Remembering Fort Mims
When Claudia Campbell was growing up in the 1950s, she and her family made an annual pilgrimage every August to Fort Mims, some 45 miles north of Mobile. As the mosquitos swarmed and the Alabama heat beat down, Campbell’s mother led the family in a memorial service to commemorate those who perished at the site on August 30, 1813, when a surprise attack by a band of Creek Indians called the “Red Sticks” led to the deaths of several hundred settlers, slaves, Creek, and people of mixed heritage.
Although memorials are still held every August, they have grown from small, family affairs to large-scale events, which will culminate this year with the 200th anniversary of the massacre. The event, which will take place from August 30 to September 1, will feature a re-enactment of the attack, a reception for descendants of Fort Mims survivors, and a dedication of monuments inscribed with the names of those who died. There will also be a living history area where visitors can get a taste of daily life in the 1800s through demonstrations of basketry, blacksmithing, weaving, quilting, and gunsmithing. The 200th anniversary “is probably the biggest thing that's happened in Tensaw, Alabama, since August 30, 1813,” said Campbell, who today heads the Fort Mims Restoration Association and is herself a descendent of early Fort Mims settlers.
But as she was careful to note, “We aren't celebrating the event; we're commemorating it. [It’s important] to remember what happened here, the struggles of all the people who were here---those who thought that they were right in attacking and trying to save their way of life, to those who had moved in and hoped for a wonderful new life.”
Today, the event is understood as a desperate effort by the Creek to preserve both their culture and their land, chunks of which had already been ceded to white settlers. But at the time, it was construed as a vicious move by bloodthirsty savages, and launched American involvement in the Creek War. Until that point, the conflict had largely been a civil war between Native-American factions.
“It enraged the Americans,” said Campbell of the Fort Mims massacre. “I think that's why [Andrew] Jackson had the support of the entire country.” Jackson, who at the time was a colonel in the Tennessee militia, led the United States to victory in the Creek War, which resulted in the cessation of 23 million acres of Creek territory to the U.S. As president, Jackson was also responsible for the Indian Removal Act, and the subsequent Trail of Tears.
Although Fort Mims played a critical role in the country’s Native-American policy, the memory of the massacre was almost lost to history. It was largely through the efforts of Campbell’s mother, June Slaughter, that a physical presence was established at Fort Mims.
“She was amazed that there was nothing there and nobody recognized it as an important site,” remembered Campbell. “We had a country store and she put a jar out on the counter to collect change trying to get some money together to do something.”
She eventually caught the interest of the state, and Campbell’s father was commissioned to uncover the charred remains of the fort with his bulldozer. “Bulldozer excavation makes everybody's hair stand up now,” laughed Campbell, “but that was how they rediscovered the site.”
As Campbell planned for large crowds and nailed down the details for guest speakers, she could barely contain her excitement for the upcoming anniversary. “Mom pushed this and promoted Fort Mims her entire life,” said Campbell. “I know she would just be so pleased if she saw the interest that has come from what she started.”
For further details on the Fort Mims 200th anniversary event, please visit the Fort Mims website.