A Log Rolling in Old Lowndes County, GA

When Dr. Jacob Rhett Motte arrived at Franklinville, GA in the fall of 1836, he became perhaps the first surgeon in Lowndes County, GA, which then encompassed a vast area including most of present day Lowndes, Berrien, Brooks, Cook, Lanier and Echols counties. Motte was the first of the medical men anywhere in the vicinity of the pioneer homesteaders at the settlement now known as Ray City, GA. Dr. Motte, a U.S. Army surgeon detailed to serve under the command of Major Greenleaf Dearborn, had come to Franklinville, GA at the onset of the Second Seminole War.

1836 map showing relative location of Franklinville, Camp Townsend, Camp Clyatt, Squire Swilley's, Warner's Ferry and other locations. Source: A Journey into Wilderness

1836 map showing relative location of Franklinville, Camp Townsend, Camp Clyatt, Squire Swilley’s, Warner’s Ferry and other locations. Source: A Journey into Wilderness

While encamped at Camp Townsend, Lowndes County, GA in 1836, Dr. Jacob Rhett Motte recorded many details of local folk life, which continued despite the threat of Indian attacks. In the fall of 1836 Dr. Motte  and Major Thomas Staniford were invited to a log rolling event held at the home of an unnamed Lowndes County resident.

A log rolling. Pioneers clearing the land.

A log rolling. Pioneers clearing the land.

Log Rolling was, according to Ward’s History of Coffee County, GA,

When a farmer decided to clear up a piece of land he split every tree on the land that would split into fence rails. The logs that would not split were cut up into pieces twelve or fifteen feet long to be burned at some convenient time in the fall or winter. The farmer gave a “log rolling, quilting and a frolic.” The neighbors were invited to a big dinner and a “log rolling.” The wives and daughters came to sew and to quilt.

As with many southern narratives, historical accounts of log rollings tend to ignore the role of enslaved African-Americans in the settlement of the southern frontier. Dr. Motte’s journal does not acknowledge the presence of slaves.  But slave narratives from Alabama recorded by the Works Project Administration relate, “When they had a log rolling on a plantation, the Negroes from the neighboring plantations came and worked together until all the jobs were completed.” After the log rolling the slaves were given “molasses to make candy and have a big folic.” For slaves, log rolling:

was great times, cause if some of the neighboring plantations wanted to get up a house, they would invite all the slaves, men and women to come with their masters. The women would help with the cooking and you may be sure they had something to cook. They would kill a cow, or three or four hogs, and then have peas, cabbage, and everything that grows on the farm. And if there was any meat or food left they would give that to the slaves to take home, and just before dark the overseer or Ol’ Master would give the slaves all the whiskey they wanted to drink. Sometimes after the days work, they would have a frolic, such as dancing, and old time games.

Cordelia Thomas, born into slavery on a Georgia plantation, shared the following memories of log rolling:

On our place they spent about two whole days cookin’ and gittin’ ready. Master asked everybody from far and nigh, and they always come ’cause they know he was going to give ’em a good old time. The way they rolled them logs was a sight, and the more good corn liquor Master passed ’round, the faster them logs rolled. Come night time, Master had a big bonfire built up and set lots of pitch-pine torches ’round so as there would be plenty of light for ’em to see how to eat that fine supper what had done been set out for ’em. After supper, they danced nigh all the rest of the night. Mammy used to tell us ’bout the frolics next day, ’cause us children was made to go to bed at sundown.

Irving Lowery, born into slavery on Puddin Swamp plantation, South Carolina, described the significance of log rolling in slave life:

A day was set on which the log-rolling was to take place, and then invitations were sent out to the neighboring planters, and each sent a hand. This work was returned when the others had their log-rolling. A log-rolling always meant a good dinner of the best, and lots of fun, as well as a testing of manhood. This testing of manhood was something that everybody was interested in. The masters were concerned, and consequently they selected and sent to the log-rolling their ablest-bodied men; the slave women were concerned: for they wanted their husbands and sweethearts to be considered the best men of the community. Then, too, the men took great pride in the development of their muscles. They took delight in rolling up their shirt sleeves, and displaying the largeness of their arms. In some cases, their muscles presented the appearance of John L. Sullivan–the American pugilist.

