One of the most exciting things about archival research is discovering unexpected connections. In November 2013, I traveled to the Bahamian National Archives in Nassau in search of documentary evidence relating to a group of intrepid Native diplomats, sojourners from the Creek and Cherokee Nations in what is now the southeastern United States. They had made their way to the Bahamas to meet with the governor there, Lord Dunmore, to secure passage to London. However, I soon found that Dunmore sent them, not to Britain, but to Quebec! In short order, I found myself reading missives from Lord Dorchester, Governor-General of British North America, grumbling about a group of Creeks that had just turned up in his capital. The Creek and Cherokee diplomats barged their way into Canada, and in turn, Canadian history had just intruded into my project. In the process of following globe-trotting Creeks and Cherokees, I learned about the interconnectedness of the early modern world and Canada’s place in webs linking the peoples of North America and the Atlantic.
The Creeks and Cherokees lived far, far away from Canadian territory, the latter in the foothills of the southern Appalachians and the former nestled in the river basins of what are now the American states of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. I had discovered that, in the wake of the American Revolution, numerous Creek and Cherokee leaders had established contacts with a Loyalist named William Augustus Bowles, who had taken up refuge in the Bahamas. Bowles, in turn, had cultivated a relationship with the new governor of the Bahamas, Lord Dunmore.
All three parties had overlapping interests. The Creeks and Cherokees wanted to maintain their diplomatic contacts with British officials after American independence and had looked to the Bahamas, the closest British colony to them after the war, as the best means of doing so. Dunmore, himself an exile from a governorship on the mainland, wanted to obtain a land cession from the Creeks to make up for his losses from previous land speculation. Bowles, a man with a theatrical personality, sought not only money but also glory and fame. He wanted connections to people in power and to secure for himself a role as a major diplomatic and political figure in the region. To accomplish this, he attempted to convince British officials that he could command the Creeks and Cherokees to serve His Majesty’s will, converting them into pliant instruments of British foreign policy.
The Creek and Cherokee delegation had no intention of going to Quebec or Nova Scotia. In fact, Nassau held interest only as a waypoint on a grander itinerary: an audience with King George III in Britain. Creek and Cherokee leaders had composed a petition that they wanted to present to the King personally, reminding him of the commitment he had made to help defend them from American aggression during the Revolution. Nearly a decade after the war had ended, neither Creeks nor Cherokees had received any British support. They hoped that by bringing their plight to the King’s attention, they could remind the Crown of its erstwhile commitments to and compel it to offer them arms, goods, and diplomatic aid. Bowles had led his Creek and Cherokee associates to believe that they could obtain the transportation, goods, and funding that they required to make the voyage in Nassau. Documents in the Bahamian archives revealed that Lord Dunmore instead planned to send the delegation on to Quebec. There, Dunmore hoped the delegation could persuade Dorchester to fund the remainder of their voyage to Britain. However, Dunmore lacked the funds to support the venture himself; in fact, he could only send them to Quebec because a merchant vessel happened to be traveling that way. This would not deter Dunmore from his speculative schemes, however. Dunmore intended to exploit his connections with Native peoples in Florida, and the British Crown was going to pay for it.
Shockingly, Dunmore got his way: Dorchester agreed to pay for the delegation’s passage to London, though he wasn’t too happy about it. The success of the gambit was due entirely to geopolitical tensions, not with the United States, but with Spain. Around the same time that the Creek and Cherokee delegation began making their way northward, a different set of messengers arrived from the west. Months earlier, a group of Spanish explorers had expelled British fur traders from Vancouver Island, asserting their claim to sovereignty over the territory. The events would set in motion a sort of Anglo-Spanish Cold War that has come to be known as the Nootka Crisis. Because of their proximity to Spanish territory, the Nootka Crisis forced Dorchester to look upon the Creeks as potentially valuable allies. Begrudgingly, he agreed to fund the Creek and Cherokee emissaries’ voyage to London on the basis on maintaining good relations.
