Men have told the story of the battle of the horse shoe for 200 years: a battle in which American forces led by Andrew Jackson earned a stunning victory. Many who tell the story of this battle are also fond of focusing on the man at the top. Indeed, this national park came into existence because good people in the twentieth century convinced the American government of the site’s national importance. And that importance was intimately linked to the fact that victory at Horseshoe Bend made Andrew Jackson a winning general in a losing war. Following victory here, Andrew Jackson’s promotion to general in the American army led him to New Orleans and another military victory. Success in politics followed success on the battlefield. And in 1959, this place was deemed to have national significance because of its link to a military commander who became president. This story has been told before. Today, I would like to tell a different story.
The first thing they saw, as they marched into the bend, was the breastwork of “large pine timber.”1 The barricade. It was impressive and ingenious. No exact description of the great fortification built to shield the Creek people who had gathered here remains. But we know, from the description of those who came to attack it, that it was a vast line of logs “of greatest compactness and strength—from five to eight feet high, and prepared with double rows of port-holes very artfully arranged.” Its defenders believed that they “lay [End Page 211] in perfect security behind it.” The enemy could not approach the great barricade “without being exposed to a double and cross firm.”2
Breastwork. Barricade. Fortification. Fence. Tohopeka.3 It was designed to separate and protect. As one American who saw it noted, “it was admirably calculated for defense.”4 The Creeks who built it, warriors from Okfuskee, Okchai, Nuyaka, Hillabee, Fish Ponds, and Eufaula, “calculated on repulsing [the enemy] with great ease” and saving their people—women, children, elders—from an invading army.5 It was built from trees which took nourishment from Creek land. It was built by traditional Creek construction methods, and no doubt, there were a few innovations, the result of old ways bending to meet a new challenge, the way the Creek people had always met challenges.
The American army hit it hard and fast with artillery, killing some behind the stout wall. But the technological superiority of American weapons could not dent the green pines grown from red clay. The “brisk fire” of the two cannons continued for a time, joined by musket and rifle fire. For two hours, as Jackson’s men moved to surround this great bend in the river, the Creek defense held. But even the stoutest defense cannot survive against superior force. Outnumbered three to one, the Red Sticks could not survive a war from every side. As Cherokees allied with the Americans crossed the river and set fire to the camp in the toe of the bend, it was clear to all—attackers and defenders—that the American army would win that day.
Still, gunfire continued to come from a particularly stoutly defended angle on the barricade concealed under brush. It was obvious that those ensconced there could not escape. All they could do with fight and die—or surrender. Andrew Jackson, along with George Mayfield, [End Page 212] one of Jackson’s men who spoke “the Creek language,” approached the barricade. Mayfield was a man well acquainted with surrender and escape, having been captured by Creek warriors from his home near Nashville when he was about ten years old. As a Creek captive, he learned the language and knew the people. He left the Creek country to rejoin the family of his birth as an adult man, now serving Jackson as linguist and guide. Jackson and Mayfield crept close to the breastwork, “under cover of a Black Oak” near the Creek position. Mayfield called out to the defenders in Muscogee and “they ceased firing.” Mayfield told them “they could not escape but if they...