Slavery in Florida: Territorial Days to Emancipation
© 2000, by Larry Eugene Rivers. Gainesville: University Press of Florida
Excerpt: Chapter 10:
Interaction Between Blacks and Indians
Before the United States flag ever flew over Florida, blacks had already involved themselves in multileveled and long-lasting relationships with its resident population of Native Americans. By 1821 the Spanish colony had been renowned for generations as a haven for fugitive slaves – or “maroons,” as they came to be called – and as a nightmare for slaveholders to the north. Unlike the situation that would develop in Texas, a territory otherwise similar in many ways, Florida’s Indians generally acted as friends and allies of blacks until about 1838. Nonetheless, the relationship that developed between blacks and Seminoles, Creeks, and Mikasukis ultimately played a prominent role in the expulsion of most Native Americans and maroons from Florida. This chapter concentrates on the sometimes crucially important interaction of blacks and Indians, with particular emphasis on the Seminoles from 1821 to 1858.
In the triracial Florida world fugitive slaves and their descendants rested at the root of much of the impending conflict between whites and Indians, certainly the Seminoles. Runaways themselves from Alabama and Georgia, Seminoles were casualties of war spawned by the expanding colonial frontier. Gifted with a name that meant runaways, they occupied a situation similar to that of black runaways. Both blacks and Seminoles sought refuge from the intrusion and control of Europeans, especially the British and Anglo-Americans. Over time blacks and Seminoles realized that they needed each other, although for reasons unique to each group. The Seminoles required blacks to help them keep their lands, and blacks allied with the Seminoles to enable them to preserve their freedom.
The cooperation between blacks and Seminoles shaped the social interaction and cultural contact between the two groups. Spaniards probably introduced the maroons to the Seminoles. Fugitive slaves from the Carolinas began escaping to Florida as early as the seventeenth century, joining blacks, who, in some cases, could trace their Florida roots back to the early sixteenth century. The Seminoles pulled away from the Creeks in Georgia and relocated in Florida only during the mid-1700s. Quickly the two groups began to associate with one another, their relationships growing closer as the years passed. Early records called the maroons “slaves” of the Seminoles, but anthropologists now describe them as vassals because, as in feudal systems, reciprocal obligations defined the relationship. Whatever language is used, the fact remains that blacks and Seminoles allied with each other and with the Spanish in resisting incursions of Anglos into Florida. As a result, Seminoles and blacks engaged in interracial cooperation under the Spanish long before large numbers of Anglos came to dominate the peninsula. Not surprisingly, American authorities found it difficult during the 1820s and the 1830s to implement a divide-and-rule strategy to conquer the Indians and blacks.
Regardless of a black’s status as slave, vassal, fugitive, or free, trading among blacks and Seminoles encouraged intimacy and interaction. At least as early as 1808 two groups were seen trading in and around St. Augustine. The Spaniards even employed Africans to trade with the Seminoles. The free mulatto Juan Bautista Collins, for example, traveled to the Seminole heartland in today’s Alachua County to exchange various wares for cattle.
The close cooperation evidenced itself spectacularly during the Patriot War of 1812 to 1814. In that conflict Georgia frontiersmen, many of whom lived near the St. Marys and St. Johns Rivers, tried to take East Florida from the Spanish. An engagement in what is today Alachua County saw blacks and Seminoles successfully turn back a heavily armed force. Conscious of their own losses and vulnerability, though, the allies sought greater security by relocating their homes to the southwestern peninsula. Seminoles largely settled around the headwaters of the Peace River (Talakchopco hatchee), whereas blacks relocated closer to the Tampa Bay area to maintain a separate identity and basic control over their own lives. This large settlement of blacks, located on the Manatee River at present-day Bradenton, apparently was called Angola. One white party also referred to it as the “Sarrazota, or Runaway Negro Plantations.”
The black refugee population at Angola continued to grow after the War of 1812. Following their defeat at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815, British officers returned to Florida four hundred black warriors whom they had recruited as soldiers. Seemingly, eighty of the veterans were taken to the Manatee River, whereas the remainder with some Indian allies were ensconced in an Apalachicola River fortification. General Andrew Jackson and many planters, eyeing development of a cotton empire in southwest Georgia and southeastern Alabama, viewed the fort as dangerous. They believed it would attract runaway slaves and be a base from which raids could be conducted into the United States. Jackson ordered United States Army forces to destroy the Negro Fort. In 1816 a hot cannonball ignited a gunpowder magazine, blowing up the settlement. More that two hundred men, women, children – blacks and some Indians – died in the blast. Survivors fled eastward toward the Suwannee River, where additional black veterans, other black warriors, and their families gathered.
The first Seminole War of 1817 to 1818 quickly followed the Negro Fort’s destruction, with Andrew Jackson directing efforts that would unite Seminoles and blacks in their own defense and spur the growth of Angola. Having moved eastward from the Apalachicola, Jackson’s men in April 1818 trapped the black warriors and their families against the west bank of the Suwannee River, narrowly missing Seminoles who has escaped into the peninsula. Heavily outnumbered, the black men fought fiercely to allow their families to escape. The desperate action succeeded, and many veterans of the fight settled with their families at the Manatee. Others joined Seminoles in villages that lay within the hammock lands of today’s Hernando and Pasco Counties. Red Stick Creeks, whom Jackson originally had chased out of Alabama, settled along the upper Peace River in now-abandoned Seminole towns. Despite the relative success of Jackson’s Florida campaign, whites still had not broken the strong alliance between blacks and Seminoles. If anything, a stronger bond of unity welded members of these two darker races.
