This month marks the 200th anniversary of one of the most storied incidents in Alabama history, the Canoe Fight. It took place during the bloody Creek War, only two months after Red Stick warriors led by Chief Red Eagle (otherwise known as William Weatherford) destroyed Fort Mims in northern Baldwin County. In purely strategic terms, the Canoe Fight was a minor episode, involving only a few men on either side. But its psychological impact was huge. For the whites and loyal “metis” (French for “mixed blood”), it provided a much-needed taste of revenge after the awful slaughter of their friends and neighbors. For the hostile Creeks arrayed against them, it was proof positive that the settlers were anything but cowardly and inept.
Even as Fort Mims’ ruins still smoldered, inexorable forces were set in motion that would seal the Red Sticks’ fate. Down from the north, Andrew Jackson came like an avenging angel, leading his Tennessee Volunteers and their Choctaw and Cherokee allies. Into the fall of 1813, Jackson’s forces campaigned through the upper reaches of Creek Indian country, laying waste to villages with fire and sword. Farther south, hastily gathered Mississippi and Alabama militias, under the command of Gen. Ferdinand Claiborne, attacked along the Alabama River, which flowed through the fertile heart of the Creek country.
Claiborne’s command included a motley assortment of poorly trained recruits and Choctaw allies. But there were some capable frontiersmen in the ranks as well. Among these were Capt. Sam Dale, age 41 and physically imposing at 6 feet 2 inches and 190 pounds; Jere Austill, 19, the same height as Dale, but a little lighter at 175 pounds; James Smith, 25, who stood 5 feet 8 inches and weighed 165 pounds; and a free black man called Caesar, whose size was never recorded, but whose courage was to prove invaluable.
On a crisp November day, at roughly the river’s 50-mile mark on the Clarke and Monroe county border, these four men spotted a large canoe proceeding downstream with 11 Red Stick warriors aboard. In the words of Albert James Pickett, Alabama’s great antebellum historian, the braves were “naked and painted in a variety of fantastic colors, while a panther skin encircled the head of the chief.” Determined to close with them, Dale procured a rude wooden dugout, and as Caesar’s strong arms propelled it toward the middle of the river, Dale, Austill and Smith all fired at the enemy. Unfortunately, damp powder caused Dale’s and Austill’s flintlocks to misfire, and Smith’s missed. The odds became a little more favorable for the Americans when two of the Creeks decided that discretion was the better part of valor, slipped from the canoe and swam for shore. It was now nine to four as the boats bumped together.
Dale was a well-known personality among the American Indians, and when the chief, himself a large man, spied him he cried, “Now for it, Big Sam!” There are several slightly differing versions of the ensuing fight, and while it has been much romanticized, it was in reality an ugly, knockdown, desperate affair with clubbed rifles, knives, war clubs and tomahawks as the weapons. While Caesar held the canoes with an iron grip, the occupants swung at one another over his unprotected head. Dale split the chief’s skull open, breaking his rifle stock in the process, and the leader fell to the bottom of the canoe dead. Austill got knocked down but Dale’s and Smith’s vigorous actions with their clubbed rifles saved him from certain death. In one later account “verified before the Alabama legislature, ” Dale described the contest as a series of short, sharp confrontations. He remembered one warrior bounding over the bodies of his comrades “with a terrific yell” and swinging a rifle. The blow missed Dale’s head but dislocated his left shoulder. “I dashed the bayonet into him, ” the hearty backwoodsman recalled. “It glanced around his ribs, and the point hitching to his backbone, I pressed him down. As I pulled the weapon out, he put his hands upon the sides of the canoe and endeavored to rise, crying out, ‘Tar-cha-chee is a man. He is not afraid to die!’” Dale then drove the bayonet through his heart. Meanwhile, a wounded brave at the end of the canoe kept snapping his rifle at Dale, but it wouldn’t fire. He, too, was bayoneted by Dale, and followed his “comrades to the land of spirits.”
It had all taken only minutes, and in Pickett’s memorable prose, the American Indians’ bodies were then “cast into the bright waters of the Alabama, their native stream, now to be their grave.” Militiamen and tribesmen witnessed the Canoe Fight from opposite banks, and at its conclusion, the Americans cheered “loud and long.” As for the Creeks, it was no doubt a sobering sight and grim portent that their way of life was doomed.
After the war, Austill moved to Mobile County where he worked as a commission merchant, and later to Clarke County where he was a planter. He served in the state legislature. Not much is known about Smith’s later years, other than that he died in Mississippi. As for Sam Dale, the “Daniel Boone of Alabama, ” he was commissioned a colonel by the governor and went on to serve in both the Alabama and Mississippi legislatures. Dale County, Ala., is named for him, and a statue commissioned in 1968 stands over his final resting place in Lauderdale County, Miss. Despite the bloodshed and bitterness of the Creek War, Dale appears to have borne no malice toward his erstwhile foes. He knew and admired former Red Stick chief William Weatherford and wrote that “he fought like a hero, and with great military tact, until his towns were burned, his country ravaged, and his warriors slain; when, moved by starving women and children all around him,
he surrendered to General Jackson.”
Today the exact site of the Canoe Fight is unknown, but there is a commemorative historic marker on County Road 35 near Suggsville in southeastern Clarke County. A colorful WPA-era mural, above, depicting the event is located in the lobby of the History Museum of Mobile on Royal Street downtown, and the incident is covered in fourth-grade Alabama history textbooks. Sam Dale, Jere Austill, James Smith, Caesar, and Tar-cha-chee and his fellow warriors will likely be remembered as long as people live in this great state.
John S. Sledge is currently writing a history of the Mobile River.
text by John S. Sledge