The above was about the limit of what I could determine from my vantage point in Nassau. My discoveries there prompted a journey to both the British National Archives in Kew and the Library and Archives in Ottawa. I suspected that the Creeks and Cherokee had drawn the attention of officials and colonists alike in making their way from Halifax, where their schooner landed, to the capital at Quebec. Sure enough, at both places I found records documenting the delegation’s journey inland. The Creeks and Cherokees had no money with which to pay for their transport to Quebec, creating a series of issues with ship captains and customs officials. They paid the captain of the schooner that brought them to Halifax in deer hides and tobacco. When this captain took his haul to St. John, the customs officer there seized his goods as forfeit for nonpayment of duties. In Halifax, the delegation had to beg Lieutenant Governor John Parr for passage to Quebec. This act forced Parr to offer his own evaluation as to the propriety of supporting the delegation; he also decided in the affirmative, for the same reasons as Dorchester. Finally, to make their way from Quebec to London, Dorchester had provided them with funds to procure a “small vessel.” Unfortunately, upon returning to St. John, a creditor of the vessel’s previous owner decided to seize the ship for nonpayment of debt. It would seem that convincing Lord Dorchester to support their passage to London had been the least harrowing part of their journey.
As it turned out, Canada had played a larger role in Creek and Cherokee plans than I had appreciated. After stumbling across Dunmore’s scheme, I became more aware of references to Canada in Creek and Cherokee deliberations. Their connections with Native peoples in the Great Lakes region had apprised them of the assistance offered by Britons further north. Shawnees, Odawas, Wyandots, and other Native peoples made regular contact with traders and Indian agents emanating from Canada, receiving arms and supplies which they used to defend themselves against encroaching Americans. As their Nassauvian connections began to fail them, Creeks and Cherokees would start to concentrate their efforts on the northward. Throughout the early 1790s, and again in the 1810s, Creek and Cherokee emissaries traveled to visit British Indian agents and traders in Great Lakes posts such as Sandusky and Detroit, receiving gifts and, more surreptitiously, supplies of arms. Most importantly, they and their allies among the Shawnees and other peoples in the region carried out negotiations with British agents, attempting to convince the British establishment in Canada to provide more substantial and official support for their struggle against the United States. Creeks and Cherokees began to look to the colonial government in Upper Canada as a potential source of military and diplomatic assistance, hoping that the British Empire would exert their considerable strength on their behalf against the United States.
Just as the winds of circumstance had blown Creeks and Cherokees toward Canada on their way to London, so too had I found myself making unexpected detours. A research trip to Nassau began an unanticipated journey to Ottawa. Intellectually, I found myself thinking a lot more about the Maritimes, about the Great Lakes region and Upper Canada, and about the St. Lawrence than I had anticipated. Just as Europeans formed communication networks that spanned the Atlantic, so too did Native peoples. The Creeks and Cherokees I investigated had established contacts throughout the North American continent, from Nassau in the south to Quebec in the north. Although journeys to Canada such as the one I stumbled upon occurred infrequently, Creeks, Cherokees, and other Native peoples much further south remained aware of events in Canada and coordinated their diplomatic, political, and military strategies accordingly. The experience taught me that local affairs were inextricably connected to broader regional and global networks. I suspect that Canadian history has much more unexplored relevance for histories outside the bounds of the modern-day nation-state, obscured by our focus on the seemingly disparate geographies displayed on a map rather than the conceptual and intellectual geographies of historical actors. Creeks and Cherokees understood this, even if it took me some time to do the same.
James Hill received his Ph.D. from the College of William & Mary and is currently an Assistant Professor of History at the University of the Bahamas. He has published articles in Early American Studies and the Florida Historical Quarterly. His dissertation, “Muskogee Internationalism in an Age of Revolution, 1763-1818,” analyzes Creek and Seminole diplomacy. In particular, he focuses on their efforts to defend their territorial and political power by forging transatlantic diplomatic networks, manipulating and appropriating European concepts of sovereignty, and participating in an international diplomatic community. He has received fellowships from the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, the John Carter Brown Library, the Huntington Library, the Newberry Library, and the David Library of the American Revolution.
Title Image: William Bartram, “Mico Chlucco the Long Warior or King of the Siminoles,” 1791. Following in the footsteps of his father John, naturalist William Bartram traveled throughout Florida and Georgia in the late eighteenth century, sketching plants, animals, and in some cases people. Bartram relied upon the botanical and geographical knowledge of Creeks and Seminoles, and took an interest in their communities as well. This image is a portrait that Bartram produced of the Seminole leader Weoffké, known to English-speakers as the Long Warrior. Weoffké was a close ally of British leaders prior to their evacuation of Florida, helping to build the relationships that Creeks and Seminoles sought to sustain by traveling to Canada and the Bahamas. Collection of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.