As discussed in chapter 1, Jackson was not yet done with the Red Stick Creeks or the black warriors. In 1821, just after the general had agreed to accept Florida’s provisional governorship, his Lower Creek allies raided the peninsula. They attacked Seminole villages from the Suwannee down to modern Pasco County. Driving further south, they ultimately destroyed Angola. Likely three hundred blacks were dragged back into American slavery, and the remainder of Angola’s population of perhaps seven hundred to eight hundred divided between refuges in the Bahamas and the Florida interior. The raid compounded for blacks and Seminoles the importance of lessons already learned. In unity lay strength.
By the time American authority over Florida had been secured in 1821, violent, destructive, and sometimes fatal experiences had bonded the maroons and the Seminoles. The numbers of blacks remaining in Florida’s interior are not known with certainty, but estimates of one thousand to fifteen hundred appear plausible. Some of them had been “freed” by the Spanish, whereas others were “slaves,” in the sense discussed, of the Seminoles or the Red Stick Creeks. They have been referred to by several names other than maroons. The terms have included Indian Negroes, Indian Blacks, Seminole freedmen, Afro-Seminoles, Negro-Indians, black Indians, black Muscogulges, Seminole Negroes, and Black Seminoles. Students of the subject usually prefer the latter term. “Seminole blacks [or Black Seminoles] remains a useful term,” explained historian Kevin Mulroy, “constituent members being Africans or their descendants, whose association with Seminole Indians played a large part in their history and the construction of their identity.” It is important to keep in mind, though, that as much as 75 percent of the Black Seminoles actually were “maroons.” This is so because they either were fugitives from slavery or the descendants of fugitives whose communities were initially concealed in the peninsula and inaccessible to whites.
Adhering to prescribed arrangements, the Seminoles treated captives, runaways, and free blacks the same. A philosophy that stressed consonance and stability, as well as the favorable way Spaniards treated blacks, influenced the system. The form of vassalage that the Indians applied to blacks probably reflected an earlier sabana system that the Spaniards had used with other Florida Indians in working the land. For one thing, Seminoles recognized the rights of blacks to control their day-to-day affairs. They agreed to the maroons’ living in villages apart, sometimes at a substantial distance from Indian towns. As early as 1820 an observer explained the agricultural scheme used by the Seminoles. Blacks “raise corn for their subsistence,” he recorded; “if they have a surplus it goes to the families of their master.”
As such a vassalage system would anticipate, Seminoles acted toward blacks more as patrons than as masters. The maroons gave a percentage of their crops, horses, cows, and hogs to their Seminole neighbors in exchange for land and protection from whites. The system worked well and remained substantially unaltered through the mid-1830s. Typically, a white writer noted in 1837 that blacks worked and managed “their stocks and crops as they please, giving such a share of the produce to their masters as they like.”
Yet some whites, reflecting their worldview, wanted to believe that Seminoles held blacks as “slaves” in the truest sense of the word, a perspective that many early historians adopted. A newspaper article reported, for example, that Micanopy, leader of the Seminoles, “owned one hundred Negroes…and was raising large and valuable crops of corn and cotton.” In truth some Seminole Indians indeed had purchased black bond servants from the British and the Spanish as symbols of prestige. Following emigration from Florida, some Seminoles in the West attempted to control Black Seminoles as slaves. Nonetheless, the facts available reveal realities of life prior to the Second Seminole War that encompassed a very different relationship. “The Seminoles certainly did not establish a clear-cut master slave relationship,” concluded one historian. The distinguished scholar Kenneth M Porter added, “[Blacks were] in no case treated as chattels.”
There were some claims by blacks of mistreatment by Seminoles. Individual Seminoles doubtlessly treated their “slaves” more harshly that did others. Presumably, some took advantage of blacks and, despite the common practices of most, compelled them to work hard in the fields or otherwise abused them. In the early 1830s, for example, Lydia operated a kind of crude inn or stopover within the Indian lands on the military road between Fort Brooke and Fort King, about one day’s ride north of Tampa Bay. In earlier years, though, she had risked reenslavement by relocating to the St. Johns River area. “She came there from the Indian Nation in consequence of the Indians having killed one of her sons,” explained “a Negro man named Kent.” Micanopy, on the other hand, proved no harsh slave master, despite what the white press sometimes suggested. Generally noted by firsthand observers for his kindness, the chief probably treated blacks much more humanely than did most white slaveholders in East Florida. His system reflected, for the most part, the typical Seminole practice. As Seminole agent Wiley Thompson described in 1835, he allowed blacks to make a contribution to their “owner annually, from the product of his little field.”
The greater number of complaints that have surfaced against the Indians have related to experiences during the Second Seminole War. They have included stories of floggings of blacks and other forms of ill treatment. Such occurrences represented circumstances during and after 1838, when the maroons worked out favorable emigration plans with United States authorities at, what some Seminoles and Creeks believed, the Indians’ expense. Other stories originated with slaves who rebelled at the Second Seminole War’s outset and sought refuge in Indian lands. Many of these bond servants had departed their plantations willingly, a fact that, on capture, they did not want to delve into too deeply. Accordingly, many preferred to relate tales of a servitude under the Indians that was harsher than slavery under the whites, hoping that their owners might go easy on them.
