Gen Jackson and me in Central Alabama

Cannon at Horseshoe Bend
Cannon at Horseshoe Bend

The first time I heard of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend was at the “Unto Those Hills” pageant in Cherokee, North Carolina.

The outdoor play concentrates on the history of the Trail of Tears from a Cherokee perspective. In the play, they mention that Junaluska, a Cherokee, saved Andrew Jackson’s life at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.

Horseshoe Bend National Military Park in central Alabama is not easy to find and not a place to drop in; you need to want to go there. It’s off a small road, away from any town. I had stayed in Oxford, Alabama the night before and followed my car GPS, phone GPS and a state map. About five miles from the entrance, I found the familiar and comforting brown sign. On a beautiful Sunday morning, I was the only visitor in the park. I felt that they had opened the park just for me.

Two SCA (Student Conservation Association) volunteers greeted me. No ranger was on duty that day. I watched a twenty-minute video, which recounted the complicated history of the Indian-European situation at the time. Here goes:

The Creek Indians in what is now Alabama supplied deerskins to Europeans before the American Revolution but after the revolution, the US was more interested in land than skins. The British gave a lot of Creek land to US as part of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the revolution.

Horseshoe Bend field
Horseshoe Bend field

That was nice of the Brits but it wasn’t their land to give away. To make matters worse, the Creek were split on how they should live with the European presence. The Lower Creek adopted European ways, such as agriculture.

Enter Tecumseh, a Shawnee warrior born in Ohio, who preached going back to the traditional ways and drive the “white man” from Indian Land. Today, we might refer to him as an outside agitator. Tecumseh wanted to create a pan-Indian confederacy to unite against the United State, just as the US united against the Brits. The Upper Creek Indians, referred to as Red Sticks because they painted their war clubs red, listened to this message.

After several attacks from both sides, Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson felt that “Creek should not threaten the frontier or American expansion.” The Red Sticks built Tohopeka Village into the horseshoe bend of the Tallapoosa River; the fortifications were supposed to render the village impenetrable to attacks.

On March 27, 1814, Jackson tried a frontal attack on the fort but to no avail. The Cherokees, who allied themselves with Jackson, crossed the river and attacked the Red Sticks from the rear of the village.

After a fierce battle, the Creek were defeated and ceded 23 million acres to the US, much of it becoming the state of Alabama.

Armed with this brief history, I got a park brochure, showing a 2.8-mile trail as well as a three-mile drive. First, the loop walk which crossed and recrossed the road. Each time the trail entered the woods, it had a sign, which warned you about “potentially Hazardous Wildlife” such as ticks, mosquitoes and poisonous snakes and plants. There were more signs on this trail than I saw in days of hiking in Denali. I didn’t see any snakes or mosquitoes and hopefully, a tick didn’t bite me.

Today, the site is a mixture of an oak, pine and hickory forest and several quiet meadows. I didn’t encounter a single hiker and only one group of bikers zooming on the road.

In 1959, Horseshoe Bend was proclaimed a National Military Park. The state and Alabama Power had donated 2,040 acres. However, before it became part of the park service, a large monument was placed on Gun Hill commemorating the battle with the wrong date – 03/29/1814.

A plaque showing the terminus of Jackson’s route through the wilderness was placed by the U.S. Daughters of the War of 1812. Well, if you can have Daughters of the American Revolution, of the Confederacy, Grand Old Army, why not of the War of 1812? It seems that almost every US war has a Daughters group.

But what happened to Junaluska? Why is he not mentioned anywhere on the Horseshoe Bend site or website? I’ve got to check this out.

As for Andrew Jackson, he headed to Louisiana for the Battle of New Orleans – and that’s where I’m heading to in a couple of weeks.

PS I emailed Ranger Heather Tassin and asked about Junaluska. Here’s what she said:

We have no records that Junaluska was present at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend since he is not listed in the muster rolls. I have heard this same story, but it is probably more in reference to the Cherokees’ participation in the battle than literally saving Jackson’s life. The Cherokee warrior Whale swam across the river, stole canoes to shuttle people across and attacked the village of Tohopeka which changed the course of the battle and ultimately resulted in Jackson’s victory.

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