Much folklore surrounds this forgotten character that had an important part in Seminole history. Here is the real story of his life. Each year there is a festival commemorating Bowles in Fort Walton Beach called the Billy Bowlegs Festival. What goes on at the festival is far from what really happened, and they even get the name wrong. Billy Bowlegs was the name of three different Seminole chiefs, none of whom spent time around the panhandle. And there is no evidence that William Bowles spent much time around the Fort Walton Beach area either. One thing that is not widely recognized is that Bowles started 60 years of conflict between the United States and the southeastern Creeks and Seminoles.
The southeast after the American Revolution was an area of complicated uncertainty and turmoil. Parts of the region were claimed and controlled by Spain, France, Britain, and the United States. Creeks, Seminoles, Choctaws, Cherokees, and other southeastern tribes far outnumbered the non-Indian populations. It would not be until the War of 1812 and Jackson's campaign against the Creeks that the final fate of the region would be determined. Britain was still trying to control the area, and relied on friendly Seminoles and Creeks to occupy the territory it claimed. Enter the flamboyant William Augustus Bowles, who tried to turn the southeast into a free Indian nation.
William Augustus Bowles was born in 1763 into a wealthy Maryland Tory family. William had an extensive education and excelled in acting, music, art, chemistry, and many other fields.
William Bowles started his military career with the British Army at age 13 during the American Revolution. He was a navy ensign by age 15. In December 1778 he landed at Pensacola, but missed the return boat back to his ship. When he returned, he was immediately dismissed from service for derelict of duty without a trial.
Stranded at Pensacola at age 15, he joined the Creeks who frequented the area. He spent the next two years between the Florida gulf coast and the Creek towns on the Chattahoochee. He lived a nomadic life and spent the time fishing, hunting, and working in a bakery.
Bowles had two wives: a Cherokee, and a Hitchiti Creek daughter of the prominent Chief Perryman. His new Creek father-in-law was the leader of a town along the Chattahoochee where William spent much of his time. William's sons by both wives became important leaders among the Creek and Cherokee people during the Trail of Tears.
During the Spanish attack on Pensacola in 1781, Bowles mustered a Creek force to fight the Spanish. Although the city fell to Spain, William's bravery in combat put him back in favor with the British after being dismissed from the navy three years earlier. He even received a pension from the British because of his heroic defense of the city.
After the American Revolution, Bowles fled to Nassau in the Bahamas. There he gained support of prominent businessmen and Governor Lord Dunmore, who saw him as the perfect individual to usurp the Panton, Leslie and Company, which had a trading monopoly with the Creeks and Seminoles. Bowles now became the agent of the Miller and Donamy trading firm to challenge the Panton hold on the southeast, and growing American influence in the southeast.
Bowles tried and failed in 1788 to capture Panton's St. Johns River store. His Seminole supporters deserted him soon after landing at the Indian River. The Seminoles tricked him into staying away by saying that there were Spanish troops in the area. They did not want to lose the trading post; the source of their economic livelihood. Bowles soon became a fugitive, running from the Spanish in Spanish Florida.
Bowles was not deterred from his failure, and was actively raising support among the Indians for his idea of Creek Indian nationalism. He proposed that the Indians in the southeast were sovereign in the land that they lived, and had been guaranteed by treaty the right to remain as lawful inhabitants by Britain and Spain. His idea of an Indian nation included all the tribes of the southeast, including the Choctaw and Cherokee.
Bowles spent the next few years between Nova Scotia, England, the Bahamas, and Creek country along the Chattahoochee, where he gained support for a free state of Muskogee. At Coweta in late 1791, he assured the Creeks and Seminoles of British support for the Indians. He obtained free access to ports in the West Indies when ships flew the Muskogee flag, and support for a Muskogee army and navy. But Britain looked on it less as a free nation than as a buffer from Spain and the United States.
