When William McIntosh went to bed on April 29, 1825, he was surely not expecting such a fatal dawn. While he slept, Creek warriors trekked to his plantation in what would soon become Carroll County, set his house on fire, and shot McIntosh when he fled. These Creek warriors were Law Menders operating under the authority of the Creek National Council.
Creek leaders and U.S. officials alike understood he was not murdered, but killed for violating a law for which he had earlier advocated, one that called for the execution of any Creek who ceded land. By signing the Treaty of Indian Springs, McIntosh and others gave the United States all remaining Creek land in Georgia and millions of acres in Alabama.
A few years earlier, McIntosh aroused suspicion when he signed a treaty that ceded the last of the Creeks’ “disposable” land, hunting grounds that settlers had illegally infiltrated. McIntosh narrowly escaped execution by arguing that the Creeks’ enormous debts had to be paid. Similarly, when he signed the Treaty of Indian Springs, he claimed he did it for the good of his people who had to adjust to survive. Was William McIntosh a traitor, or an, albeit manipulative, leader who betrayed his people in order to prepare them for a seemingly inevitable future?
McIntosh was what Florida State University historian Andrew Frank calls “bicultural,” one of many children who were products of intermarriage between EuroAmericans and Creeks. These people, not always, but often had a foot in both “worlds” and acted as brokers between them. As a result of Creek matrilineal traditions and European patrilineal ones, McIntosh, and others like him who had a Creek mother and European father, often claimed both identities and were accepted by Creeks and EuroAmericans as full members of each society. He spent much of his youth in Savannah, became an astute business man who ran plantations, inns, taverns, and ferries, and yet remained so much a part of Creek society that he became a Lower Creek Leader and speaker of the National Creek Council.
McIntosh gained the respect and loyalty of many Creeks not only because he was a member of the powerful Wind Clan and had become a war chief, but because his connections gave them access to trade goods. In a perversion of the ancient redistribution system where leaders distributed excess supplies to meet the wants and needs of others, McIntosh distributed goods, many of them gifts of bribery from U.S. officials, to Creeks in the Lower Towns. McIntosh’s military career, much of it alongside future president Andrew Jackson, his business endeavors, and his relations to influential Georgians, including first cousin Governor Troup, earned him respect among EuroAmericans who also saw him as an authority figure in Creek society who could do their bidding. The Treaty of Indian Springs and the clandestine meetings and bribery that led up to it epitomizes this dynamic of dual identity that could produce conflicting loyalties.
Although the Treaty of Indian Springs was soon begrudgingly voided by the U.S. government, McIntosh’s actions are said to have set many things into motion. While officials were investigating the validity of the treaty, EuroAmericans began surveying and settling the land in question ahead of federal approval, moving President Adams to threaten military intervention which fanned the growing animosity regarding state’s rights. And although the original treaty was voided, the legitimate one that replaced it fulfilled the 24-year old desire to legally extinguish Creek land rights in Georgia, pushing nearly 7,000 Creeks out of the state. Finally, those McIntosh family members and followers who escaped execution fled to the West and set up the Creek government that has overcome internal and external struggles and flourishes today by supporting the cultures and lives of thousands that make up the Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma.
What of William McIntosh’s legacy? Betrayal saturates much of the popular narrative regarding McIntosh but that assumes familiarity with his motives and intentions. Was his supposed justification genuine? Where did his loyalty ultimately lie? How did he see himself fitting into the dynamic of the southern frontier? Was the Treaty of Indian Springs only meant to less painfully expedite the inevitable prospect of Indian Removal? Or, was McIntosh only concerned with enriching himself at the risk of dying under a law he helped popularize? Perhaps more important, was Indian Removal inevitable? It is the craft of historians to attempt to answer these questions by analyzing various sources of information and generating logical explanations and conclusions. The quest to do so often produces more questions than answers and leaves us explaining, “Well, it’s complicated.” And that’s okay because we are also complicated, as is our society. When we realize it was just as hard to be human back then as it is today, the past becomes a relevant source with which to interface, ironically providing us a glimpse of what our future might look like.