‘Whose War Was It?’ History of the Second Seminole War
Indian Country Today
Below is a section of a longer work that reaffirms the primacy of the Seminoles in the Seminole Wars. It also sheds light on important details for both historians and casual readers. The full article titled “Whose War Was It? African American Heritage Claims and the Second Seminole War” by C. S. Monaco appeared in American Indian Quarterly published by the University of Nebraska Press, and can be read in its entirety by faculty members of universities who subscribe to MUSE or, for a small fee, for readers willing to “rent” access from DeepDyve.
Because the history of the Seminoles and the slave and independent Maroon community in Florida is still not widely known outside of the region, a brief synopsis is warranted. Seminole origins can be traced to various tribes that inhabited the uncharted Creek (Muscogee) territory of what is now Georgia and Alabama during the early eighteenth century. Beginning with Hernando de Soto’s brutal expeditions two centuries earlier, deadly diseases such as smallpox decimated the Indigenous people of the lower Southeast; population collapse, intertribal conflict, and frequent migration resulted.
Many believe that the formation of the Creek confederacy was a consequence of the remaining Native people being drawn together as a form of self-protection; others maintain that bonds of association predated de Soto. In any case, additional pressure from the British and then later the United States gave rise to further migration. Creeks, Apalachees, Yamassees, and—following the Creek War (1813–14)—“Redstick” Creek refugees journeyed toward the Florida panhandle and the upper peninsula. Much of this land was part of the same longleaf pine, mixed forest and savannah ecosystem that characterized the region as a whole and was an integral part of the traditional Creek hunting grounds. In time, these people formed a new Seminole identity, a political act of independence in which they delineated themselves from the Creeks.
In addition to the realignment of Native people in La Florida was the separate migration of fugitive slaves, Gullahs, who heralded from plantations in coastal Georgia and South Carolina and who ultimately gained protection once in the Spanish province. In a provocative gesture, Spanish officials actively sought the migration of runaways in the hope of utilizing this group, in addition to the Native people who lived in the remote interior, to help defend against the expansionist designs of Great Britain and later the United States. This “willful self-extrication,” as one anthropologist has described this phenomenon, from a place of enslavement to enclaves of self-determination represents an event of obvious historical import.
While some indeed succeeded in forming Maroon communities along the remote Gulf Coast region south of Tampa Bay, others undoubtedly were reenslaved by Seminoles. Native people also purchased slaves directly from the Spanish and augmented their slave holdings by raiding nearby plantations in Georgia and Florida. Adding even more to this ethnic complexity, officials in St. Augustine employed free black militias and armed slaves as part of a pragmatic defense strategy. When Spain ceded Florida to Great Britain in 1763, many slaves, free blacks, and mulattos who were unaffiliated with the Seminoles were part of the exodus of Spanish subjects who sailed from the colony.
By the end of the Revolutionary War, Britain had ceded Florida back to Spain, and the colonial tradition of black militias, as well as drafting slaves as a fighting force, reemerged, a state of affairs that alarmed white inhabitants of adjoining slave states. As a result of an invasion by Georgia militia and U.S. forces during the Patriot War (1812–14), the Florida colony’s armed blacks joined with Seminoles and their own black auxiliaries in the wilderness interior and ultimately repelled this incursion.
The coalition’s effectiveness was aided by the services of a handful of multilingual slaves who acted as translators and cultural mediators between colonial officials and Native leaders such as King Payne and his brother Bowlegs.
The conflict may have frustrated U.S. advances, but it also resulted in the destruction of Native villages. Most survivors fled to the southern peninsula or westward toward the Suwannee River. Gen. Andrew Jackson led another incursion (First Seminole War, 1817–18) and once again aimed at the annihilation of Indigenous settlements and the smaller, affiliated black villages that ranged from the Florida panhandle to Bowleg’s Town on the Suwannee. Rather than fight superior forces, many Seminoles simply withdrew to ever more remote areas.
In 1821 Spain formally transferred Florida to U.S. jurisdiction. Shortly thereafter, Jackson—appointed provisional governor—enlisted Coweta Creeks in Georgia to destroy Redstick refugee settlements along the Peace River in southwestern Florida and coastal Maroon encampments. For decades, Seminoles, along with African Americans among them, experienced almost perpetual conflict. Now, as the United States assumed authority, Seminoles were even more vulnerable: their former Spanish allies had not only abandoned them but also ceded their lands to their foremost enemies. This was done despite reported assurances from Spanish officials, as U.S. Maj. Gen. Thomas S. Jesup later recounted, that “the whole country beyond the line of cultivation belonged to the Indians.”
“Whose War Was It? African American Heritage Claims and the Second Seminole War” was written by C. S. Monaco, a courtesy professor of history at the University of Florida. He is the author of a series of articles on the Second Seminole War, and has an upcoming book about the Second Seminole War under contract with Johns Hopkins University Press.