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‘The Hornet’s Nest’

When you think of the American Revolution the battles of Bunker Hill, Saratoga and Lexington and Concord come to mind, but the war raged in Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas as well. In his first historical novel, “The Hornet’s Nest”, former President Jimmy Carter provides an account of life in the south just before and during the American Revolution. He discusses the book on “Today.” 

When you think of the American Revolution the battles of Bunker Hill, Saratoga and Lexington and Concord come to mind, but the war raged in Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas as well. In his first historical novel, “The Hornet’s Nest”, former President Jimmy Carter provides an account of life in the south just before and during the American Revolution. He discusses the book on “Today.” Here's an excerpt:

Chapter 16: Massacre Of the Indians

Having experienced troubles with doubtful land titles in the Carolinas, Elijah Clarke and his neighboring families were careful to get the proper documents when they obtained rights to settle near the Savannah River along the northern border of the 1773 land grant. Elijah encouraged the other men to locate their homesteads so that the entire group could remain in close contact with one another. All of the cabins were soon connected with a spiderweb of trails. Elijah and Hannah decided to build a new cabin and barn that almost joined each other, and to accept the constant animal sounds and odors in lieu of risking another fire being set by undetected intruders. This proximate location made possible an additional safety precaution, as they spent weeks of hard work putting up a stockade of upright poles, just large enough to encompass the two buildings and a small yard. Except for slits left as rifle ports and the large swinging entrance gate, the barricade cut off their view of the surrounding woods, but they did not trust the Indians who lived only a few miles away, and felt that the increased safety was worth the trouble.

Aaron Hart and his wife had settled within a mile of the Clarkes, and within sight of where two major trails crossed. Maintaining his far-reaching trade route and not intending to farm for a living, Aaron decided to take a minimum amount of land, only fifty acres, which was to be used mostly for pasture. An extra shed was built on the side of the Harts’ cabin as a storeroom for his goods, and he now cut off some of his former trading territory in North Carolina and added an equivalent area in south Georgia. When Aaron was away, his wife frequently spent nights with the Clarkes.

Their decisions concerning safety seemed justified toward the end of January 1774, when Aaron came home to report that a group of Creeks had burned a homestead fifteen miles to the southwest, and murdered and scalped a man named William White, his wife, and their four children.

Elijah said, “Damn the bastards! We’ve got to go teach ‘em a lesson.”

By the time Elijah and Aaron arrived at White’s place, a dozen men were there, looking at the smoldering ruins and already having dug six graves for the scalped and mutilated bodies. Since no one else seemed to be in charge, Aaron asked Elijah what he thought they should do, and the others seemed willing to listen to his opinion. Naturally assuming the role of leader, he decided that they should follow the war party, which they assumed had crossed the Ogeechee River.

Clarke insisted that they examine the surrounding area carefully and report to him on all tracks left by unshod horses, which they followed carefully. After a day and night of tracking and examining the trail and campsites, they learned that there were about a dozen Indians, that they had two or three guns, and that they were moving fast and staying together as a unit. It was also clear that the Indians were skirting the towns of their own people, indicating a renegade group. When the trail turned north and then east, the settlers decided that another attack was planned, somewhere north of Augusta. One by one, the men announced that they were returning to protect their own homes, and Elijah was not able to dissuade them. Finally, he and Aaron were forced to abandon the chase.

Two weeks later, at about nine o’clock in the morning, what seemed to be the same band of Indians attacked a place known as Sherall’s Fort, where there was a small commissary store. They had apparently watched David Sherall and the youngest of his three sons leave the area and then began firing on the fort. Mrs. Sherall, two adult sons, and a Negro slave killed three of the attackers as they attempted to scale the palisade wall. The others set fire to a corner of it and then backed off and continued the assault with their weapons.

Sherall had stopped to talk to his closest neighbor down the trail, and they saw the smoke from his homestead. The boy was sent to get help from Elijah Clarke, who lived just three miles away, while the two men rushed back toward the fort. As they drew near, they glimpsed flames through the trees and drew up their horses to assess the situation. The fire seemed to be confined for the time being to one corner of the stockade, and the men rushed forward to extinguish the flames. At that moment, an Indian on each side of the trail fired muskets at the settlers, and others followed this attack with arrows. From a distance of not more than ten yards, almost every bullet and arrow struck its target. The Indians moved in with their scalping knives, then dragged the two bodies off into the bushes and resumed their positions to guard the trail.

As Elijah Clarke approached the fort, followed by five other men and Sherall’s son, he held up his hand to stop the procession.

