Chasing Shadows: William Bowles and the Muskogee Navy
William Augustus Bowles’ adversaries called him “Black Guard,” “Prince of Liars,” villain, and thief, but no one called him dull.
In April of 1800, the self-proclaimed Director General of Muskogee declared war on Spain from a Lower Creek town 60 miles north of Apalachicola Bay. He ordered attacks by land and sea, and several ship battles took place around Apalachicola Bay and its barrier islands.
Britain was at war with Spain, and Bowles convinced the governor of Jamaica to provide muskets and gunpowder to help arm the Lower Creeks and harass the weak Spanish garrison at Fort San Marcos (St. Marks). When his shipload of arms wrecked on St. George Island in 1799 (see Nov. 30, 2018 Times “Encounter on St. George Island 1799”), his Creek allies rescued him and a few barrels of gunpowder.
Knowing Bowles was on the Apalachicola River and probably headed for St. Marks, Col. Vicente Folch requested urgent army and navy reinforcements for Pensacola. A small squadron of Mississippi River galleys and gunboats was sent after Bowles under the command of Captains Pierre “Pedro” Rousseau and Manuel Garcia.
That is how Bowles’ war began. His back story is equally audacious.
The son of a farmer in colonial Maryland, Bowles joined the British army at age 14. His regiment was sent from New York to defend Pensacola in 1778, but the temperamental Bowles was dismissed after disobeying an officer. The 16 year-old joined a party of Creek Indians who had come to Pensacola seeking arms and supplies. For two years, he lived at the Lower Creek towns of Chief Thomas Perryman above the forks of the Apalachicola River.
Bowles learned to speak the Muskogee language and married Perryman’s daughter Mary, who bore him two sons. The Creeks shared his loyalty to the British, and traded deer hides for smooth bore muskets and gunpowder. However, when Spain declared war on Britain in 1779 to help the Americans in the Revolutionary War, Gen. John Campbell of Pensacola sent an urgent message to his Creek allies for help. As a result, Bowles rejoined the British army and earned the rank of subaltern, a junior officer.
Louisiana Governor Bernardo de Gálvez’ troops, transported into Pensacola Bay by Capt. Pedro Rousseau’s fleet, captured the city from Campbell, who surrendered. After the Revolutionary War, Bowles evacuated to Nassau in the Bahamas. He received half pay as a former British officer, and often obtained loans during his travels with a promise to repay creditors from those funds.
Nassau was filled with loyalist merchants who formerly engaged in lucrative trade with southeastern Indian tribes. In 1788, Governor Dunmore and merchant John Miller sent Bowles back to the Creeks to open clandestine trade through poorly guarded Spanish territory.
An important chief named Alexander McGillivray was negotiating with the Americans while still obtaining legal arms from William Panton’s company in Pensacola. Bowles soon became a rival, claiming a council of chiefs elected him Director General after he promised he could secure British arms, and would open free ports for the state of Muskogee on the Apalachicola and Ochlocknee Rivers.
In 1790, Bowles led a group of Creek and Cherokee men to London, and obtained permission for the Creeks to trade in Nassau, provided their ships flew the flag of Muskogee that Bowles designed. However, he failed to win any concession from Spain that would have allowed legal use of ports in Florida.
When Bowles returned from London in 1791, he learned McGillivray had signed the Treaty of New York that ceded land near the Ocmulgee River to the United States. Bowles convinced angry Lower Creeks and Seminoles that he could obtain arms to help defend their land. William Panton, learning of Bowles’ repeated threats against his legitimate trade, promised a $2,000 reward for Bowles’ capture.
The reward incensed Bowles, who rashly decided to loot Panton’s Wakulla store near Fort San Marcos in order to arm his Creek followers. Bowles seized the store on Jan. 16, 1792, knowing it was licensed and protected by Spain. Francisco Guesy, commandant of the fort, sent 33 men to apprehend Bowles, but he was too well-defended, with at least 150 armed Indian allies.
The governor of Louisiana, Baron Carondelet, declared Bowles an outlaw, and sent naval Captain “Pedro” Rousseau, and Army captain José de Hevia with reinforcements for Fort San Marcos.
Reaching St. Marks in Feb. 1792, Hevia sent word the governor wished to negotiate a treaty, and the two officers escorted Bowles to New Orleans. Carondelet rejected Bowles’ argument that his actions benefitted Spain, and he was arrested. Captain Rousseau took Bowles to Morro Prison in Havana. Judged dangerous, Bowles was transferred to Cadiz, Madrid and finally Luzon in the Philippines.
Two crucial events took place during Bowles’ absence. In 1795, Spain signed a treaty with the United States that defined the US-Florida border. Resentment to a border that divided in two the Creek state of Muskogee contributed to the formation of the Seminoles. Then in 1796, a new war broke out between Spain and Britain that led to Bowles’ escape.
A ship carrying Bowles back to Spain was attacked by the British off the coast of Africa, and Bowles squeezed through a porthole and swam to an American vessel anchored nearby. He made his way to Britain and then Jamaica, where the governor agreed to arm the Creeks. He sent Bowles aboard the HMS Fox with arms and gunpowder, only to have it founder on St. George Island.