The woodlands of the South were covered with a variety of trees and undergrowth. Among the trees, were to be found the majestic pine, the sturdy oak, the sweet maple, the lovely dogwood, and the fruitful and useful hickory. When a piece of woodland was cleared up, and made ready for planting, it was called “new ground.” In clearing up new ground, the undergrowth was grubbed up and burned; the oaks, maples, dogwood, and hickories were cut down, split up, and hauled to the house for firewood; and the pines were belted or cut round, and left to die. After these pines had died and partially decayed, the winter’s storms, from year to year, would blow them down: hence the necessity for the annual log-rolling. These log-rollings usually took place in the spring of the year. They formed an important part of the preparations for the new crop.

On the appointed day, the hands came together at the yard, and all necessary arrangements were made, the most important of which was the pairing or matching of the men for the day’s work. In doing this, regard was had to the height and weight of the men. They were to lift in pairs, therefore, it was necessary that they should be as nearly the same height and weight as possible. The logs have all been cut about twenty feet in length, and several good, strong hand sticks have been made. Now, everything is ready, and away to the fields they go. See them as they put six hand-sticks under a great big log. This means twelve men–one at each end of the hand-stick. It is going to be a mighty testing of manhood. Every man is ordered to his place. The captain gives the order, “Ready,” and every man bows to his burden, with one hand on the end of the handstick, and the other on the log to keep it from rolling. The next command given by the captain is, “Altogether!” and up comes the big log. As they walk and stagger toward the heap, they utter a whoop like what is known as the “Rebel yell.” If one fails to lift his part, he is said to have been “pulled down,” and therefore becomes the butt of ridicule for the balance of the day. When the women folks learn of his misfortune, they forever scorn him as a weakling.

At 12 o’clock the horn blows for dinner, and they all knock off, and go, and enjoy a good dinner. After a rest, for possibly two hours, they go to the field again, and finish up the work for the day. Such was the log-rolling in the “days before the war.”

At a subsequent day the women and children gather up the bark and limbs of these fallen trees and throw or pile them on these log heaps and burn them. When fifty or seventy-five log heaps would be fully ablaze in the deepening of the evening twilight, the glare reflected from the heavens made it appear that the world was on fire. To even the benighted and uneducated slave, the sight was magnificent, and one of awe-inspiring beauty.

As an urbanite, Dr. Motte was unfamiliar with the frontier traditions of log rolling. According to Encyclopedia.Com,

A farmer chopped enough logs for a log rolling only when he had to clear acreage, so chopping frolics and log rollings primarily took place on the frontier. Work frolics derived from similar European and African traditions of communal agricultural labor. An individual, family, or community confronted with a task too large to complete on its own invited neighbors to help them. In return, the host provided refreshments and revelry. Work frolics composed a vital segment of the rural economy in America until the late nineteenth century. For over 200 years, the relatively low cost of renting or owning land in America resulted in a shortage of rural wage laborers. Faced with scarce labor and high wages for the few laborers available, farmers relied on the work frolic as a means for exchanging labor. Attendance at a work frolic granted neighbors the right to call on the host when they needed help. Besides meeting economic realities, work frolics contributed to the formation of communities by tying people into local networks of obligation.

Farmers called work frolics to accomplish a range of tasks, including corn husking, house (or barn) raising, quilting, sewing, apple butter making, chopping wood, log rolling, sugar (or syrup) making, spinning, hunting, and nut cracking. These events required planning and preparation [and followed] seasonal cycles of agriculture…To ensure farmers did not deplete their labor force by planning frolics on the same day, families collaborated to produce a frolic schedule. Hosts also finished preliminary tasks to allow visitors to focus on the large projects that the host family could not complete alone… Competition drove workers to accomplish their tasks quickly… Log-rolling teams strove to move the most wood. Obligatory reciprocity promised hosts that their neighbors would show up, but the party after the work served as a secondary lure. Most workers felt short-changed when hosts did not meet traditional expectations of decent food and alcohol. Entertainment at the parties consisted of music and dancing.

