Sunday, August 7, 2016

James Richards and the Legend of Bloody Bluff

Mosely Flag of Florida (1845) 
 Image from Zscout370 at English Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA-2.5,2.0,1.0 

This post is a little long and somewhat rambling, so let me apologize for that in advance.  I had planned to use a family legend as an example of how retaliation tends to spiral out of control, but it soon became apparent that the tale, though anchored in fact, requires some corrections and clarifications.  My sources are usually incomplete and often contradictory, but taken together they help fill in some holes in the often-repeated story.

My whole life I have heard variations on the following story.
Thomas C. Richards left Ocheesee and moved to a settlement on the Dead Lakes called Wewahichka. Thomas C. Richards and his sons built a log fort on the river bank for protection against unfriendly Indians. The fort was built with port holes and the families lived inside. On the night of Jan. 14, 1838 a band of hostile Indians came up the river by canoe, made a surprise attack on the fort and the battle lasted all night. Thomas C. Richards was killed in the attack. ... James Richards lost most of his family in a Creek Indian massacre. Under the threat of removal to lands in Arkansas, the Indians staged several uprisings. ... They killed Mrs. Richards and her three small sons in their log house. Harriett and Jehu, who were playing outside, went undetected by the Indians. They managed to steal into the deep swamp known today as Hunter's Head. When Richards returned home that night he found his home in ashes. In the midst of the smoldering rubble, he discovered the remains of his wife, who had been scalped, and his three children. Richards searched the woods for the other two but found only feathers fluttering in the breeze from the bed pillows that had once been inside the house. The next day Richards and his neighbors combed the swamp with their dogs. They found both children safe -- Jehu at a place known today as Jehu's Landing and little Harriett in another section of the alligator infested swamp. According to legend, Richards swore vengeance against all Indians after the massacre. He became a "madman" and spent his time "Indian hunting." In retaliation for what had been done to his family, Richards, along with several others, slew a band of Indians camped on a bluff on the Chipola River. Although lost today, the site was known for many years as "Bloody Bluff," because of the blood that ran down into the river after the attach.
Another version adds a few additional details.
In 1830, the federal government passed the Removal Act, which forced most of the Indians to move west to Arkansas and Indian territory. Rather than be relocated, some Indian bands went on an uprising, striking families when the men were gone. 

They massacred the wife and three small children of James (Jim) Richards and torched his home while he was away hunting with the other men. The older children, Jehu and Harriett, a young girl staying with the family, escaped in the deep swamp known as Hunter’s Head. But the date of the massacre is uncertain, with some saying it took place in 1838 and others believing it occurred earlier than that. 

To protect the Richards and other families attempting to survive on the frontier, John C. Richards and his sons built a two-story wooden fort so people could go there for protection. 

This structure of typical blockhouse design, measured 16 by 32 feet. It was built from heavy hewn logs, 10 inches square, and pegged together with oak pins. The second floor extended over the first. It was made with an opening in one side through which a ladder could be lowered and raised. Portholes were built into the walls of both stories for light and firing weapons. Many people sought protection at the fort, but Richards died in an attack on Jan. 14, 1838.
Yet another account of the same story contains the interesting "fact" that
Thomas Cupples Richards and his family were among the first group of white settlers along the river. Richards, who was born in France in 1770, came to America with his wife, Elizabeth Hogg, to escape religious persecution. 
I wish I knew the origin of that part of the story, which again I heard growing up and have spent most of my life repeating, but it has serious problems.
  • It is well documented that Thomas Cupples Richards was the son of George Richards of North Carolina.  
  • "Thomas" and "Stephen" could be either English or French names, but "Cupples" is an Anglo-Saxon name.
  • What kind of religious persecution was he supposed to have fled?  The persecution of the Huguenots had happened a century before he is supposed to have fled France, so if he was French and religious, he would have been Catholic.  The Catholic Church was indeed persecuted during the Terror of the French Revolution.  However, when we see the Richards family appear in Florida, they are Methodists.
At any rate, a few questions should arise from the "classic" version of this legend.
  • Why exactly did Thomas C. Richards move down to Wewahitchka?
  • Was the attack on the Richards homestead random, or was it targeted?
  • Why was James Richards away from home the night of the attack?
  • Who are the "others" who helped him "[slay] a band of Indians camped on a bluff on the Chipola River"?
  • If James Richards went crazy and started murdering Indians at every opportunity, how is it that he was not made to pay for his actions, either by the government or by the Indians?
A consideration of the context and timing of the events makes it possible to give plausible answers to these questions.

