Time is a funny thing. Under its shroud even the most revelrous, cantankerous, and seemingly indelible folks fade into obscurity. Their high jinks and feats fall victim to the gentle wounds of passing time. Their names are filtered through generations, passing through lips less often with each passing decade. Their facts mix with fiction. But despite the subtle expunction of time, their tales resurface, remain relevant, are as shockingly remarkable today as they were centuries ago.
One such man? William Augustus Bowles.
When the American Revolution began in 1776, Bowles was a mere boy, barely a teenager, but the ornery adolescent was certainly ready to fight. He joined the Maryland Loyalist Battalion as an ensign (a position deserving of his age, but perhaps not his moxie) and battled at Monmouth, then sailed with his regiment to Jamaica before being ordered to assist in the establishment of a new British garrison on Pensacola. And here is where our young hero’s history truly begins.
While working with the British Army in Pensacola, the teen began to test the patience of his superiors. Accounts diverge on whether Bowles was dismissed or he resigned, but regardless of the impetus, the young soldier found himself—or rather, lost himself—in the cypress swamps of Pensacola. Trudging through unknown lands, blindly facing north toward home, Bowles stumbled upon an attachment of Creek Indians journeying to Pensacola for their annual gifts. Though outdated accounts may use the word “captured,” it’s certainly more accurate to describe Bowles’ encounter with the Creeks as a rescue. The Native Americans took Bowles into their fold, where the youth charmed them with his chutzpah and brazen confidence.
Bowles wheedled his way into the local Creek culture, earning particular favor with the prestigious Perryman family. With a muddled British and Creek lineage, the patriarch, Chief Thomas Perryman, led the local tribe. As Bowles developed his understanding of the language, so did he develop his place in the community, strategically marrying one of Chief Perryman’s daughters in order to negotiate his leadership and political influence over the Creeks.
Unlike fictional tales and romanticized movies of Westerners’ incorporation into American Indian communities, Bowles never abandoned his ties with or indicted his former people. In fact, when the British faced Spanish invasion at Pensacola, Bowles persuaded his adoptive clan to defend the garrison alongside the British (it’s important to note, however, that Perryman’s family and community were already allied with the British—hence, their annual gift exchange). Though Bowles, Perryman, and their Creek troops were unable to change the fate of the garrison (it was blown to bits by the Spanish), his allegiance did once again endear Bowles to the British, and he was re-enlisted under his former rank with the British Army.
But Bowles’ return to military life was short-lived. Again, the circumstances of his departure are unclear (either a result of the surrender of Florida to the Spanish, or following charges of his scalping prisoners), but Bowles left the service and went north. After briefly visiting his father’s home, Bowles joined a traveling troupe in New York City and sailed for the Bahamas.
It was not a life of military service or even cultural occupation that Bowles found in the Bahamas, but something surprisingly disparate; the captivating young man instead pursued a life of the arts, working as a comedian, actor, and portrait painter. His charm once again wooed his company, this time Lord Dunmore, the governor of the Bahamas. Impressed by his wit and proficiency with the Creek language and customs, Lord Dunmore assigned Bowles the responsibility of establishing a trading post with the Creeks along the Chattahoochee River—a post in direct competition with French companies along the same route.
Once again, Bowles’ position was fleeting. He was quickly ordered out of the territory by oppositional French forces under threat of removal of his ears. Bowles returned to Jamaica, where Lord Dunmore reassigned him to England in pursuance of a new project. He journeyed across the Atlantic with a band of Creeks and Cherokees, and the brash Bowles introduced himself to King George III as the Chief of the Embassy for the Creek and Cherokee Nation. His allusions to power (whether genuine or inflated) impressed the King, and he lent his support to Bowles’ next endeavor—namely, the State of Muskogee.
Bowles had long been conceptualizing this free state, a land that would unite the Creek and Seminole Indians, benefit the British, halt the expansion of America, and simultaneously earn him the fortune and power he coveted.
Under the guise of creating an independent state for his adoptive community, the State of Muskogee was formed. Despite its name and supposed mission, the main purpose of the state was not primarily to create an independent nation for Native Americans (although that was certainly an exaggerated objective that persuaded the Creeks and Seminoles themselves). Neither, however, were his intentions purely Loyalist.
When speaking to the King and Lord Dunmore, Bowles advertised the State of Muskogee as a means of preventing the sprawl of America southward; rather than expending valuable British troops or marring an already shaky relationship between Britain and America, Bowles’ independent state would lay claim to Florida and stop the land-hungry Americans’ course. Simultaneously, the State’s position in the Gulf would adventitiously position them for privateering against Spanish ships in the Gulf of Mexico—again, a maneuver that was advantageous for the British, but not politically savvy in terms of international relations.
So, yes, Bowles’ State of Muskogee did offer the persecuted American Indians a land to call their own, and yes, it was inherently beneficial for the British. But, above all else, the State of Muskogee benefited Bowles himself.
The swarthy Bowles knew there was a fortune to be made through piracy in the Gulf of Mexico, and he refined and tweaked his relationships across the globe to ensure he would personally profit from the annexation of the pounds of floating gold. The man whose resistance to authority had plagued him throughout his life and careers finally found himself in charge of an entire nation, and he declared himself Director General.
Though he certainly capitalized on his title, Bowles’ state was little more than a flotilla of pirates, an amalgamation of lost souls and escapees from across the South willing to ensign themselves to a new nation and dangerous waters for a price. With two schooners and some 400 men—comprised of Native American warriors, wandering frontiersmen, and escaped slaves—Bowles took to the waters and began his career in piracy. For security, he established a watchtower on the sandy lands of Cedar Key; his piratic acts guaranteed retribution, and he made sure to keep a wary eye on those waters. His efforts amassed a small fortune, which he hid with allies in the northern part of the state. The pirated goods he sold to unwitting Southerners across his borders.
Though Bowles attacked merchant vessels of all types, he had a particular affinity for those of Spanish flags. After offering an impressive reward, the aggrieved Spanish captured (this time, the verb is most definitely appropriate) Bowles and transported him to Madrid. Bowles once again gained audience with a king, this time King Carlos IV, who sought to convince Bowles to betray the British and work for his country instead. In a rare act of nobility, Bowles refused and returned to imprisonment, and in a move more indicative of his nature, he soon escaped, commandeered a Spanish ship, and sailed to the Gulf of Mexico (but not without a few acts of piracy along the way).
When Bowles returned to the State of Muskogee, his egoism had not waned, but instead flourished—a trait that likely led to his downfall. At a Tribal Council in 1803, Bowles ostentatiously declared himself “Chief of All Indians Present.” Within days, he was back in Spanish custody, betrayed by the very people he had pompously claimed power over.
Though his days of freedom and revelry were coming to an end, the pugnacious Bowles had one more feat—and blunder—to perform. On the night of his arrest, Bowles and his captors made their way south via canoe; when they stopped for the night, Bowles was bound and put to bed with a guard standing watch. The guard foolishly fell asleep, and Bowles took advantage of his position, gnawing away at his cords and pilfering a canoe.
When his detainers awoke and found Bowles gone, they panicked—until they found the most blaring of clues. In his scramble to escape, Bowles left the canoe in plain sight directly on the opposite bank. They easily apprehended the fugitive and carted him to Cuba. The dogged Bowles lasted two years before his final act of obduracy: following a steadfast refusal to eat, Bowles died of starvation.