William Augustus Bowles

British Loyalist William Augustus Bowles (1763-1805) is best known for his unsuccessful attempt to establish an independent Creek Nation, or “State of Muscogee.” He often claimed he was “Director General” of the Creek Nation, creating friction with Creek leaders, while also scheming against the Spanish and attempting to take over trade relations with the Creeks. Because he frequently embellished his feats and accomplishments, the Creeks gave him the name “Oquelusa Micco,” or “King of Liars.” Exasperated by his unfulfilled promises of cheaper arms and trade goods, in 1803 his Seminole supporters turned him over to Spanish authorities who imprisoned him in Cuba, where he died.

According to most sources, William Augustus Bowles was born on November 2, 1763, in Frederick County, Maryland, the first of several children of Thomas Bowles and Eleanor Price. Thomas Bowles had emigrated to North America from London during the French and Indian War and became a wealthy landowner in Maryland. Both he and William would remain loyal to Britain during the American Revolution. William left home at the age of 13, enlisting in Maryland’s loyalist regiment that later joined Gen. William Howe’s company in Philadelphia in the fall of 1777. As the company trekked toward New Jersey, Bowles’s first duty was to guard the baggage train, and he was later assigned foraging duties on Long Island. His regiment was next stationed in Jamaica, where Bowles managed to avoid the fever and smallpox that plagued many of the men. He and the remainder of the Maryland Loyalists who were healthy enough to travel were sent to reinforce a British garrison at Pensacola, British West Florida. After his promotion to regimental cadet a year later, Bowles left his regiment. Some sources indicate it was desertion, whereas others suggest he was ousted because of insubordination. He then joined a group of Creeks led by Setuthli Micco, with whom he would spend at least two years of his life. Within this time, Bowles would marry both a Cherokee woman, with whom he had a son, and a daughter of the Lower Creek chief Thomas Perryman, and with her he had two children. He would become fluent in several Indian languages and knowledgeable about tribal customs.

Bowles eventually returned to the military in 1781. To counter the Spanish in Pensacola, Bowles, accompanied by his Native American allies, came to the aid of British general John Campbell, who commanded the troops in British West Florida. Even after an unsuccessful raid on the Spanish, Bowles apparently was impressive enough to regain his officer’s commission. By that March, his regiment was in battle against Spanish troops under Gen. Bernardo de Gálvez, during the Siege of Pensacola. On May 8, 1781, Gen. Campbell, facing defeat because of heavy artillery attacks, surrendered, and Bowles and others were taken prisoner and sent to Havana, Cuba.

Following his regiment’s parole from prison in Havana, Bowles and other loyalist troops returned to New York. Briefly, Bowles resumed his foraging duties until the war ended with British general Charles Cornwallis’s surrender to Gen. George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, on October 19, 1781. Bowles faced a court martial with more than 20 charges against him for conduct unbecoming to an officer, but he was successfully defended by members of the Maryland Loyalist regiment.

With Britain’s defeat, Bowles knew that loyalist who took up arms would be recommended to leave the country, so he traveled to New Province in the Bahamas. There, he made plans to reconnect with the Creeks and pursue a trade goods business to provide arms and trade goods to Native Americans who were no longer supplied by the British. Having lived among the Creeks, Bowles understood that firearms were a valuable trade good for defense against other Native American confederacies, the Spanish, and Americans rapidly encroaching into Florida, which had been reclaimed by Spain in 1783. Bowles sought a trade partnership with John Murray, Earl of Dunmore and governor of the Bahamas, and British merchants who wanted to trade with Creeks and Seminoles after losing trade when Florida reverted to Spain. Bowles planned to turn his relationship with the Creeks into a business venture, but also establish himself as their leader. At a 1789 council meeting of Lower Creek and Seminole supporters at Coweta, a Lower Creek town in the Chattahoochee River basin, Bowles declared himself chief and director general, or estajoca, of the Creek Confederation. This move was a challenge to Creek spokesman Alexander McGillivray, who, though not present, had been vying with Bowles for influence among the Creeks, particularly regarding trade relations.

