The Defensive Wall That Became a Trap

This illustration shows the wall Creek Indians built for defense before the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. It was drawn for “Archaeological Investigations at Horseshoe Bend, National Military Park, Alabama” by Roy S. Dickens, a book that examined the surviving evidence at the scene of one of General Andrew Jackson’s great military triumphs.

Creek rebels known as Red Sticks gathered behind this wall to make a kind of last stand. They had risen up against the power of the United States, against their own leaders, and in favor of ancient traditions. Red Sticks massacred white settlers; U.S. military forces, including an army under Jackson, retaliated by burning numerous Creek villages. Creek survivors retreated to a spot on the banks of Tallapoosa River, where they built a new village in a sharp bend of the river. A contemporary map, preserved today at the Library of Congress, shows what Creeks called Tohopeka, and white men called Horseshoe Bend.

The heavy black lines across the neck of the peninsula show the location of the Creeks’ wall, which was made of logs and filled with clay.

When General Jackson’s little army arrived at Tohopeka, his initial cannon shots bounced harmlessly off the wall. Jackson later wrote that “barbarians” had never made a position more secure. But Jackson understood how vulnerable the Creeks truly were. They had backed themselves up against a river with nowhere to retreat should their wall be breached.

Jackson sent several hundred friendly Cherokee troops, including John Ross, around to the far side of the river to kill any Creeks who tried to swim across. In the end, Cherokees played a larger role than anticipated. Cherokees swam the river, stole Creek canoes to bring more of their comrades across, and caused chaos inside the Creek lines. Jackson’s white soldiers then charged the wall, climbing over it to defeat the Red Sticks in brutal combat. Hundreds of Creeks were killed, including women and children. Jackson’s army lost dozens.

This 1814 victory set the stage for a peace treaty in which Jackson seized 23 million acres of Creek land for the United States. Red Stick rebels did not attend the peace conference, so Jackson compelled his friends among the Creeks to sign. It was the beginning of Jackson’s more than 20 years of obtaining Indian land. Soon he would be targeting the Cherokees, whose land spread across several Southern states. His strongest opponent would be his former soldier John Ross – who understood that he could not defeat Jackson on the battlefield, and sought to best him instead within the emerging democratic system.