Blacks possessed certain advantages in dealing with the Seminoles that helped to ensure decent treatment. Most important were their agricultural skills. The Indians chose not to depend on an agrarian way of life, if they could, to hunt and to graze cattle. They desired to spend little time growing crops or supervising blacks in the manner of white slaveholders. They welcomed their arrangements with maroons. “The Indian owner never presumed to meddle [in the affairs of blacks],” commented one Indian agent.
As mentioned, the Black Seminoles typically lived away from Seminole towns and villages, at least when they were not under threat from outsiders. “The Negroes dwell in towns apart from the Indians,” explained William H. Simmons in the early 1820s, “and they are the finest looking people I have ever seen.” The practice allowed the maroons to maintain their separate identity and control over their daily lives. They continued to live in their traditional way until at least the Second Seminole War’s commencement. A chronicler of the territory confirmed that fact when he noted during the conflict’s early stages that “slaves” of the Seminoles (together with other blacks) “live in villages separate, and in many cases, remote from” the Seminoles.
The names of a good number of black settlements are known. Perhaps the single most important one was Peliklakaha in Sumter County, a village controlled by Abraham and sometimes called Abraham’s town. As will be discussed, he became “sensebearer” (or chief counselor) to Micanopy during the 1820s. Others named in documents included Suwannee Old Town, King Heijah’s Town or Payne’s Negro Settlement, Buckra Woman’s Town, and Mulatto Girl’s Town. The disruptions caused by the 1821 Creek raid on Angola severely hit many of these places and spurred the growth of others in its aftermath.
Other black villages or settlements also proved important to the maroons. Historian Canter Brown has pointed to two places, in addition to Peliklakaha, that played crucial roles in times to come. In 1818 or 1819 the Creek chief Oponay had established one village on Lake Hancock north of present-day Bartow in Polk County. Called Minatti, it housed Oponay’s slaves and, later, some of Angola’s refugees. The 1821 raid also had disrupted Buckra Woman’s Town in the Big Hammock, which lay within today’s Hernando and Pasco Counties. Sister to the dead Seminole chiefs King Payne and King Bowlegs, Buckra Woman mothered the future Seminole chief Billy Bowlegs. By 1823 she had transferred her cattle operations and black vassals to a village situated on a creek that flowed westward into Peace River about fifteen miles below Minatti (three miles south of Fort Meade). The stream retains the name Bowlegs Creek. Buckra Woman called the village Tobasa or Wahoo.
In their separate communities maroons, or Black Seminoles, continued to identify with their black heritage. Naturally, their cultural ways differed greatly from those of the Seminoles. The differences helped to form the maroons’ unique ethnicity and defined them as a people. Circumstances tended to reinforce the black heritage over time. Runaway slaves from South Carolina and Georgia continued to reach the maroon refuges during the 1820s and early 1830s. Some Florida bond servants meanwhile seemingly passed back and forth between white territory and Indian lands without too much trouble. Sampson Forrester, for example, was “captured” twice by the Seminoles and held by them for years before he “escaped.” The traffic moved at times from inside Indian lands to white areas. Among others, John Caesar and Abraham, who spoke English and Spanish among other languages, often passed through the slave quarters of farms and plantations to the north and east of the Indian lands, interacting with bond persons who lived there. Reportedly, many male slaves on the farms and plantations of East Florida also “had wives among the Indian Negroes, and the Indian Negroes had wives among them.” Presumably the traffic reinforced the continued exposure to African American cultural ways within Indian lands and helped to mold the nature of slavery in the upper peninsula.
Some cultural distinctions can be discerned from surviving records. Physically, fashion differences could be observed. Whites mentioned, for instance, that some Black Seminoles wore hats of a type other than traditional Indian headbands and feathers, probably an African and African American tradition passed down through the generations. Portraits of Abraham show him wearing something akin to a turban without feathers, possibly a fancified version of a handkerchief wrapped about his head. Language made a difference, too. No matter how long blacks lived around Seminoles, whites identified them as talking in a particular “Negro dialect.” Religious exercises likely included “ring-shouts” and the call-and-response form of worship. Florida maroons may have retained, as well, the African American marriage ceremony of “jumping the broom,” at least in some form. As far as familial arrangements went, maroon leaders for the most part were endogamous but practiced polygamy, which followed West African tradition. A few Florida maroon leaders such as Abraham did not strictly practice endogamy, having Seminole women among their several wives.
How blacks named themselves and their communities differed from the Seminoles and showed African influence, illustrating a measure of cultural solidarity with slaves throughout Florida. As mentioned in the previous chapter, some blacks retained West African day names, such as Cuffy or Cuffe (Monday) and Cudjo or Cudjoe (Friday). Several settlements bore the names of black women. Buckra Woman’s Town, sometimes spelled “Bucker Woman’s Town,” referred to an African-derived expression even though the village’s owner was a Seminole. Buckra was a pejorative term, stemming from the Ibo word for “white man,” used by slaves to describe their white southern plantation masters. Abraham’s home of Peliklakaha presumably drew its name from the Kongo. The Suwannee River, home at times to Black Seminoles, owed its name, evidence suggests, to the Bantu word nsub-wanyi, meaning “my house, my home.”
