John Coffee (June 2, 1772 – July 7, 1833) was an American planter and state militia general in Tennessee. He commanded troops under General Andrew Jackson in the Creek Wars (1813–1814) and the later Battle of New Orleans.
President Andrew Jackson appointed Coffee as his representative, along with Secretary of War John Eaton, to negotiate treaties with Southeast American Indian tribes to accomplish removal, a policy authorized by Congressional passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Coffee negotiated the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek of 1830 with the Choctaw by which they ceded their lands, and started negotiations with the Chickasaw, but they did not conclude a treaty until after his death.
Born in Prince Edward County, Virginia, Coffee was the son of Lieutenant Joshua Coffee (January 26, 1745-September 8, 1797) and Elizabeth Graves (January 28, 1742-December 13, 1804). He was a grandson of English settlers Peter Coffee, Sr. (1716-November 1771) and Susannah Mathews (1701–1796) both of whom were from Kent, England.
Marriage and family
John Coffee married Mary Donelson, the daughter of Captain John Donelson III and Mary Purnell, on October 3, 1809. A paternal aunt was Andrew Jackson's wife, Rachel Donelson Robards.
Coffee and Jackson were in business together; before his friend's marriage, Jackson sold his partnership in their joint merchandising business to Coffee, taking promissory notes for the sale. After the wedding, Jackson gave Coffee the notes as his wedding present to the couple.
Coffee was a merchant and land speculator. He and Andrew Jackson were friends and had been partners in Nashville merchandising before Coffee's marriage. He was considered the most even-tempered and least selfish of Jackson's lifelong friends. Described as a big awkward man, careless of dress, and slow of speech, Coffee was also said to be kindly, tactful and wise.
In early 1806, Coffee challenged Nathaniel A. McNairy to a duel for publishing derogatory statements about Jackson. The duel took place on March 1, 1806, over the Tennessee line in Kentucky. McNairy unintentionally fired before the "word", wounding Coffee in the thigh. In return, McNairy offered to lay down his pistol and give Coffee an extra shot. The weapons used in this duel were later used in the Jackson-Dickinson duel on May 30, 1806.
At the beginning of the War of 1812, Coffee raised the 2nd Regiment of Volunteer Mounted Riflemen, composed mostly of Tennessee militiamen (and a few men from Alabama). In December 1812, Governor Willie Blount had called out the Tennessee militia in response to a request from General John Wilkinson and the U.S. Secretary of War. Under Jackson's command, Coffee led 600 men in January 1813 to Natchez, Mississippi Territory, via the Natchez Trace, in advance of the rest of the rest of the troops, who traveled via flatboats.
After the two groups reunited in Natchez, Wilkinson and the U.S. government disbanded Jackson's troops. All marched back to Nashville to disband, and on this march Jackson earned the nickname Old Hickory from his troops. They arrived in Nashville on May 18, 1813.
On September 4, 1813 Coffee was involved in the Andrew Jackson-Benton Brothers duel in Nashville, knocking Thomas Benton down a flight of stairs after Benton's failed assassination attempt on Jackson.
In October 1813, the 2nd Regiment was combined with Col. Cannon's Mounted Regiment and the 1st Regiment of Volunteer Mounted Gunmen to form a militia brigade of mounted infantry. Coffee was promoted to brigadier-general and placed in command. Coffee led his brigade, which consisted largely of free blacks and American Indian warriors from allied Southeast tribes, at the Battle of New Orleans. They played a key role in holding the woods to the east of the British redcoats' column. Coffee's brigade was the first to engage the British, by firing from behind the trees and brush.
Jackson chose General Coffee as his advance commander in the Creek War, in which he commanded mostly state militia and allied American Indians. Under Jackson's command, Coffee led his brigade at the Battle of Tallushatchee, the Battle of Talladega, and the Battles of Emuckfaw and Enotachopo Creek, where he was seriously wounded, and the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. At the latter, the American allied forces conclusively defeated the Red Sticks, traditionalists of the Creek Nation who were allied with the British.
After the war and some failed investments, Coffee began work as a surveyor, laying down the town of Florence, Alabama. In 1816 he surveyed the boundary line between Alabama and Mississippi. He later moved to near Florence, Alabama.
His friend and former business partner Jackson was elected President of the United States. Jackson worked toward removal of Southeast Indian tribes to territory west of the Mississippi River. Jackson appointed Coffee as his representative, along with Secretary of War John Eaton, to negotiate treaties with Southeast American Indian tribes to accomplish removal, a policy authorized by Congressional passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Coffee negotiated the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek of 1830 with the Choctaw by which they ceded their lands in the Southeast. He started negotiations with the Chickasaw, but the US did not conclude a treaty with these people until after his death.
Coffee died in Florence.
Legacy and honors
Researchers often confuse this General John Coffee with his first cousin John E. Coffee (1782–1836), who was a general in the Georgia militia and elected as the U.S. Congressman from Georgia. Links for each of their Find-a-Grave Memorials are included below, with additional state and spouse information, to help distinguish more clearly between them.
This John Coffee is sometimes referred to as John R. Coffee. Some researchers are attempting to document the use of this middle initial in original sources. To date, he has been found to have signed his name John Coffee in original papers examined. Scholars do not believe he used the initial "R". General John (R.) Coffee is buried in the Coffee Cemetery off SR 157 northwest of Florence, Alabama.
The legendary Texas Ranger, John Coffee Hays, was his nephew. Hays became the greatest Texas Ranger in history, leading troops in battle from 1836–1848, against the Comanche Tribe and the Mexican Army during the Mexican–American War. He surveyed the West, founding Oakland, California. In 1850 Hays was elected as the first Sheriff of San Francisco. Hays was born in Tennessee and raised at The Hermitage where Andrew Jackson resided.
- "Levi Colbert to President Andrew Jackson, 22 NOV 1832", Chickasaw Letters -- 1832, Chickasaw Historical Research Website (Kerry M. Armstrong), accessed 12 December 2011
- Coffee Cemetery, Florence, Alabama
- Find-A-Grave Memorial for Tennessee John Coffee, husband of Mary Donelson
- Find-A-Grave Memorial for Georgia John E. Coffee, husband of Ann Penelope Bryan
- Jackson-Benton Duel
- John Coffee Papers Relating to Negotiations with the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.