General Edmund Pendleton Gaines (1777-1849) was an officer in the U.S. Army who worked to preserve the precarious peace among the competing factions in the American Southeast during the colonial era.
Edmund Gaines was born to James and Elizabeth Strother Gaines in Culpeper County, Virginia, on March 20, 1777. James was a distinguished Revolutionary War veteran who moved his family from Virginia to North Carolina, where he served in the state legislature, and then finally to Sullivan County, Tennessee, where he prospered as a farmer and later served as a justice of the peace. Edmund Gaines was the seventh of 14 children. Gaines's younger brother, George Strother Gaines, became a federal trade agent whose work establishing trading posts and negotiating with Native Americans also influenced the western expansion of the United States.
As a young man in Tennessee, Gaines educated himself in land surveying and the law while working on his father's farm. At 22, Gaines's four years of militia service earned him an appointment as an ensign in the U.S. Army, Sixth Infantry. In less than a year, he advanced to the rank of second lieutenant. In 1801, Gaines was assigned to improve the Natchez Trace road, an important federal project commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson. Gaines would spend the next three years surveying boundaries, mapping out and constructing roads in the wilderness, and working closely with the Native American groups in the region.
In 1804, Gaines was assigned to Fort Stoddert on the Old Federal Road in Alabama, near present-day Mount Vernon in Mobile County, and two years later he took command of the stockade. The fort was located only about 30 miles from the Mississippi Territory's border with Spanish Florida, and Gaines worked to maintain peace among white settlers loyal to the United States, white settlers loyal to Great Britain, Native American nations with varying loyalties, and the territorial government of Spanish Florida. These factions frequently fought violently over questions of commerce, criminal extradition, and land rights. However, Gaines often successfully intervened to prevent hostilities; for example, in 1810 he foiled the plans of the Mobile Society, a band of 200 white settlers who attempted to illegally capture Mobile from the Spanish. Gaines married Frances Toulmin, daughter of territorial judge Harry Toulmin, in 1806; they had one child, and Toulmin died in 1811.
In 1811, Gaines led the party that arrested former vice-president Aaron Burr in what is now Washington County. At the time, Burr was a fugitive wanted for fomenting war with Spain, according to charges levied by Pres. Thomas Jefferson. After an informant revealed that Burr was hiding at a Washington County home, Gaines quickly arrested him and eventually transported him to Richmond, Virginia, where he testified at Burr's trial.
Gaines served at Fort Stoddert until 1811, when he took a leave of absence with plans to abandon his military career and practice law. In 1812, at the outbreak of the War of 1812, Gaines re-enlisted as a major in the Eighth U.S. Infantry and then was promoted to lieutenant colonel and commander of the Twenty-fourth U.S. Infantry. Gaines served with distinction in many battles with British forces along the Canadian border. In 1813, he was promoted to colonel and placed in command of the Twenty-fifth U.S. Infantry and then was named adjutant general under general and future U.S. president William Henry Harrison. In March 1814, Gaines was promoted to brigadier general and took command of Fort Erie, near present-day Ontario, successfully defending it from an attack by 3,000 British troops in the Siege of Fort Erie on August 15, 1814. During the battle, a British shell exploded in Gaines's quarters and injured him badly. He received an official "Thanks of Congress" for his service. Gaines remarried in 1815 to Barbara Blount and they had three children; she died in 1836.
Gaines returned to the southeastern frontier in 1816 and resumed his duties in keeping the peace, this time along the borders of Alabama, Georgia, and Spanish Florida. Gaines's headquarters were located at a stockade built under his direction in southern Georgia at a bend in the Chattahoochee River near the border with present-day Alabama. The soldiers named the post Fort Gaines in honor of their general, and it eventually grew into the town of Fort Gaines, Georgia. From 1816 until 1821, Gaines devoted much of his energy to arbitrating disputes arising from the Treaty of Fort Jackson, which was signed by General Andrew Jackson and Creek leaders in the aftermath of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Squatting by white settlers and the forced cession of 23 million acres of Creek land led to violent clashes along the borders between Alabama and Georgia and Georgia and Spanish Florida. It was often Gaines's responsibility to forcibly evict white squatters and Native Americans from lands to which they had restricted access. Gaines also often corresponded with the governor of Spanish Florida to negotiate the policies of the southeastern frontier region.
Gaines often expressed in private correspondence and in letters to his commanders in Washington the view that the U.S. government should deal with Native Americans fairly and humanely. He opposed removal and war and instead advocated converting them to Christianity and allowing them to join the military. Throughout his career, Gaines supplied starving Native Americans with food, thoroughly investigated accusations of Native American violence rather than retaliating rashly, and refused to protect the rights of white squatters who settled on lands still held by Native Americans. His views were contrary to Andrew Jackson's policies, however, creating animosity between the two. Gaines also quarreled publicly with General Winfield Scott about U.S. Native American policy, and as a result Gaines was denied promotion to major general despite aggressively campaigning for the position. Instead, Gaines shared command of the U.S. military's Eastern and Western Departments with Scott from 1821 to 1836.
In 1836, after the outbreak of the Texas Revolution, Gaines, now based in New Orleans, sent troops to assist Sam Houston and the Texan Army in their battle to take over Texas, which was at the time a territory of Mexico. Gaines married a third time in 1839 to Myra Clark Whitney. In 1846, Gaines issued calls for volunteer troops to assist General Zachary Taylor's forces on the Rio Grande during the Mexican-American War. The federal government censured these efforts and reproved Gaines for proceeding without orders from Washington. Throughout the period in which he was based in New Orleans, Gaines worked to influence military policy and infrastructural planning in the frontier region surrounding the Arkansas, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers. Gaines supported establishing more military outposts in advance of civilian settlement as a method of preventing clashes between settlers, Native Americans, and foreign powers.
Gaines died in New Orleans of cholera on June 6, 1849. He is buried in Mobile in the historic Church Street Graveyard. A number of places bear his name, including towns named Gainesville in Florida, Georgia, and Texas. Fort Gaines, located
at the mouth of Mobile Bay, is also named for Gaines.
Silver, James W. "Edmund Pendleton Gaines and Frontier Problems, 1801–1849." The Journal of South ern History 1 (August 1935): 32044.
———. Edmund Pendleton Gaines, Frontier General. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1949.
Grant D. Hiatt
Published April 25, 2011
Last updated March 21, 2013