When Col. Vicente Folch at Pensacola learned Bowles was on his way back to Florida, he requested assistance from the Mississippi fleet. By the time Spanish gunboats reached Apalachicola Bay at the end of Jan. 1800, the Creeks had rescued Bowles and his gunpowder. They had built a ramshackle port at Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River where they planned to unload supplies from Nassau. River galleys manned by Pedro Olivier and Manuel Garcia failed to capture Bowles, but they burned the wooden buildings his followers had constructed.
Having heard Muskogee supply ships were being loaded in Nassau, Capt. Olivier returned to patrol the mouth of the Apalachicola River. On April 1, his men spotted two sailing ships and gave chase. The Hawk, operated by Nassau merchant Joseph Hunter, ran aground on a sand bar and was captured near St. George Island. Hunter’s crew managed to unload 300 pounds of gunpowder and escaped to join Bowles, who immediately declared war on Spain.
When Bowles managed to capture the fort at St. Marks in May 1800, Folch was outraged. He personally led the naval squadron back to the fort, and the occupants fled after a few cannon shots into the fort. However, once again Bowles escaped.
Counting on obtaining arms from merchants in Nassau who wanted to trade with the Creeks, Bowles issued letters of marque that promised privateers two-thirds of any spoils they could capture from Spanish vessels. Several mercenaries including Captains Richard Power and David Gipson accepted his offer.
Gipson patrolled the Gulf from Apalachicola west to New Orleans. He captured three schooners near Mobile Point and sailed them up the Apalachicola River, where a Muskogee “court” declared them to be legitimate prizes.
Richard Power sailed east to Cedar Key, where he established a base that he named Port Power. His crew built three warehouses and a watch tower on what is now Seahorse Key. His crew captured several Spanish fishing boats and one schooner that he outfitted as a corsair. However, when Power sailed it to Nassau to sell his “booty” of dried fish, the authorities confiscated the ship.
When Power sued to reclaim the ship in April 1802, Judge John Kelsall scoffed at his credentials. “I consider myself called upon by every principle of Reason, of Justice & Policy & by positive law to reject the pretensions of this Mr. Bowles and his adherents; and I dismiss the Claim accordingly with Costs.” In June, Rousseau’s ships destroyed Port Power and seized its contraband.
The Treaty of Amiens ended the war between Britain and Spain in March 1802. Together with Judge Kelsall’s decision, that meant Bowles and his men were pirates, not privateers. That fall, Power was killed attempting to seize another merchant ship and Gipson fled to the United States to avoid being hanged. The Muscogee Navy ceased to exist, and trade was forbidden between Bowles and the Nassau merchants.
In August 1802, the commandant of Fort San Marcos dealt Bowles’ dream of a Muskogee nation a fatal blow. Jacobo DuBruiel summoned the chiefs of the Lower Creek and Seminole towns to sign a peace treaty with Spain. Although they refused to turn Bowles over to the authorities, they agreed not to fight for him. Bowles was stripped of his claim to be Director General of a state, and no longer controlled an army or navy. He retreated to the Seminole town of Miccosukee.
By 1803, the governor of West Florida, Vicente Folch, regarded Bowles as an outlaw whose men had murdered Spanish citizens. John Forbes, who took over Panton, Leslie and Company after William Panton died, held Bowles and the Creeks responsible for $30,000 in goods stolen from their Wakulla warehouses in addition to debts owed for trade goods. The American Indian agent, Benjamin Hawkins, wanted to be rid of Bowles and settle all Indian debts.
The three men convened a major conference of southeastern tribes at Hickory Ground, a traditional meeting place of the Upper Creeks at the forks of the Alabama River. Importantly, it was a “white” or sacred spot to which no arms could be brought, and it was in US-controlled territory. Undaunted, Bowles saw the meeting as a chance to be elected head of four tribes and the last chance to realize his dream. However, Hawkins persuaded Upper Creek chiefs to arrest Bowles and collect the Spanish reward of 4,500 pesos.
Hawkins asked a blacksmith to make iron handcuffs, and the Upper Creeks arrested Bowles during a feast intended to celebrate elections of new chiefs. Although he tried to escape again, they took him by canoe to Pensacola. From there, he was taken to New Orleans and then Morro Prison in Havana. Bowles’ health deteriorated, and at age 42, he died of self-imposed starvation in a military hospital.
At the time of Bowles’ war, about 30,000 Creek Indians lived in Muskogee, and there were fewer than 10,000 Spanish in West Florida. By contrast, the population of the United States had grown to over 7 million, and many Americans were farmers who sought fertile land along rivers that the Creeks occupied.
After Bowles died, the British finally sent a large, armed expedition to the Gulf Coast in 1814 to try to wrest control of the Mississippi from Spain and the United States. Even armed with warships and artillery, their force was not strong enough to turn back the Americans. The only way that Bowles changed the destiny of the region was that he proved how weak the Spanish garrisons were.
About half of the debt that forced the Creeks to cede 1.4 million acres of Florida land to John Forbes and Company was due to William Bowles’ raids on Panton’s store on the Wakulla River. All of Franklin County lies within the borders of that cession, which became the largest Spanish land grant in the future state of Florida.
From the American viewpoint, the unrest caused by William Bowles and other “freebooters” merely proved that indigenous people would never take up farming as a way of life. All of the southeastern tribes were forced to relocate across the Mississippi River, among them William’s son, Chief John C. Bowles.