The Alliance of Blacks and Seminoles by Dr. Marvin Dunn
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.
Some blacks that were actually owned by the Indians came into Spanish Florida with their Indian masters. Some of these slaves had been given to the Indians as gifts from the British for cooperating with them, and others had been acquired in various ways. These blacks and their descendants are referred to here as Black Seminoles (as a separate group from escaped slaves and maroons).
Even though they were considered slaves, the Black Seminoles were not treated the same as slaves who were owned by whites. In fact, the Black Seminoles lived their lives in a manner similar to that of their Indian masters, being allowed the many freedoms the Indians had. During conflicts with the Americans, Indians and black men armed themselves and assembled under their respective captains. Another role of the blacks in the evolving alliance between escaped slaves and Seminoles was that of interpreter, especially for the Indians in their dealings with the American military.
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.
The alliance between the Indians and the blacks produced escalating tensions. White slave-owners wanted their escaped slaves back and pressed the federal government to do something about the uninterrupted flow of escaped slaves into Florida. The Seminoles had no intention of turning over their slaves, some of whom had married into the tribe. Further inflaming the situation, the Seminoles often gave shelter and support to escaped slaves who were fleeing their masters’ whips. When Florida became a territory of the United States in 1821, the new American government insisted that all escaped slaves be returned to their owners, and the first Florida Legislative Council closed the new Florida Territory to free blacks.
From the start, as slave-catchers and the army rounded up blacks, the first problem was distinguishing between escaped slaves who hid among the Indians and the Black Seminoles who were owned and protected by the tribe. Other than the annual tribute given by the blacks to their owners or to the chiefs, there were few apparent differences between the two groups. Sometimes escaped slaves and Black Seminoles bred or even intermarried and had children whose legal status (slave or free) became an issue.
In addition, a few blacks were married to Seminole women, further complicating the conflict. There was also the problem of blacks bearing arms. Generally, Seminole slaves were not supervised by the tribe and were allowed to carry arms. This posed a big threat to newly arriving whites. Of course, during conflicts with the Americans, black men armed themselves and assembled under their own captains to fight American troops.
By the early 1800s, escaped slaves were streaming into Florida, and many of them were living in close proximity to the Indians or in separate black towns. The Seminoles and their various black allies struggled to survive in the Florida wilderness. Both the Indians and the blacks were stunned by events at Negro Fort and vowed vengeance. In 1823, the American government and the Seminoles signed the Treaty of Moultrie Creek.
The government built forts all over the Florida Territory to protect white settlers from attacks by Indians and blacks. The Moultrie Creek Treaty ceded most of the coastal area of Florida to the Americans. The interior of the peninsula was to become a Seminole reservation which whites were not to enter without Indian permission.
As the Indians migrated to these less desirable lands, the Americans began to manipulate them into returning fugitive slaves in exchange for government rations. The plan apparently worked. Early in 1826, the Indians reportedly surrendered so many fugitive blacks that only about twenty were still at large. But the Black Seminoles (slaves owned by the Seminoles) had not been turned over to the Americans and they continued their migration with the Indians to remote camps in the interior.
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.
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.
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.
The bodies remained unburied for weeks. On the morning of February 20, fifty-four days after the battle, an army of eleven hundred men reached the battleground. “Lieutenant James Duncan wrote: ‘Gracious God what a sight! The vultures rose in clouds as the approach of the column drove them from their prey[.] [T]he very breastwork was black with them[.] [S]ome hovered over us as we looked upon the scene before us whilst others settled upon the adjoining trees waiting for our departure, in order again to return to their prey. The interior of the breastwork was covered with the bodies of the slain, as they had been left by their savage foe.’”
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.”
Following the Dade Massacre, a huge army of American soldiers was deployed to Florida. The event had made news all over America for nothing like it had ever occurred. This crushing Indian victory came several decades before the better-known massacre of General George Armstrong Custer and his troops at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 in Montana. In the aftermath of the Dade Massacre, with the U.S. Army in relentless pursuit, the Seminoles and their black allies withdrew farther and farther south on the peninsula.
Following the national policy of Indian removal, General Edmund P. Gaines waged a campaign against the Seminoles and blacks in Florida which started the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). General Gaines and his troops forced the Indians and blacks away from the Suwannee River. Some bands fell back to the Withlacoochee River, east and south of the Suwannee. It was during this time that Osceola rose to influence as the fiercest of the Seminole warriors. He was not a chief but he became the most famous war leader produced by the Seminoles.
Throughout the conflict, as the Indians found themselves having to deal with the American government, black leaders emerged to help them. One of the first of these men was called Negro Abraham; he was born around 1770. Abraham is thought to have once been the slave of Dr. Eugenio Antonio Sierra of Pensacola. He spoke French, Spanish and English and also learned to speak the Seminole language after his arrival at Negro Fort. When the American attack on the fort took place, he was living there but he escaped unhurt.
By 1826, he had become well known as a translator. Abraham came to prominence following the death of the feared black fighter called Nero who was killed during Andrew Jackson’s attacks on Indian and black settlements in the Suwannee River region. Nero had become a marked man due to suspicions (probably correct) of his leading raids against white settlements in nearby Georgia.
