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Blacks and Seminoles

As early as the 1700s, members of several Native American tribes in the southeastern United States began migrating into Spanish Florida. Most of these people had separated themselves from the main body of the Lower Creek Indians who occupied parts of eastern Alabama and southern Georgia. Together with migrating members of various tribes from the Southeast, they were referred to as Seminoles, meaning seceders. Their leader, Cowkeeper, was allied with the Spanish in keeping English settlers out of Florida which had been a haven for escaped slaves since the time of the conquistadors. Thus, as the newly arrived Seminoles settled themselves on the peninsula, they found former slaves and maroons already living free in Florida.

Although maroon communities existed all over the New World, Florida maroons were primarily escaped slaves who had been living along the Florida coast since the time of the conquistadors. As was the case with maroons all over the New World, Florida maroons preferred to live in their own communities, separate from whites, slaves and Indians. Maroons in Florida and along the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina maintained African-oriented societies which they established in considerable numbers. Maroons and newly arriving Seminoles sometimes joined forces, at least temporarily, to attack white settlers who were, as they saw it, invading the peninsula.

As the Seminoles made contact with blacks, both maroons and escaped slaves, each culture learned from the other. With no resistance from the Spanish government, escaped slaves and Seminoles lived side-by-side, forming their own mutually supporting communities. They also joined together to resist American troops sent to round up the Indians to remove them to reservations in the West particularly in the Oklahoma Territory, and to return escape slaves to their chains in Georgia and elsewhere.[1]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.1.

The Black Seminoles were escaped slaves, primarily from Georgia, and their descendants, who joined the Seminole Indians in Florida to resist being returned to slavery. As a rule, they were not of mixed-blood with the Indians but were black people who allied themselves with the Indians to fight removal from Florida by slave-catches and American troops that were sent to capture them. They established villages separate from the Seminoles but close to them and they intermingled with the Seminoles and adopted some Seminole customs. The Indians also adopted customs from the blacks. In fact, black escaped slaves were in Florida before the Seminoles started to arrive. Intermarriage was uncommon although there were racially mixed offspring from sexual contacts which were sometimes through marriage and sometimes not.[2]Dunn, The Black Seminoles of Florida, p.1.

In the mid-1800’s escaped slaves moved down into Florida from Georgia and the Carolinas. Some of these people settled near Seminole villages and became allies of the Seminoles who were being chased by American soldiers who had been ordered to capture the Indians and remove them from Florida west to Indian Territory in what is now the states of Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Some of the blacks who lived and fought with the Indians were not escaped slaves from American plantations. They were owned by the Seminoles themselves. Escaped slave or not, these blacks became known as Black Seminoles or “Negro Seminoles.” In times of conflict they joined the Indians and fought to remain free in Florida.[3]Dunn, Understanding Our Past, p.1.

The system of enslavement used by the Indians was very benign as compared to that used by the English, and later by the Americans. In fact, the Seminoles seemed somewhat perplexed about how to use their slaves. They apparently had no intention of devoting their lives to managing slaves. The Indians solved their dilemma by supplying their slaves with tools to cut down trees, build houses for themselves, and raise corn. When the crop was harvested, their “masters” received a reasonable proportion of it as a kind of tribute, usually about a third of the crop. One observer reported that no more than ten bushels of corn were ever demanded. When some blacks acquired livestock, their Seminole patrons did not meddle in their activities, and at slaughtering time they were supplied with a fat hog or a side of beef.

As the Seminoles arrived in Florida they established their town, Cuscowilla, on the Alachua Savannah west of St. Augustine. Their first leader, known as Cowkeeper, allied himself with the Spanish in keeping English settlers out of Florida. Approximately 5,000 Indians from many tribes migrated into Spanish Florida during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Both Indians and escaped black slaves were welcomed by the Spanish who hoped that the presence of armed and hostile Indians and blacks would discourage white American expansion into Florida. It did not.[4]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.13.

Indian Removal Act

In May of 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act. This Act required that most of the members of the southern tribes living east of the Mississippi River be removed to Indian Territory in the West in areas that are now the states of Oklahoma and Arkansas. The law was designed to move the so-called Five Civilized Tribes of the slave states so that their lands could be settled by the nation’s growing white population. These tribes included the Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and the Seminoles as a group distinct from the Creeks. The passage of this law only cemented the alliance of blacks and Seminoles as the two groups vowed to resist removal from Florida.[5]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.1.