Ward’s History explains how the task was done in a competitive spirit.

The method of rolling logs was to take hand spikes, prize up the log, and put about three hand spikes under the log with two men to each stick, one on each side of the log. Many a contest in strength was made in lifting logs. If the log was very heavy, the men had to be very strong in their arms, legs and backs to lift. If the man at the other end of the stick was not likewise a very strong man, he could not come up with his end of the log and so he became the laughing stock of the crowd. It often happened that a small man was much stronger than a big man. I knew one little man who could lift as heavy a log as any man; the harder he pulled at his hand spike, redder and redder his face got, the veins in his neck bulged larger and larger. When a man claimed he was very much of a man and then wanted the light end of the load he would bluff the crowd by saying, ” I can carry this and then some. Jump on my end of the log and take a ride.”

While the men were busy rolling logs in the fields, the women and girls at home were busy making quilts and cooking dinner. One of the main dishes for dinner was a sixty-gallon sugar boiler full of rice and chicken and backbones. The largest dinner pot was full of greens and dumplings. When the greens were served on the largest dish a boiled ham was placed on top, while sweet potatoes, cracklin bread, potatoes, mudgen [lard] and cakes, two-story biscuits which were served in large quantities. When dinner time comes some one blows a big cow horn loud and long. All hands took a drink and went to dinner. All sorts of dishes are used on the table, broken cups, cracked plates, knives without handles, forks with but one prong, but they all had a good dinner and a bushel of fun while they ate.  When the log rolling and quilting is over and the sun sets into the West, old Bill Mundy, the colored man, came in with his fiddle. A lot of sand was put on the floor and everything is cleared for the dance. The dancers get on the floor with their partners, the fiddler starts up “the One-eyed Gopher,” and the frolic is on. The tune “One-eyed Gopher played by the fiddler was a repetition of the words, “Oh, the one-eyed gopher, he fell down and couldn’t turn over,” etc. He would play it high, play it fast, and play it slow. When the dancing was over, “They got Sandy Moore to beat the strings while he played “Squirrel Gravy,” and thus the frolic ended.

Dr. Motte wrote in his journal about the Lowndes County log rolling, which was held about six miles from Camp Townsend:

“[The host] and candidate for the legislature having given out that on a particular day he intended to have a log-rolling, quilting, and dancing frolic, and having sent an especial message to Major Staniford and myself to attend; our curiosity was excited to witness the originality of such an affair of which we had heard, but never witnessed; so we determined to go.

Thomas Staniford, major of the Regiment stationed near Franklinville, GA in 1836.

Thomas Staniford, major of the Regiment stationed near Franklinville, GA in 1836.

We had to ride six miles and arrived there about sun-set not caring much to participate in the log-rolling part of the entertainment; the [host] was busily engaged erecting a long table out of rough boards in the open air; while his wife was as busily engaged in cooking pork and cabbage in the kitchen, into which we were invited, being informed that it was the reception room. We there found the company assembled, and on entering would have removed our hats, to show our breeding in the presence of the fairer sex; on looking round, however, we noticed that such a procedure would not have been in conformity with the rules or customs of the company, and being decidedly outré would only have exposed us to their ridicule; so quaker-fashion we remained; and the fair angels whose gaze were fixed upon us, seemed by their approving smiles not to take our conduct amiss, – probably liked us the better for appearing to disregard their presence. The pork and cabbage were in due time dispatched, and a few of the gentlemen put to bed, in consideration of not being able to use their legs from a too free use of our host’s whiskey.

Then began preparations for the double-shuffle. There were three fiddlers; but unfortunately for the exercise of their united talents, only one fiddle; and that deficient in some of its strings. The three votaries of Apollo therefore exercised their functions successively upon the cracked instrument, and did not fail to produce such sounds as would have attracted the admiration of even the mighty goddess of Discord herself. Their chief merit seemed to consist in all producing a similar concatenation of sounds, which they persisted in dignifying with the appellation of tune; the name of which, however, was more that the brightest faculties could call.

The Major could not be induced to venture his carcase in the violent exercise of double-shuffle and cross-fling; so I had to support the credit of our camp by my own exertions; and so successfully, that the [host] was in raptures, and made an attempt to exhibit his admiration by embracing me before the whole company; but I could not stand such a flattering display, so bolted.

