John R. Coffee (June 2, 1772 – July 7, 1833) was an American planter and state militia general in Tennessee. He commanded troops under General Andrew Jackson during the Creek Wars (1813–14) and during the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812.
During his presidency, 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. Correction: Peter Coffee, Sr. was Irish and was probably born around 1705. In 1730 he was released from the Old Bailey and "transported" to Virginia where he labored as an indentured servant in the tobacco fields for 14 years, gaining his freedom in 1744.
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 of Mrs. Coffee was Andrew Jackson's wife, Rachel Donelson Robards.
Coffee and Jackson were in business together. Before John Coffee'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 was considered to be 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 also 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 James 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 on the major rivers.
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 Colonel 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 Native American warriors from allied Southeast tribes, at the 1814-15 Battle of New Orleans. They played a key role in holding the woods to the east of the British 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 (concurrent with the War of 1812), during which he commanded mostly state militia and allied Native Americans. Under Jackson, 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 at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. At the latter, the 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. In 1816 he surveyed the boundary line between Alabama Territory and Mississippi Territory. He later moved to a place near Florence, Alabama.
His friend and former business partner Jackson was elected President. Jackson worked toward removal of Southeast Native American tribes to lands west of the Mississippi River. He appointed Coffee as his representative, along with Secretary of War John Eaton, to negotiate treaties which would 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 Southeastern lands. Coffee started negotiations with the Chickasaw, but the U.S. did not conclude a treaty with these people until after his death.
Coffee died in Florence on July 7, 1833, at age 61.
Legacy and honors
Coffee County, Alabama, Coffee County, Tennessee, and the towns of Coffeeville, Alabama, Coffee Springs, Alabama (now in Geneva County but formerly part of Coffee County), Coffeeville, Mississippi, and Fort Coffee, Oklahoma, are named in his honor.
Researchers often confuse General John Coffee with his first cousin John E. Coffee (1782–1836), who was a general in the Georgia militia and elected as a U.S. Congressman there.
General Coffee is sometimes referred to as John R. Coffee. Some researchers have attempted 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 the original papers examined. Scholars believe he didn't use the middle initial.
General John (R.) Coffee is buried in the Coffee Cemetery off State Road 157, northwest of Florence, Alabama.
The legendary Texas Ranger, John Coffee Hays, was a cousin of Mrs. Coffee and was named after him.