A charismatic warrior, Osceola (1804–January 30, 1838) led the fight against the forced removal of the Seminoles to Indian Territory in the early nineteenth century. In the Second Seminole War, Osceola emerged as the most famous defender of the Seminole Indians in Florida and an outspoken opponent of U.S. expansion. Despite his prominence, most of what we know about Osceola has been colored by a combination of romanticism and racism.
Born a Creek Indian in the village of Tallassee in what is now Alabama, Osceola was originally named Billy Powell. He was the son of a British trader (William Powell) and an upper Creek woman (Polly Copinger). By virtue of the Creeks' matrilineal clan system, he grew up a full member of Creek society. He would later earn his name Osceola, which is a corruption of the Muskogee words Asin ("black drink") and Yahola ("town crier"). At other times, he went by the title Tustenuggee Tallassee or the Tallassee warrior.
In 1813, when a civil war erupted among the Creek Indians, Osceola and his mother sided with the Red Sticks, who fought against Andrew Jackson and his Creek allies. Only a child at the time, Osceola did not fight in the war, but it created disruptions in his life and in Creek society. The Treaty of Fort Jackson at the war's conclusion ceded 23 million acres to the United States, including the territory where Tallassee was located. Rather than submit to the terms of the treaty or move westward, Osceola, his mother, and many other Creeks associated with his great-uncle Peter McQueen, moved south to Florida. He, along with hundreds of other Red Sticks, joined with the Seminole Indians already living in the area.
Among the Seminoles, Osceola emerged as a prominent warrior and influential leader. He married two Seminole women, which was common under the rules of polygyny, and he had at least one and maybe two children. One wife was a Creek woman named Che-cho-ter, or "Morning Dew." His other wife, whose name remains unknown, was probably an African American woman. Hundreds of black Seminoles, many of whom were fugitive slaves, found refuge and families in Florida's Indian villages, and their presence in Florida fueled the animosity between the United States and the Seminoles.
Osceola participated in the First Seminole War (1817–1818) as a young warrior. During this war, which was initiated by Andrew Jackson's invasion of Florida, Osceola had his first experience as a Creek warrior. American troops, while seeking to return fugitive African American slaves to their masters and to destroy their ability to find refuge in Florida, captured Osceola and several other Seminoles.
Upon his return to the Seminoles, Osceola emerged as a leading warrior in his Tallassee town. His opposition to American interests increased his stature in the community, and many Seminoles looked to the bilingual Osceola to participate in inter-cultural affairs. For example, in 1823, Osceola tried to put an end to the controversial Treaty of Moultrie Creek. Some accounts, probably exaggerated, have Osceola putting his knife through the yet unsigned document. Considering that in subsequent years, many Seminoles complained that they were unaware about several elements of the treaty and thus tricked into signing the agreement, Osceola's opposition may have been augmented by his literacy.
After the treaty was signed, Osceola continued to oppose U.S. interests. When the Seminoles signed the Treaty of Payne's Landing (1832) and the Treaty of Fort Gibson (1833), Osceola reemerged as a voice of opposition. In June 1835, a frustrated Wiley Thompson, who was the Indian agent to the Seminoles, arranged to have Osceola arrested. Although we do not know the exact insult that resulted in Osceola's confinement, it is clear that Thompson incarcerated the Indian leader as a means to remove the Seminoles. Thompson put Osceola in irons until he agreed to sign a document that declared the validity of the Treaty of Payne's Landing and to bring in a band of Indians who would agree to migrate westward. When seventy-nine Seminoles arrived at Fort King to proclaim their willingness to move westward, Thompson released Osceola.
Osceola urged Seminoles to oppose the 1832 and 1833 treaties and otherwise to use armed resistance to defy any attempts to force their removal. This resistance movement resulted in the Second Seminole War. On December 18, 1835, Osceola and his followers assassinated Seminole leader Charley Emathla for his signing of the treaty and his compliance with American demands for westward migration. In November 1835, Osceola and his warriors shot Emathla as he returned home from Fort King, where he had sold his cattle, a move made necessary by his decision to move. Osceola and his warriors, in a symbolic chastisement of Emathla for selling out his Seminole neighbors for personal profit, left the money from the sale on the ground by the dead leader.
In December, Osceola led another attack, this time on Thompson, just outside of Fort King, where the Indian agent was headquartered. With the assistance of approximately sixty warriors, Osceola led a brutal attack on the man most associated with the U.S. invasion of the Seminole lands. While Osceola led the assassination of Thompson, other Seminole warriors attacked the U.S. military forces who were under the command of Major Francis Dade. In light of Osceola's attack and the general discontent among Seminole villages, the United States had sent Dade and his men to serve as reinforcements at Fort King. Before they arrived, the Seminoles attacked and routed the forces. The attack killed nearly all of the 110 men on the march.
During the resulting Second Seminole War (1935–1942), Osceola emerged as one of the more successful leaders. Although he did not benefit from hereditary ties to authority among the Seminoles, his anti-American leadership and military prowess led to his rise to Tustunuggee Tallassee and then to Tustenuggee Thlucco (head warrior) for the entire Seminole nation. His "white" heritage furthered his reputation among non-Natives, many of whom were fascinated with his upbringing. Just before his death, George Catlin further sealed Osceola's fame by painting and then distributing his portrait. In the portrait, Osceola appears in an amalgam of the finest European and Seminole clothes, armed with a rifle and adorned with gorgets around his neck and feathers in his hair.
On December 31, 1835, Osceola won a decisive victory over the United States at the Withlacoochee River. With about 250 warriors, Osceola repelled a U.S. force of nearly 800 men under General Duncan L. Clinch's command. During the fighting, Osceola was wounded but not seriously, and after he recovered, he returned to battle. Deaths were low on both sides (three Indians and four U.S. soldiers, but casualties were not. Five Indians and fifty-nine Americans were seriously wounded. Later in the war, Osceola is credited for rescuing a camp of mostly black Seminoles from the United States.
In the summer of 1837, Osceola contracted malaria. Exhausted from fighting and suffering from his illness, on October 27, 1837, Osceola sent word to General Thomas Sydney Jesup that he was desirous of a truce. Osceola and Coa Harjo traveled to Fort Peyton, where on the orders of Jesup, American soldiers captured the Indian men, who were carrying a white flag. The United States also took hostage the eighty-one Seminole men and women who accompanied Osceola to the meeting. The United States took Osceola to the Castillo San Marcos (also known as Fort Marion) in St. Augustine, where eventually 237 Seminoles were imprisoned. When it became clear that Osceola could not be convinced to support the Seminole's removal, Jesup ordered him relocated to Fort Moultrie in South Carolina.
Before his death, Osceola requested that his two wives and his children be allowed to visit him in South Carolina. With the approval of the United States, they visited the dying warrior in early 1838. Osceola died while a prisoner on January 30, 1838. Before he was buried, the medical examiner at Fort Moultrie had him decapitated. In 1843, Osceola's head, as well as some of his possessions, were put on display by Dr. Valentine Mott. After being donated to the Medical College of New York, his head disappeared during an 1865 fire.
Andrew K. Frank
Covington, James W. 1993. The Seminoles of Florida. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.; Hartley, William, and Ellen Hartley. 1973. Osceola, the Unconquered Indian. New York: Hawthorne Books.; Mahon, John K. 1967. History of the Second Seminole War, 1835–1842. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.; Miller, Susan A. 2003. Coacoochee's Bones: A Seminole Saga. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.; Wickman, Patricia R. 1991. Osceola's Legacy. Tuscaloosa : University of Alabama Press.