|Writing Historical Fiction
| Swimming with Serpents
Writing a novel
is like birthing a baby. And like a baby that book comes with its own
genealogy. This is love story and historical fiction born out of quest
for voices silenced in 1813 ...to now be forever remembered. Before my
research began DAR and Colonial Dames were my "country home" and then
the ghosts of my "forgotten heritage" grew louder in their cry for
redemption guiding me to the story which became....SWIMMING WITH
SWIMMING WITH SERPENTS began
in the Fort Crawford cemetery in East Brewton in Escambia County,
Alabama. My grandmother took my mother and me to her parents’ graves.
She smiled at me and indicated a copse of woods, “That’s where Red
Eagle jumped off the cliff,” she said. It really wasn’t, but it
took a fourth grade Alabama history class and revived interest years
later to learn the real story. Perhaps the beginnings came with the
picture of the Native American Indian in full headdress with his arms
lifted in prayer that always hung in my grandmother’s bedroom. Maybe
the story actually began when I discovered our family secret. My fourth
great grandmother was an Indian (Native American in modern parlance).
my mother challenged me to make her investment in my two degrees in
history pay off by finding out more about her side of the family. The
most distant ancestor we were certain of on her mother’s Jernigan line
were Benjamin and Vashti Vann Jernigan. County histories reported that
“General Jackson was in the habit of visiting the home of Benjamin
Jernigan...Mr. Jernigan had removed with his family from Burnt Corn
Springs for the purpose of herding cattle for Jackson's army.”
I had begun posting genealogy and history on my website --
southern-style.com. A cousin emailed me about a genealogy book
written by Don Greene entitled Shawnee Heritage I and through that book
I was able to confirm the whispers of our Native American heritage. I
contacted Greene requesting more information. He then referred me to
Edward Cashin’s, Guardians of the Valley, the story of Vashti Vann’s
grandfather, the Squirrel King of the Chickasaw, whose roll as fanni
mingo (mediator) was critical to the survival of the colonies of
Georgia and South Carolina. Vashti Vann’s uncle was Chief James Vann
who was at the time of his murder in 1809 one of the richest men in the
United States and lived in one of its most gracious homes.
His son entertained President Monroe in 1819. The name Vashti reveals
an educated Bible reader in that family. Through keeping her secret,
she and her family avoided the Trail of Tears. But others of our blood
The irony of
Andrew Jackson sitting at the table of my Native American ancestor,
eating the food she had prepared-- and then years later sending her
relatives on the Trail of Tears piqued my curiosity and I began reading
all I could about the time and place in which my grandmother lived.
Massacre at Fort Mims occurred on August 30, 1813, and became the first
battle of the War of 1812 in the south. “Remember Fort Mims” became the
cry that rallied troops to enlist. Yet time passed and the event faded
into a dim memory and the place grew over with weeds and got surrounded
by dilapidated trailers where once 500 took refuge. Standing knee deep
in weeds at my first visit, I imagined the one acre fortification as
the gracious home of Sam and Hannah Brady Mims welcoming visitors there
on the bank of Boatyard Lake. Then surrounded by a stockade and
inhabited by 500 men, women, children, black, white and red taking
refuge, it became Fort Mims.
the American Revolution, Sam Mims worked as a pack man for George
Galphin at Silver Bluff (now Augusta, Georgia), near where my fourth
great grandmother Vashti Vann’s father and grandfather had peach
orchards and made peach brandy on the Savannah River. His travels into
the Creek country showed him the value of that spot on the Federal Road
where a ferry would be needed. He owned about 600 acres of land and
with his 33 slaves built a fine home on the Cutoff on the Tombigbee
Travelers on the Federal Road. When the Red Sticks rose up, he built a
stocade about an acre of his land encompassing his home. This became
Those who wound up in the fort on August 30, 1813, only meant to take
Mims Ferry across Boat Yard Lake, then over Nannahubba Island to
Hollinger’s Ferry to cross the Tombigbee and make their way to St.
Stephens, then the eastern most city of the Mississippi Territory and
the seat of government. But the Red Stick rising caused them to take
refuge among the residents targeted for their disloyalty to the
traditions of their people within the fort. Many mixed blood kinfolks
of the Red Sticks (the war party among the Creeks) who attacked the
fort sought safety there. Red Eagle, William Weatherford, led the
attack on Fort Mims. His sister-in-law, Mary Louisa Randon Tate, and
two nieces of the Red Stick, inhabited the fort along with other
relatives. A genealogical study shows close family relationships
between many of those within the fort and those who attacked that fort.
story of Jackson’s army (which also included some of my ancestors) is
told over and over, but who tells the story from the Native American
perspective? Many scholars still cling to the stereotypical
characterizations of those involved in these historical events. Doing
so makes the betrayals and confiscation of lands more palatable.