On 16 January 1792, Bowles with a large band of Creeks took over and looted the Panton, Leslie, and Co. store in San Marcos (St. Marks). He then tried to negotiate with the Spanish over the establishment of a Muskogee state. The Spaniards turned the tables on him and captured him instead. He was a prisoner in Cuba, Madrid, and Manilla in the Philippines. The Spanish wanted to remove him as far away from Florida as they could. While being returned to Spain, Bowles escaped and took charge of a ship to Africa, and eventually made his way back to Florida after stopovers in England and Nassau to regather his British supporters.
In the fall of 1799, an American survey party found Bowles on St. George Island in Apalachicola Bay, where his ship became stranded in the shallow waters. When the Americans arrived in San Marcos, they alerted the Spanish that Bowles was back. The commanders at San Marcos and Pensacola petitioned the Spanish governor of Louisiana and West Florida for an army to chase after Bowles. By the time any force could be organized, Bowles was long gone. Bowles' Indian supporters and American Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins were already expecting Bowles' return to Florida. Back in Florida, Bowles conducted a campaign of piracy against the Spanish in West Florida.
William Augustus Bowles
Bowles made himself "Director General and Commander-In-Chief of the Muskogee Nation." On 31 October 1799, Bowles issued a proclamation declaring the 1795 treaty between Spain and the United States void because it ignored the Indians' sovereignty over Florida. (The 1795 Treaty of San Ildefonso ceded all of West Florida above the 31st parallel to the United States.) Bowles had the support of the Seminoles and Chattahoochee Creeks because of his generous supply of gunpowder, and of his promises to get more when he captured the Panton-Leslie store at San Marcos. The Spanish attacked and captured Bowles' camp on the Ocklockonee River and captured much of his personal effects, so Bowles moved his operations to the town of Miccosukee near Tallahassee. On 5 April 1800, Bowles declared war on Spain.
Bowles finally came up with a successful plan to capture the fort and Panton-Leslie store at San Marcos. Since there was no cover for a direct attack, he raided the supply ships coming up the river instead. One ship was captured by Bowles, which induced the garrison commander to surrender on 10 May 1800. Bowles had won with little effort.
On 23 June 1800, a large Spanish force sailed up the St. Marks River and recaptured San Marcos. Bowles escaped with his few white supporters who were left; the Indians had already gone home before the attack.
For the next two years, the Spanish at San Marcos were on constant alert of attacks from Bowles and his Indian supporters. But, the Spanish commander was familiar with the local Indians, who agreed to live peacefully with the Spanish. Several of the local chiefs provided the garrison with food, and even Bowles' father-in-law gave 33 cattle to San Marcos.
Bowles decided to now take on the United States, which he always considered a more important challenge than Spain. He demanded that the U.S. return Indian land, and that the treaty with the Creek Chief McGillivay was illegally imposed on the Indians who did not support it. He demanded U.S. recognition of the State of Muskogee or he would declare war upon the United States.
Bowles made Miccosukee his new capital, a large town complex around Lake Miccosukee, northeast of present day Tallahassee. The town chief Kinache was Bowles' father-in-law and strongest ally, and was Chief of Miccosukee from 1770 until Andrew Jackson burned it in 1818. The State of Muskogee also had a flag and motto, "God save the State of Muskogee." Several ambitious Englishmen from the Bahamas with shady backgrounds became Bowles' government and administrators.
The State of Muskogee was never clearly defined. National borders were a foreign concept to the Indians, and there was no unified or central government. Bowles did manage to create an army and navy. (The Navy consisted of three ships.) Spain suddenly found her ships on the Florida gulf coast subject to Muskogee pirates. Bowles enjoyed great support from the free Blacks, Black Seminoles, and many Red Stick Creeks. Seminoles who rebelled against the Muskogee Creek leadership were also big supporters.
In August, a large Spanish force arrived at San Marcos. Their mission was to pursue Bowles and destroy Miccosukee. On 17 August 1800, a well-armed force of 272 Spaniards and Mulattos set out to destroy Miccosukee. They ran into disaster from the beginning, and returned to San Marcos two days later. Even though Miccosukee was only 30 miles away, they did not have good guides and were unfamiliar with the area. On the first day they were only able to go 3 miles; not much of a surprise attack, and with only 6 days' rations. The soldiers were already over-heated and getting sick, and would be in very poor fighting condition by the time they reached Miccosukee.
