The Story Of Holy Ground: Investigating A Legendary Battle Site

Having found a 19th-century battle site that was lost for two centuries, archaeologists are finding out what took place there.

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A self portrait of Josiah Francis wearing a British officer’s uniform. The portrait was drawn in England in 1816, where Francis was living at the time. He later returned to the United States and was captured and executed by Gen. Andrew Jackson in 1818. Copyright The Trustees of the British Museum.
A self portrait of Josiah Francis wearing a British officer’s uniform. The portrait was drawn in England in 1816, where Francis was living at the time. He later returned to the United States and was captured and executed by Gen. Andrew Jackson in 1818. Copyright The Trustees of the British Museum.

Summer 2016: By Mike Toner.

The newly exposed outline of a small cabin and the fire-hardened clay of a 200-year-old hearth bear mute testimony to what was, for a brief moment in time, the holy ground of one Creek prophet’s ill-fated effort to resist the incursions of white settlers and the spread of their culture on the Southern frontier.

It was here, in 1813, in what is now rural central Alabama, that Josiah Francis—a firebrand who boasted he could fly and live underwater—gathered hundreds of rebellious Creek followers in a swamp-encircled forest enclave and assured them that a magic barrier would repel any attack. For six months, Francis’ village Ikanachaki, or Holy Ground, was a sacred stronghold of the defiant Redstick faction of the Creek Nation.

When the attack finally came, however, Francis’ magic was no match for Gen. Ferdinand Claiborne’s force of U.S. troops, territorial militia, and Choctaw warriors. Their bullets pierced Holy Ground’s impenetrable shield, and most of the occupants fled. Those who did not died. Francis’ town was burned and soon forgotten, leaving the forest to reclaim the charred remains of numerous structures. Largely undisturbed since that fateful day, the site now affords archaeologists a well preserved, and chronologically well defined, snapshot of what life was like in an early 19th-century Creek village.

“Sites like this are pretty rare,” says University of South Alabama archaeologist Greg Waselkov. “If this area had been plowed like so many other 19th-century sites in Alabama, most of what we are finding here would have been scattered or destroyed. When we first surveyed this site a few years ago, we were astonished to find household debris and other things just below the leaf litter.”

Summary. Read More in our Summer 2016 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 1.

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