The Black Seminoles of Red Bays, Bahamas

Many Native Americans were removed to the West and settled on reservations in what is now Oklahoma, but some refused to be removed, especially the more militant faction of the Creek called the Red Sticks. (Osceola was a Red Stick Creek.) Many Indians from the southern tribes migrated into Spanish Florida to escape removal. Together they became known as Seminoles, meaning “wild.” In the Florida wilderness they became allies with black escaped slaves who were also moving down the Florida peninsula to escape slavery in Georgia and the Carolinas. The blacks who allied themselves with the Seminoles (but who were not necessarily intermarried with them) were known as Black Seminoles. Together the Seminoles and blacks armed themselves, with help from the British in the Bahamas, and resisted removal from Florida.[6]Dunn, The Black Seminoles of Florida, p.4

John Horse, Black Seminole Leader

John Horse, also known as “Gopher John”, was one of the most famous of the Black Seminole leaders. He was born near Tampa and was described as intelligent, courageous, and cunning. He spoke English and the Seminole language. John Horse was the chief counselor to Seminole Chief Micanopy. In fact, the chief spent more time with the Black Seminoles and John Horse than he did with his own people.

Chief Micanopy used John Horse as his main interpreter in his dealings with the army. It was said that Micanopy made no major decisions without consulting John Horse who proved helpful to both sides as the Seminoles were removed from Florida.

[Students should google “John Horse” and\or “Seminole removal from Florida”.][7]A Black History Lesson by Dr. Marvin Dunn (Elementary Grades), p.2.

The Dade Massacre (1835)

The conflict between the Seminoles, their black allies, and the American government came to a critical point with the Dade Massacre in 1835. At the time of this battle, the United States government had already negotiated the Treaty of Moultrie Creek which stipulated that the Indians could have a large portion of the interior section of central Florida while whites would be allowed to live in peace on the coasts. But with the need to reinforce troops already stationed in the interior, the government sent Major Francis L. Dade from Fort Brooke (present-day Tampa) to join U.S. troops at Fort King, near Ocala. That meant that Dade and his men would have to march straight through the dangerous interior of the peninsula, which was Seminole country. Neither Major Dade nor his commanders requested permission to enter Seminole territory, thus setting the stage for the first “massacre” of American troops by Indians.[8]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.5.

On December 28, 1835, a cold and rainy day, blacks joined the Indians at the Great Wahoo Swamp, and together they attacked Dade’s forces in central Florida near present-day Bushnell. The event made newspapers all over the country and garnered popular support for removal of the Indians from Florida. Two companies led by Major Francis L. Dade were taking a six-pound cannon to Fort King. As the major on horseback tried to cheer the men on, the troops slushed their way through the tall grass on either side of the little trail called the Fort King Road. Dozens of Indians suddenly rose from the dripping wet sawgrass and fired at point-blank range. Major Dade and half of his men, more than fifty, fell at the first volley. Satisfied with their swift victory, the Seminoles withdrew.

The battle might have ended then except for an astonishing development. Instead of dispersing in the high sawgrass, making themselves more difficult targets, Dade’s decimated forces chopped down small pine trees and hastily arranged them into a triangular fortification. The Indians, dumbfounded, watched from a distance as the soldiers boxed themselves in. It was an opportunity the chiefs could not ignore. In a final deadly assault, the Indians stormed the small fortification and overwhelmed the soldiers. They left no one standing.

An expert on the Dade Massacre, Frank Laumer, gives this account of what happened next: “In a little while the weapons had been gathered and the Indians left the silent enclosure, passing back through the woods toward the west, taking their three dead with them . . . Nearly fifty Negroes, runaway slaves and confederates of the Seminoles, reined in and slid to the ground from saddleless horses. White eyes rolling in dark faces, they leaned on the barricade and saw for the first time, white masters at their mercy. Escaped from brutal owners and stripped of everything but hate, they heard with pleasure the sounds of dying white men. Taking up the fallen axes of the work crew and drawing the assorted knives they carried they scrambled into the pen, cutting and hacking their way from man to man. Every throat that moaned was cut, and every heart that beat was stabbed.” High above in the cold grey sky, the first vulture circled slowly.[9]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.8.

From a force of 107 men, only three survived. “The black survivor of what became known as the Dade Massacre was Luis Pacheco, who had acted as an interpreter with the Indians for Major Dade. Pacheco (1800-1895) had been born a slave on a plantation south of Jacksonville, but had learned to read and write from the daughter of his master . . . Once after visiting his wife, a former slave who had purchased her freedom, he was caught in Tampa and sold to the first of several military commanders. When Major Dade headed out of Tampa to march north, Pacheco went along as an interpreter with the Seminoles, whose language he had learned as a youth.”