The intervals of the dance were filled up by the gentlemen handing round in a tumbler, what I thought was whisky and water, but which the Major asserted, from closer in inspection, was unadulterated whiskey; the younger ladies were generally satisfied with one or two mouthfuls from each tumbler, but as the same ceremony was to be gone through with each gentleman in rapid succession, the fairest of creation did not lose their proper allowance. The old ladies, who were veterans in the business, never loosened their grasp of the tumblers until their lips had drained the last drop of the precious liquid. As a necessary consequence it was impossible for them to sit up long, and soon all the beds were occupied by these ancient dames; the gentlemen who afterwards got into a similar predicament were compelled to lie wherever they fell.

At one o’clock fighting commenced, when the Major and myself, not being ambitious of distinguishing ourselves in the pugilistic art, made a retreat; and at two in the morning we were in our tents, after a bitter cold ride.

 

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Camp Townsend

Camp Townsend

In the fall of 1836,  following a number of skirmishes between militia companies and bands of Creek Indians who were resisting relocation to western territories there was a call for support of federal troops to provide protection for settlers in Lowndes County.  Companies of local militia under the command Levi J. Knight, Enoch Hall, Henry Blair, Henry S. Strickland, Samuel Swilley, Hamilton Sharpe, and others had fought engagements at William Parker’s place, Brushy Creek, Warrior Creek, Cow Creek, Troublesome Ford and other locales.

In response two companies of federal troops, about 200 men, under the command of Major Greenleaf Dearborn were assigned to Lowndes county.  Detailed to provide medical services for Dearborn’s command was Army surgeon Dr. Jacob Rhett Motte. The Federal troops first took up position at Franklinville, GA, then county seat of Lowndes County.  But after a few weeks relocated to a camp near the plantation of Thomas O. Townsend.  Townsend later owned property and practiced law at Troupville, GA.

Camp Townsend was situated about ten miles south of Franklinville, GA.

Dr. Motte, Army surgeon, described the new bivouac at Camp Townsend:

The situation at Camp Townsend was not celebrated for many beauties and ecellencies to make it an object of peculiar attraction. It was in one of the most extensive and most barren of all the pine-barrens in Georgia, where nothing is to [be] seen but pine-trees and saw-palmetto. To the North it was sheltered by lofty pine-trees; to the East it looked upon an extensive forest of over-grown pine-trees, most charmingly variegated by pine-trees of a smaller growth. A fine grove of majestic and venerable pine-trees protected the camp from the sun (whose heat was now acceptable) towards the South; and to the West, the eye was carried along over a glittering and smiling quagmire, abounding in toads, and tadpoles, and the view [was] terminated by the towering and thickly growing trunks of pine-trees, whose numbers were doubly increased by reflection in the puddles which beautifully diversified the aforesaid quagmire. A tender air of repose pervaded the whole scene.  The croaking of the thousand varieties of toads and tadpoles with which the quagmire abounded formed a concert of simple melody; the lowing of the cattle, which rove in native freedom through these woods, the grunting of the hogs who enjoy the same rural felicity; and the strokes of our men’s axes, partook of the softness of the scene, and fell tunefully upon the ear.   Amidst such Elysian happiness my mind could not fail being disposed to gentle pleasures and tranquil enjoyments.  The other senses also had their full share of delight; for I reveled in the good things of the land, which abounded with all manner of fish and flesh, and such like delightsome and wholesome excellencies.  I slept on Buffaloe skin – sat on Bear skin – and fed on venison and wild-turkies, with an occasional sprinkling of squirrel.

With the onset of cooler weather, troops were assigned as woodsmen to keep the camp supplied with firewood.

“The constant felling of pine-trees for fuel was a source of much annoyance to me. From morning to night the strokes of the axe were constantly heard at my ears…It took six pine-trees of the largest size to make one campfire every night. It was made this way; the largest trees in the neighborhood were selected, generally from two to three feet in diamitor; these were cut into lengths of twelve feet, and then rolled up to the front of the tent, distant from it about ten or twelve fee; two smaller pieces are laid upon the ground perpendicular to these, and parallel to one another to serve as andirons, lying towards the tents; upon these other large logs are piled to a height of five or six feet. We each of us had a brobdignag comforter of this description in front of our tents, and as soon as the sun set they commenced blazing with the fierceness of so many volcanies.