“When savages are attackin’ a place for a long time, they are careful not to be surprised and always leave an ambush party alongside the trails. Let’s split up, stay a hundred yards back from the path, and move forward. We need to move fast and don’t have to be quiet. If they hear us, they’ll back up toward the stockade.”

As they broke into the clearing, the entire party of Indians looked at them for a few seconds, sized up their adversaries, and disappeared into the woods. One of the men said, “That’s Big Elk giving the orders. He has been to my place a couple of times to do some trading. He’s devious, knows these woods and trails like the palm of his hand, and he’s mean as hell.”

After burying the dead, the men decided they would take the Sherall family to the Clarke stockade and then spread the word to as many settlers as possible to assemble there the following day to decide what they should do. There was little argument when the meeting was held.

Elijah Clarke explained, “If the nearby tribes see these bandits succeed and go to war, we wouldn’t have a chance even if all of us quit farmin’ and spent all our time huntin’ the bastards. Our lives depend on most of the damned Indians stayin’ peaceful, and only sure punishment will prevent a general uprisin’.”

Aaron Hart said, “We need some help from British troops. Governor Wright is under pressure from London to keep up trade and bring settlers to the ceded land, and he’s expected to maintain order in the colony.”

“Yeah, but maybe Georgia is not as important to England as we think it is,” someone said.

Aaron replied, “We don’t amount to much as far as trade is concerned, but the British need this colony. We lie between the Spaniards in Florida and the Carolinas, and to some degree we also tend to hold off the French west of here. I agree that the best approach is to stamp out any renegade uprisings when they are just getting started, but there ain’t three thousand white fighting men in Georgia. We’ve been lucky so far, but there’s been a lot of trouble with the Cherokee in the frontier areas of Carolina, and it’s finally got here.”

Clarke and two or three of the settlers wanted to go right after the Indians, but a strong majority finally decided that there might be more than one group of marauders and they needed to get more help before abandoning their own homes to possible attack. Also, Aaron was convinced that British officials should assume responsibility for overall peace with the natives. Aaron and two other men would go to Savannah to inform Governor Wright that they must have protection from some of the British troops, only a handful of whom were in the ceded area. They would remind him in respectful but forceful terms that they had settled in this frontier area with the clear assurance of protection, and a lot of families would have to abandon their claims and move to a more civilized area if military help was not forthcoming.

The governor responded as they had wished, and within a week a Captain James Grierson arrived in Augusta with fifty men, obviously green troops and all wearing newly issued militia uniforms, except for two British sergeants. With great fanfare, they established a military camp at Sherall’s Fort, and after a few days Grierson dispatched twenty of his men, on foot, to visit some of the nearby Indian villages to gather evidence so he could make an official report to the governor. When they had been gone less than two days, a small party of the renegade Indians ambushed the group, and three of the militiamen were killed by arrows and bullets fired from the underbrush. Not knowing the strength of their attackers, the troop returned to camp and refused to remain any longer in the “Indian-infested” land. Without any further discussions with the settlers, the entire detachment returned to Savannah.

Governor Wright was deeply embarrassed and used the occasion to dispatch an urgent message to London, describing the incident in the most compelling terms, emphasizing the seriousness of the threat, and requesting more British troops. What was more effective while the message was making its slow way to London was that the governor had Indian Superintendent John Stuart condemn the tribal leaders in the area for violating peace agreements and cut off all trade with them.

Finally realizing that they could expect no help from Savannah in the near future, some of the settlers met again at the Clarke homestead. They decided unanimously to assemble their families in safe places and to abandon their farms and homesteads long enough to punish the renegades. It was assumed that Elijah would be their military leader. One of the Indian traders reported to Aaron that he knew where Big Elk and his group of mostly young Creeks had been camping, deep within Cherokee territory, and offered to lead them there.

Elijah said he would need at least one hundred men who were willing to go on what was certain to be a difficult and time-consuming mission, and Aaron suggested that they send riders to the different areas in the ceded lands to call for volunteers.

Clarke replied, “No need to go to Wrightsborough. The damned Quakers won’t help with anything that might involve violence, and we sure as hell intend to be violent.”

The men laughed, and then someone said, “They’re not all Quakers. In fact, I think there’s some Regulators that moved down there from Orange County in Carolina.”

“Well, if so, they’ll be good men. Try to contact them, and let them know we’ll have to be leavin’ from here in three days — early Friday mornin’.”

