Alexander Macomb, the elder, (1748–1831) was a fur trader, land and currency speculator, and slaveholder who supported the British during the American Revolution and provided the occupying British army with trade goods.
As part of his partnership with the British, Macomb’s trading post in the Detroit area delivered thousands of “scalping knives” to Native American nations fighting on the side of the British.
Despite his wartime Loyalist leanings, Macomb quickly made new business contacts after the war in the newly independent nation. He moved to the city of New York and in 1788 built a four-story brick mansion on Broadway just south of Trinity Church. It was considered so luxurious that President George Washington and his family resided there when New York temporarily served as the national capital. According to the 1790 census, the elder Macomb owned 12 enslaved Africans, making him the third largest slaveholder in the city of New York.
Macomb served two terms in the state legislature and used his political connections to purchase state land along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario – known as Macomb’s Purchase – that had been confiscated from the Iroquois at the end of the American Revolution. The British ceded the land to New York State as part of the treaty that ended the war, but the four Iroquois nations that lived there were never involved in the negotiations, nor did they agree to abandon their tribal lands.
The purchase, about one-eighth of the entire area of the state of New York, was controversial at the time and was investigated by the New York State Legislature, without result. Unfortunately for Macomb, the land deal bankrupted him and he found himself in debtor’s prison.
One of the elder Alexander Macomb’s sons, Robert Macomb, successfully petitioned the city of New York to permit the family to build a dam on the Harlem River to power a family owned mill. The first bridge there opened in 1816. It soon became a favorite spot for sporting men, and numerous boxing matches were held there.
Alexander Macomb & The Seminole Nation
The younger Alexander Macomb (1782 –1841) was educated at the Newark Academy in New Jersey and is remembered as a hero of the Battle of Plattsburgh during the War of 1812 and as the Commanding General of the United States Army from 1828 until 1841. His portrait hangs in a New York City Hall gallery and there is a plaster bust of him in the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York.
During the land phase of the Battle of Plattsburgh, American forces under Macomb’s command were heavily outnumbered. Rather than fight on an open field of battle, Macomb withdrew his forces south, constructing a maze of false roads and trails. The British, unfamiliar with the area, got trapped on these narrow dead-end routes where they were vulnerable to hit-and-run guerilla assaults reminiscent of the Battle of Lexington and Concord during the American Revolution. Macomb was promoted to major general and was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal. In 1828, President John Quincy Adams appointed him the Army’s commanding general.
When the United States purchased Spain’s claim to Florida in 1819, it tried to force Seminoles to abandon their villages in the Florida panhandle and relocate to a reservation in Central Florida, farther from the Georgia border. Southern Whites were especially hostile to the Seminole because they harbored and allied themselves with escaped slaves, especially those from Florida and Georgia plantations.
When Tennessean Andrew Jackson became President of the United States in 1829, he demanded that the Seminole (and all the Indian Nations east of the Mississippi) leave their homelands and resettle on reservations west of the Mississippi River. Under terms of the Indian Removal Act (1830) almost all of the Native population in the southern states were forcibly removed amidst harsh conditions during the Jackson and Martin Van Buren presidencies (more than 60,000, from at least 18 Indian nations).
This precipitated what became known as the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), as the resisting Seminole, refusing to be driven from their lands, deployed many of the same military tactics Macomb had used against the British in the Battle of Plattsburgh. In 1839, newly elected President Martin Van Buran dispatched Alexander Macomb as the Army’s commanding general to Florida to reopen negotiations with the Seminole with the goal of forcing them out.
Macomb announced he had reached an agreement with the Seminole who would cease stop fighting in exchange for a reservation in southern Florida. The reality, however, was that Macomb had been in discussion with only a few of the more cooperative Seminole bands. Others continued to resist and attacked federal troops and white settlers believing the negotiations were a trap to get them to expose their hidden bases and ultimately force them from their homes.
In The Seminole Wars: America’s Longest Indian Conflict (Univ. Press of Florida, 2004) John and Mary Lou Missall, argue that Macomb’s orders were contradictory. He was told to “prosecute the war with vigor” but at the same time “treat the Indians with kindness and attention” while negotiating a “treaty of peace.” Despite his announcement of the end to hostilities, Macomb never actually drafted a treaty and none was ever signed.
The negotiations were carried on in bad faith and the Seminole had the right to be skeptical about any agreement reached with the U.S. government. Macomb conveniently neglected to mention that the ultimate goal of the United States government remained that the Seminole be completely removed from Florida.
White settlers also refused to accept any agreement that permitted any of the Seminole to remain in the territory. Florida did not become a state until 1845, and White settlers pressed the territorial government to continue the war against the Seminole regardless of the federal government’s actions.
They got their wish when a band of Seminoles not party to the negotiations attacked a trading post and provided an excuse to resume the war. At that point Macomb abandoned any pretense that the goal was a negotiated settlement and he returned to Washington. The primary result of the Macomb’s action during the Second Seminole War was the Third Seminole War (1855 to 1858) that eventually forced almost all Seminoles out of Florida. Fewer than 20,000 recognized members of Seminole tribes remain in the state.
Today, there is a Macombs Dam Bridge and a Macombs Dam Park near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx (although the dam on the Harlem River between Manhattan and the Bronx is now long gone). There is a Macombs Road in the West Bronx and an Alexander Macomb Intermediate School. Rapper Cadi B and I both went there, although we were separated by many decades. When I attended it was called Alexander Macombs Junior H.S. 82. Today it is known as The Alexander Macomb I.S. 23.
The dam, bridge and park are named after the elder Alexander Macomb; the school probably after his son, although that is not certain. Given their names’ connection to enslavement Macombs Road, Macombs Dam Bridge, and Macombs Dam Park should renamed.
The Alexander Macomb Intermediate School should also be renamed. It’s either named after one of the largest slaveholders in New York City or his son, a man who shares major responsibility for duplicitous negotiations and the expulsion of the Seminole from their homeland in Florida.
Illustrations, from above: The Alexander Macomb House in New York City served as the executive mansion for President George Washington, February–August 1790; A portrait of Alexander Macomb, the elder; General Alexander Macomb’s official portrait by Thomas Sully (1829) in the West Point Museum Art Collection, U.S. Military Academy; a 1835 view of a Seminole village shows the log cabins they lived in prior to the Second Seminole War; the burning of the Seminole town of Pilaklikaha (now Palatka, Florida) in 1836 by Brig. General Abraham Eustis; and an illustration showing Macomb’s dam on the Harlem River.
Richard Daly says
Thanks, Alan and John. I’m familiar with, and now more informed of the Macomb sites in The Bronx/Upper Manhattan, thanks to my career there (1968-96) . Readers might want to know that during the observance of the Battle of Plattsburgh – 11SEP1814 – Alexander Macomb, among others, is celebrated yearly throughout Clinton County and City and Town of PBG. Come visit us: 150mi N of Albany/100km S of Montreal. We speak French and English and gladly accept Yankee Dollar$ —