The Richards family started off with good relations with the Indians of Florida.  Perhaps the best summary comes from Calhoun County's The County Record:
Stephen Richards was appointed as interpreter for Chief John Blount and four other Indian chiefs who had acted as guides in Andrew Jackson's invasion of Spanish Florida in 1819. One of Stephen's first assignments was to accompany Chief John Blount to visit the President of the United States, President James Monroe. In his assignment as Indian Interpreter, he met with the Florida Indian Chiefs and the U.S. Commissioners at the Treaty of Fort Moultrie Creek. This treaty set up reservations for the Seminole nation and in particular, the five Indian Chiefs in the Apalachicola/Chattahoochee Valley. 

Stephen Richards proved many times his friendship for the five Indian Chiefs. Before the treaty of 1823, he visited Pensacola to discuss Indian affairs with Governor Andrew Jackson. Jackson, in a letter to Washington, D.C., gave an account of this trip to the Secretary of War, describing Richards and John Blount as good friends to him and to the United States. One part of the treaty that the United States government failed to validate was the grant to Stephen Richards of one square mile of land on the Ocheesee Bluff.
Stephen (1796-1871) first came to Florida in 1818, and his older brother Thomas C. Richards (1774-1838) followed in 1821.  Both men were veterans of the War of 1812. As such, they were each entitled to a claim of land in the new territory.

Unlike Stephen, Thomas seems not to have been much engaged with public life.  One might reasonably guess that he intended to grab up fertile land while the getting was good and exploit the long growing season to found a plantation larger than what his father, George Richards, had owned in North Carolina.  Ocheesee Bluff, where both Stephen and Thomas settled (and which essentially coincides with the site of Torreya State Park, where the Richards family reunion was held until the mid 1980's) was well-positioned for this, with the Apalachicola River providing access north into Georgia and south to the Gulf of Mexico.  However, a large plantation would have required slaves, and as far as I can tell, Thomas never had any during the time he was in Florida.  Possibly he made his living off land speculation, a well-established practice in new territories that in many ways still persists near the Florida beaches.

The 1790 census shows Thomas Richards of Beaufort, NC, as the head of a household that included one slave.  More significantly, the will of George Richards directed Thomas Richards to receive one third of his estate (after withholding Hicksey and a few items), which certainly could be expected to include slaves, but the Thomas Richards of Early, GA in the 1820 census, who is perhaps Thomas C. Richards, lived in a household of ten people in which there were no slaves and only one person was engaged in agriculture.  By the 1830 census, Thomas C. Cupples was living in a household of five, none of whom were slaves, and none of whom were listed as "engaged in agriculture", though they unquestionably had at least a small garden, as many people in the Florida Panhandle still do today.  The fact that he was able to move down to Wewahitchka a few years later also shows he was not tied down by a large plantation.

The territorial years of Florida saw significant changes that impact this story.  Aside from the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the most important one was the founding and growth of the city of St. Joseph, which was founded in 1835.  St. Joseph grew rapidly, its population of 6,000 making it for a few years the largest city in the territory of Florida and earning it the privilege of hosting the first constitutional convention to discuss Florida statehood, which was held in late 1838.  Sadly, St. Joseph would soon be destroyed by two disasters in rapid succession --  yellow fever in 1841 and "The Great Tide", probably a hurricane, in 1843 -- but at the time of the massacre, St. Joseph was near its peak.  One of the great benefits it brought was Florida's first steam-powered railway, which in 1836 connected St. Joseph with Lake Wimico, which flows into the Apalachicola River.  By 1839 it would connect to Iola, just east of Wewahitchka.