It has been asserted, but not established, that Pacheco disclosed the troop’s movements to the Seminoles. For a time, it was assumed that the former slave and guide was buried with the rest of Dade’s command. But in the early summer of 1837, about two years after the massacre, Pacheco returned to Fort Brooke, the embarkation point of the Dade command. When the Seminoles had attacked Dade’s soldiers that morning, Pacheco had dropped to the ground pretending to be dead. Dade’s men were cut down as the slave lay on the field. At the right moment he rose and presented himself as a slave who was forced to be on the march.

The chief who led the attack, Jumper, ordered that his life be spared. Thereafter, Pacheco was Jumper’s slave and was sent west to Oklahoma with a group of Seminoles as hostilities ended. Later, he was sold again and taken to Austin, Texas, where he lived for forty years. “Some 57 years after the Dade Massacre, Pacheco made his way to Jacksonville and located the woman who had taught him to read and write. He took her name, Fatio, and remained with her until he died in 1895.[10]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.10.

General Sidney Jesup

By November of 1836, a new commander had been appointed to assume control of American forces in Florida. He was General Thomas Sidney Jesup, the man after whom Jesup, Georgia is named. He tried a different tactic to deal with the Seminoles. Instead of going after the warriors in the mosquito- infested swamps, he rounded up Seminole women and children figuring that sooner or later the men would come in. He was right. Most came in. With an effective and large military force now operating in Florida, many Indians were being rounded up for removal, and black leaders found it more difficult to survive in Florida. John Caesar, the black man who had attacked plantations in the St. Johns area, was killed on January 17, 1837, one day after he reportedly attempted to steal horses from the Hanson Plantation two miles west of St. Augustine.

But many of the chiefs were still at large, accompanied by Indian and black warriors. They were now constantly on the move, trying to avoid the roving bands of American soldiers. General Jesup eventually made contact with the omnipresent Negro Abraham, and through him, began communicating with the Seminoles. General Jesup and Abraham met in Jesup’s camp on January 31, 1837. Abraham had been sent to the meeting by Micanopy to speak for the Seminoles and, of course, for the blacks. After Abraham’s meeting with the general, Seminole leaders soon gathered to begin negotiations to end the war. On March 6, 1837, they arrived at Fort Dade to meet with General Jesup. It was during these discussions that John Horse, already known and respected in the Seminole and Black Seminole communities, first gained the notice of the Americans.

Negotiations between the Seminoles and the Americans were concluded by a document stating that hostilities were to cease immediately and permanently, and stipulating that the entire Seminole population would emigrate to the West. The United States would pay their relocation expenses, and the Seminoles were to receive government rations before and during removal, and for a year after. John Horse was one of the signatories of the document on behalf of Chief Alligator. Through dogged persistence, Jesup finally persuaded most of the exhausted Indians in these bands to come in. By mid-April, even Alligator and John Horse had arrived at Fort Bassinger for emigration. In June, 1838, John Horse and his family were sent to relocation camps in the West. However, there were still some isolated bands at large, and the war slogged along in Florida.[11]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.15.

The Seminole wars had been costly for the new country in lives and money. On May 8, 1858, the United States declared that the Third Seminole War (1855 to 1858) had ended. About 200 Seminoles remained in Florida by that time. A few Black Seminoles also remained. Those remaining in Florida moved even farther south on the peninsula, ending up in the Everglades and Big Cypress regions. Their descendants still live there today, west of Miami where they have remained isolated for decades. In 1957, the Seminole Tribe of Florida was officially recognized by the U.S. government. Occasionally, there are Black Seminole reunions held in south Florida. Usually Black Seminole envoys from the West attend a reunion of Black Seminoles held about every two years in Palm Beach County near Jupiter.[12]Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.17.

A Black Seminole Reunion near Jupiter, Florida

Some of the descendants of Florida’s Black Seminoles who now live in the West and in Mexico, return to Florida sometimes for a reunion. The reunions are held in Palm Beach County because so many Seminoles and Black Seminoles were put on ships there to be taken west. I attended this Black Seminole reunion more than twenty years ago.

References

References
1, 5 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.1.
2 Dunn, The Black Seminoles of Florida, p.1.
3 Dunn, Understanding Our Past, p.1.
4 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.13.
6 Dunn, The Black Seminoles of Florida, p.4
7 A Black History Lesson by Dr. Marvin Dunn (Elementary Grades), p.2.
8 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.5.
9 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.8.
10 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.10.
11 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.15.
12 Dunn, A History of Florida Through Black Eyes, p.17.