A Plan to Crush French Mobile

Indian agent Thomas Nairne decided that the interests of the British Crown were threatened by French Mobile — so he set out to manipulate tribes to destroy them.

Indian agent Thomas Nairne guiding tribe members to destory French Mobile
Illustration by Anna Thornton

Thomas Nairne, a native Scotsman and South Carolina’s first Indian agent, concocted the plan in a Charles Town (present-day Charleston) jail cell. Attentive to his duties as agent, Nairne had traveled all the way to the Mississippi River, but upon his return, political differences with the colony’s governor landed him in the calaboose. While waiting for his situation to resolve, Nairne pondered all that he had learned on his trip and conceived a grand scheme to eliminate the French and Spanish threats posed to Charles Town by the recent settlements at Mobile and Pensacola. Nairne had observed firsthand France’s peacemaking efforts between the Choctaw and Chickasaw and rightly understood that Louis XIV was determined to link Canada and the Gulf of Mexico, thus dominating the Mississippi Valley and controlling a lucrative fur trade. More ominously, he feared, France would send its Indian allies against the British along the Eastern Seaboard.

On July 10, 1708, Nairne wrote a letter to Charles Spencer, Earl of Sunderland, the British Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs, and included a carefully drawn map depicting the Southeast from the Carolinas to Texas. Nairne emphasized that he “had a personall view of most of these parts” based on travel and trading, which qualified him to mark the locations and strengths of the various enemy forces and Indian tribes. At Mobile, or “Fort Louis de la Louisiana” as he designated it, he counted 150 French troops; at Pensacola, 40 Spaniards; northeast of Mobile, 2,200 “Talapoosie Indians”; to the northwest, 700 “Chactas”; and so on throughout the interior. His aim was to acquaint the secretary with the overall situation and suggest a strategy so that “the English American Empire may not be unreasonably Crampt up.” To prevent that, he believed, the British must turn or destroy their enemies’ Indian allies.  

Black and White Portrait of of Indian Agent Thomas Nairne in his older age
As an Indian agent, Nairne was authorized to interact with Native American tribes on behalf of the British government. Courtesy National Library of Scotland

Fortunately for Nairne and his fellow traders, the Indians preferred English-made hatchets, knives, muskets, pots and red blankets, which were better, cheaper and more plentiful than the scarce French equivalents. Using such gifts as an incentive, Nairne believed that he could befriend the French-allied Choctaw, and, if not, that he could convince the Chickasaw and Creeks to raid the Choctaw and other smaller tribes closer to Mobile. The Chickasaw were “hardy, active, and good marksmen, excellent at ambuscade,” he wrote, and nothing pleased them so much as “slave catching. A lucky hitt at that,” he explained, “besides the Honor procures them a whole Estate at once, one slave brings a Gun, ammunition, horse, hatchet, and a suit of Cloathes, which would not be procured without much tedious toil a hunting.” Nairne pursued his plan, even though the government never formally adopted it.

The result was bloody misery as the British-allied Indians launched dozens of slave raids toward Mobile and Pensacola. One party actually sacked the village of Pensacola to the very walls of the presidio before retiring. The Indians lacked the skill and patience for a prolonged siege against fortified troops and artillery. In May of 1709, 500 Creek Indians descended the Alabama River in dugout canoes and surprised a Mobilian village at the juncture of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers. The Mobilians quickly recovered their equanimity and strongly resisted with their French-supplied muskets. The Creeks burned a few huts, suffered 14 killed and retreated with several dozen captive Mobile women and children.

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The town of Mobile proper was then located at Twenty-Seven Mile Bluff, and as soon as its commandant Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville heard the fracas, he hastened upstream with 70 troops. They arrived to find the Mobilians frantic to recover their loved ones and exact revenge. Bienville chased the Creeks farther upstream until the latter took to the shore, abandoned their canoes and brutally massacred their prisoners. Anxious to return downstream and ensure the fort’s security, Bienville sent the enraged Mobilians after the foe with several French soldiers. They returned within days bearing scalps and a few prisoners whom the Mobilians immediately whisked away for slow death by fire.

Obviously shaken by the violent episode and fearing what might have happened had the enemy reached Fort Louis, Bienville penned a note to Comte de Pontchartrain, the French Minister of Marine: “The English in Carolina are sparing nothing to have our savages assaulted by their own. They continually come against us in large forces which [so far] has not accomplished anything.” He begged for more soldiers and the fortification of Dauphin Island. In the interim, he would redouble his own efforts at forest diplomacy, lavishing gifts and “caresses” to ensure continuing alliances.

Thanks to Bienville’s considerable influence and skill among the Indians, Nairne’s strategy to destroy Mobile failed. Despite frequent alarms, France’s Indian alliances held, and Fort Louis was never directly attacked. The French remained in the Mississippi Valley until 1763. As for Nairne, the master strategist, Georgia’s Yamasee Indians tired of his backwoods scheming and, in 1715, tethered him to a stake and slowly tortured him to death.

John S. Sledge is the author of the “Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History.”

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