Ethan was working in his blacksmith shop when Aaron Hart rode into the yard. Little Henry was playing nearby. After greeting each other as longtime acquaintances, from the Hillsborough days, Aaron said, “Ethan, I’ve come here with a message from Elijah Clarke.”

“I know of him and understand that he and a group of his friends have settled north of here, in some of the new lands over near the Savannah River.”

“That’s right. In fact, I’ve moved into the same general settlement. Have you also heard of Big Elk’s renegades attacking the forts just west of us?”

“Aye, that I have, and we regret the loss of lives and property. We hope the Indians have gone back to their villages after meeting with the militia.”

“It was the cowardly militia that went home, back to Savannah, and the Indians are still a threat.”

He went on to describe what had happened, and that all trade had been cut off between the British and the Indian tribes. Finally, he said that a group of settlers had chosen Elijah Clarke to be their leader and were deciding what to do.

Ethan could see the drift of the conversation and said, “Well, trade is important to all of them, and I reckon they’ve been forced to disband by now.”

“That’s what I’ve come to tell you. This is a group of Creeks that are outcasts from their own people and have been condemned as bandits. In fact, some traders reported that they have set up their tents in Cherokee territory, and they know about where it is. We realize you live among the Quakers, but Clarke suggested that you might join us for a few days to keep from having to face another raid. Next time it may be down here, as you also live near the edge of ceded lands.”

“We know the Indians around here fairly well, and they’ve always been peaceful. I’m not much for fighting and would rather stay here to protect my own place. Besides, I’ve heard that Clarke is pretty well known as a wild man, inclined to violence.”

“There will be several dozen of us going, and we just want to arrest Big Elk and his men to prevent more attacks on our families, and send a signal to others that might be tempted to go on the warpath. These few renegades are going against the treaty that was signed last year by both the Creek and Cherokee chiefs.”

Ethan was still unconvinced. “I’ll have to think on it. Where will the group be?”

“We’ll be meeting two hours after sunrise tomorrow, where the lower Cherokee path crosses Rock Comfort Creek.”

“I know where it is. I can’t say now, but I’ll be there if I can come.”

“We’ve made a list of settlers, and Kindred Morris is on it. I think I’ll go by and see him. Do you know where he might be?”

“There’s no need for that. He’ll not be wanting to go.”

Aaron knew Newota well and was familiar with Kindred’s involvement with Indian tribes. Aaron declined Ethan’s invitation to stay and eat, but took a drink of water and rode off down the trail.

For a few minutes Aaron thought about how different Ethan and Elijah were and was somewhat pleased with himself for being able to forge a friendship with the two strong men. It was typical of him that he thought well of both men, and he also thought it would be good for them to get better acquainted with each other.

Aaron had visited the Pratts several times on his travels and knew that Ethan was committed to a peaceful existence for himself and his family, preferring to be alone except for an occasional visit with the neighboring Morrises. He respected the Indians who lived across the river, was seldom profane, and considered his earlier official oaths as a British citizen to be binding on him as one loyal to the crown. Quite tall and powerful, Ethan was at ease among other men and never felt any need to prove himself superior in any way or to exercise control over anyone. In a conversation, he preferred to listen rather than express his own views. Aaron was not surprised that Ethan preferred not to give an immediate response to his invitation, and was sure he would consider all sides carefully and make a sound and cautious judgment.

Except for his imposing size and intimate knowledge of the surrounding wilderness, Elijah Clarke was almost the opposite in every way. He seemed driven always to exert his superiority over others, and his natural leadership abilities permitted these efforts to be successful. Elijah liked to expound his views and to harness other men into some kind of alliance with him. He was harsh and immediate in his judgments of others and in decisions about his own life. Since his encounter with the royal governor in North Carolina, Elijah had never professed any sense of British citizenship and was always in the forefront of rebel discussions. In many ways, it was uncomfortable to be around this overbearing and opinionated man, who was often wrong and never in doubt, but there was an attractive vitality about him that brought a number of men to his side. He never liked to be contradicted, and Aaron was always careful to express contrary views cautiously or in private. Elijah despised all Indians as savages, was never willing to attribute to them any human characteristics, and this was one subject on which Aaron never expressed his real opinion. Elijah would have been disgusted to know that Aaron had consorted with an Indian “wife,” considering that any sexual relation other than rape was ungodly with a squaw.