The maroons may have clung to important parts of their African cultural heritage, but close association and daily interaction with the Seminoles led, as would be expected, to significant acculturation. Seminoles learned from blacks how to construct different types of housed and how to grow rice. Micanopy reportedly delighted in the merits of Peliklakaha, so much so that he spent a good part of his time there. Black Seminoles – including leaders such as Abraham and John Horse – spoke the Seminoles’ native tongue, as well as their own “Negro “ dialects. Although some Black Seminoles kept their African American day names, as in the case of King Cudjo, they might adopt Seminole appellations, too. Abraham proudly used his war title, “Souanaffe Tustenukke.” Maroons took Indian dances and blended them with African ones. Songs received the same treatment.
Blacks and the Seminoles and other Native Americans sometimes evidenced the intimacy of their association through miscegenation. Governor Richard K. Call, a large Middle Florida planter, knew from firsthand accounts that Indians “intermarried” with blacks in the peninsula, contrary to reports published at various times. The inevitability of sexual amity among blacks and Seminoles became more assured as the former began to increase in numbers among the Indians immediately prior to and them during the early stages of the Second Seminole War.
In later years former slaves proudly traced their descent from such mixed ancestry. William M Adams of Texas, for instance, recorded that his father, a “Black Creek Indian,” was born in Florida. Samuel Jackson similarly remembered his family lineage. Jackson insisted that he “inherited his traveling [or tracking abilities] from his Indian grandmother.” Frank Berry, correctly or incorrectly, claimed to be Osceola’s grandson. Berry’s elders told him that his “grandmother, serving as a nurse at Tampa Bay[,] was captured by the Indians and carried away to become the squaw of their chief.”
The exact number of racially mixed black and Indian families or the extent of miscegenation remains a mystery, but marriage and cohabitation between the two groups may have been less common on the Florida frontier than some studies have suggested. Miscegenation certainly occurred. If surviving records do not mislead, though, the practice seems to have applied mostly in relationships within the leadership circles of both groups, which suggests attempts to cement personal or clan alliances. About 1812, under Spanish rule, to cite the first of several examples, John Cavallo or John Horse, who would emerge into the spotlight during the Second Seminole War, ws born to the Seminole chief or subchief Imotley and an African or African American mother. The chief Econchatomica (Red Ground Chief), accounts indicate, lived to see a black granddaughter. Chief Micanopy wed two women, one of whom was a “half-breed Negro woman.” One of Osceola’s wives, at least one account argues, was the daughter of a runaway black and a Seminole chief. King Philip fathered a black Seminole son, John Philip. And the greatest of all Black Seminole leaders, Abraham, wed the widow of a former Indian chief.
When the several factors that have been discussed are considered together, it is easily seen that the maroon presence in Florida resulted in the development over time of a distinctive culture that retained strong influences from African roots. These roots were combined with the fruits of experiences on the southern plantations and contact with Native Americans, Spaniards, and the English. The language of maroons epitomized this evolution and accomplishment. It differed from that of whites and Indians alike but contained a good measure of English. It also blended African, Spanish, and Muscogulge words and phrases to form something new and representative of a unique culture. As seen, it also left legacies for today’s Floridians in the names of significant places and things.
The maroon presence in Florida brought the Seminoles, as well as the blacks, many rewards, but it also caused trouble for the Indians. The Seminoles provided land and sanctuary to blacks or else helped to protect them where they lived apart. For those efforts whites attacked the Indians, claiming they harbored runaway slaves, and clamored for the return of their property. Before discussing the legitimacy of the slaveholders’ claims, one point should be made. Slaveholder demands for the return of slaves who arrived in Florida prior to ratification of the Adams-Onis Treaty in January 1821 were disingenuous at best. That pact, which solemnized the transfer of Florida from Spain to the United States, specified that the “inhabitants” of Florida “shall be…admitted to the enjoyment of all privileges, rights, and immunities of the citizens of the United States.” It provided further for payment by the United States of claims against Spain. The claims related mostly to runaway slaves and were paid by the government in due course. If anyone “owned” the pre-1821 runaways, it was the United States government.
After the treaty took effect, the trickle of runaways into Florida never abated. At times the flow appeared more like that of a stream. Runaway slave notices told the story. One slaveholder noted the flight to freedom of his bond servants, Charles and Mary. Charles could speak “Minorean [Minorcan] and Seminole,” and the couple probably were headed to “Musketo” to live among the Indians. A decade later another slaveholder declared that William Jones and Christopher Chambers were trying “to get to the Indian nation,” where they could find asylum. One runaway slave became “one of the most distinguished leaders” among the Seminoles during the Second Seminole War. Primus, the bondsman of Florida’s Erastus Rogers, absconded to the Seminole lands to join his wife, who was living there. The path to freedom continued to beckon even during the middle period of the Second Seminole War. On one occasion United States soldiers captured “50 to 60 negroes more,” who were attempting to make their way to the Seminoles.
Seeing their property disappearing and feeling the continuing threat to their estates, slaveholders from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and other slave states thundered against the Seminoles and dispatched slave catchers to recapture their “lost property.” Many of the agents sought assistance from United States forces stationed at Fort Brooke on Tampa Bay. Its commander through most of the 1820s, Virginia-born Colonel George Mercer Brooke, at first lent help, although he did so without enthusiasm. As the years passed, Brooke’s attitudes changed. He witnessed privations that included persons “dying for the want of something to eat.” He grew furious over questionable claims and the cruel treatment of captured runaways. Congressman Josiah Giddings explained Brooke’s subsequent actions. “So flagrant were these outrages upon the Indians and Negroes,” he wrote, “that Colonel Brooke…at that time commanding in Florida, took upon himself the responsibility of addressing the [Indian] Agent, advising him not to deliver Negroes to the white men, unless their ‘claims were made clear and satisfactory.’” To his eternal credit Brooke also informed the agent that his troops would no longer aid the slave catchers’ efforts.
