First Treaty of Washington (1805)

The First Treaty of Washington, more formally known as the Treaty with the Creeks 1805, was an agreement between the U.S. government and the Creek Nation in which the latter ceded a large swath of territory in central Georgia. More important to the future of what was then known as the Old Southwest, the treaty allowed the United States to construct a horse path from the Ocmulgee River to the Mobile River, which would evolve into the Federal Road. By this route, thousands of settlers would enter the Mississippi Territory (present-day Alabama and Mississippi), creating tensions with the Creeks in east Alabama that resulted in conflict and their eventual removal west.

The treaty's purpose was to acquire territory for a postal route from Washington, D.C., to Mobile, Mobile County, and New Orleans, Louisiana, which recently had been acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. The only existing route, the Natchez Trace, was longer and ran through north Alabama. The route that would become the Federal Road was surveyed by Isaac Briggs and Thomas Robertson in 1804 and approved by Congress in March 1805, ultimately resulting in a road from Athens, Georgia, to Fort Stoddert on the Tombigbee River.

The treaty was signed in Washington on November 14, 1805, by a number of Lower Creek leaders, including William McIntosh, who correctly warned that the road would anger some Creeks. Representing the United States was Henry Dearborn, the U.S. secretary of war, with then-Secretary of State James Madison and Federal Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins also present. Stating that the horse path was to be constructed at the discretion of the president, the agreement allowed for the laying of logs over creeks and provided for the peaceful passage of U.S citizens as authorized by the federal government. Also, Creek chiefs were directed to have boats available on rivers with which to convey travellers and horses and to maintain accommodations for travellers, such as inns, stagecoach stops, and taverns, with prices to be regulated by Benjamin Hawkins or his successor.

The treaty also ceded to the United States a narrow strip of land in Georgia between the Oconee and Ocmulgee rivers in central Georgia. It stretched from Watkinsville south-southwest to the banks of the Ocmulgee and south along that river to its confluence with the Oconee in the southeast portion and then northwest just east of the Oconee to Watkinsville. The treaty stipulated that the federal government had the right to establish a military post and a factory, or trading house, on the tract and afforded navigation and specific fishing privileges to whites on the Ocmulgee. It also provided two blacksmiths and strikers, or assistants, to the Creek Nation for eight years. (Congress would appropriate $6,400 in April 1806 for the construction and widening of the path into a road, which required the clearing of brush, felling of trees, and building of boardwalks over swampy ground.)

In return, the federal government agreed to pay the Creek Nation annually $12,000 in cash, goods, or farm tools, for eight years. After that period, $11,000 was to be paid annually over 10 years. The Creeks also retained a small piece of land on the Ocmulgee that was later handed over in the 1826 Treaty of Washington, in which all Creek land in Georgia was ceded to the United States. Most Upper Creek chiefs opposed the treaty and the road, adding to the tensions among them and between them and the Lower Creeks; the dispute would be among the reasons for a split in the Creek Nation that would escalate into the Creek War of 1813-14.

Profit certainly motivated some actors in supporting the treaty. McIntosh, for instance, did not have the authority to sign the treaty but later built an inn and tavern along the route. In addition, trader John Forbes, who took over the firm Panton, Leslie & Company and encouraged the treaty among the Creeks, hoped the payments for the land cession would enable the Creeks to repay debts owed to the company. Some Upper Creeks, principally Big Warrior, also profited despite opposing the bargain. Overall, though, the treaty was an early step by the federal government to open the Old Southwest to settlement, leading to the eventual removal of southeastern Native Americans to the West.

Further Reading

  • Green, Michael D. The Politics of Indian Removal: Creek Government and Society in Crisis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
  • Griffith, Benjamin w. Jr. McIntosh and Weatherford, Creek Indian Leaders. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988.
  • Kappler, Charles J., ed. Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties. 7 vols. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1904.
  • Southerland, Henry deLeon, and Elijah Brown. The Federal Road through Georgia, the Creek Nation and Alabama, 1806-1836. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989.

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Treaty Signatures

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
Treaty Signatures