Ethan watched Aaron go, took Henry to Epsey, and then got his rifle and walked off into the woods, feeling that he should consider carefully this proposition to join Clarke. He was troubled about the prospect of increasing violence, and of becoming involved in it himself. Like all the settlers, and particularly those who lived on the outskirts of the ceded areas and nearest the Indians, he was acutely aware of the danger to his family if respected Indian leaders decided to approve raids on the remote settlements. At the same time, he considered it unlikely that they would renege on their commitments, forgo the advantages of peaceful trade, and attempt to take back the land they had ceded. An all-out war would undoubtedly bring trained British troops into the area, more than a match for the poorly armed natives. This was especially true because the Indians were divided, with only rare cooperation between the Creeks and Cherokees. But he trusted Aaron Hart and finally decided that it might be helpful to join in punishing Big Elk’s small group, who probably were outcasts and condemned by their own people. Another factor in his decision was that he and his neighbors might very well need protection in the future, and the newer settlers farther north would be valuable allies.

Before going to bed, he told Epsey that he would be leaving early the next morning to meet some other men about an Indian threat. It was less than twelve miles to the meeting place, and Ethan was there shortly after sunrise. Neither Elijah Clarke nor any of his close friends had arrived, but a few men had already gathered, mostly from the older settlements nearer Augusta. They shared what information they had but knew little about the latest developments or any plans for their mission. It was more than an hour later when the others arrived, almost two dozen men who had obviously traveled together and seemed to know one another well.

Clarke was silent while he counted the group, and spoke first: “We need three times as many men, but this will have to do. I believe we have enough here to teach the red bastards a lesson they’ll not forget.”

He stepped down from his horse, and the others gathered around him. Ethan examined him closely. Except for himself, Clarke was the largest man there. He had thick black hair, cut in a rough fashion about even with the lobes of his ears. His eyes were surprisingly large but squinted often as he talked. His aquiline nose and somewhat protruding chin gave an impression of strength to a short upper lip and a soft-looking mouth. He had prominent, yellowed teeth, and the upper ones were constantly in view when he spoke. As the situation was explained to the newcomers, it seemed to Ethan that Clarke was excessively presumptuous in his position as leader, not acknowledging the voices of the other men until he had finished his long and somewhat convoluted statements. At times he struggled for the right word, and the man next to Ethan whispered, “He can’t read and write, but he’s smart as hell.”

When a few of the men began expressing their views, Clarke listened for about five minutes and then held up his hand to demand silence. He summarized, “Well, now we all know about the Whites, the Sheralls, and others — the killin’s and scalpin’s of their women and children, and the burnin’ of their houses and barns. We’re dealin’ with a bunch of cowards, who are despised by their own people. The only ones worse are the militiamen sent here by the governor, who messed in their pants and ran when they heard the sound of the first bow twang.”

There was soft laughter, and Elijah waited for it to subside.

“It’s fallen on us to handle this mess, and we’re gwine to clean it up. Big Elk and his men believe they are safe until they’re ready to strike us again, and have set up camp about twenty miles across the river. Mr. Moses, who trades with the Cherokees, is with us and says he knows right where they are.”

He pointed to a small and obviously nervous man near him.

“I reckon everybody brought enough to eat, and powder and shot to last us awhile. It might be important for us to know how to reload in a hurry. Also, you need a knife for close fightin’, and I see some of you have a tomahawk. We ain’t going to turn back until we find them and finish our business.”

These comments were unnecessary, but no one objected. Most of the men were avid hunters and habitually carried a hunting knife and a musket or long rifle whenever they donned a hat and coat to leave their own cabin. On horseback and in the woods, a weapon was in their hands, and some even contrived ingenious ways to secure their gun across plow stock handles in the field. This permitted them to respond quickly if an enemy appeared or if they saw a deer, bear, or turkey within shooting range.

There were several questions about distances and directions, and then Ethan asked, “What are we going to do when we find them?”

Clarke appeared to notice him for the first time, although Ethan was a foot taller than the average man, and obviously strong and able.

“As I’ve already said, we know where they are. We’ll use their own tactics, by surroundin’ them at night and then movin’ in at daybreak when most of them are still asleep.”

Ethan, apparently quite at ease, persisted, “And then what will we do with the prisoners?”

“They’ll not want to be prisoners and will probably fight to the end. I reckon we’ll treat the bastards the same as they would treat us. Ain’t that what the Bible says?”

There was a general murmur of laughter and approval, and Ethan decided not to pursue the matter further.

The men mounted their horses and followed in single file behind Clarke and the trader, who was consulted every now and then if there was a choice of trails.

