Some have argued that the Seminole identity was born in response to European and white American incursion. Early 20th century scholars argued that the Seminole descended from the Creek, including absorbed peoples, who moved south into Florida as life in Georgia and Alabama became untenable because of white incursion. These separatists filled a void in the indigenous population that was left by the interactions of the Spanish with previous inhabitants. The Seminole began to become identified as a people separate and distinct from their Creek brethren in about 1775. In dealing with the Native question, the federal government used the definitions that best suited its motives. If configuring the Seminole and Creek as one entity allowed a stronger position for the government, then the parties were defined collectively. If separating the two was deemed useful, severance was used.
The issue of slavery was a primary sticking point in the development of policy toward the Seminole. In a 1790 treaty with the Creek, in the interest of placating the citizens of Georgia in their claims of deprivations at the hands of the Creek, the federal government held the Creek Nation accountable for slaves who ran away and settled with the Seminole. This was not an insignificant number of slaves, and the point would prove to be of primary importance in undercutting cohesion between the Creek and Seminole. The issue of slavery would also serve as an underlying reason for the Seminole Wars.
The First Seminole War (1816–1818) began with Col. D. L. Clinch joining forces with the Creek chief William McIntosh and engaging the Seminole at Fort Apalachicola in Spanish Florida. The fort was said to have harbored escaped slaves, and McIntosh's stated mission involved the location of runaway slaves and their return to their "lawful" owners. This engagement made clear the formal governmental approval and a militarization of what were previously civilian "slave raids" into north Florida. It is important to understand that the first two of three Seminole Wars and the Creek involvement were greatly influenced by the Red Stick War (1813–1814) within the Creek Nation. Through that conflict, McIntosh came to prominence and the conditions of the relationship between the Lower Creek and the federal government were forged.
The First Seminole War ended in 1818, and the next year Florida was purchased from Spain. This eliminated any legal misgivings regarding incursion into the territory of a sovereign European power. The problems of runaway slaves and complaints of perceived deprivations could be more conveniently solved with Florida as a U.S. territory. In addition to the recovery of lost slaves, which meant in many cases the return of the descendants of runaway slaves to the descendants of the original owners, efforts began in earnest to move the Seminole southward.
The Treaty of Moultrie Creek (1823) called for the relocation of the Seminole from northern to central Florida and from the areas of the Apalachicola and Suwannee Rivers south to below Tampa Bay. It also required the return of runaway slaves. Many chiefs refused to turn over the sought-after "slaves" and also refused to move, as the land in central Florida was considerably poorer than the cultivated land that they were being required to leave. Slaves continued to escape servitude in Georgia and seek haven in Florida. Obviously and predictably, slave raids recurred, although now apparently without military mandate or assistance. In the aftermath of the Moultrie Creek Treaty, the subject of relocation to places west of the Mississippi River was broached. Immediately, the Seminole were suspicious, and some, especially the freed and assimilated blacks, feared enslavement by the Creek upon their own relocation. The wedge between the Creek and Seminole was driven deep and used to best advantage by the federal government. The focus of federal policy shifted from removal southward to removal westward.
The Indian Removal Act (1830) mandated the removal of all Native Americans to locations west of the Mississippi River. The old nemesis of the Creek and Seminole, Andrew Jackson, was now president, an office to which he had been elected in part because of his espousal of a removal policy. Pursuant to the new law, in 1832 Col. James Gadsden began negotiation with the Seminole for western removal. Gadsden found the Seminole in desperate conditions. A drought had decimated their crops, and Gadsden reported that the Seminole were "naked and starving." Whether this was the true condition of the Seminole or not, those who met with Gadsden seemed amenable to removal only if the federal government would provide for a party of Seminole to go to the West and to report back their findings on a proposed settlement site. The Seminole were told that, upon relocation, they would be required to reaffiliate with the Creek and that annuity payments for them would be made to the Creek to then be distributed to them. Again, fears of subservience to the Creek arose. This uneasy accord was formalized by the Treaty of Payne's Landing (1832).
The exploratory delegation traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas, via steamboat and then on to Fort Gibson by horseback. At Fort Gibson, after viewing the site for relocation, the delegation signed agreements to the effect that it had found the site suitable. The government held that the delegation spoke for the entirety of the Seminole leadership and that its approval satisfied the requirements of the Payne's Landing Treaty, subsequently binding the Seminole to removal. The Seminole disagreed, holding that the delegation was advisory and was not charged with the authority to act on a larger mandate. Further, the delegation was not pleased with the site because it was adjacent to the Comanche, Wichita, and Kiowa, who were given to raids for the purpose of stealing horses, so the delegation had not intended to approve the relocation without tribal authority. This disagreement was a primary cause of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842).
January 1, 1836, was the date for the Seminole to report to Tampa to be shipped west. Gen. Clinch, who had as a colonel attacked the Seminole at Fort Apalachicola 20 years earlier, mustered a body of 200 troops to force the removal if it was not undertaken voluntarily. A few days prior to the appointed date for compliance, the Seminole attacked Fort King and on the same day intercepted Maj. Dade's force moving from Fort Brooke in Tampa to Fort King, near present-day Dade City. These engagements serve as testimony to the rising prominence of Osceola as a leader within the Seminole people. He had personal grievances with a government-appointed agent to the Seminole, one of the casualities at Fort King, for having contributed to the abduction of his wife and for placing him under arrest at a previous meeting.