As our camp consisted of twenty tents, each of which had a fire in front, the scene presented at night was awfully grand and magnificently comfortable.  We burn’d such a large quantity of wood, that we cleared and used as fuel an acre per week of pine woods…

We had been encamped near Townsend’s clearing about three weeks, when our neighbours began to be too troublesome for a longer proximity. They displayed too great an affection towards our men by supplying them with – a soldier’s greatest luxury – whiskey, – thereby injuring their morals and keeping them constantly in the guard-tent. The Major commanding [Major Greenleaf Dearborn] saw the evil, and concluded to get out of its way. He therefore issued his orders on Monday night the 13th November, that we should all be ready to march the following morning by sun-rise.

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Dr. Motte Arrives at Franklinville, GA, 1836

In the midst of the Second Seminole War young Dr. Motte, a Harvard educated Army surgeon, found himself detailed for duty at Franklinville, GA to provide medical care for soldiers under the command of Major Greenleaf Dearborn.  The arrival of federal troops in Lowndes County in late September of 1836 followed  a series of engagements between local militia and Native Americans who were fleeing to Florida to avoid forced removal to western lands.  Levi J. Knight, pioneer settler of Ray City, GA, had led a company of men in a skirmish at William Parker’s place on July 12, 1836, and from July through August, engagements were fought at Brushy Creek, Little River, Grand Bay, Troublesome Ford, Warrior Creek and Cow Creek.

Dr. Motte recorded his experiences in Lowndes County in a journal he kept of his military service. This part of his story picks up in the first days of Autumn, 1836…

In consequence of the great alarm excited in the southern counties of Georgia by murders and depredations committed by the Creek Indians who were endeavoring to escape into Florida from Alabama, Governor Schley had petitioned Gen. Jesup to station some troops in Ware or Lowndes County, that being the least populous and most defenceless portion of the country through which the Indians were passing.  It was also liable to invasions from the Seminoles, as it bordered upon Florida.  In compliance with this request, Major [Greenleaf] Dearborn with two companies of Infantry was ordered to proceed immediately to the above counties in Georgia, and there establish himself.  These counties being so far south and in a low swampy part of the country had the worst possible reputation for health, and going there at this season of the year was almost considered certain death to a white man and stranger unacclimated.  It was necessary then to send some surgeon with the troops, that it may not be said they died without proper medical attendance; and also that they might have a chance of a surgeon in the other world to physic them. Dr. Lawson, the Medical Director, was therefore instructed by Gen. Jesup to select some on of the surgeons for this duty; and the Doctor with his usual friendly discrimination, whenever there was any particularly disagreeable duty to be done, picked upon me. [Dr. Thomas Lawson, Medical Director at Fort Mitchell, was appointed Surgeon General of the United States on November 30, 1836.] So away I was ordered, to die of fever as I thought amidst the swamps of Lowndes County.  Major Dearborn to whom I was ordered to report myself was at Irwinton [Eufala, AL], sixty miles below Fort Mitchell, on the Alabama side of the Chatahooche. It was therefore necessary for me to proceed there forthwith alone….

I found Major Dearborn encamped two miles from Irwinton, and after reporting myself to him rode over to visit Major Lomax, who was also stationed in the neighbourhood with his battalion of Artillery.

