Editor's note: The following article is a collaboration between St. George Island's James Hargrove, and Robert Register, from Daughin Island, Alabama. Hargrove said he drew on Coker and Watson's "Indian Traders of the SE Borderlands," (which is in the Apachicola Municipal Library), plus Frank Owsley's "Struggle for the Gulf Borderlands," and to some extent Dale Cox's "Fort Scott, Fort Hughes and Camp Recovery" in his writing.
British preparation for the battle of New Orleans began on St. George Island in May 1814, when Capt. Hugh Pigot of the Royal Navy anchored the warship Orpheus in Apalachicola Bay, and Capt. George Woodbine of the Royal Marines unloaded 2,000 muskets and ammunition for delivery to Creek Indians and escaped black slaves who were living along the river. At the same time, the British navy began to blockade American ports from Mobile to New Orleans.
The British advance into Apalachicola Bay was the first move in a three-pronged attack on American territory planned by Adm. Alexander Cochrane that would next hit Mobile and New Orleans, from which their forces could control navigation on the Mississippi River. He sent Pigot and Woodbine to the Apalachicola River to train Creek Indians and black Colonial Marines, expecting the allies would cut off Americans forces coming from Georgia on the Old Federal Road and block them from helping to defend Mobile or New Orleans.
Without permission from the neutral Spanish government, the British began constructing a fort 25 miles up the Apalachicola River less than a mile from the store at Prospect Bluff run by the merchants and Indian traders of John Forbes & Company. Although Forbes and his partners, James and John Innerarity, were all British citizens, conflict was inevitable because British officers could augment their pay by looting Forbes’ businesses and selling the plunder as prizes of war.
At Prospect Bluff, Woodbine conscripted Forbes’ agents, William Hambly and Edmund Doyle, along with 25 black slaves, to help build and manage their fort. With Doyle and Hambly preoccupied, the British and their allies looted Forbes’ store. The former slaves were recruited into the Colonial Marines, and 300 of Forbes’ cattle were confiscated to feed Creek and Seminole Indians, who were starving because Andrew Jackson’s forces had burned their villages and crops during the Creek War of 1813.
Woodbine’s actions at Prospect Bluff convinced Forbes’ partners, James and John Innerarity, the firm would fare better with the Americans than the British. For the rest of the war, the partners aided the Americans by sharing crucial information they gleaned from their vast trading network that extended from Amelia Island to Pensacola and New Orleans.
Forbes & Company assist Americans
According to their British charter, John Forbes & Company could operate under the flag of any country. Using this rule, James and John Innerarity had obtained Spanish citizenship by residence without giving up their British citizenship, and thereby were able to trade freely in Florida. After the United States annexed Mobile in 1813, the Inneraritys applied for U.S. citizenship. U.S. Gen. James Wilkinson’s quartermaster purchased tools, bricks, lumber, food and office supplies from the company. Through these favorable associations, the senior Forbes partners were becoming ever closer to Americans and suspicious of British intentions. The War of 1812 was already being fought from Washington to Nova Scotia, and Forbes company ships on the route from London to Nassau were in jeopardy.
In July 1813, several delegations of Creek Indians, who were hostile to American encroachment, had arrived in Spanish Pensacola seeking gunpowder and firearms. Led by chiefs Peter McQueen and High Head Jim, about 300 men requested arms from the governor, Gonzalez Manrique, who refused their request. Angered, they turned to John Innerarity at the Forbes store in Pensacola. Innerarity feared that an Indian war would begin. He showed them only empty barrels and turned down their request for firearms and gunpowder, saying that merchants could not simply make presents to the tribes. Unfortunately, Gov. Manrique relented and provided McQueen with 1,000 pounds of gunpowder, and the U.S. declared war with the Creeks after the hostiles destroyed Fort Mims, Alabama.
Alarmed the Creeks could become dangerous if the British armed them, Jackson’s Tennessee volunteers marched to the Alabama River from Nashville and defeated the hostiles at Horseshoe Bend, Alabama on March 27, 1814. Jackson forced the Creeks to cede half of their remaining territory to the United States. With some justification, hostile factions among the Creeks and Seminoles blamed Forbes & Company for the lack of firearms and gunpowder that led to their defeat and loss of land.
War begins on the Gulf Coast
In July 1814, a second British fleet anchored at Havana, Cuba, and the Royal Marine commander, Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls, attempted to persuade the Spanish captain general, Ruiz Apodaca, to allow British troops to defend Florida against the Americans. Spain was neutral in the conflict, and although Apodaca did not protest troops on the Apalachicola River, he demanded the British stay out of Pensacola.
