The man who made himself king

See this portrait of William Augustus Bowles at Upton House and Gardens © National Trust

See this portrait of William Augustus Bowles at Upton House and Gardens

Cashiered from the Royal Navy, this handsome man started life as a total nobody. 

Yet disgrace was the spur that led to a colourful and varied career as ambassador, pirate, fugitive, American Indian chief and ‘King of All Indians’.

Born in Maryland in 1763, son of English settlers, William Augustus Bowles was a boy of 13 when he joined the British Army as a foot-soldier, fighting rebels in the American War of Independence.

At 15 he was a junior officer in the Royal Navy. Returning late to his ship, he was thrown out for dereliction of duty.

Life amongst the Creek Indians

Throwing his uniform into the sea, William went to live among the Creek Indians in Florida, where he was to cause endless trouble for the Spanish who claimed the territory. He married two Indian wives, a Creek, who was the chief’s daughter, and a Cherokee. According to Creek custom, he became heir to the chiefdom.

After the war, he decided his ambition was to create an American Indian State and managed to get himself received by George III as ‘Chief of the Embassy from the Creek and Cherokee Nations’.

With British backing, he returned to the Bahamas and trained Creek braves as pirates, attacking Spanish shipping. Infuriated, the Spanish announced a reward of $6,000 and 1,500 kegs of rum for his capture.

He was finally taken prisoner and transported to Madrid, where all attempts by the Spanish king to persuade him to change sides failed. Undaunted, he escaped, commandeered a ship and returned to the Gulf of Mexico.

Declaring war on Spain

In 1795, he signed a proclamation as ‘Director General and Commander in Chief of the Muskogee Nation’.

Then in 1800, in a move worthy of Francis Drake himself, he declared war on Spain. 

Three years later, at an Indian Tribal Council, he pronounced himself ‘King of all the Indians present’. Eventually he was betrayed and recaptured by his old enemies, the Spanish. Incarcerated in Havana, he died in 1805, refusing to eat and was defiant to the very end.

His legacy

It seems only appropriate that he should leave a tantalising mystery behind him. 

According to legend, a magnificent hoard of gold and silver, the spoils of his pirate raids, lies hidden in a ‘Money Pond’. This has never been found.