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Jackson, Andrew (1767-1845) [The Massacre of Chehaw indians by Georgia militia] [Decimalized .01- .06]

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Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC00782.11 Author/Creator: Jackson, Andrew (1767-1845) Place Written: [various places] Type: Header Record Date: May - August 1818 Pagination: 6 items

This collection of letters relates to the killing of Chehaw Indians by Georgia militia during the first Seminole War. The Chehaws were a friendly agricultural Creek tribe from southwestern Georgia that helped provision Jackson on his march to Florida and even contributed 40 warriors to the expedition. (Among Jackson's Indian recruits was a young Cherokee who later became principal chief of the united branches of his nation, John Ross, for whom see GLC# 1233.) However, with the countryside stripped of troops by Jackson, two nearby Creek tribes began marauding white settlers, and Georgia Governor William Rabun felt compelled to act. Rabun summoned the state militia under the command of Captain Obed Wright. On incorrect information, Wright attacked the relatively defenseless Chehaw village, killed about seven Indians and burned the buildings. He never attacked the marauding tribes.
Meanwhile, General Jackson exceeded his orders in Florida by capturing Pensacola and killing two British nationals. Upon completing his mission, the Indians and Georgia militia were detached and returned under General Thomas Glascock to find the Chehaw village in ruins. He reported his findings, a combination of hearsay and observation, to Jackson, Rabun and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. A copy of Glascock's letter to Jackson is included (782.11.03). Jackson's anger not doubt increased on reading a letter dated May 5 from General William M'Intosh, commanding the Creek warriors under Jackson, who wrote: "When I returned home to my town, I heard with regret that my uncle [Howard] and family had been murdered, and that their town was destroyed. If an Indian kills a white man, I will have him punished. I wish you to find out who has done this murder, and let me know what those Indians have done, that made the white men kill our people." (Editorial insertion in original.) (Niles Register, June 20, 1818, XIV, no. 17: 292)
Outraged that an ally, who had materially contributed to his expedition had been assaulted and had seen an aged chief killed, Jackson wrote to Governor Rabun the vituperative letter reproduced below (782.11.01). Jackson demanded Wright's arrest and his trial by a military court martial under federal supervision. His letter to Rabun also claimed that Rabun should never have called out the militia in Jackson's military department while a military operation was in progress. Rabun was in turn outraged by Jackson's tone and his insistence that a state governor could not call out the militia. (Jackson was wrong in asking for a federal court martial and for questioning Rabun's authority over the militia.) Unfortunately, both men's honor had been impugned publically.
Captain Wright was arrested by Jackson's agent, Major John M. Davis, but Wright was released by a Georgia court by a writ of habeas corpus since the General's order had no specific charge (Niles Register, op cit., 293). Davis' letters to Governor Rabun concerning apprehension of Wright are reproduced below (782.11.04 and .06) as is a clerical copy of Jackson's orders to him. However, President's Monroe's administration did not support Jackson's demand for a court martial. With Secretary of State John Quincy Adams' tactful intervention (782.11.02), Rabun agreed to detain Wright for a civil trial. However, because of confused signals from Washington, Captain Wright was never informed that he would face a civil trial rather than a military one. Increasingly fearful, Wright broke his parole and fled for Spanish Florida and then possibly to Cuba, whence he was never heard of again.
The Chehaws estimated property loss at $8,000, according to Niles Register (op cit., 293). The affair never seems to have been settled. In his message to the state legislature, Governor Rabun wrote that Wright had violated his orders and lamented the result. Georgia newspapers lamented the injustice. Congress took note of the incident in its State Papers. However, I can find no record of compensation to the tribe or punishment of the militia.
Later that year, exhausted from old age and stress, Governor Rabun died. Andrew Jackson found his reputation nearly destroyed by his heavy-handed actions in Spanish Florida. The Chehaw affair was not entirely forgotten, however. E. Merton Coulter reports that John Quincy Adams cited the Chehaw affair in an House debate in 1842 in order to defend the right of military over civil law in certain cases. However, the former president misremembered the result of the incident since Jackson did not overrule Rabun (Coulter 391 citing the Congressional Globe, vol. XI, pt. 1, [1841-1842]: 429).

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