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History of the Seminole Wars

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In the early years of the nineteenth century, tensions ran high along the borderlands of Florida and Georgia, brought on by the presence of numerous rival groups. Lawless backwoodsmen from Georgia entered Florida in hopes of stealing Seminole cattle and horses, feeling little remorse if an Indian died defending his property. Seminole warriors, seeking revenge, conducted raids of reprisal against innocent settlers in Georgia. Slaves from Southern plantations fled their bondage, seeking sanctuary and freedom among the Seminole tribes that inhabited Spanish Florida. They were followed by slave catchers, who often kidnapped unwary free blacks that had taken up residence among the Indians. Pirates and British opportunists roamed the area, inciting the Indians against the Americans, whose land-hungry expansionists coveted the territory south of the Georgia border. Officials of the crumbling Spanish Empire, whose flag flew over the colony, were powerless to control events or stop the violence. Florida was a land ripe for war.

In November 1817 conflict erupted when General Edmund Gaines attempted to take the Miccosukee chief Neamathla into custody. A week later Miccosukee, Seminole, and allied Creek warriors took revenge for the attack on their village with an ambush on a small military transport ascending the Apalachicola River, resulting in the death of thirty-five U.S. soldiers and six women. The First Seminole War had begun. Upon hearing the news, President James Monroe immediately dispatched General Andrew Jackson to conduct the war against the Florida Indians. Jackson, with 3,500 men, half of them friendly Creek warriors, invaded West Florida in early March 1818. In the span of eleven weeks he destroyed Indian settlements and fighting power west of the Suwannee River. In the process, he captured and executed two British subjects, causing diplomatic troubles with England. He also captured the only two Spanish settlements in West Florida: St. Marks and the capitol, Pensacola. His conquest helped convince Spain that it could not defend the colony and led to the 1819 treaty that ceded the peninsula to the U.S. 

With this impending transfer, the future of Florida’s Seminoles was placed in jeopardy. The Seminoles were a loose aggregation of former Creek Indian bands: Hitchiti, Coweta, Miccosukee, Hilibi, Eufaula, Uchi, and others, including a large number of runaway slaves and their descendants. All had migrated to Florida from the river valleys of Georgia and Alabama beginning in the early 1700s, followed by a second migration between 1812 and 1820. Soon after the United States assumed control of Florida in 1821, the Seminole bands were forced to sign a treaty that confined them to a reservation in central Florida.  Conditions were poor in the new reservation and pressure continued to mount for the Seminoles to surrender their black allies.  In 1830 President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which called for all Native Americans living east of the Mississippi to be relocated west of the river in the new Indian Territory, what is now Oklahoma.  In 1832 the Seminoles were forced to sign the Treaty of Payne’s Landing, wherein they supposedly agreed to give up all claim to homes in Florida and emigrate to the new lands in the west.

The majority of Seminoles repudiated the treaty and prepared to defend their homeland. In December of 1835, conflict again erupted. Seminole and black warriors ravaged the prosperous sugar plantations along the St. Johns River, destroying the Territory’s largest industry. On 28 December the famed leader Osceola killed Indian Agent Wiley Thompson and an associate outside of Fort King (Ocala). On the same day, a large Seminole force wiped out a column of 108 American soldiers marching from Fort Brooke (Tampa) to the relief of Fort King. Several days later, the Seminoles repulsed an attack by 750 soldiers led by General Duncan Clinch at the Withlacoochee River. Thus began the Second Seminole War, the longest, costliest, and deadliest of all the wars the United States has fought against Native Americans.

The United States government responded quickly and in force, but met with one embarrassing defeat after another. General Gaines came from New Orleans with 1,100 men in February of 1836, and wound up being held under siege at Camp Izard on the banks of the Withlacoochee for over a week before being forced to retreat. General Winfield Scott arrived in late March with 5,000 men and a grand plan of conquest, but spent a month conducting a fruitless, frustrating search for Indians that had taken to the impenetrable swamps and forests and refused to come out and fight.  Governor Richard K. Call led several thousand men into the Seminole stronghold to the west of the Withlacoochee, only to be stopped by strong Seminole resistance at the Battle of the Wahoo Swamp.  The Seminoles were proving much harder to subdue than anyone expected.

In late 1836 command of the war passed to General Thomas Jesup, who began a methodical, well-supplied campaign against the Seminoles in central Florida. A string of forts and depots were built, including Fort Foster on the Hillsborough River (now reconstructed as a State Park) and Fort Dade on the Withlacoochee (now in Seminole Wars Foundation ownership and under archaeological investigation). Jesup’s efforts paid off when head chief Micanopy and several other leaders came into his Fort Dade headquarters in March 1837 to sign a capitulation. The agreement collapsed in June when the Seminoles fled the embarkation camp.  Part of the reason for their departure was the presence of slave catchers anxious to steal the Indians’ black allies.