On the 29th Sept we took up the line of march for Lowndes County, Georgia, and after crossing the Chattahooche advanced fifteen miles the first day over the most wretched roads that ever disfigured the face of the earth.  We proceeded by easy marches, generally resting in the middle of the day when we took our food, which was prepared before we started in the early morn and again when we encamped for the the night. The second night I slept in a church by the roadside…The third night we slept in the midst of a pine barren. The fourth near the banks of the Kinchafoonee River upon the site of an old Indian town [Chehaw village, where Georgia militia massacred Creek Indians in 1818]

Dr. Jacob Motte's 1836 route to Franklinville, GA

Dr. Jacob Motte’s 1836 route to Franklinville, GA

The fifth night, the surgeon was coming down with fever. Of the sixth day, he wrote that the column had passed through Pindartown, in present day Worth County, GA.  According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Pindartown was of considerable importance in the early days. When the Creek lands changed hands in 1821, the village was bought from the Indians. Pindartown served as the only post office between the Ocmulgee and Flint rivers in the early days. The town was located at the head of navigation on the Flint River, and the stagecoach road between Milledgeville and Tallahassee, Florida, went through Pindartown.

Continuing his narrative of the travel on October 4, 1836, Motte wrote of his worsening condition.

We crossed the Flint river, and had got beyond Pinderton in Baker county, when the exertion proved too great for me, for fever with its dreadful hold had seized on my very life-springs; and finding myself unable to keep my saddle, I was forced to dismount and lie down upon the road until one of the baggage wagons came up, when I was helped into it. The torture I endured for four days during which I was conveyed in this vehicle of torment cannot be expressed in language.  My anxiety, however, to continue with the troops, enabled me to support the greatest agony for some time. 

Motte’s description of the rude and uncomfortable travel by wagon over the stage roads matches the perceptions of  Charles Joseph La Trobe, an English traveler and writer, who in 1833 rode from Tallahassee, FL to Milledgeville, GA  via the weekly stagecoach. La Trobe observed “The roads through the south of Georgia are in the roughest state.

The rough roads in the heat of an Indian summer in south Georgia were too much for the feverish Dr. Motte.

The thin covering to the wagon afforded my burning brain no protection against the heat of a vertical sun in this latitude, and the constant jolting over the rugged roads and roots of trees was fast driving me into a dreadful tempest of delirium. Human nature could endure such suffering no longer, and with reluctance I was compelled to be left in a log-house which stood beside the road in Thomas county, ten miles from Florida. The occupant, whose name was Adams, seemed a kind hearted man, and he promised to bestow [upon me] all the care in his power. Fortunately I retained my reasoning faculties, and I was enabled to prescribe for myself the proper medicines…

… By aid of a good constitution I was at last enabled to master the disease, and after ten days confinement to bed, again stood upon my legs. …On the 21st Oct I had regained sufficient strength to ride my horse; so on that day I bid farewell to my kind and hospitable host…and following upon the trail of the troops, proceeded to rejoin them.

The route of the troops from Thomasville toward Franklinville would have undoubtedly been along the Coffee Road.     Coffee Road, the military road constructed by John Coffee and Thomas Swain in 1823 became the first route opening up the south central Georgia region to pioneer settlers.  In this section the road passed through Thomas county, Lowndes county, and present day Berrien county, continuing on to its terminus at Jacksonville, GA on the Ocmulgee River. From Thomasville heading east via the Coffee Road, Dearborn’s company could reach Sharpe’s Store which was just fifteen miles west of Franklinville, GA

Now traveling alone and by horseback, Motte’s perception of  conditions along the rough-cut roads are in marked contrast to his torturous wagon ride.

Autumn with its refreshing sunshine had now superceded the heat of summer, and its hollow winds, with mournful sound announcing the approach of dreary winter, were driving the leaves about in eddying course; their rustling alone broke the stillness of the scene as I journeyed slowly through the wide forests, which were now throwing off their garb of sturdy vigour and assuming the ostentatious and gaudy livery of the season. The beauty of woodland scenery is always heightened just before the chilly winter throws its icy influence over their bloom. and envelopes them in a robe of dusky brown.  Then it is that the gorgeous and fantastic blending of green, yellow, crimson, purple and scarlet, which tinge the distant prospect, defies the art of the painter, who endeavours in vain to imitate successfully the varied hues of nature.

On the evening of the 22nd Oct I arrived at Franklinville, which is the only town in the whole of Lowndes county, and contains only three log-houses one of which is a court-house, and another the Post-office; the third is a store. This great place is situated on the upper Withlacooché, and here I found the troops encamped. They were preparing to move farther south, and nearer to Florida; and the day after I joined, the tents were struck, the Withlachooché crossed, and after marching ten miles in a southerly direction, a new place of encampment was selected near the plantation of  a Mr. Townsend.