Bowles continued his pirate activities, capturing Spanish ships and preparing for a return attack on San Marcos. Although the size of the Spanish garrison at the fort had been reduced, they had two river galleys stationed there with heavy artillery.
On 5 January 1802, Bowles took a large force of Seminoles (Miccosukees), Negroes, white pirates, and deserted Spanish soldiers from Pensacola, and laid siege to San Marcos. They were a strong force and gave heavy fire, but would have been more deadly if they had cannons. Twice, one of the Spanish ships approached and destroyed a series of trenches dug by the Seminoles. The Spanish inside the fort were not in great enough number to attack Bowles, and could only defend the fort. The only thing that prevented Bowles from capturing San Marcos was heavy fire from the ships, and more ships arriving. Also, news was received that the war between Spain and England was over. The siege ended after about 10 days.
Bowles was discredited when he failed to take San Marcos. Finally, on August 20, 1802, the neighboring Seminoles signed a peace treaty with the Spanish. Even Bowles' strongest supporter, Chief Kinache of Miccosukee, signed. Bowles' war with Spain failed, and he no longer had British support. Britain had declared peace with France and Spain, and now considered Bowles a troublemaker, his state an illusion, and his supporters nothing more than pirates. Spain started to blockade the coast and choke an important trading supply line of Bowles.
By May 1803, both America and Spain were conspiring against Bowles. America wanted to get rid of him because he opposed Creek land cessions in Georgia. The Spanish wanted to get rid of him because of his raids against ships and plantations in the area. Bowles opposed the pro-American Muskogee Creek families of McGillivray and MacIntosh, and American Indian agent to the Creeks, Benjamin Hawkins. The latter whom he declared a death sentence upon.
Benjamin Hawkins eventually laid a trap that put an end to Bowles. On May 24, 1803, there was a conference at the Creek town of Tukabatchee between Hawkins and his Lower Creeks supporters, and a general council of the Seminoles, Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Choctaws. That day Bowles declared himself king of all the Indian nations present. The next day Hawkins had gained enough supporters to have Bowles captured and placed in irons, and delivered him as prisoner to the Spanish governor in Pensacola. Bowles was taken to Morro Castle prison in Havana, where he died in 1805.
In the end, William Bowles and the State of Muskogee turned out to be the worst possible thing for the Seminoles. It started the domino effect on the Seminoles' removal from Florida.
When Spain proved unable to capture or defeat Bowles on Spanish territory, it was obvious to all that Spain had minimal control of Florida. Weak Spanish influence encouraged Andrew Jackson to lead a campaign to capture Pensacola from Spain during the War of 1812 and the First Seminole War. The Seminoles could no longer run to a safe haven away from the United States. The last coffin nail on the casket of the State of Muskogee was during the First Seminole war in 1818, when Andrew Jackson destroyed the town of Miccosukee.
It was only a matter of time before the United States would gain control of Florida. The U.S. believed that the Seminoles could not peacefully co-exist with settlers that needed to move into Florida. Even worse, runaway slaves from Georgia were finding shelter with the Florida Indians, being a big threat to the southern plantation economy. Since the Indians would not adopt the white American ways, then they had to be removed. For the next 100 years, the policy of the U.S. towards the Indians in Florida was removal.
The State of Muskogee did have a flag. It is described as being rectangular, with a broad blue cross with white outline. The left upper and lower quarters, and the lower right quarters are red. The upper right quarter is blue, with the sun having a face on it.
In the year 2000, Creek descendants of North Florida Pine Arbor Town sent a letter to the government of Mexico apologizing for the attack on Mexican ports by Bowles' navy. They said that they would have apologized earlier, but with removal and dispersion, they had other matters requiring their attention for the last two centuries.
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© 1998, 2002 Chris Kimball