By 1790, Bowles had sailed to London with a group of Native Americans and the flag of the new Muskogee Nation, which he had designed. They requested the help and protection of King George III and Great Britain for an independent Creek Nation of which Bowles claimed to be the director general. (While in London, Bowles had his portrait painted in traditional Creek attire by British artist Thomas Hardy.) After returning to America, in January 1792 Bowles and his allies laid siege to the trading post belonging to William Panton, of Panton, Leslie, & Company, located just above present-day St. Marks, Florida, on the Wakulla River. It was not his first attack on the trading post to eliminate business competitors, but this event got the attention of Francisco Luis Héctor de Carondelet, governor of the Spanish territory of Louisiana and West Florida. He sent Lt. José de Evia by ship to the Spanish-controlled Fort San Marcos de Apalache (Fort St. Marks) and, with the assistance of the post’s partner Alexander McGillivray, apprehended Bowles. Bowles then spent the next seven years as a prisoner of Spain in both Spain and the Philippines. While in the Philippines, Bowles was allowed to move about with some freedom, but he spoke out publicly against the government and was shipped back to Spain. Bowles made a desperate escape from a prison ship off the west coast of Africa and, after a tumultuous journey, ended up back in London in 1798. There, he once again claimed he led the Creek Nation but was unable to secure anything from British officials except transportation back to the Gulf Coast.

On his 1799 voyage, the Fox was wrecked in a storm on St. George Island, present-day Florida, and most of the weapons and trade goods he hoped to use to build his Muscogee nation were lost. That November, at a gathering of Creek chiefs and Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins at Tuckabatchee, in present-day Elmore County, one chief proclaimed Bowles a liar and a thief and denounced his claims to leadership. Bowles had previously approached the Creek Nation seeking land, the chief noted, who also stated their fear to Hawkins that Bowles would sell out the Creeks and their territory to land speculators.

In April 1800, Bowles proceeded with his plan to end the Spanish threat to the British. Again calling himself chief and director general of the Creek Confederation, he declared war on Spain. After the Hawk, a ship bringing weapons to him, was captured by the Spanish, Bowles managed to rally an assembly of Native Americans, whites, and sailors from the Hawk and conduct a five-week siege against the Spanish at San Marcos de Apalache. His forces captured two vessels, prevented two more from leaving the fort to get reinforcements, and prompted the garrison to use up munitions and supplies, resulting in the surrender of Capt. Tomás Portell on May 19, 1800. Bowles’s victory was short lived. On June 23, 1800, Bowles lost the fort to an attack led by Lt. Col. Juan Vicente Folch y Juan. The following years would not bring Bowles any more success. As Native American groups grew weary of fighting and signed peace treaties, Bowles’s last group of supporters would diminish. At the annual Creek conference held at Hickory Ground (Otciapofa, in Muskogean) in present-day Elmore County in May 1803, Bowles’s Seminole followers surrendered him to the Spanish. Also present were Hawkins and the owners of Panton, Leslie, & Company, none of whom supported Bowles. That June, the Spanish once again shipped Bowles to imprisonment in Havana, where he died on December 23, 1805.

A historic marker in St. Marks memorializes Bowles’s attack on the trading post and one on St. George Island describes his schemes and the wreck of the Fox.

Further Reading

  • Braund, Kathyrn H. "Introduction: A Journal of John Forbes, Part 2: The Continuation of a Journal of Talks with the Four Nations Assembled at Hickory Ground, May & June 1803.” The Florida Historical Quarterly 94 (Winter 2016): 509-513.
  • Din, Gilbert C. War on the Gulf Coast: The Spanish Fight Against William Augustus Bowles. Gainesville, Fla.: University of Florida Press, 2012.
  • Reynolds, Susan E. “William Augustus Bowles: Adventurous Rogue of the Old Southwest.” Alabama Heritage 103 (Winter 2012) 18-27.
  • Wright, J. Leitch.  William Augustus Bowles: Director General of the Creek Nation. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2010.

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Diagram of Fort San Marcos de Apalache

Courtesy of the Florida State Archives
Diagram of Fort San Marcos de Apalache