[Thomas O. Townsend was one of the first settlers of Lowndes County, and later owned several lots in the town of Troupville.]

Major Dearborn apparently found the environs of Franklinville unsuitable to military discipline, this despite the fact that the only buildings were the courthouse, post office, an inn operated by William Smith, who was also clerk of the court and postmaster, and the residences of Sheriff Martin Shaw, and of John Mathis and James Mathis. Still, Franklinville was the only “town” in all of Lowndes County and was on the stage road from Jacksonville.   In reflecting on the early history of Lowndes County, Hamilton Sharpe, who operated Sharpe’s Store on Coffee Road, intimated that Franklinville was a rowdy place of drunkenness, at least on days when citizens gathered from the countryside of meetings of the circuit court.

In any event, Major Dearborn soon had his troops relocated to a more remote location.

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Dr. Jacob Rhett Motte: Army Surgeon

In the fall of 1836 at the onset of the Second Seminole War, Dr. Jacob Rhett Motte became perhaps the first surgeon in Lowndes County, GA, which then encompassed a vast area including all of present day Lowndes, Berrien, Brooks, Cook, Lanier and Echols counties. Motte was the first of the medical men anywhere in the vicinity of the pioneer homesteaders at the settlement now known as Ray City, GA. Dr. Motte, a U.S. Army surgeon detailed to serve under the command of Major Greenleaf Dearborn, had come to Franklinville, GA which was the first government seat and post office of Lowndes County.

The early pioneers of the area cheered the deployment of federal troops, and the arrival of a doctor was especially welcome.  But to Dr. Motte, the assignment for duty in Lowndes was most unwelcome, in his words the county “being so far south and in a low swampy part of the country had the worst possible reputation for health, and going there at this season of the year was almost considered certain death to a white man and stranger unacclimated.”

The Milledgeville Federal Union reported the arrival of United States troops in Lowndes County.

September 27, 1836 Milledgeville Federal Union reports Major Greenleaf Dearborn and 200 federal troops have taken up position in Lowndes County, GA.

September 27, 1836 Milledgeville Federal Union reports Major Greenleaf Dearborn and 200 federal troops have taken up position in Lowndes County, GA.

 Milledgeville Federal Union
September 27, 1836

United States Troops in Lowndes.

It is stated that Gen. Jesup has ordered Maj. Dearborn with about two hundred United States regulars, into Lowndes county, for the protection of that and the surrounding country against the depredations of Indians. It is anticipated that when operations shall be renewed in Florida, parties of Creek Indians, perhaps accompanied by the Seminole allies, will return through our southwestern counties to their ancient homes; and this force is designed, we learn, as a preparation for such a state of things. – Gen. Jesup has been at Tallahassee, and it was there understood, that he would be invited by Gov. Call to take command of the Florida forces.

As Native American inhabitants of Georgia, Alabama and Florida forcibly resisted removal to western lands, the summer of 1836 had erupted into a string of violent encounters. On or about July 12, 1836 Levi J. Knight led a company of men in a skirmish at William Parker’s place. In subsequent days, engagements were fought at Brushy Creek, Little River, Grand Bay, Troublesome Ford, Warrior Creek and Cow Creek.

About Dr. Motte…

Young Jacob Rhett Motte,  descendant of two distinguished and colorful South Carolinian families, graduated with an A .B. degree from Harvard University in 1832. Disappointed at his failure to receive an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, he returned to his home in Charleston. There he entered the Medical College of South Carolina and served his apprenticeship under the direction of a Doctor J. E. Holbrook. Upon the completion of his medical studies he became a citizen M. D. at the United States Government Arsenal in Augusta, Georgia. A yearning for a military career finally led the young physician to Baltimore where in March, 1836, he was examined by the Army Medical Board. His application for a commission as Assistant Surgeon was approved on March 21, and around the first of June he was ordered to active duty with the Army in the Creek Nation. For seven months he participated in the so-called Second Creek War in Georgia and Alabama-an action which was nothing more than the employment of about 10,000 regular and volunteer troops in a giant round-up of the demoralized and dispossessed Creek Indians. Early in 1837 he was transferred to the Army in Florida and for the next fourteen months took part in the campaigns against the Seminole Indians.

