David Taitt

Map by David Taitt David Taitt (1740-1834) was a man of many talents on the colonial frontier of the Old Southwest in the years before the American Revolution. A surveyor and map maker of considerable skill, he later became the British Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs to the Creek Indians from 1772 to 1779, with his headquarters located at Little Tallassie, just below present-day Wetumpka on the east bank of the Coosa River. Taitt had significant influence among the Creeks in his seven-year tenure in the British Southern Indian Department and later led an expedition of Creek warriors to Georgia to fight colonial militia during the American Revolution.

David Taitt was born March 25, 1740, on a farm called Westhall near Innerwick, a village about 30 miles east of Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the 6th of 12 children of James Taitt and Alison Hay Taitt. Taitt's father was Chamberlain (senior official) for the Dukedom of Roxburghe, serving the second and third dukes. John Ker, Third Duke of Roxburghe, was a famous book collector and close friend of the United Kingdom's King George III. Although not from an aristocratic family, Taitt received a good education by the standards of the day, traveling to the nearby town of Dunbar to attend its three schools: English School, Grammar School, and Mathematical School, which also taught geography. By 13, Taitt's local education would have been completed; there is no record of him having attended college. Taitt's ability to use a sextant and his map making skills suggest that he likely served an apprenticeship with a surveyor or possibly served in a military unit as a military engineer.

In 1764, Taitt arrived in the port city of Pensacola in present-day Florida, where his ambition prepared him to take advantage of the few opportunities that came along. Working as a surveyor under British Surveyor General and cartographer Elias Durnford, he quickly gained the confidence of other politically important Scottish immigrants, one with whom he jointly received a grant for 1,000 acres on the north side of Perdido Bay to build a sawmill, which was destroyed in a 1772 hurricane. Taitt later received a grant of 5,000 acres on Sandy Creek near Natchez (Kingston), Mississippi.

In the fall of 1771, Taitt prepared a map of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta for the British government that facilitated a land cession from the Creeks. His map A Plan of Part of the Rivers Tombecbe, Alabama, Tensa, Perdido & Scambia in the Province of West Florida (1772) is today recognized as an outstanding example of early British mapmaking for its accuracy and detail. John Stuart, the British Superintendent of Southern Indian Affairs, was so impressed with his work that he tasked Taitt with a mission of recording and detailing Indian trails and topographical features of the area, such as rivers and creeks, locating Indian villages, identifying important Creek officials and headmen, and recording Creek customs and rituals. One of Taitt's primary goals was to gain approval of a land cession on the Escambia River, which he was unable to achieve. Many of Taitt's observations, recorded during his four-month journey, were later incorporated into another larger map, the Stuart-Gage Map of 1773, as it is commonly known. Taitt also kept a diary, published in 1916 as Journey Diary, in which he recorded the events of his mission through the Creek towns of Alabama and Georgia. Leaving Pensacola on January 30, 1772, Taitt travelled an ancient Indian trading path through Alabama and Georgia that later became known as the Federal Road. Taitt arrived in Charleston, John Stuart's headquarters, in mid-June and by August was appointed as a commissary among the Creeks.

Taitt's early performance was quickly recognized and rewarded by John Stuart with the new title of Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs to the Creek Nation. This placed Taitt on equal footing with the older and more experienced Alexander Cameron, deputy superintendent among the Cherokees. Consulting with Superintendent John Stuart, Taitt wisely chose Little Tallassie for his base of operations. This Upper Creek town was centrally located near the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers and major trading paths, but more importantly, it was the political center of the Creek confederacy by virtue of being home to Medal Chief Emistisiguo and other tribal leaders as well as the influential Wind Clan. Taitt's early responsibilities included policing Indian traders and establishing and communicating the authority of the British Crown and resolving disputes. But possibly more important was his role in keeping Superintendent Stuart and southern governors informed of activities in the Creek nation.

As political tensions mounted and shifted within the colonies, pro-British colonists came into conflict with anti-British sentiment. Taitt's role shifted from promoting and preserving British loyalty among the Creek Indian towns to preparing for armed conflict and encouraging Creek warriors to serve in a supporting role with British regular military units. Taitt understood, however, that the Indians would protect their own best interests and preserve their autonomy and neutrality as best they could. The challenges of the American Revolution overshadowed Taitt's successes as deputy superintendent. In the end, factionalism among the Creeks marginalized their effectiveness and was a factor in preventing the British from gaining the upper hand in the Southern Campaign of late 1778-80.

