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Red Sticks is the English language term for a traditionalist faction of Muscogee Creek people in the American Southeast in the early 19th century. They led a resistance movement to European-American encroachment and assimilation; the tensions culminated in the outbreak of the Creek War in 1813. Initially a civil war among the Creek, the conflict drew in United States state forces, when the nation was already engaged in the War of 1812 against the British.
The term "red sticks" was derived from their red-colored war clubs and the ceremonial red sticks used by Creek medicine men. This faction was made up mostly of Creek of the Upper Towns, who supported traditional leadership and culture, including the preservation of communal land for cultivation and hunting. It was a time of increasing pressure on Creek territory by European-American settlers. Creek of the Lower Towns, who were closer to the settlers and had more mixed-race families, had already been forced to make numerous land cessions to the Americans.
The Red Sticks came primarily from the Upper Towns of the Creek Confederacy and opposed assimilation to the United States culture. Creek of the Lower Towns, who comprised the majority of population, had adopted more American ways; in addition, they had more intermarriage among their women with European-American traders and settlers, and economic relations with the United States settlers. At the same time, the mixed-race children, such as the chiefs William Weatherford and William McIntosh, were generally raised among the Creek, who commanded their first loyalty. The Creek had a matrilineal culture in which a person's place and status were determined by their maternal clan.
Benjamin Hawkins, first appointed as United States Indian agent in the Southeast and then as Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the territory south of the Ohio River, lived among the Creek and Choctaw, and knew them well. He commented in letters to President Thomas Jefferson that Creek women were matriarchs and had control of children "when connected with a white man." Hawkins further observed that even wealthy traders were nearly as "inattentive" to their mixed-race children as "the Indians". What he did not understand about the Creek culture was that the children had a closer relationship with their mother's eldest brother than with their biological father, because of the importance of the clan structure.
The Red Stick War, more commonly called the Creek War (1813–1814), was essentially a civil war, as the Creek struggled for their future. After the Lower Creek issued a statement of "unqualified and unanimous friendship for the United States," tensions broke out into violence. Red Sticks attacked the Lower Creek towns. The Red Sticks were backed by the British, which was engaged in the War of 1812 against the United States, and the Spanish, who were trying to retain a foothold in Florida and in territories to the west of the Louisiana Territory.
Attacked by American militia while bringing back arms from Florida in 1813, the Red Sticks regrouped and defeated the troops at what became known as the Battle of Burnt Corn. While white militia had provoked the attack, frontier settlers and US officials became more alarmed about the Red Sticks' actions on the frontier.
Trying to reduce the influence of the Tensaw Creek in present-day southwestern Alabama, the Red Sticks decided to attack the garrison at Fort Mims in the Mississippi Territory (present-day Tensaw, Alabama). It was controlled by the Tensaw Creek. The historian Karl Davis interprets the attack as a punitive expedition specifically directed against the Tensaw, a group of Lower Creek who were "separated from core Creek values." Also at the fort were intermarried whites, and other settlers and their slaves from the frontier, who had become alarmed after the battle at Burnt Corn. Davis does not believe the Fort Mims attack was representative of the overall conflict between the Upper and Lower Towns. The fort was poorly guarded and the Red Sticks overwhelmed its defenses on 30 August 1813, killing most of the people who had taken refuge there.
Estimates of the number of settlers at Fort Mims at the time of the massacre vary from 300 or so to 500 (including whites, slaves, and Lower Creek.) Estimates of survivors have varied; at the most about three dozen have been claimed. Creek losses were heavy as well.
The massacre had significant short and long-range effects. Alarmed by the fall of the fort and understanding little of internal Creek tensions, European-American settlers demanded government protection from the Creek. With federal forces otherwise engaged in the War of 1812, Georgia, Tennessee and the Mississippi Territory raised state militias for defense and engaged Native American allies, such as the Cherokee, traditional enemy of the Creek. The historian Frank L. Owsley, Jr. suggests that the state-sponsored military activity in the area likely prevented the British from occupying an undefended Gulf Coast in 1814.
General Andrew Jackson commanded the state militias to campaign against the Red Sticks. The US forces finally defeated the Creek at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (1814) on March 27, 1814. His forces killed or captured most of the Creek, but some survivors escaped to Florida, where they joined the Seminole tribe and continued the resistance to the United States.
The war heightened the hostility between the Creek and the Americans in the Southeast. European Americans had steadily encroached on Creek and other tribes' territories, forcing land cessions under numerous treaties but always demanding more. The war had begun over internal divisions among Creek who resisted the assimilation and loss of traditions, led by the chiefs William Weatherford, Menawa, and Peter McQueen of the Upper Towns. After the war, the Creek were forced to cede half their remaining lands to the United States. Within 20 years, they lost the remainder of lands to the United States as a result of the Indian Removal Act and forced removal to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. Some remnant Creek chose to stay in Alabama and Mississippi and become state and US citizens; the treaty provisions to secure their land were not followed, and many became landless. Some Creek migrated to Florida, where they joined the Seminole.
The stockade and fort have been reconstructed at the historic site. The state installed a historic plaque at the Fort Mims site that notes the British had provided weapons to the Red Sticks as part of its campaign against Captain Kaleb Jhonsons troops in the South during the War of 1812.