The absconding of slaves to the safety of the Indian territory hit East Florida slaveholders especially hard. As a St. Augustine newspaper noted in 1824, “Serious complaints have frequently been made by the planters, that their Negroes are harboured among the Indians with impunity; and it is said that many decline settling in the Territory because they are liable to the loss of their Negroes by elopement.” The combined threat of Seminoles and maroons continued to color political and economic debates as the fires of race and Indian war began to burn. According to one 1837 account, the public mood then suggested “That the Peninsula of Florida is the last place in the limits of the United States wherein the Indian should be allowed to remain, for obvious reasons.” A principal obvious reason was that “if [they were] located in Florida, all the runaway slaves will find refuge and protection with them.”
The seven-year Second Seminole War, which commenced in December 1835, may be seen at least in part as a result of slaveholder anger with Seminoles for harboring maroons and the Black Seminoles’ resisting or avoidance of recapture. The events leading up to the outbreak of fighting and the war’s early stages illustrated graphically the intimate association that had grown up between the blacks and Seminoles. They showed, as well, the reliance placed on the wisdom of black leaders by Seminole chiefs as they faced key decisions.
During the decade that preceded 1835, blacks emerged as the leading counselors or “sensebearers” to most of the principal Seminole chiefs. Intelligence counted, and so did language skills. As trader Horatio Dexter pointed out, “[The black leaders] speak English as well as Indian.” John Caesar, for instance, filled the role of adviser to King Philip, the chief who ranked second to Micanopy in authority among Seminoles. Cudjoe stood close to Micanopy’s future successor, the young Billy Bowlegs. One man who knew them both described Cudjoe as Bowleg’s “waiting man.” Bowleg’s half-brother Alligator maintained close ties to John Cavallo or John Horse, so close that many army men referred to John as “Pease Creek John,” reflective of Bowleg’s and Alligator’s Peace River cattle grazing headquarters. Finally, and also at Peace River, the war chief Harry of the village of Minatti planned and cooperated with the Red Stick Creeks who lived below him at Talakchopco (today’s Fort Meade). Harry would have dealt particularly with the Red Sticks’ rising young war leader, Osceola.
No Black Seminole stood higher in the councils of power than did Abraham. Born between 1787 and 1791, he spent his youth as a slave at Pensacola. He learned English well and developed a strong sense of poise. “He walks like a courtier of the reign of Louis XVI,” one army officer commented. Apparently Abraham escaped at some point because he enlisted with other blacks in the British army during the War of 1812’s latter stages. He may have been at the Negro Fort when it was destroyed, probably fought at the Battle of the Suwannee in 1818, and likely fled from there to Angola on the Manatee River. By the mid-1820s he had emerged as an advisor to Micanopy. He traveled with the chief and other Indian leaders to Washington in 1827 and helped them negotiate with President John Quincy Adams. Micanopy “freed” him for his valuable services. “This Negro Abraham exercised a wonderful influence over his master,” recorded a military official at the time; “he was a very shrewd fellow, quick and intelligent, but crafty and artful in the extreme.”
With the passage of years Abraham’s skills as counselor and middleman – and his influence among the Seminoles – grew. An 1837 Fort Brooke visitor described his abilities. “Abraham, the negro chief, seems to be Micanopy’s Prime Minister,” the visitor wrote. “He is said to be a shrewd diplomat – a perfect non-commital – talks a great deal and fluently, but is astonishingly successful in avoiding every expression which might be turned against him, and commit his Prince.” The facility, together with diplomacy, tricked white officials time and again into believing that Abraham would side with them or else sell out the Seminoles. They repeatedly discovered to their chagrin the enormity of their error.
The white officials believed that Abraham has assisted them in convincing the Seminoles to emigrate pursuant to Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. In truth he and other black leaders – fearful of reenslavement despite promises to the contrary – were planning armed resistance in cooperation with Red Stick Creeks. Many Seminoles at first proved reluctant to join the effort because they stood to lose their cattle and whatever other wealth they retained if fighting were to occur. Abraham pressed Micanopy for support, a factor that became all the more important when, if the early 1830s, Micanopy achieved election as supreme chief of Florida’s Indians. Abraham sought allies elsewhere. He and John Caesar fanned out to the plantations above and to the east of the Indian lands, alerting slaves to the upcoming war and encouraging them to rebel and join the fighting once it had begun. As a correspondent reported in early 1836, “[Abraham] engaged in effecting a junction with the Negroes now under arms.”
Abraham’s hard work paid off in late 1835 and early 1836. As Harry and Osceola conducted raids aimed at forcing an attack that would unite the Seminoles with the blacks and Red Stick Creeks, Abraham succeeded in gaining Micanopy’s ear. Particularly, he convinced the chief to concentrate forces in late December 1835 across the military road stretching from Tampa Bay to Fort King. The counselor had been tipped off by slaves at Fort Brooke that a column of soldiers commanded by Major Francis L. Dade was approaching the Indian lands, and he feared that they had selected his town of Peliklakaha as one of their targets. When Dade hove into sight, Micanopy at Abraham’s urging rose, fired, and killed the officer, touching off the Dade Massacre and the Second Seminole War. Reportedly, “Abraham and his band” finished the deadly work. About the same time, John Caesar and King Philip attacked plantations to the east and north, murdering inhabitants, burning crops and buildings, and liberating slaves to join the fighting. Ultimately, as many as 750 to 1,000 or more slaves may have sided with the Black Seminoles. If so, Abraham, John Caesar, Harry, Cudjoe, John Horse, and their allies had launched quite possibly the largest slave rebellion in United States history.