Fifteen years of research into the real story of those people led to
the writing of SWIMMING WITH SERPENTS. Thus the writing of SWIMMING WITH SERPENTS
became a labor of love. Who were those people? Why were they there?
Because of poor genealogical records, tracking those stories took
The true story of James and Samuel Smith and Aletha Arundel as related by James and Aletha’s descendant, David Mason, in Five Dollars a Scalp,
inspired the main characters of the novel. I fictionalized these true
historical characters and created the characters of Cade and Gabriel
Kincaid and Lyssa Rendel. SWIMMING WITH SERPENTS is a love story set against the back drop of the Creek Indian War.
my own grandparents lived there in that time and in that place and this
could just as easily have been their story.
In 1803, three
children traveled with General John Twiggs down the Federal Road across
Creek Country. Ten years later their lives get caught up in the
brothers war that was a part of the War of 1812 known as the Creek
Lyssa Rendel, a
precocious child schooled by her gifted father, she does not fit in.
She reads and quotes Shakespeare and is always accompanied by the
animals that became her true friends because of the cruel prejudice and
stigma that surrounds her. Her mixed blood mother, granddaughter of
Choctaw chief Pushmataha, survives an assault and her father decides to
move his family to live among his wife’s people because they are more
accepting of bi-racial marriage.
Cade and Gabe
suffer the same prejudice. They survive their capture by the renegade
Creek Savannah Jack and the power mad adventurer, pirate and British
sympathizer William Augustus Bowles who seeks to establish himself as
Emperor of the Creek. But the scars of their kidnapping impact Cade in
a way that takes the sensitive Lyssa to understand and eventually heal.
years pass since they first meet on the pack train and Lyssa decides
she has waited long enough for Cade to follow through on his childhood
promise to come for her. With the help of her brother Lance and Cade’s
brother Gabriel who worries about the nightmares Cade continues to
suffer as the result of the kidnapping, she manipulates a wedding.
of the Red Sticks take Cade away to save his sister and the people who
raised him and his brother. Lyssa follows and arrives at Fort
Mims just after the Massacre on August 30, 1813. William
Weatherford, of Creek, French and Scottish descent, led the attack on
rescues Cade and Gabe’s little sister and others before getting
kidnapped by the greatest villain of the age, Savannah Jack, along with
adventurer William Augustus Bowles. Cade and Lyssa must survive the
Creek War to reunite.
Writing SWIMMING WITH SERPENTS left
me wondering what happened to those who survived the last battle of the
Creek War, the battle of Horseshoe Bend. The Creek War ended with the
confiscation of 20,000,000 acres of Creek Land by Jackson with the
Treaty of Fort Jackson. The Treaty of Ghent signed by the British and
Americans decreed that the lands be restored with pre war boundaries.
The United States ignored this part of the Treaty and that left many
Creeks homeless. Dispute over that land led to the First Seminole War.
One band shared a common ancestor with Tecumseh, the Shawnee who came
to Tukabatchee (a major Creek village on the Tallapoosa River) to urge
a tribal confederacy. Tecumseh, Seekaboo, Peter McQueen, Josiah Francis
and Billy Powell (Osceola) were all descendants of James McQueen who
came with Oglethorpe, married a Creek woman of the Clan of the Wind,
and lived to be 128 years old. McQueen and Francis played prominent
rolls in both the Creek War and the First Seminole War. Billy Powell
became the great Osceola of the Third Seminole War. More of their story
is told in the sequel in this family saga, In Pursuit, released by Mercer University Press in 2013.
public relations machine dehumanized and degraded the Native American
in order to garner public approval for his ultimate goal -- the
confiscation of their lands to achieve the manifest destiny of the
United States. Much of that prejudice remains among scholars and
This conflagration has lessons needed now with a 200 year perspective. Book Club study questions appear on this website.
to laugh a little when I read and I don’t see why humor and history
cannot go hand in hand. And, I wanted to make the novel interesting to
a broad readership to provoke interest in our Native American story. I
wrote what I wanted to be a fun read where you can enjoy the story and
learn at the same time. “A spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go
down,” as Mary Poppins would say. So be prepared to sit back and enjoy
Mims is located about 15 miles from the Wind Creek Casino on the Poarch
reservation just north of Mobile. The 200th anniversary of this event
took place August 30, 2013.
If you have never visited Mission San Luis I
highly recommend you do. When I tell you that 3000 people gathered to
hear Tecumseh speak you can better understand the council house if you
have actually experienced one. The Mission is located on its original
site with buildings recreated where they would have originally stood.
800 bodies remain buried in the Mission church. Take your children and
grandchildren. We took our then 8 year old granddaughter and she
thoroughly enjoyed the visit.
Copyright 1996 These are my own working
genealogy files that I share with you. The errors are my own.
But, perhaps they will give you a starting point. All original
writing is copyrighted.