Seminoles and Black Seminoles
An alliance of Seminole Indians and escaped African slaves (often called Black Seminoles) in Florida fought together against the United States government, first in 1817-18 and again in 1835-42. These wars marked a partial defeat for the US; the powerful nation state could not uproot all of the Seminoles from the swamps of Florida, where some Seminoles remain to this day. Moreover, the Indians and Africans' resistance during the Second Seminole War cost the US some $20 million to $40 million, which was eighty times what Congress had authorized the army to spend on clearing out all of the Indians from the east of the Mississippi. The Second Seminole War is also an often overlooked part of African American history. Although it is rarely considered in such terms, the war can be seen as the country's largest ever slave revolt, and perhaps the most successful one as well. After all, hundreds of slaves escaped from plantations to join the Indians and maroons at war, and many were able to secure their freedom by migrating west with the Indians at the war's end.
"Seminole" means runaway, and the nation began as runaway Creeks migrated to Florida in the eighteenth century. The historian William Loren Katz argues that African maroons taught African farming techniques to the Seminoles: “Africans proved far more familiar with Florida's tropical terrain than Spaniards or Seminoles. They transplanted a rice cultivation method practiced in Senegambia and Sierre Leone. Used to a more moderate climate, Seminoles began to learn how to survive from these ex-slaves.”
The Seminole Indians traditionally organized into matrilenial clans, with each clan consisting of about 35-100 people in Florida and 78-107 people in Oklahoma. Clans confederated into matrileneal moieties, which the anthropologist Greg Urban describes as “strongly egalitarian”.
At the annual Green Corn Dance on Court Day, all the men gathered together at a meeting chaired by the shaman and his assistants, who formed a sort of governing council. At the meeting, "[a]ll males were encouraged to speak on any matter considered, but the opinion of the shaman, council members, and the oldest member of each clan present seemed to carry the most weight."
The Black Seminoles appear to have lived in non-coercive villages in Florida. Admitting that some people carried disproportionate influence, Terrance Weik explains that these leaders lacked coercive authority:
Around 1818, Captain Hugh Young (U.S. military engineer) described Nero's Town, an African Seminole settlement on the Suwannee River (Young 1953). Young concluded that the leader at that town ruled only through the "respect and affection" of his peers. Young's comments suggest that it may have been hard for Pilaklikaha's leaders to impose authoritarian rule over residents, as many had escaped slavery to be free of violence and coercion...Nineteenth-century maps allude to "Mulatto Girl's” town, suggesting female and perhaps biracial leadership existed at some locations.
Among the Black Seminoles of Florida, men hunted, raided plantations, raised livestock, and traded, while women farmed and gathered food. Agriculture was communal, and crops included nuts, beans, melons, and pumpkins. Black and indigenous Seminoles made their own baskets, canoes, utensils, and pottery. Although some Seminole chiefs held black slaves, Kenneth Porter writes that Florida's Black Seminoles generally had no obligation to the Seminole Indians except for paying a minimal tribute in return for protection from slave raiders. Porter says the relationship between Black and Indian Seminoles "might be described as primitive democratic feudalism, with basically no personal inequality between the two groups."
While white visitors tended to classify the Black Seminoles as “slaves” to the Seminole Indians, historians disagree over whether the term accurately describes the relationship in most cases. It is true that some Indian chiefs considered Black Seminole members their slaves and expected service from them. Kenneth Porter, however, argues that in most cases, Black Seminoles did not serve the Seminole Indians in any way, aside from paying a minimal tribute in exchange for protection from white slave raiders. Between the Black and Seminole Indians, there was “basically no personal inequality”, according to Porter, and the Black members were “no more subordinate to the chiefs than the Seminoles themselves.”.
Black Seminoles tended to live in autonomous towns and grew, raised, and hunted their own food. They were armed. According to U.S. Indian Agent Wiley Thompson, the Black Seminoles had “equal liberty with their owners”. William Simmons, a white visitor who documented his observations in Notices of East Florida described the Blacks as slaves but wrote, “The Negroes uniformly testify to the kind treatment they receive from their Indian masters, who are indulgent, and require but little labor from them.” Simmons went on to describe the Negroes as “the finest looking people I have ever seen”. According to a Harpers reporter, “The negro slaves [were], in fact, the masters of their own red owners...The negroes were the master spirits, as well as the immediate occasion, of the Florida wars. They openly refused to follow their masters if they removed to Arkansas; it was not until they capitulated that the Seminoles ever thought of emigrating.”