The opening assaults of the Second Seminole War overwhelmed available military forces, and American military leaders found themselves out-generaled by the blacks and Indians. Only after a series of setbacks and some utter disasters did army headquarters in late 1836 finally turn over command in Florida to a man who understood the place occupied by black leaders, counselors, and warriors in the conflict’s broader scheme. His name was Thomas S. Jesup. “Throughout my operations I found the negroes the most active and determined warriors,” he later recorded, “and during the conference with the Indian chiefs I ascertained that they exercised an almost controlling influence over them.” Eventually, even Florida’s political leadership came to accept Jesup’s insight. “[Blacks] wield great influence among [the Indians],” Governor Richard Keith Call commented, “which they never failed to exercise against the white man, with whom he could expect only slavery and inequality.”
In line with his perceptions of the Black Seminoles and the war, Jesup’s opening moves hit hard at the maroons. On the way to take command he attacked and burned a black village on the Oklawaha River, seizing forty-one persons. In January 1837 fifty-two more blacks fell into his grasp near the Withlacoochee River. The same month Jesup’s men killed John Caesar and captured eight more near Lake Apopka. As the toll of black casualties continued to mount, Jesup planned to negotiate a quick settlement to the war.
Having attacked black combatants and their families so harshly, Jesup now developed a policy aimed at ending the war by guaranteeing blacks that they would be protected from slave catchers and allowed safe passage with the Seminoles and other Indians in their movement to the West. His was a carrot-and-stick approach, but his emigration policy addressed a central issue of the fighting. The war revolved to a great extent around the question of what would happen to the maroons. It was, as Jesup declared, “a Negro and not an Indian War.”
Tragically, as it turned out, the general misjudged the determination of the black combatants. “The warriors have fought as long as they had life and such seems to me to be the determination of those who influence their councils – I mean the leading Negroes,” he ultimately acknowledged in frustration. “I have required…immediate emigration,” he explained to high authorities. “There would be no difficulty in making peace…were it not for that condition,” he continued. “The Negroes who rule the Indians are all averse to removing to so cold a climate.”
Still, by the spring of 1837 Jesup had compelled his opponents to sign a peace pact. Abraham helped with the negotiations, as did John Horse and others. Jesup gave his word that all allies of the Seminoles would be sent to the West. To ensure the sincerity of the blacks and Seminoles, the general retained some as hostages while John Horse and others gathered up their supporters and families. Jesup also set in motion plans to betray the Black Seminoles. Responding to slaveholder demands, he acted, as explained by Congressman Josiah Giddings, to make “an arrangement with the chiefs, by which the slaves belonging to the citizens of Florida, captured during the war, should be given up.”
Whether subsequent events occurred because Jesup’s betrayal plans leaked or because the whole idea of surrender had been a sham to gain time and a respite from fighting, the peace process soon exploded in the general’s face. On June 5 Osceola, John Horse, and other warriors attacked the emigration camp at Tampa Bay. “All the Negroes disappeared at once,” one historian commented, “and the Indians followed them into the swamps.” A furious Jesup quickly and radically switched policies. Within days he informed volunteer soldiers that “[the Indians’] negroes, cattle and horses, as well as other property which they possess, will belong to the corps by which they are captured.” Congressman Giddings summed up the policy change. “From this time forward,” he wrote, “[Jesup] lent his energies, and the power of the army, to the object of capturing and returning slaves.”
The impact of the new policies gradually wore down the black combatants, although the fighting persisted through 1837 and into 1838. In fact, the year 1837 ended with the conflict’s largest pitched battle, the Battle of Okeechobee. Arguably, the blacks under John Horse and their Indian allies won, but starvation had commenced to exact a greater toll than could the soldiers. Jesup’s temper had calmed, as well, permitting him to view the situation more objectively. Where he earlier had toyed with leaving the Seminoles in Florida and sending the blacks back into slavery, he now realized that “the two races…are identified in interests and feelings” to the extent that he must address black demands. The general finally concluded that “should the Indians remain in this territory, the negroes among them will form a rallying point for runaway negroes from the adjacent states.” To get the Seminoles to emigrate, Jesup accepted that the blacks, whether “legally” held by the Indians or recent runaways “legally” owned by whites, would have to leave, too, or the war would continue as before.
Once Jesup’s thinking had reached that point, he finally found a way to implement his divide-and-conquer strategy regarding the Seminoles and Black Seminoles. In the late winter and spring of 1838 he assured black warriors, anxious for their families survival, that they would not be reenslaved by white masters if they separated themselves from the Seminoles and Creeks, if necessary, and departed for the West. By Junde most Black Seminoles had agreed to surrender. Subsequently, they were transported to Arkansas. Their departure from Florida marked a crucial turning point for Florida’s history and the course of the Second Seminole War.