The attraction of the site at Wewahitchka to Thomas C. Richards thus becomes clear.  It was near the confluence of the Apalachicola and Chipola rivers, and it would soon be connected by railroad to the most populous city in the territory, a city that was showing signs of being politically important.  This would be an excellent spot for a plantation -- or to buy land that might be sold to a planter later.  Being so close to a "large city", the site might even provide better protection from Indian raids than the comparatively remote Ocheesee Bluff.

There was, after all, trouble brewing with the Indians; the threat of removal had triggered the Second Seminole War.  Not all the Indians were hostile to white settlers, though, and who better to recognize and organize these friendly Indians than Stephen Richards?  Accordingly, he organized Richards' Company of Friendly Indians as a part of the Mounted Florida Militia in 1837.  Among the names on the muster are Stephen Richards, captain; John G. Richards, first lieutenant; John Richards, first sergeant; James Richards, Sr., and James Richards, Jr.  

It is impossible to be sure, but the James Richards referred to in the massacre story is mostly likely James Richards, Sr., who was probably the son of Thomas C. Richards.  Unfortunately, the records are incomplete and contradictory, and James was a popular name in the Richards family.  Thomas C. and Stephen Richards had a brother named James who had been an army captain in the American Revolution, but he lost a hand in a duel and died not long afterwards; since no James is mentioned in the will of George Richards, the James of the massacre story must not have been a third brother.  The James of the massacre story had to be old enough to have at least three children, which makes it very unlikely that he was the James Richards born to Stephen Richards in 1820.  Thomas C. Richards was 24 years older than Stephen, though, so he could well have had a grandson old enough to fight.

A similar problem comes with the identity of Jehu Richards.  A son named Jehu was born to Thomas C. Richards around 1799, but he could not have been described as a child in 1838!  However, some sources indicate that Stephen Richards had a son Jehu in 1830, which would have made him 7 or 8 years old at the time of the massacre. 

So let me tie this all together in a way that is somewhat speculative, but much more plausible than the incomplete version of the story normally told.  

Knowing that major trouble was brewing with many of the Indians, Stephen and Thomas C. Richards concentrated their families in a fortified blockhouse.  They sited the house at a location which made strategic sense from both military and economic perspectives.   Stephen Richards also organized friendly natives into a fighting force.  However, he was such a known figure among the Indians that this action could not fail to be noticed.  As a result, the blockhouse holding his family -- and very likely acting as a sometimes base of operations for his Company -- was specifically targeted.

When James "was away hunting with the other men", he was not hunting for meat, he was hunting for hostiles, along with his brother John George Richards and his uncle Stephen Richards.  No doubt he was wild with grief and anger at the fate of his family, but the statement that he "went crazy" and "became an Indian hunter" might mean no more than that he tracked and fought the hostile Indians with amplified intensity and savagery.  He certainly did not attack the men under the command of Stephen Richards.  In fact, these mounted, armed, friendly Indians were probably who made it possible for the Richards family to exact retribution on those who had slaughtered their families.  Furthermore, because his actions took place in the context of war, there was no stigma on the killing and there were no legal consequences for James Richards.

Today there is a campsite maintained by the State of Florida at a place called "Bloody Bluff" only about 5 miles from the site of the Richards' blockhouse.  The official explanation, however, links the name to unrelated skirmishes fought back in 1816.  Possibly both the 1816 skirmishes and the 1838 retaliation happened near the same spot, and the place name fits either event.  There is also a "Bloody Bluff" near the original homestead at Ocheesee Bluff, but that is too far away for it to be a likely part of this story.

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