The war resumed, but serious fighting did not take place until late autumn.  Due to the heat, rains, and rampant disease, the army was forced to withdraw from active campaigning for the summer months.  Much of Florida was covered with water, making the roads impassible and breeding millions of mosquitoes that spread deadly diseases. General Jesup, feeling betrayed by the Seminoles after their flight from the embarkation camp, instituted the policy of taking Indian leaders captive when they came in for negotiations under a flag of truce.  Under this policy he was able to capture the tribe’s most famous war leader, Osceola, Chief Micanopy, and several other important Seminole leaders. After Osceola’s subsequent death in prison at Fort Moultrie in Charleston, Seminole leadership continued under Coacoochee (Wildcat), Alligator, Ote Emathla (Jumper), Halleck Tustennuggee, Holata Micco (Billy Bowlegs) and Abiaka (Sam Jones).

In the autumn of 1837 Jesup brought unprecedented force against the Seminoles. Over 9,000 troops were sent from all over the nation.  The navy patrolled the coasts and rivers and supplied sailors and marines to man forts and other installations.  By promising the Black Seminoles freedom in the west, Jesup also succeeded in splitting many black warriors away from the Indians. Using his overwhelming force, Jesup swept the peninsula from north to south, driving the Seminoles before him. The campaign culminated on Christmas Day, 1837, with the Battle of Okeechobee, the largest engagement of the war. The American force, led by Col. Zachary Taylor, claimed victory, but suffered horrendous casualties. In truth, the battle was a draw, both sides having accomplished what they had intended. Taylor became a general and a national hero, while the Seminoles managed to buy time for their families to escape into the Everglades.

After another pair of smaller battles in late January 1838, Jesup realized the futility of trying to capture the remaining Seminoles in the trackless Everglades. He expressed his views to Secretary of War Joel Poinsett, but the Van Buren administration denied his request to end the war.  Powerful political forces, led by slave holding interests in the South, would not let the war end until every Seminole was removed from Florida. The war would continue for over four more years with, as Jesup warned, “a continual waste of blood and treasure."

Command of the war passed to Zachary Taylor, who fought a defensive conflict for two more years but made no real gains toward removing the Seminoles.  During this time, opposition to the war began to build in the nation and in Congress, and in the spring of 1839 the administration dispatched Commanding General Alexander Macomb, the army’s highest ranking officer, to negotiate a peace with the Seminoles. It was the only time in American history that an Indian nation forced the United States to sue for peace. The agreement broke down in July of that year, due primarily to Seminole mistrust of white intentions. The Indians had been lied to too many times to believe they had won the war.

The last two U.S. commanders of the war, Walter K. Armistead and William Jenkins Worth, realized the war could never end as long as the Seminoles were allowed to rest, recuperate, and re-supply during the summer months, while the army retreated from the weather and disease.  Using canoes and small boats, soldiers, sailors, and marines penetrated the Everglades year-round, guided by captured black and Indian prisoners. Hidden Seminole villages and fields were destroyed. Exhausted, hungry, and short of ammunition, small bands of Seminoles were captured or turned themselves in. Finally, in August 1842, the U.S. declared the war at an end. During seven years of war, it had committed every regiment of the Army to the struggle, with a loss of some 1,500 men, most of them to disease. Thirty thousand citizen soldiers were involved, many of whom perished. In the end over 4,000 Seminoles were forcibly removed to the Indian Territory. The war had cost the government approximately $30 million, an astounding sum when one considers that the proposed federal budget for 1836 was only around $25 million.

Yet for all the money and lives expended, not all Seminoles had been removed.  Remaining in the wilds of south Florida were approximately 350 Seminoles. White encroachment continued, driving the Seminoles to fight once more. Led by Chief Holata Micco (Billy Bowlegs) they attacked a military camp on 20 December 1855, beginning what is known as the Third Seminole War. This was followed by two and half years of guerilla warfare that finally ended in May of 1858 when Chief Bowlegs agreed to emigrate, taking with him 165 followers. Less than 200 Seminoles remained behind, hiding out in the Everglades, refusing to give up their homeland and their way of life. Descendants of these remaining Seminoles still live in Florida and claim the rights of a sovereign nation. Against all odds, these tenacious and courageous people are thriving on seven reservations across the state, a living testimony to the power of the human spirit.