Late in the afternoon, Clarke halted the group in a small clearing by raising his hand. When the others had gathered around him, he said, “We’ll stop here. We think they’re only about two miles away. Stay quiet, keep your horses close, don’t make any fires, and get some rest if you can. Later, a few of us will scout ahead on foot, locate the camp, and size up the situation. They’s enough of a moon so we can see to get around. Then we’ll come back here, work out some signals, and give everybody a rundown in time to line up for the attack.”

After it was dark, Clarke chose a few of his closest friends and they moved off toward the northeast, easing along silently down a dim trail in their moccasined feet. They were back in about three hours, finding all the men sitting up and talking softly in small groups.

Clarke called them together.

“We located their camp, which looks almost like a permanent settlement. We saw two fires about burned out but didn’t see nobody movin’ around. They’re on this side of a pretty good-sized creek that won’t be easy to cross. We’ll divide up into three groups. I’m puttin’ Aaron Hart in charge of eight men, who’ll go to the right. Micajah Williamson here will take the same number to the left side. We’ve already worked out where everyone will be lined up. I’ll be with all of the rest of you to make the first and main attack in the middle. I figure there’ll be twelve with me, and I’ll want two to keep the horses quiet and close together. It’s not a big place, so we ought to be able to see each other after we line up. When I think we’re all ready, which’ll be about first light, I’ll signal by shootin’ my gun. Then everybody goes in as fast as hell. If anything moves, shoot it, but be damned sure you don’t kill me! Be careful not to waste your first shot, because after that you may have to depend on your knives and hatchets. I don’t want anybody to get away.”

Ethan asked, “What about the ones that give up?”

Clarke responded sharply, “I’ve already told you there won’t be any, but you can capture one if you want to take a murderer back home to live in your cabin.”

Ethan decided not to respond. It was a sober and somewhat frightened band of men who then moved down the trail together, until Clarke stopped and pointed to his left and right. They were still three hundred yards from the Indians. Ethan was one of those who went with Hart. As his group moved away, they could hear Clarke quietly directing the remaining men to their places.

Hart seemed to know what to do. When they were close enough to the creek to hear the water running, he stopped and motioned the men to come close to him. He whispered their instructions: to form a line almost perpendicular to the stream, size up the Indian camp, and make sure they all had their guns, knives, and hatchets ready for the attack.

Ethan found his place, checked the positions of his nearest companions, and decided that he would go straight for the lean-to nearest him. There was no immediate response from among the shelters when the signal shot sounded, but before the settlers could reach their destinations, the sleepy Indians were rising from their pallets and reaching for weapons. There was scattered gunfire around the periphery of the camp, screams from the victims, and then the grunts and curses as men closed in mortal hand-to-hand combat, all knowing that their lives were at stake.

The fighting was over within ten minutes, with Big Elk and every brave killed except two, who jumped into the creek. Hart ordered Ethan and two other men to follow them, and they moved almost one hundred yards downstream but soon lost sight of the Indians, who apparently swam to safety. As they stood still and listened quietly to detect any movement in the brush across the creek, Ethan heard Clarke shout for all his men to reload, and to search every hiding place for “cowards that refused to fight.”

A few minutes later, the settlers were surprised to find a number of women and children, including three infants, huddled inside the shelters, all attempting to hide under or behind hides or blankets. They were brought into the center of the clearing, and crowded closely together, touching or embracing each other in fear.

Ethan heard Clarke order, “Kill them all!”

He ran back toward the clearing, shouting, “No! No!”

But it was too late. While most of the white men held back and a few protested, Clarke and several of the settlers moved in, and with their hatchets, soon killed all the survivors. When Ethan arrived, some of the Indians were being scalped.

He grasped Clarke by his shoulder and spun him around. “This is murder! You’re no better than Big Elk!”

Clarke backed away and leveled his rifle at Ethan’s chest. “Don’t ever touch me again, Pratt, unless you’re ready to die. These people are all guilty and they have to learn a lesson. I’d advise you to get your arse away from here and go back to your damned Quaker settlement. You had no business being here in the first place.”

Ethan was furious and disgusted. He looked around at the faces of the other men and saw a clear distinction among them. He judged that at least a third of them agreed with him, but no one spoke. He turned and walked slowly out of the clearing, heading down the trail toward where they had left their horses. Only two other men followed him, and they were soon on their way back home. He tried not to think about the bloody scene he had left behind.

Excerpted from “The Hornet’s Nest.” Copyright © 2003 by Jimmy Carter. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.