Abraham was described as being a religious enthusiast, having traits that won him the name “Prophet”. “Although he was occasionally accused of ambition, avarice, deceit, drunkenness, and even cowardice, no one ever doubted Abraham’s intelligence or his hold on Micanopy, the new Seminole chief who spent a great deal of time with Abraham. In fact, the American Army recognized Abraham as having more influence upon Micanopy than did any of the Seminole chiefs of the day.” Micanopy consulted Abraham before making any important decisions related to the hostilities with whites. Abraham plotted with Micanopy and his chiefs to begin an uprising against removal to Indian reservations in the West. It was Abraham who acted as interpreter for the Indians in the so-called Treaty of Payne’s Landing in 1833.
Negro Abraham was an interpreter and ally of the Seminoles. He was extremely cross-eyed which led the Indians to believe he had divine powers. Abraham was especially close to Micanopy, the last Seminole chief.
John Horse was another prominent black who influenced the Seminoles. Born in 1812, he was the son of a young black woman and an unknown father. He had many aliases, including Gopher John and John Cavallo, the latter name taken from the man who was likely his father. When the attack on Negro Fort occurred in 1816, John was four years old and living among the Seminoles on the Alachua Savannah, west of St. Augustine.
By 1826, if not earlier, he was living in a village on Thlonoto-sassa Lake, twelve miles from Fort Brooke on Tampa Bay. He became more influential among the Seminoles as he grew up. He was able to communicate with his Indian friends in their own language or dialect. More important was the fact that he could also speak English fluently which enabled him to talk to the American soldiers in the forts.
During the time of the Second Seminole War, his relationship with Indian leaders bloomed. He grew into a powerfully-built man who, it was said, was so handsome that even men remarked upon it. “From ‘a long-legged . . . . boy,’ he had grown into ‘a fine- looking fellow of six feet, as straight as an Indian, with just a smile of red blood mantling to his forehead . . . a jaunty air that would fix your attention at sight.’” Not only was he growing into a fine and powerful man physically, but he was also developing into a man of intellect and courage. These attributes propelled John Horse to become a leader among his own people and to have great influence among the Seminoles.
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.
While John Horse and his family were on the way to relocation, General Zachary Taylor, now in charge of military operations in Florida, asked for some of the Seminole chiefs to be sent back to Florida to convince the remaining Seminoles to emigrate. When news of this reached John Horse, he expressed his wish to join the envoy of Seminoles. Despite General Taylor’s objection, John Horse was allowed to reach Florida where he once again became a prominent figure.
He worked as a guide and interpreter and also began helping the government convince the few remaining Seminoles to emigrate. Because of the trust many Indians had in him, he succeeded with some Seminoles. The government apparently showed its appreciation; John was doing well for himself. “When John had surrendered in 1838, he was described as wearing ragged, mismatched clothes. But now the well-paid guide dressed like a Seminole dandy.”
John Horse continued his services in helping to relocate the Indians. He helped General Walker K. Armistead, who had replaced Taylor as Florida Commander, to continue Taylor’s plan to bring a few chiefs back from the West to induce the remainder of the Florida Indian population to emigrate. Hundreds of blacks were removed from Florida and taken west with the Seminoles, mostly at the end of the Second Seminole War in 1842. Some Florida blacks became famed Buffalo Soldiers, joining the American Army as scouts, hunters, and fighters in the effort to control the belligerent Indians of the Great Plains.
By 1842, John Horse’s duties were becoming fewer and fewer. He left Florida on July 14, 1842, as a free man. He and other Black Seminoles lived in Indian Territory in Oklahoma, Texas, and Mexico. He became a prime spokesman for the cause of obtaining land in the West for the Black Seminoles.
On August 10, 1882, his quest finally ended. He died in a hospital in Mexico City, most likely of pneumonia. He had been visiting the President of Mexico in an attempt to convince him to allow several Black Seminoles to remain on the Mexican land they had settled. John Horse’s efforts were not fruitless. In March, 1884, the blacks and the Indians who had so earnestly sought their own land were allowed to remain in the settlement of Nacimiento in Mexico.
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.
In the end, the alliance between blacks and Seminoles resulted in a measure of intermarriage, or at least inter-breeding, and ultimately the presence of racially mixed descendants among the Seminoles today. Old ties between blacks and Seminoles is common knowledge among the Seminoles. “‘We had a lot of blacks that spoke well in the Creek language, my mother used to say’, explained Mabel Jumper in an interview in 1990. ‘The colored people spoke the Indian language and they spoke English, so they would tell the Indians what the white people were doing,’ Jumper said.
She noted that her great-great grandfather owned and kept slaves in the typical Seminole way. Intermarriage between blacks and Seminoles was not encouraged since Seminoles generally looked upon blacks as being inferior to themselves. Still, Indians interviewed for this work could describe Indian children within their various family groups today who are dark-skinned and have ‘nappy hair’ as living testimony to the Seminole-black alliance.”