The Black Seminoles' tribute payments to the Seminole Indians were minimal. Porter writes, “One observer reported that no more than ten bushels of corn were ever demanded. The remainder was kept by the so-called slaves. The blacks soon acquired livestock, which their Seminole patrons never meddled with. At slaughtering time, they supplied the tribespeople with a fat hog or a side of beef. It was a mutually beneficial relationship. The 'owner' provided protection, and the 'slave' paid a modest amount in return.”
Chaired by the shaman, the annual Court Day assembly decided on punishments for Seminoles who had committed crimes. The assembly typically excluded criminals from social functions until they could demonstrate to the shaman that they would obey the law. Serious criminals who showed no chance of being reformed were deemed outlaws and could be killed. When a crime required an immediate response, clan members would meet and decide on a penalty.
First Seminole War
From 1817 to 1818, Colonel Andrew Jackson led a coalition of Creek and United States troops to invade Florida. Although Indian and Black Seminoles sided with the Spanish and fought back against Jackson's troops, the invasion weakened Spain's hold on the territory. After the war, Spain agreed to sell Florida to the US for $5 million. The US annexed Florida in 1821.
Second Seminole War
When the US tried to relocate the Seminoles to the “Indian Territory” of Oklahoma, many Seminoles resisted and full-scale war broke out between the US and the Seminoles in 1835. Over the course of the war, the US spent over $40 million (according to William Loren Katz) and lost 1,500 soldiers. While the US had 50,000 soldiers fight in the war and never had fewer than 3,800 soldiers in the field, the Seminoles had a total of just 1,500 warriors. Using guerrilla warfare tactics, the Seminoles prevented the US from outright winning the war. Ward Churchill describes the war as “the most proportionately expensive conflict in American history, and it ended inconclusively: while the Seminoles suffered extensive casualties and a number of them eventually submitted to removal, a sizable segment withdrew into the Everglades swamp country, from whence they were never dislodged.” Moreover, the US was not able to reenslave the Black Seminoles; the fighting continued until the Blacks were allowed to migrate westward rather than be returned to the plantations.
"My brothers! The white people got some of our chiefs to sign a paper to give our lands to them; but our chiefs did not do as we told them to do. They did wrong...My brothers! When the Great Spirit tells me to go with the white man, I go! But he tells me not to go! The white man says I shall go, and he will send people to make me go; but I have a rifle, and I have some powder and lead. I say we must not leave our homes and lands!"
Osceola delivered this address to many Seminoles at an assembly at Silver Springs on 23 October 1834. Over the course of the next year, there were minor clashes between Seminoles and whites, but in late fall of 1835, Seminoles convened a major assembly in the town of Big Swamp and Long Swamp, where the men voted to declare war rather than migrate westward. In the war's first battle, 80 Seminoles captured a train of the Florida militia and killed 8 militiamen on 18 December 1835.
In the fall of 1837, the Generals Jesup and Hernandez had captured key leaders of the Seminole and African warriors, even though these leaders arrived with white flags and an intention to attend peace negotiations. Troops brought these twenty-three militants into a small cell in an old fortress traditionally known as Castillo de San Marcos. The only notable features of the cell were a window with two rusted iron bars fifteen feet from the floor and a small platform three feet from the floor. From this cell, John Horse and Wild Cat, an African and an Indian respectively, planned their escape. Using a file, the prisoners removed one of the two iron bars from the window, perhaps by climbing up footholds they carved into the wall with a knife. Tearing up the canvass bags they were given to sleep on, the prisoners fashioned a rope. They climbed up to the hole, attached one end of the rope to the remaining iron bar, and threw the other end outside, so they could climb down twenty feet into the muddy moat surrounding the fortress. From there, the prisoners fled into Lake Okeechobee, where they were unsuccessfully pursued by General Zachary Taylor.
