By Charles Jackson
(From Quarterly Vol. 2 No. 1; Summer, 1977)
There were no war whoops sounding in the darkness of the Clarke County pine forest on the night the Holtams gave shelter to a Tennessee family headed westward to Texas.
The bitter days of the Indian Wars were long past, almost forgotten by Mrs. Holtam, the former Mrs. H. Merrill. Only in nightmares did she remember being scalped and left for dead by Indian raiders, of learning while still weak from her wounds that her first husband had been killed fighting the warring tribes.
Yet those distant, terrible memories swam before her eyes as she looked at the husband of the Tennessee family. He too, stared at Mrs. Holtam as if he were seeing a ghost from the past.
Sarah Merrill Holtam’s story is an incredible story from Alabama’s equally incredible history. It begins in Clarke County in 1813, the year Andrew Jackson and his hodge podge army of regulars and frontier volunteers fought the rampaging Creeks.
At the time of her story, shortly after the Ft. Mims Massacre, refugee settlers in the southern part of the wild, untamed Alabama territory -- statehood was still six years away -- began pouring into a wooden stockade called Ft. Sinquefield.
This inadequate facility had been constructed only a few months before to provide some form of defense for the settlers in that vicinity in the event of an Indian attack. By August, 1813, the stockade was filled with soldiers and refugees to the point it was hopelessly overcrowded.
Two families whose homes were located barely a mile away, decided to quit the safety of the stockade and take their chances at home. In late August, Ransom Kimbell and Abner James moved their families from the fort. On Sept. 1, 1813, just a few days after they left the fort, the women and children of the two families were at home alone. The men had returned to the stockade to gather news of the Indian movements and the likelihood of the attack.
About mid-afternoon the air was split by shrieks of terror and shouts of triumph as a band of Creeks swooped down on the homestead, wreaking death and pain among the helpless women and children. In a matter of minutes, it was all over, and the victorious Indians fled through the woods with scalps dangling from their belts and booty from the cabin in their arms.
Kimbell and others heard the sounds of the attack and rushed to the scene. The assault had come so suddenly and ended so quickly, however, that the men found only a dozen mangled bodies and burning ruins when they arrived.
By then it was getting to be late in the afternoon, too late to remain out after dark to bury the victims. The men returned to the fort, planning a burial detail for the following day.
During the night, a light rain fell upon the scene of the massacre and with that rain came the elixir needed to revive a survivor of the desolation. Mrs. Sarah Merrill, the daughter of Abner James, slowly opened her eyes and stared at the hissing smoke rising from the rain-splattered embers of the burned cabin. Blood covered her neck and shoulders from the vicious knife wound that had removed the greater portion of her scalp. Miraculously, the Indian’s war club aimed at her head had struck only a glancing blow, knocking her unconscious rather than killing her.
With a mother’s instinct, her immediate reaction was the safety of her baby rather than herself. Somewhere amid the dozen or so bodies she knew her baby would be found. The chance of her locating the child in the dark was slim. The chance of his being alive were even slimmer.
She remembered that there had been two baby boys, each the same size and weight. One had worn a dress fastened with buttons while the other’s dress had been fastened with strings. Using the knowledge as her guide, she crawled among the bodies until she found her son, weak but miraculously alive. As soon as she felt she had nursed sufficient life back into the boy, she began the slow and painful trip toward Ft. Sinquefield, located about five miles southeast of present Grove Hill.
The loss of blood had weakened her considerably, however, and she soon felt she might not be able to make it to the fort before she collapsed. Secreting the baby boy in the minimal safety of a hollow log, she struggled on by herself, hoping she could make it alone and send help back to get her son.
In the early hours of the morning of Sept. 2, the sentries at Ft. Sinquefield were astonished to see a white woman, bare of scalp, struggling into the light of the stockade. Men from the fort quickly retrieved her baby and soon were both provided with the best attention available at the fort. Both would recover from the narrow escape from death, even though the fort’s commanding officer, Lt. James Bailey, would find his hands full only a few hours later when 100 Indians led by Prophet Josiah Francis launched a vicious and bitter attack.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Merrill’s husband marched with Gen. F.L. Claiborne toward Holy Ground where they were expecting to locate a large force of hostile Indians. In route, a messenger who had left Ft. Sinquefield shortly after the Kimbell-James Massacre, caught up with Claiborne’s troops and sadly informed Merrill that his family had been wiped out in the massacre. The messenger had left the fort, of course, hours before Sarah Merrill stumbled in with her fantastic story of survival.
Merrill was naturally grief-stricken. But he was also a soldier, and he faced a duty that was designed to protect hundreds of other settlers. He put aside his own problems and marched on with Gen. Claiborne.
In the fierce battle that followed, he was severely wounded. With communications as unreliable as they were in those days, Merrill was believed to have been slain, and this message was carried back to his wife, whom he still believed to be dead. By this time, Mrs. Merrill and her young son were well on their way to recovery.
Merrill, however, recovered from his wounds. Since he believed his family wiped out, he had made no desire to return to the site of so much tragedy and instead made his way to Tennessee.
The second part of Sarah Merrill’s story does not occur until many years later. After the Indian Wars ended, she and her husband, each believing the other dead, sought new lives for themselves. Each, in turn, married and started a new family.
Mrs. Merrill, now happily Mrs. Holtam, with her new husband and large family of children by him, lived happily near Choctaw Corner in Clarke County. One night, many years after the tragedy at Ft. Sinquefield, a man from Tennessee, traveling with his middle-aged wife and family of children, passed through Choctaw Corner on their way to Texas. They reached Clarke County at nightfall and saw a place to stay for the night.
The Tennesseans, as fate would have it, were taken in by the Holtam family and were given the best hospitality that could be offered.
Frequently during the evening, Mrs. Holtam stared at the husband of the visiting family. She was certain that she had seen him some place before. The Tennessean likewise felt that he knew Mrs. Holtam although he was sure he had never seen her before.
Finally, the realization struck them both at once, and the incredible story tumbled out in patches of information that were finally pieced together by the two families.
Many years had passed since their marriage and both of the Merrills had found happiness and security with their mates and other families. There was no desire for them to rejoin each other after so many years.
The next day, the Tennesseans pressed on to Texas, and Mrs. Sarah James Merrill Holtam remained in Choctaw Corner with her new family, a lady much admired and respected by her neighbors.