand the power of the white men. You are in the palm of the hand of your Great Father at Washington, who can crush you like an egg-shell. You may kill me: I am but one man; but recollect, white men are numerous as the leaves on the trees. Remember the fate of your warriors whose bones are whitening in battlefields. Remember your wives and children who perished in swamps. Do you want to provoke more hostilities? Another war with the white men, and there will not be a Seminole left to tell the story of his race."

Seeing the effect of his words, he concluded by appointing a day for the Indians to meet him at St. Marks, and give an account of their conduct. He then rode off, without giving them time to recover from their surprise. That night he rode forty miles to Apalachicola River, to the tribe of the same name, who were in feud with the Seminoles. They promptly put two hundred and fifty warriors at his disposal, whom he ordered to be at St. Marks at the appointed day. He sent out runners, also, and mustered one hundred of the militia to repair to the same place, together with a number of regulars from the army. All his arrangements were successful.

Having taken these measures, he returned to Tallahassee, to the neighborhood of the conspirators, to show them that he was not afraid. Here he ascertained, through Yellow-Hair, that nine towns were disaffected, and had been concerned in the conspiracy. He was careful to inform himself, from the same source, of the names of the warriors in each of those towns who were most popular, though poor, and destitute of rank and command.

When the appointed day was at hand for the meeting at St. Marks, Governor Duval set off with Neamathla, who was at the head of eight or nine hundred warriors, but who feared to venture into the fort without him. As they entered the fort, and saw troops and militia drawn up there, and a force of Apalachicola soldiers stationed on the opposite bank of the river, they thought they were betrayed, and were about to fly; but Duval assured them they were safe, and that when the talk was over they might go home unmolested.

A grand talk was now held, in which the late conspiracy was discussed. As he had foreseen, Neamathla and the other old chiefs threw all the blame upon the young men, "Well," replied Duval, "with us white men, when we find a man incompetent to govern those under him, we put him down, and appoint another in his place. Now as you all acknowledge you cannot manage your young men, we must put chiefs over them who can."

So saying, he deposed Neamathla first; appointing another in his place; and so on with all the rest; taking care to substitute the warriors who had been pointed out to him as poor and popular; putting medals round their necks, and investing them with great ceremony. The Indians were surprised and delighted at finding the appointments fall upon the very men they would themselves have chosen, and hailed them with acclamations. The warriors thus unexpectedly elevated to command, and clothed with dignity, were secured to the interests of the governor, and sure to keep an eye on the disaffected. As to the great chief Neamathla, he left the country in disgust, and returned to the Creek nation, who elected him a chief of one of their towns. Thus by the resolute spirit and prompt sagacity of one man, a dangerous conspiracy was completely defeated. Governor Duval was afterward enabled to remove the whole nation, through his own personal influence, without the aid of the general government.

To the Editor of the Knickerbocker:

SIR--The following letter was scribbled to a friend during my sojourn in the Alhambra, in 1828. As it presents scenes and impressions noted down at the time, I venture to offer it for the consideration of your readers. Should it prove acceptable, I may from tune to time give other letters, written in the course of my various ramblings, and which have been kindly restored to me by my friends.

Yours, G. C.