The legendary confrontation that became known as the "Canoe Fight" took place on November 12, 1813, on the Alabama River during the Creek War of 1813-14. The skirmish gained fame for the novelty of having taken place in canoes, pitting a small band of militia, led by Capt. Samuel Dale, against a larger group of Red Stick Creeks.
Following the Fort Mims massacre in August 1813, small bands of Creek warriors continued to attack settlements in the Mississippi Territory in present-day lower Alabama. That November, Dale who was stationed at Fort Madison in present-day Clarke County volunteered to lead a mission to drive the Indians from their territory to ensure the safety of white settlers. Striking out with 30 Mississippi territorial volunteers and 40 militiamen from the area, Dale and his men soon encountered a large party of Red Stick warriors near the mouth of Randon's Creek on the Alabama River.
The ensuing confrontation, observed from both sides of the river by a number of soldiers, was retold in several slightly differing accounts, but the core facts are fairly consistent. Dale and 11 of his men, including Jeremiah Austill and James Smith, had become separated from the main force. Their late-morning breakfast on November 12, 1813, was interrupted with a cry that Indians were in the vicinity. When Dale and his small party reached the riverbank, they saw a canoe containing a reputed chief and 10 warriors coming down the river. As the canoe approached the bank, its occupants saw Dale's men and reversed their canoe back into the river. Two warriors then jumped from the canoe into the water, and one was shot by Smith. Dale ordered a large canoe to be brought over from the other side of the river to aid in attacking the men in the other canoe. Eight men began to carry out this order but got cold feet when they saw the number of warriors in the canoe and returned to their side of the river.
Although irritated at the unwillingness of these men to join the fight, Dale was determined to engage the Indians. He thus ordered a free African American, known only as Caesar, to paddle a small dugout canoe, which would only hold himself, Austill, and Smith, to meet the Creek canoe now bearing nine warriors. As Caesar paddled the canoe toward their target, Dale, Austill, and Smith attempted to fire upon the Indians. Only one weapon fired, however, as the priming of the other two had been dampened by the water from the river. When the canoes were about to meet prow to prow, the chief recognized Dale and shouted in English, "Now for it, Big Sam." The opposing canoes met side-to-side, and the chief knocked Austill down with his rifle. Dale then ordered Caesar to hold the canoes together and after a few minutes of hand-to-hand fighting using rifles and oars as clubs, the white soldiers, although outnumbered three to one, killed all of the Indians remaining in the canoe. According to witnesses, Dale's men cheered as the bodies of the dead warriors were cast into the river.
Samuel Dale's leading role in the Canoe Fight attained him hero status, making him as legendary to early Alabamians as Daniel
Boone and Davy Crockett were to Kentuckians and Tennesseans, respectively. Dale went on to serve as a delegate in the convention
that divided the Mississippi Territory into Alabama and Mississippi, represented Monroe County for several years in the Alabama General Assembly, and was conferred the rank of brigadier general in the Alabama militia.
He later moved to Lauderdale County in Mississippi, where he died in 1841. After the Creek War, Jeremiah Austill clerked in
his uncle's store in St. Stephens, served as clerk of the Mobile County Court, represented Mobile in the state legislature, commenced a business as a commission merchant, and ran a plantation on the Tombigbee River. Austill lived and worked for many years on his plantation, where he died in 1879 at the age of 86.
Very little is known about James Smith other than he was a native of Georgia and took part in several frontier expeditions
that involved skirmishes with Indians during the Creek War. Smith moved to Mississippi after the war and lived there until
DuBose, John Campbell. Sketches of Alabama History. Philadelphia: Eldredge & Brother, 1901.
Halbert, H. S., and T. H. Ball. The Creek War of 1813 and 1814, edited by Frank L. Owsley, Jr. 1895. Reprint, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.
Pickett, Albert James. History of Alabama and Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi From the Earliest Period. 1851. Reprint, Birmingham, Ala.: Birmingham Book and Magazine Co., 1962.
Herbert J. "Jim" Lewis
Published October 13, 2008
Last updated March 22, 2013