Taitt became more immersed in Creek society with his arranged marriage to Sehoy III, a cousin of influential Creek leader Alexander McGillivray, likely in the spring of 1776. The couple had a son, Davy Tate, who later was involved in the Creek War of 1813-14 with his half-brother William Weatherford. In September 1777, pro-colonial Indians simultaneously attempted to assassinate the Lower Creek British deputy William McIntosh (father of the famous Creek leader of the same name); David Taitt of the Upper Creeks; Alexander Cameron, deputy to the Cherokees; and principal chief Emistisiguo. As a result of efforts by Alexander McGillivray, the plot at Little Tallassie was foiled, and Taitt and Cameron fled to Pensacola. Taitt returned to Little Tallassie in early 1778 to carry out his duties but was soon recalled by an aging and very ill John Stuart, then living in Pensacola.

In late 1778, the British launched their long-planned Southern Strategy, in which British regulars from New York joined an uprising of British loyalists mainly in Georgia, South Carolina and East Florida. These forces were aided by raids carried out by allied Cherokees and Creeks. Despite a lack of military training or experience, Taitt was charged by John Stuart with leading an expedition of Upper and Lower Creeks into Georgia, but the group was scattered by an equal-sized colonial militia force just west of Augusta in late March 1779. In a near panic, the approximately 400 Creek warriors and their loyalist guides split into three groups. Only a small number of the Indians reached their objective of joining the British. Taitt then led the Creeks on raids into South Carolina and participated in an unsuccessful British attempt to take Charleston in mid-1779. Remaining in Savannah, he assisted in defending against an unsuccessful French-led American attack in late-1779. During this time period, Taitt was awarded the military rank of captain.

Taitt returned to Pensacola shortly after Mobile had fallen to the Spanish in March 1780. Over the next year, Taitt was twice captured and held by the Spanish, who were suspicious and fearful of his influence among the Indians of the region. The first time, Taitt was imprisoned in Mobile for nearly two months before British officials in Pensacola secured his parole. Soon after the Spanish fleet crossed the Escambia Bay bar, Taitt was imprisoned again and watched the two-month siege of Pensacola from a prison ship anchored in the bay. After the May 1781 Spanish conquest of Pensacola, Taitt escaped, likely with the aid of a friend or a bribe. Taitt arrived in Savannah in late December 1781, then travelled to Charleston. Because Taitt was a private citizen, it is difficult to track his movements; he probably travelled to Charleston by boat on a pass provided by British governor Sir James Wright because overland travel would have been too dangerous, given the conflict between Great Britain and its colonies. There is no record of any contact with or assistance by British officials after he reached Charleston, but Taitt would have needed some type of travel papers to London from British general Alexander Leslie, the senior British official there. Taitt's name appears in a list, published by the Royal Gazette (a local newspaper), of passengers traveling in a twelve-vessel convoy that sailed for England on January 24, 1782.

For the next two years, Taitt spent most of his time in London seeking compensation for unpaid wages and personal property losses suffered while assisting the British in the Georgia and Pensacola campaigns. Taitt eventually secured a position in the new Colony of Cape Breton (now part of present-day Nova Scotia, Canada), where he was appointed provost marshal and was the lead surveyor in laying out the town of Sydney, Nova Scotia. Not much is known about Taitt's years in Nova Scotia, but he eventually settled on a 1,300-acre farm south of Sydney on the Mira River. He spent his final days in Halifax, where he died on August 4, 1834, at the age of 94.

The events of Taitt's life were recounted in Gen. Thomas Woodward's Reminiscences of the Creek, or Muscogee, Indians, published in 1859. However, Woodward mistakenly refers to "John Tate" in his work and states that he died on the Chattahoochee River. These errors have led to some confusion regarding Taitt's identity. Indeed, there is even a historical marker bearing the name "John Tate" in Georgia.

Further Reading

  • Alden, John Richard. John Stuart and the Southern Colonial Frontier: A Study of Indian Relations, War, Trade and Land Problems in the Southern Wilderness, 1754-1775. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1944.
  • Cashin, Edward J. The King's Ranger: Thomas Brown and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier. 2nd ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999.
  • Searcy, Martha Condray. The Georgia-Florida Contest in the American Revolution, 1777-1778. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985.
  • Snapp, J. Russell. John Stuart and the Struggle for Empire on the Southern Frontier. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

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