By the end of February, overtures were made so that an agreement seemed to be in the offing. A conference was held at which the government proposed that the Seminole relocate south of the Withlacoochee River in central Florida and cease raids and hostilities. In return, the troops would not follow them. Agreement was reached on these terms, but then Gen. Clinch, apparently unaware of the agreement, arrived and assailed the Seminole party at the conference. The Seminole fled, convinced that they had been betrayed yet again.
In April 1836, a party of 407 under Holata Emathla left Tampa Bay en route to Little Rock. Eighty-seven of that party, including Holata Emathla, would die. Despite this development, hostilities continued, culminating with the surrender of Miconopy in 1837. Deputies of Miconopy treated with Gen. Thomas S. Jesup, agreeing to the relocation of their party under the condition that they could take their "slaves" with them to the West, thus protecting them from being sent or sold to white slave owners. Jesup agreed, and on March 18 Miconopy surrendered himself to be used as a hostage to ensure compliance with the treaty. With Miconopy came Jumper, Hulbutta Tustenuggee (Alligator), and Abraham. Missing from Miconopy's party was Osceola. In time, those represented by the parties to the agreement assembled near Tampa Bay and were staged for removal. Pressure began to mount on Jesup to give over the blacks amongst the Indians, and eventually he succumbed to the sentiment. This was an obvious violation of the underlying conditions, and Miconopy, Jumper, and others took their people and left the vicinity. The ongoing effort to round up other Seminole continued in the aftermath of this failed agreement, with the Creek presence being supplemented by other Indian tribes, including the Shawnee, Delaware, and Choctaw. Ongoing negotiation led to Miconopy, Alligator, and Jumper again bringing their people in for removal. Through a violation of a flag of truce and treaty protocol orchestrated under Jesup's command, Wildcat (Coacoochee) and then Osceola were captured. Many soldiers, army officers, and citizens of the time were very much disappointed and chagrined by the dishonorable means by which Osceola was captured and subsequently treated.
As the military campaign continued, the Seminole moved further south into areas for which army tactics were ill designed. Defeats and hollow victories against what was an essentially nebulous foe added to the already low morale and confidence in leadership. From above, Jesup was burdened by a damaged reputation and a loss of political will for further prosecution of what many considered an unwinnable war. These factors led the superior officers within Jesup's command to advocate striking a truce with the Seminole, leaving them all of southern Florida. Jesup approached the secretary of war, who would only allow a temporary truce and insisted on continuing the push for removal. In 1838, Jesup was recalled from the command of the army in Florida. His own estimates were that in the approximate year previous to his recall from command, 1,978 Seminole were captured and staged for removal, of which 23 escaped.
Gen. Zachary Taylor replaced Jesup in command. Taylor's primary effort appeared to be not so much prosecuting a war against the Seminole as facilitating the shipment of immigrants to the West. In April 1839, Taylor was replaced by Gen. Alexander Macomb, who was assigned specifically to negotiate a peace. In May, a peace was negotiated, the agreement of which was similar to what Jesup had suggested. The agreement met with wide approval from policymakers and citizens outside of Florida. However, citizens of Florida wanted nothing less than annihilation or removal and pressed on with provocative actions and hostilities. Through their actions, the agreement was not allowed to succeed.
Removal typically followed a water route from Tampa to New Orleans, up the Mississippi River to the Arkansas River, then up the river to Fort Gibson. From Fort Gibson, the trip was overland into Indian Territory. James Covington says that it is "estimated that some 2,968 Seminole were shipped out from 1836 to March 1841 and 934 from April 1841 to April 1842, a total of 3,902." Adding the aforementioned parties, which totaled more than 300, a conservative estimate is that more than 4,200 began the journey, although some died along the way.
In late 1842, Col. E. A. Hitchcock was charged with reopening the war that, by his estimation, "had been closed so often heretofore." Through evenhanded dealing and patience, he gained the respect of the Seminole leaders and eventually succeeded where others had failed in brokering a peace that terminated involuntary removal, although intimidation and other influence continued to be used toward the goal of total removal. The citizens of Florida still wished for relocation, and incentives were offered for voluntary removal in 1849, 1851, and 1856. J. Leitch Wright reports that the brief Third Seminole War (1855–1858) resulted in almost 300 immigrants to the West. He goes on to say that Seminole tradition suggests that several other small family groups of Seminole left Florida after the Civil War ended in 1865.
In 1881, again the federal government took up the policy of removal and sent Clay McCauley to Florida to investigate the Seminole presence there. As a result of McCauley's report, the notion of removal was overturned, and Congress, in 1884, began appropriating annual sums for disbursement to the Seminole in Florida, thereby establishing a relationship with the Seminole remaining in Florida that was similar to that reached with Native Americans who had been relocated to what would become Oklahoma.
Fred E. Knowles, Jr.
Covington, James W. The Seminoles of Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993; Deloria, V., Jr. The Application of the Constitution to American Indians. In Exiled in the Land of the Free: Democracy, Indian Nations and the U.S. Constitution, ed. Oren Lyons et al. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers, 1992; Foreman, Grant. Indian Removal. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989; Wright, J. Leitch, Jr. Creeks and Seminoles. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.