In this article, we explore the shared struggle of African American and Seminole Native Americans in the United States.
Throughout their shared history, African American and Seminole Indian Tribes have risen up together to fight against oppression. At times, the two communities came together in solidarity but kept themselves separate. At other times, however, the people blended through these struggles, forming irrevocable bonds of kinship.
Escaped African American slaves who were adopted into Native communities defended tribal homelands against invasion as a way to preserve their own freedom and that of their allies. When enslaved together, Seminole Native Americans and African American captives attempted to overthrow those who claimed to own them. These compatriots were sometimes executed together in retaliation for defying the racial order.
How Have Seminoles and African Americans Struggled for Freedom?
John Horse and the Second Seminole War (1835–1842)
The Seminoles were a union of Southeastern Indian peoples—especially Creeks—who had lost their lands to English colonists and moved into Spanish-controlled Florida, along with independent communities of escaped black slaves, who became known as Black Seminoles.
John Horse was a powerful figure in the war that the Seminoles waged with the United States to fend off forced removal from Florida to Oklahoma. Unwilling to accept a restricted life of defeat in Indian Territory, he led a band of Black Seminoles into Mexico, where he died in 1882.
The First Seminole War
Back when Britain controlled Florida, the British often incited Seminoles against American settlers who were migrating south into Seminole territory. These old conflicts, combined with the safe-haven Seminoles provided black slaves, caused the U.S. army to attack the tribe in the First Seminole War (1817-1818), which took place in Florida and southern Georgia. Forces under Gen. Andrew Jackson invaded Spanish Florida, attacked several key locations, and pushed the Seminoles farther south into Florida.
Pictue from the Florida State Archives.
St. Marks, Fla., April 1818 — Two Seminole Chiefs, or Micos are captured by Jackson’s forces who used the ruse of flying the British flag to lure the Indians to them.
Finally, after several official and unofficial U.S. military expeditions into the territory, Spain formally ceded Florida to the United States in 1821, according to terms of the Adams-Onís Treaty.
As soon as the United States acquired Florida, it began urging the Indians there to leave their lands and relocate along with other southeastern tribes to Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma. Some Seminole leaders signed a treaty in 1832, and part of the tribe moved. But other Seminoles refused to recognize the treaty and fled into the Florida Everglades.
The Second Seminole War
The Treaty of Payne’s Landing, signed by a small number of Seminoles in May 1832, required Indians to give up their Florida lands within three years and move west. When the U.S. Army arrived in 1835 to enforce the treaty, the Indians were ready for war.
As Major Francis Dade marched from Fort Brooke toward Fort King, 180 Seminole warriors led by Micanopy, Alligator and Jumper attacked. Only one man of that army detachment survived the ambush.
The campaigns of the Second Seminole War were an outstanding demonstration of guerrilla warfare by the Seminole. The Micos Jumper, Alligator, Micanopy and Osceola, leading less than 3,000 warriors, were pitted against four U.S. generals and more than 30,000 troops.
The Second Seminole War (1835-1842), usually referred to as the Seminole War proper, was the fiercest war waged by the U.S. government against American Indians. The United States spent more than $20 million fighting the Seminoles. The war left more than 1,500 soldiers and uncounted American civilians dead. And the obvious duplicity of the U.S. government’s tactics marred Indian-white relations throughout the country for future generations.
As the hostilities dragged on, frustrated U.S. forces increasingly turned to desperate measures to win the war. For example, Osceola was captured and imprisoned when he met with U.S. troops who had called for a truce and claimed to want to talk peace.
With Osceola in prison, the United States was confident the war would end soon. But it did not. Although Osceola died in prison in 1838, other Seminole leaders kept the battle going for a few more years.
In 1842, a nominal end to the hostilities arrived, though no peace treaty was ever signed. By this time most Seminoles had been moved from Florida, relocated to Indian Territory “today’s Oklahoma.
The Third Seminole War
A Third Seminole War broke out in 1855, when conflicts — largely over land — arose between whites and some Seminoles who remained in Florida. Constant military patrols and rewards for the capture of Indians reduced the Seminole population to about 200 when the Third Seminole War ended in 1858.
Black Drink Singer
His name was Osceola, or Asi-Yaholo, which came from asi, a drink containing caffeine, and Yaholo, a cry shouted by men who served asi during tribal ceremonies. He was born in a Creek Indian village near the Tallapoosa River in what is now eastern Alabama.
Osceola was among many Creeks who retreated to Florida after the Creek War (1813-1814) and joined the Seminoles. During the 1820s, Osceola became known as a successful hunter and war leader. His warriors defeated U.S. troops in several battles early in the Second Seminole War.
In 1837, Osceola met U.S. troops under a flag of truce to discuss peace. But Gen. Thomas Jesup ordered his capture and imprisoned him. Osceola died soon afterward in Fort Moultrie near Charleston, S.C.
Many Americans were outraged by Jesup’s trickery and the Army’s reputation fell sharply. Osceola, however, won widespread respect, and several towns and counties were named after him.
Although he was not a chief, Osceola’s ability and fiery spirit made him the symbol of resistance and a key leader in the Second Seminole War. He was captured while under a “flag of truce”. Osceola died in 1838 while imprisoned at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina.
TUKO-SEE MATHLA (John Hicks)
This Seminole chief once saved a number of white men from being killed after they had been taken prisoner. When he supported the plan to move the Native Americans west he was killed by dissenting Seminoles.
MICANOPY (Head Chief)
As one of the most important chiefs in Florida, Micanopy fought against removal until the pressure of thousands of troops, disease, and starvation wiped out his band of warriors.
Neamathla, considered a man of eloquence and influence among the Seminoles, advised his people not to accept the government plan to move. Governor William DuVal deposed him by refusing to recognize him as a chief of the Seminoles.
BILLY BOWLEGS AND HIS WIFE
Billy Bowlegs was the principal Seminole leader in the Third Seminole War (1855-1858). Bowlegs and his war-weary band surrendered on May 7, 1858. Thirty-eight warriors and eighty-five women and children, including Billy’s wife, boarded the steamer, Grey Cloud, at Egmont Key to begin their journey to Indian territory. Bowlegs died soon after his arrival.
Picture Credits: Bowlegs and Wife, from Harper’s Weekly, June 12, 1858; Micanopy, Tuko-see Mathla, and Neamathla by Charles Bird King
The Seminoles of Florida call themselves the “Unconquered People,” descendants of just 300 Indians who managed to elude capture by the U.S. army in the 19th century.
Seminoles gain more independence
In the late 1950s, a push among Indian tribes to organize themselves and draft their own charter began — this came as a result of federal legislation which allowed Indian reservations to act as entities separate from the state governments in which they were located. After surviving the first half of the 20th century through agriculture and by selling crafts, individuals saw that organizing as a constitutional form of government would be a positive step. The Seminole tribe improved their independence by adopting a constitutional form of government. This allowed them to act more independently. So on July 21, 1957, tribal members voted in favor of a Seminole Constitution which established the federally recognized Seminole Tribe of Florida.
In 1970, the Indian Claims Commission award the Seminole (of both Oklahoma and Florida, collectively) $12,347,500 for the land taken from them by the U.S. military.
Today, more than 2,000 live on six reservations in the state – located in Hollywood, Big Cypress, Brighton, Immokalee, Ft. Pierce, and Tampa.