The war ended in 1841. Most of the Seminoles, including 500 Black Seminoles, resettled in Oklahoma's Indian Territory by 1843. About half of the Seminole people died during the journey to the Indian Territory, in the forced migrations known as the Trail of Tears.
J.B. Bird has argued that the Second Seminole War was the country's largest slave revolt, involving about 385 slaves who, in the first months of 1836, “fled their plantations to join the Seminoles.” Bird derives the number 385 by adding up the estimated loss of slaves to Seminoles at plantations throughout Florida, using newspaper articles, government records, and secondary sources. Although historians typically say that the Seminole Indians raided these slaves from plantations, Bird cites Kenneth Porter who wrote that Black Seminoles frequently visited Florida's plantations in 1835 to organize the plantations' slaves. To corroborate Porter's claim, Bird also quotes General Jesup: “I have ascertained beyond any doubt, not only that a connection exists between a portion of the slave population and the Seminoles, but that there was, before the war commenced, an understanding that a considerable force should join the first blow being struck.” The Second Seminole War is notable for securing the freedom of potentially a considerable number of rebel slaves. It is true that the majority of the 385 rebel maroons surrendered or returned to their plantations. However, at the conclusion of the war, the remainder of these Black Seminoles migrated west with the Indians, rather than returning to the plantations. Bird concluded that although the rebellion was a “failure,” it was “not, however a total disaster—at least not in comparison with the other major U.S. rebellions, which all ended in violent repression.”
Resisting environmental racism in contemporary Florida
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the industrialization of the Florida everglades has endangered the culture and environment of the Florida Seminoles. For instance, the population the Florida panther, considered the closest relative to the Seminoles' Panther Clan, was down to about 50 in the 1990s. The Earth First! Newswire reported in 2014 that the Independent Traditional Seminole Nation of Florida had joined up with Earth First! and other groups to stop a proposed power plant by Florida Power and Light.
- William Loren Katz, Black Indians (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), 60. J. Sakai, Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat (1989), 27.
- Katz, Black Indians, 58.
- Greg Urban, “The Social Organizations of the Southeast,” in ed. Raymond J. Demallie and Alfonso Ortiz, North American Indian Anthropology: Essays on Society and Culture (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 175-178.
- James Covington, The Seminoles of Florida (Gainesville: University of Florida, 1993), 150.
- Terrance Weik, “The Role of Ethnogenesis and Organization in the Development of African-Native American Settlements: an African Seminole Model,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 13, No. 2 (June 2009), pp. 206-238, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20853191.
- Kenneth Porter, The Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-Seeking People (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1996), 6.
- Kevin Mulroy, The Seminole Freedmen: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), 7. Katz, Black Indians, 57.
- Porter, The Black Seminoles, 6.
- Katz, Black Indians, 58.
- Covington, James, The Seminoles of Florida (Gainesville, University of Florida, 1993), 13.
- Katz, Black Indians.
- Porter, The Black Seminoles, 5.
- Covington, The Seminoles of Florida, 149-151.
- Mulroy, The Seminole Freedmen, 17-19.
- Katz, Black Indians, 60.
- Winona LaDuke, All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life (Cambridge: South End Press, 1999), 29.
- Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997), 217.
- William Hartley and Ellen Hartley, Osceola: The Unconquered Indian (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973), 110-111.
- Covington, The Seminoles of Florida, 78-79.
- Porter, The Black Seminoles, 81-93.
- Katz, Black Indians.
- Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide, 144.
- J.B. Bird, “The largest slave rebellion in U.S. history,” Rebellion, 26 October 2012, http://www.johnhorse.com/highlights/essays/largest.htm. Bird, “Tally of plantation slaves in the Black Seminole slave rebellion”, http://www.johnhorse.com/toolkit/numbers.htm.
- Bird, “The largest slave rebellion in U.S. history”.
- LaDuke, 27.
- Thomas Walker, “Seminole Tribe, Independent Traditionals, and Environmentalists Fight for Life in South Florida,” Earth First! Newswire, 6 March 2014, http://earthfirstjournal.org/newswire/2014/03/06/seminole-tribe-independent-traditionals-and-environmentalists-fight-for-life-in-south-florida/.