Effectively, the agreements of 1838 resulted in a shift in the role of many Black Seminole leader from supporting the Indian war to serving the needs of the United States Army. Once in the West, they discovered their promised freedom to be elusive, as Creeks and Seminoles attempted to claim them as slaves. Gaining official recognition of independent status required them to return to Florida. John Horse’s case is illustrative. For a promise of manumission papers he came back to the territory in 1839 to serve as an army guide and interpreter and to help persuade the remaining Indian fighters to emigrate west. He performed his duties so well that he became the trusted interpreter for Colonel (later General) William Jenkins Worth. John Horse assisted the general with sensitive negotiations. Scholar Kenneth W. Porter wrote of him, “During the last two years of the war [he] was very nearly the ‘indispensable man’ in the army’s relations both with the Indians who were still ‘out’ and those who had finally consented to ‘come in.’” On the ship from Florida John Horse took with him and carefully guarded a paper dated February 22, 1842. The prized writing specified that “[John Horse,] his wife and increase, Indian negroes, are regarded as having established a right to their freedom from all further services for their former Indian Master.”
Given these events and the subsequent role of Black Seminole leaders in United States Army operations, the relationship between blacks and Florida’s Indians understandably became rather tenuous after 1838. With the majority of Florida maroons secured in the West the remaining Seminoles probably felt that their black comrades had struck a good bargain at their expense. The bonds of amity strained further when blacks served as guides and interpreters for whites. Blacks who had lived among the Seminoles knew how to reach their remote villages and could easily lead troops to the Indian hideouts. Seminoles and military men understood that fact well. Colonel William S. Harney, for example, employed a black guide to take his forces “to the Everglades.” Another officer, Ethan Allen Hitchcock, deeply appreciated what another guide accomplished. “That Negro was the only man in America, black or white,” he declared, “who could have performed that service in a part of the country never before visited [by whites].”
Angry and resentful, the Seminoles took their revenge when they could. The black guide Billy, who accompanied Lieutenant Colonel Josephus Guild in search of blacks and Seminoles, was killed by Indians who believed he willingly betrayed his onetime allies. After capturing the Negro interpreter Sandy and one other man in 1839, the Seminoles allowed them to live for only four days. “They then tied them to a pine tree and inserted in their flesh slivers of light wood,” explained an onlooker, “setting them on fire, and at the same time placing torches at their feet.” The account continued: “In this way it was five or six hours before they died.” Even following the war’s end Sampson Forrester kept a wary eye open. “While [the Indians] had buried the hatchet, as far as the public at large were concerned, they still had a small one ground up for Forrester, who they kindly promised to kill on sight for ‘deserting’ them,” an early account noted. “Forrester, however, had ideas of his own on this subject,” the account added, “and courted the society of a double-barreled shotgun very closely for some time.”
That the involvement of maroons in events leading up to and through the Second Seminole War had a significant impact on slavery in Florida is beyond question. Some of the effects in East Florida have been discussed already. It should be remembered that fears of race war and black-supported Indian was also terrified Middle Florida planters and their families. That apprehension, in turn, prompted demands for harsher slave codes and enhanced day-to-day restrictions on slave life by the men who controlled territorial government. As early as 1827 Jefferson County’s Laura Randall lived with fear. She recorded on November 3 that she “was dreaming all night about Indians.” The day before she had visited the place where “the scene of the Indian massacre [of the Carr family] had occurred the last winter.” She continued, “It will be some time before I shall be free from apprehensions of some night assault from these fiends.”
The anxieties grew as war approached and flared. In 1835 overseer Louis Goldsborough recoiled at the killing of a “white boy and Judge Randall’s slave named Tom.” He observed that as long as there were Indian problems, “neither our Negroes nor others can work with the same heart of life they [would do] otherwise.” Four years later the area was still enduring raids that resulted in the deaths of whites and slaves. The possibility of an Indian and black triumph loomed as a real one. Goldsborough eventually determined that “if Osceola came, and I find myself forced to abandon Wirtland to his mercy…I shall take all the Negroes to Pensacola.”
The Second Seminole War’s conclusion in 1842 halted the hostilities but only temporarily. The remaining Seminoles, Creeks, and Mikasukis – with their few surviving black allies – bided their time, still determined not to leave Florida. As whites continuously pushed toward the Everglades in the early 1850s, some bands decided on armed resistance. Their resistance culminated from 1855 to 1858 in the Third Seminole War, also known as the Billy Bowlegs War. The hostilities focused primarily on the Tampa Bay region and the Peace River area and were mainly skirmishes instead of battles. Although blacks played no central role in the conflict, a few probably involved themselves. Such was the case with Ben Bruner [Bruno]. He served Chief Billy Bowlegs well as an interpreter and advisor.
The Bowlegs War also touched the lives of slaves owned by white frontier settlers. As in the Second Seminole War, blacks who acted to protect whites were subjected to the same type of treatment as their masters. At Fort Meade, for example, Indians attacked the Tillis family. In the confusion Mrs. Tillis ran for the safety of her cabin, leaving sons Dallas and Calhoun at the mercy of the warriors. Aunt Line was more concerned for the children that was their mother. She risked her own life and was “painfully wounded” in the forehead while rescuing the boys.
