Administrator of the U.S. government's plan of civilization, Benjamin Hawkins (1754-1816) was the principal U.S. agent to Southeastern Indians from 1796 to his death in 1816. Unlike most previous federal Indian agents, Hawkins lived among the Indians, learned their language, and became a respected member of Creek society. The Creeks came to refer to him by the honorific title "Beloved Man." Hawkins negotiated a number of treaties with the Indians and accompanied federal survey parties throughout the region.
Benjamin Hawkins was born on August 15, 1754, in what is now Warren County, North Carolina. He attended school there and then enrolled at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). He studied French, and when the Revolutionary War broke out, Hawkins was appointed official interpreter for General George Washington. After the war, Hawkins served in the North Carolina House of Commons and the Continental Congress before representing North Carolina in the U.S. Senate from 1789 to 1795. Owing to his governmental experience and interest in Indian cultures, he was appointed federal Indian agent for the Southeast by George Washington in 1796.
During the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, Hawkins sought and gained federal support to "civilize" the Indians by teaching them European agricultural practices and convincing them to live in settled towns and participate in the U.S. economy. Although the Indians had been living and working with the Europeans for decades through the trade system, they still maintained much of their traditional culture, which included hunting, collecting wild foods, and small-scale farming, all of which required large amounts of land desired by non-Indian settlers. As pressure from white settlers for land increased, Hawkins began to promote the belief that assimilation into the Anglo-European culture of the expanding United States was the only way that Indian nations would survive. He understood, correctly, that the federal government would continue to acquire land, by force when necessary, on which the Indians depended for their livelihood.
During the early years of his service as Indian agent, Hawkins lived at the Creek towns of Tuckabatchee (near present-day Tallassee) and Coweta (near present-day Phenix City). He later moved his agency to the Flint River near what is now Roberta, Georgia. There Hawkins established a farm on which he demonstrated how to grow cash crops, such as cotton, and how to use the plow. Most of the Indians who lived in what is now Alabama resisted, however, choosing instead to maintain their traditional culture.
Hawkins wrote extensively about the Creeks, Cherokees, and Chickasaws and was genuinely interested in their cultures and welfare. His writings include descriptions of Indian languages, agricultural practices, and political life. His detailed descriptions of Creek life and the early geography of Alabama are two of his most important legacies to the state. His journals and writings are some of the best first-hand accounts of Alabama during late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He traveled extensively throughout the Southeast and Alabama, visiting and describing Alabama sites such as Fort Toulouse, Fort St. Stephens, Mobile, and several Indian towns.
Hawkins lived among the Creeks and was the U.S. representative to them during the Creek War of 1813–14. The conflict was an uprising by the Red Stick faction of the Creeks, mainly from the town of Tuckabatchee, that was incited
by Shawnee leader Tecumsuh and Creek prophet Josiah Francis (Hilis Hadjo). The men called for a return to traditional ways
and armed opposition to encroaching white settlement after numerous land cessions and the construction of the Federal Road through Creek territory. The war began with the Red Sticks' 1813 attack on a group of white settlers, pro-American Creeks, and slaves at Fort Mims and ended with the virtual destruction of the
Red Sticks by federal troops led by Andrew Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, near modern-day Alexander City. Hawkins accompanied Creek leaders and Andrew Jackson at the signing of the Treaty of Fort Jackson in August 1814, by which the Creeks ceded most of their lands in Alabama, and thus their way of life, to the U.S. government.
Hawkins felt that the treaty was unusually harsh, but his complaints had little effect and his influence on Indian affairs
waned in his last years. He was married to Lavina Downs, with whom he had six daughters, Georgia, Muscogee, Cherokee, Carolina,
Virginia, and Jeffersonia, and one son, Madison. He died at his home in Georgia in 1816.
Ethridge, Robbie Franklyn. Creek Country: The Creek Indians and Their World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Foster, Thomas (editor). The Collected Works of Benjamin Hawkins, 1796-1810. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003.
Henri, Florette. The Southern Indians and Benjamin Hawkins, 1796-1816. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986.
Pound, Merrit B. Benjamin Hawkins, Indian Agent. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1951.
H. Thomas Foster II
Northern Kentucky University
Published March 1, 2007
Last updated June 28, 2013