During his period of service with the Army in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, Motte faithfully kept a journal in which he recorded, in a fascinating style, his travels, experiences, activities, observations and impressions.

-James F. Sunderman

According to The Army Medical Department, 1818-1865,

President Jackson decided that it was necessary to move Army units into Georgia, Alabama, and Florida to force the removal of the Seminoles and Creeks, a step that had the added effect of intimidating the most reluctant members of the other three tribes. Although the Creeks put up less resistance to removal than the Seminoles, the possibility of wholesale active resistance caused the Army to order sixteen companies of regular troops from artillery and infantry regiments, more than 1,000 men, south by mid-1836 to assist over 9,000 state troops in rounding up the reluctant members of this tribe in preparation for their removal. In the course of the following six months, over 14,000 Creeks left the area under Army escort.

The Medical Department provided medical supplies for some of those going west, including the Cherokees, Choctaws, and Chickasaws, for which it was reimbursed from a special fund by the “Indian department,” and medical officers also vaccinated large groups from the various tribes for smallpox. At least one Army surgeon, Eugene Abadie, was sent with the Creeks and specifically designated “Surgeon to Emigrating Indians” although, except for surgeons assigned to Army escorts, physicians accompanying groups of migrating Indians were apparently usually civilians. Abadie reported that many Indians fell sick during their march, fevers, dysentery, and diarrhea being the most common ills, and that many died, especially the very old and the very young. Abadie appears to have left the Creeks shortly after their arrival in the West, for he was at Fort Brooke, Florida, in August 1837.

Some of those whose duty it was to assist in the removal of the members of these tribes were well aware of the tragedy involved. Although he was not assigned to accompany the Creeks as they moved west, Assistant Surgeon Jacob Rhett Motte, who was then attached to one of the artillery units in the territory of the Creeks, studied their language and learned to respect them as a people. He watched at least 500 Creeks being brought in chains to Fort Mitchell, Alabama, and deplored the melancholy spectacle as these proud monarchs of the soil were marched off from their native land to a distant country, which to their anticipations presented all the horrors of the infernal regions. There were several who committed suicide rather than endure the sorrow of leaving the spot where rested the bones of their ancestors. The failure of his attempt to escape the round-up drove one warrior to self destruction; the fact that the only weapon at his disposal was an extremely dull knife did not deter him. With it he made several ineffectual efforts to cut his throat, but it not proving sharp enough, he with both hands forced it into his chest over the breast bone, and his successive violent thrusts succeeded in dividing the main artery, when he bled to death.

The troops based at Fort Mitchell during the Creek removal suffered primarily from dysentery and diarrhea, which Motte blamed on “the rotten limestone water of the country.” The sick were sheltered in two small buildings, each with a ten-foot wide piazza shading it from the summer’s sun. Both structures were in poor condition, with split floor boards and rooms without ceilings. Neither had been intended to serve as a hospital, but the building constructed for this purpose was on private land and had been taken over as a home, apparently by the family owning the land. The diseases endured by the men who came to the facility were, for the most part, fevers, probably malarial, and, in hot weather, diarrhea and dysentery. An epidemic of measles broke out in the fall of 1836, and the surgeon was occasionally called upon to treat the victims of delirium tremens or even of poison ivy. By the summer of 1836 the facility was serving as a general hospital, taking in both Regular Army patients from the garrison and men from the Alabama volunteers, recently back from Florida and the war against the Seminoles.

Character of the Second Seminole War

A brief show of strength served to eliminate Creek resistance, but an increasing number of attacks on white families and ambushes of small Army units emphasized the determination of the Seminoles never to leave their homes. In the last weeks of 1835, the conflict erupted into open warfare. In the guerrilla struggle that followed, Army regulars and members of various state units sent to subdue the Seminoles fought in an unfamiliar and dangerous land, “healthy in winter but sickly in summer; . . . a most hideous region,” where insects and bacteria alike throve and multiplied.”

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