The Indians sometimes acted against the interests of slaves in another way. With the power of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 behind them, some whites employed Seminoles to catch runaway slaves. Attempting in extremely difficult circumstances to keep whites from infringing on their South Florida lands, the Indians felt pressure to distance themselves from blacks by agreeing to serve the slaveholders. Billy Bowlegs undertook in 1853 to cooperate to a limited extent. “I told [Bowlegs and others] that they must bring in the runaways,” an official reported from Fort Myers on November 2. “Bowlegs said if they came to his town where he could catch them without endangering any of his people, he would bring them in.” The official added, “He said he did not intend to take the trouble to hunt them – he saw no good need for helping the White people of Florida to get their slaves.” Some of Bowlegs’s compatriots proved more amenable. “One of the negroes was brought back a few days ago by the Indians,” the same official had recorded in June. “[He] says he ran away from his master in Georgia eight weeks ago.”
By the Third Seminole War’s conclusion, the beacon of freedom that had flared brightly to guide southern slaves for almost three centuries to refuge in Florida’s vast wilderness flickered only dimly. Billy Bowlegs had left Florida in the spring of 1858, and in his place a slave-smuggling operation assumed the buildings at abandoned Fort Myers. Black fugitives from Georgia and the Carolinas, as well as from the plantations and farms of Florida, occasionally still fled to the southern peninsula. Their fight continued until near the Civil War’s end. “COMMITTED TO JAIL ON SATURDAY, 5TH inst., a Negro man, who says his name is Moses, and that he belongs to Mr. Wm. B. Reynolds, who resides near Ocala, Fla.,” read a typical advertisement published in 1859. Unfortunately for the runaways, few Seminoles or other blacks remained to ease their path or to protect their sanctuary. An era of fundamental importance to African Americans in Florida and the South had passed away.
Please Note: This excerpt appears by special permission of the author and publisher and may not be presented elsewhere without permission of the copyright holders.
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Buy Slavery in Florida: Territorial Days To Emancipation from the University Press of Florida
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About the Author:
Dr. Larry Eugene Rivers is President of Fort Valley State University in Fort Valley, Georgia. Rivers holds a Master of Arts in American history and political science from Villanova University, in Villanova, Pa.; a Doctor of Arts in American history and curriculum development from Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh; and a Doctor of Philosophy in African-American and cultural studies from Goldsmiths College at the University of London, England.
President Rivers is the author of numerous articles in scholarly journals, including the Florida Historical Quarterly and the Journal of Negro History. He has received the Arthur W. Thompson Award from the Florida Historical Society (1981) and the Carter G. Woodson Award from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (1994). Along with Canter Brown, Jr., he is the author of Laborers in the Vineyard of the Lord :The Beginnings of the AME Church in Florida (UPF, 2001).
Explore:Explore Rebellion: John Horse and the Black Seminoles, First Black Rebels to Beat American Slavery: an original history written & designed for the Web from J.B. Bird at the University of Texas
Explore Black Seminoles in Texas and Mexico, an ongoing research project of The University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures (ITC) at San Antonio
Explore the Looking for Angola website to learn about the search for traces of the maroon settlement that thrived on Florida's Southwest Coast in the early 1800s
Read the three-part series Black Seminoles, Maroons and Freedom Seekers in Florida, right here on Africana!
Part 1: Early Freedom Seekers In Florida
Part 2: The Beginning of Troubled Times
Part 3: The Destruction of Angola
LESSON PLANS AND THEMATIC UNITS:
AFRICANS AND NATIVE AMERICANS IN FLORIDA:
Seminoles and Slaves: Florida''s Freedom Seekers By Jean West: from Slavery In America, this lesson plan examines the intertwined histories of Africans and Native Americans in Colonial Florida.
Living on the Fringe Lesson Plan: Maroon Communities from the Schomburg Center''s website In Motion: The African American Migration Experience, this lesson plan for grades 9-12 explores maroon communities in Florida.
Africans in Colonial Florida by Scott Fields: brought to you by the Polk County, Florida Public School System. Here students will learn about the contributions made by enslaved and free Africans to the development of colonial Florida under Spanish and British rulers. They will also discuss the differences in attitudes toward slavery among the Spanish and the British. Finally, students will then create a timeline. Students should know after completion of this lesson that slavery was, and still is, a horrible wrong inflicted on many different groups of people in the past. With that said, the institution of slavery in Spanish Florida was very different from the English view, which later became the view of the American South.
Intertwined History of Native and African Americans by Lori Hall and Piper Mislovic, R. Bruce Wagner Elementary School: Another fine lesson plan brought to you by the Polk County, Florida Public School System. This lesson plan will help students understand the history of the Underground Railroad beginning in the South, as well as the historical significance of the people of African descent among the Seminoles.
RUNAWAY SLAVES AND MAROON COMMUNITIES:
Roads to Freedom Lesson Plan: Getting Free in the South By Stephanie Kaufman: from the Slavery in America website, students will experience the Roads to Freedom and use the information as a starting point for further research. Using tools from the National Archives education site, students will learn in more depth about the various roads through the use of primary source documents.
Creativity and Resistance: Maroon Cultures in the Americas from the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution: Designed to serve a broad audience of museum visitors, teachers, and students, this guide offers interdisciplinary activities for history, visual arts, social studies, creative writing, and music education. The materials can be adapted for all ages, from kindergarten students to adults.
Runaway Journeys from the Schomberg Center''s "In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience," here are ten resource-rich lesson plans for grades 6 to 12.
Revolution: brought to you by PBS. The Teacher''s Guide on the Web is an enhanced version of the print guide that accompanies the Africans in America video series. Each unit consists of two lessons: a general lesson that explores each 90-minute program and its companion Web content, and a focused lesson that highlights a short program segment and provides links to related primary sources.