American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
Teaser Image

Seminole Wars

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Seminole Indians in Florida fought three wars with the United States. The issues that led to the wars varied, but in each conflict the invading American army sought to remove the Seminoles from Florida and fugitive African American slaves from Seminole villages. Although the three campaigns resulted in the removal of almost all the Seminoles from Florida to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), more than 200 Florida Seminoles never surrendered or relocated.

The use of Florida and Seminole villages as refuges for escaped slaves from the lower South helped to bring about the First Seminole War. After the War of 1812, the United States repeated its demands that Spanish officials do something about the Negro Fort, an outpost on the Apalachicola River in the Florida panhandle that provided refuge for hundreds of runaway slaves. When Spanish officials refused, the United States turned to its military. Led by Major General Edmund P. Gaines, the United States attacked the Negro Fort on July 27, 1816. When a well-placed cannon shot hit the fort's powder magazine, the entire fort was destroyed. Most of the approximately 300 residents of the fort were immediately killed. The United States Army returned to slavery the fugitive slaves who survived.

The destruction of the Negro fort did little to resolve the tensions on the Florida–Georgia border. Slaves continued to find refuge in Florida, and the Seminoles continued to offer them sanctuary. At the same time, Seminoles suffered from the theft of their cattle by Georgians and by others who refused to recognize Seminole property rights. The result was a series of frontier skirmishes that resulted in the deaths of Seminoles and Georgians alike.

After a small party of U.S. soldiers suffered a particularly devastating defeat at the hands of Seminole warriors in Georgia in 1817, the United States authorized its military to track down the offending Indians even if it meant entering Spanish Florida. With orders that forbade attacks on the Spanish, General Andrew Jackson took his campaign across the Apalachicola River and into Florida. Despite his orders, Jackson attacked and captured St. Marks on April 7, 1818, and Pensacola on May 24, 1818. Seminole villages fared no better, as Jackson's men razed Indian villages and their agricultural fields. Jackson further outraged many Americans and the British when he captured, tried, and executed two British Floridians, Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Ambrister, for providing aid and comfort to the Seminoles. Jackson declared victory, and almost immediately negotiations began that resulted in Spain's cession of Florida to the United States. This was accomplished by virtue of the Adams–Onís Treaty, signed and ratified by the United States in 1819 and finally taking effect in 1821.

The end of the First Seminole War and the incorporation of Florida as an American territory did little to ease the tensions between Seminoles and the United States. Even with Spain out of the picture, the United States struggled to prevent slaves from finding freedom in Florida. Matters worsened as cotton planters and southern herders began to move to middle and east Florida. Now, they coveted Seminole lands and brought their African American slaves even closer to them.

In 1823, the United States and the Seminoles signed the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, the first agreement between the two nations. Under the terms of the agreement, which was opposed by many Indians, the Seminoles would be guaranteed protection and reserved lands in central Florida in return for leaving northern Florida, returning fugitive slaves, and allowing the building of roads. In short, the treaty removed the Seminoles and made them active partners in the development of Florida.

Disagreements over the meaning of the Treaty of Moultrie Creek began almost immediately. Seminoles pointed to the signatures of illegitimate leaders and complained that their new lands were ill suited to sustain their herds. Yet by 1826 most Seminoles had moved south and begun to rebuild their lives.

In 1832, the United States once again called upon the Seminoles to move west of the Mississippi. In the resulting Treaty of Paynes Landing, seven chiefs agreed to move within three years. Most Seminoles were outraged and demanded the rights to their land that were earlier outlined in the Treaty of Moultrie Creek. The ensuing dispute resulted in the assassination of Charley Emathla by Osceola for his role in supporting removal. Despite the widespread opposition to the treaty, the United States insisted on enforcing it. When 3,824 Indians went west in according with the treaty, warfare erupted between the resistant Indians under the leadership of Osceola and the U.S. military charged with removing the Seminoles.

