The 1702 ‘Battle of the Blankets’ Helped Change the Course of History in the New World

‘It’s a Trap!’



Spanish Captain Francisco Romo de Uriza signaled his 30 fellow soldiers and 800 native Apalachee allies in the pre-dawn hours. The enemy appeared to be all bedded down for the night around campfires that burned low. Now was the time to attack. If all went well, the Spaniards would completely surprise and rout the English and their Apalachicola allies.

Matchlock muskets at the ready, the Spaniards loosed a volley into the camp, then rushed forward with rapiers flashing in the night. For a moment there was a cacophony of sound as they and their Indian allies tore through the camp and stabbed the bedding underfoot.

But, alas, appearances can be deceiving. And in one of history’s many tragic “Oh, no!” moments, the Spaniards and their comrades quickly realized the blankets were empty — they had been tricked. No sooner had the gunshots faded than 400 English-allied Indians came out of hiding and pounced upon the hapless Spaniards. Right away it was game on, and every man for himself. 

 

Raid and Counter-Raid

The little-known “Battle of the Blankets,” also known as the Battle of Flint River, happened on or about Oct. 12, 1702, in what is now Georgia. In a larger sense, it was part of the ongoing struggle between England and Spain for control of Florida, both strategically and economically.

The Flint River battle was a raid of reprisal by the Spanish for the murder of three peaceful Apalachee traders by Apalachicola Indians (who were in league with English traders), and for an Apalachicola attack on a Spanish mission in present-day Alachua County. Enraged by the attacks, the Apalachee convinced Spanish Governor Joseph de Zuniga y Cerda to let them invade Apalachicola settlements in Southern Georgia.

It was not the first time a Spanish-allied force invaded this region. The Spanish deputy in Apalachee, Antonio Matheos, had led three punitive expeditions against the Apalachicola in 1685 and 1686, in an attempt to compel the natives’ fealty to Spain — and flush out any English traders working among them. The expeditions were largely a waste of time, because the English continued to have influence among these tribes. Two other Spanish sorties likewise accomplished nothing, and the Spanish decided to establish a new fort and garrison among them to keep tabs on the situation, but the soldiers were removed a short time later when the Apalachicola left the area.

“Many of the Apalachicola abandoned their settlements on the Chattahoochee to move eastward to the Ocmulgee, closer to the English. There, by and large, they threw off even the pretense of submission to the Spanish authorities and began the series of raids and attacks in which the missions beyond St. Augustine and most of their inhabitants would disappear in just over a decade,” wrote John H. Hann in his 1988 masterwork, “Apalachee: The Land Between the Rivers.”

As the 18th century dawned, new treaties were set down allowing the Apalachee to continue trading with the Apalachicola and other non-Christian Indians. But heavy restrictions placed by the Spaniards frustrated these endeavors and angered the Apalachicola, who tortured and murdered the three Apalachee traders.

These events set the stage for a new Spanish campaign and, in October, a force of 800 Apalachee warriors and 30 Spanish soldiers led by Capt. Romo sallied forth from an Apalachee mission near Mission San Luis and made its way north. As the army marched deeper into enemy territory, its approach did not go unnoticed by local Indians, who notified their leaders and quickly gathered up their own “army” for a counterattack. Accompanied by English trader Anthony Dodsworth and a few of his men, the Apalachicola warriors (who numbered around 400 or 500) marched south. In a pine forest near the Flint River, the Apalachicola set a trap — a false camp — that the Spanish force couldn’t resist. The ensuing early morning battle completely routed the Spanish-Apalachee force.

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
When English Gov. James Moore attacked St. Augustine, residents took refuge in Castillo de San Marcos (shown here) and outlasted his siege.

Even though the English had half as many men as the Spanish, they had one great tactical advantage. All of their Indian allies were armed to the teeth. Although some Apalachee leaders and militiamen were granted the use of firearms, Spanish policy was generally set against arming the mission natives. Not exactly a wise policy, because the English had no such reservations. For this fight, they armed their Indian allies with muskets, pistols, cutlasses and plenty of powder and shot. Historians can’t say for certain how the Apalachee were armed, but it’s likely they relied heavily on traditional weapons such as bows and arrows, war clubs and hatchets. Making matters worse for the Spanish was the fact that some 200 Apalachee warriors dropped their weapons and ran away just as the melee started. When the rest of the Spanish invaders were put to flight, Capt. Romo counted only 300 warriors in his war party. In addition to the 200 that took to their heels when the trap was sprung, another 300 were either killed or captured. 

 

Net Effect

Romo and his men made it back to the safety of the Apalachee province a few days later, their mission a failure. Though largely a footnote in the history books, the “Battle of the Blankets” had huge and immediate ramifications for all of Spanish La Florida. 

Coming at the beginning of The War of Spanish Succession, the battle signaled the start of open hostilities between England and Spain for control of Florida. In St. Augustine, Gov. Zuniga anticipated more English attacks and put the city on high alert, called up what reserves were available and sent desperate messages for help to Spain and Mexico. Meanwhile, at Mission San Luis in present-day Tallahassee, the deputy governor realized the settlements were spread out too much to be effectively defended and moved at least two smaller villages closer to San Luis. Also, a palisade and moat were built around the soldiers’ blockhouse at San Luis, making it an actual fort.

Zuniga’s instincts about an English attack were correct. Within weeks the English Gov. James Moore left the Carolinas, laid waste to Spanish settlements along the Georgia coast and finally laid siege to St. Augustine itself. The city was burned, but the inhabitants sought refuge inside the mighty walls of the Castillo de San Marcos, where they outlasted the English. Moore’s mission was a failure, but he would return with a vengeance two years later to destroy the Spanish missions between St. Augustine and Mission San Luis. The Spanish would evacuate San Luis in July 1704, and the Apalachee people living there would be scattered to the wind.

 

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