Nicolls departed for Apalachicola in August, only to find Woodbine had left Prospect Bluff for Pensacola in an attempt to find fresh provisions for his Indian and black recruits. Nicolls immediately followed to Pensacola, and was given permission to occupy Fort St. Michael. However, he alienated the Spanish citizens by taking military control of the town and by recruiting slaves into the marines.
News of British advances along the Apalachicola River reached Jackson, and he moved his headquarters to Mobile on Aug. 27, 1814. The city was defended by the newly-built earthworks of Fort Bowyer on a sand spit east of the entrance to Mobile Bay.
In Sept. 1814, John Innerarity learned the British intended to attack Ft. Bowyer and capture Mobile. The brash Col. Nicolls had informed Gov. Manrique in Pensacola of his plans, and Manrique confided the news to his confessor, Father James Coleman, who quickly relayed the information to John Innerarity.
Innerarity became alarmed that an attack on Mobile’s defenses at Fort Bowyer would include the plundering of the Forbes company store at nearby Bon Secour. He sent a rider named William McVoy to warn Maj. William Lawrence and the American defenders. Nicolls learned that his plans had been betrayed, but he attacked Fort Bowyer anyway.
Although outnumbered four-to-one, the American defenders were able to damage the British flagship, Hermes, which became stranded and burned in the shallow water over the bar to Mobile Bay. As the British landing party retreated, they sacked the Forbes Company store at Bon Secour, enlisted 10 company slaves into the army, and stole tobacco, cattle, horses, and equipment valued at $5,890. Two years later, Nicolls stated that his defeat at Mobile was due entirely to the treachery of John Innerarity
Warning General Jackson
Unknown to the British, an American merchant in Havana named Vincent Gray had learned the invaders intended to capture cotton bales stored in New Orleans and sell the stolen goods in Liverpool. Under international law of the time, officers could profit from prize money received for sale of items seized in war. It was estimated that £4 million worth of cotton, sugar, tobacco, hemp, lead and ships could be seized, far more than was available at Mobile.
Gray overheard conversations with Nicolls, commander of the Royal Marines, and learned the first attacks would take place in Pensacola and Mobile. Alarmed at the rumors he was hearing, Gray wrote three letters of warning, that he sent to Secretary of War James Monroe, Gov. William Claiborne of Louisiana, and Forbes’ partner in Mobile, James Innerarity.
Although his loyalties were torn, Innerarity knew the British might loot their stores as war prizes, and decided that American defenders needed to be warned of the planned attacks. James Innerarity requested an interview with Jackson, and showed him Gray’s letter. By this stroke of fortune, Jackson learned the British intended to attack New Orleans four months before the invasion began.
After their defeat at Ft. Bowyer, the British retreated to Pensacola, and Jackson decided to push them out of the supposedly neutral territory. He reached Pensacola on Nov. 6. After the Spanish rejected his flag of truce, he defeated their small garrison in a brief skirmish the next day. Meantime, the British pulled out, destroying Forts Michael and Barrancas on the way.
Jackson went back to Mobile, where he confirmed the British invasion force was headed for New Orleans. Finally convinced Mobile was not the primary target, Jackson rode with his officers to New Orleans in 10 days, with the army following. Partly because of the early warnings from the John Inneraritys, he arrived in New Orleans shortly before the British fleet. He took command of the militia, prepared defenses and led his troops to victory in the Battle of New Orleans in Jan. 1815.
Not knowing the Treaty of Ghent had been signed in December, Adm. Cochrane moved his forces back to Mobile and Prospect Bluff. Just after his marines captured Fort Bowyer in a second attack, he got news of the peace treaty and began to withdraw from Mobile. However, he left Nicolls and Woodbine in command of the black Colonial Marines and Choctaw Indians at the Fort at Prospect Bluff.
The War of 1812 in the Gulf of Mexico began and ended along the Apalachicola River, but departure of the Royal Navy did not end the conflict with the blacks and Seminoles. Attempts to recover Forbes and Company’s losses during the three successive wars occupied Forbes and the Innerarity brothers for the rest of their lives, and led to the second largest Spanish land grant in Florida’s history. Called Innerarity’s Claim on Searcy’s 1829 map of Florida, the grant extended from the Apalachicola to the Choctawhatchee River. The story of how that land claim was settled and the gradual decline of John Forbes and Company’s trading firm in the Territory of Florida will be told in an upcoming article.