The Second Seminole War officially began in December 1835. In a coordinated attack, Osceola and other Seminole warriors killed Wiley Thompson, the U.S. Indian agent to the Seminoles, while other Seminole warriors launched a surprise attack on U.S. Major Francis Dade and his men near Fort King. In the subsequent fighting, the Seminoles took advantage of the shelter provided by the Everglades and used guerilla tactics to keep American troops on the move. The United States, which began the war by fighting in large, heavily armed detachments, made headway in the war's early years. In 1837, as frustrations mounted in American society, the United States arrested Osceola, who had come to Fort Peyton under a flag of truce. The Indian warrior died of malaria in prison soon after.

The war continued after Osceola's death. The circumstances surrounding Osceola's death, as well as the inability to achieve victory, resulted in the replacement of General Thomas S. Jesup by Brigadier General Zachary Taylor in 1838. Under Taylor, the United States pursued a new strategy. Dividing the hostile territory into squares twenty miles wide, Taylor built a series of roads and forts to secure each of the areas. At the same time he ordered Major General Alexander Macomb to pursue an aggressive peace plan that allowed the Seminoles to remain in southwestern Florida. The strategy came to a crashing halt and open warfare returned when Seminoles attacked a trading post on the Caloosahatchee River in July 1839.

In 1840, Brigadier General Walker K. Armistead took command of the U.S. forces in Florida. Armistead sent groups of a hundred soldiers into the swamps of south Florida to track down the resistant Seminoles. While Armistead's men marched south, the Seminoles attacked the plantation settlements in north and middle Florida. Despite the general success of the Seminole people in avoiding capture, many individuals were not so lucky. In June 1841, the United States captured Chief Cooacoochee, shipped him west, and then returned him to Florida in an attempt to convince other Seminoles to move west.

In the end, the Second Seminole War lasted from 1835 to 1842, and it was the longest, costliest, and deadliest of the Florida Indian campaigns. Thousands of Seminoles and nearly 1,500 American soldiers were killed, and the campaign cost the United States more than $30 million. The war resulted in the surrender and removal of approximately 4,400 Seminoles. In 1842, only several hundred Indians remained in Florida.

As white settlers and surveyors began to filter through Florida, the Seminoles remained on the defensive. Although they only numbered in the hundreds, the Seminoles continued to be a nuisance to American settlers. The ongoing tension resulted in the Third Seminole War (1855–1858). This campaign against the Seminoles began when Colonel William Selby Harney, who led a U.S. surveying corps, destroyed Billy Bowlegs' banana crop. This action, which was intentionally designed to outrage Bowlegs, resulted in a renewal of fighting.

The Third Seminole War was marked by few sustained battles. Instead, the Seminoles waged a campaign of guerilla warfare, attacking isolated settlers and small detachments of soldiers. The United States responded with a system of patrols and the use of bloodhounds to track down the enemy. The Seminoles, using the cover of the Everglades, easily avoided the invading soldiers. In late 1857, the United States turned to using shallow boats to enter the inhospitable Everglades, and in November they found and destroyed Bowlegs's refuge.

On May 7, 1858, Bowlegs and forty warriors finally surrendered to the United States. When Bowlegs and 165 other Seminoles moved to Oklahoma, only about 200 Seminoles remained unconquered in the state. Today, these survivors comprise the Seminole and Miccosukee nations.

Andrew K. Frank

Further Reading
Covington, James W. 1982. The Billy Bowlegs War. Chuluota, FL: Mickler House Publishers.; Heidler, David, and Jeanne Heidler. 1996. Old Hickory's War: Andrew Jackson and the Quest for Empire. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.; Mahon, John K. 1992. History of the Second Seminole War, 1835–1842. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.; Miller, Susan A. 2003. Coacoochee's Bones: A Seminole Saga. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.; Missall, John, and Mary Lou Missall. 2004. The Seminole Wars: America's Longest Indian Conflict. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.; Twyman, Bruce Edward. 1999. The Black Seminole Legacy and North American Politics, 1693–1845. Washington, DC: Howard University Press.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Chronological Essays
  People and Groups
  Southwest Nations
  California Nations
  Northwest Coast Nations
  Great Basin Nations
  Plateau Nations
  Great Plains Nations
  Northeast Woodlands Nations
  Subarctic Nations
  Arctic Nations
ABC-cLIO Footer