Chesapeake Country House

seminole indians
seminole indians
seminole indians

The Unconquered Seminoles
by Dru J. Murray

The Seminoles. A fierce, proud tribe of Florida, let neither three wars with the United States Army or the harsh Everglade swamps defeat them.

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The term "Seminole" is a derivative of "cimarron" which means "wild men" in Spanish. The original Seminoles were given this name because they were Indians who had escaped from slavery in the British-controlled northern colonies. When they came to Florida, they were not called Seminoles as they were actually Creeks, Indians of Muskogee derivation. The Muskogean tribes comprised the Mississipian culture which were temple-mound builders. Among the Muskogean tribes were the Creeks, Hitichis and Yamasees of Georgia, the Apalachees of Florida, the Alabamas and Mobiles of Alabama, and the Choctaws, Chickasaws and Houmas of Mississippi.

The Origins of the Seminoles
The original Seminoles came to Florida because it was controlled by the Spanish, who had no interest in returning slaves to the British. They were mostly Lower Creeks who spoke the Mikasuki language, but other Indians, including Yuchis, Yamasees and Choctaws who had confronted Ponce de Leon and DeSoto, also joined the tribe in their trek to northern Florida from Georgia during the early 1700s.

By this time, many of the tribes in Florida, including the Tequestas, Calusas, Apalachees, Timucans and others, had been decimated by the Spanish presence, either in battles or by diseases such as smallpox. Out of an estimated 100,000 native Americans that occupied Florida during the 1500s, less than 50 survived.

In 1767, Upper Creeks from Alabama, who spoke the Muskogee language, settled in the Tampa area. Shortly after this, in 1771, the first recorded usage of the name "Seminole" to denote an actual tribe was recorded. In 1778, the Seminoles were joined by more Lower Creeks and a few Apalachees.

The Five Civilized Tribes
Together with the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Cherokees, the Seminoles were called "The Five Civilized Tribes." The name was coined because these tribes in particular adopted many ways of the white civilization. They lived in cabins or houses, wore clothes similar to the white man and often became Christians.

Indian Facts
The Seminoles occupied the Southeastern United States for 12,000 years. They were finally granted U.S. citizenship in 1934.

Photo courtesy of Florida Historical Society
The Seminoles enjoyed songs, dancing and ball games.
This picture was sketched by HW Merrill in 1838.
Another habit many of the other tribes acquired from the whites was that of slavery. Though some of the tribes actually owned African slaves, the Seminoles never did. Indeed, many black Africans escaping from slavery in the Carolinas and Georgia came to Florida and built settlements near the Seminoles. They formed a union with the Seminoles based upon both their mutual fear of slavery. This union was a strong one which surpassed attempts by the U.S. to break them apart. Intermarriages and friendships were common. In fact, they were so closely allied that the blacks became known as the Black Seminoles.

Originally, the Seminoles were hunters who used muskets to hunt deer, turkey and other game and who fished. They gathered fruits, nuts and berries. Later, however, they settled down and became excellent farmers. They grew corn, sugarcane, guava and bananas. They also were successful in raising stock, including horses and cattle.

The Seminole Wars
The prosperity of the Seminoles disturbed former slaveholders in the U.S. In 1812, Seminoles learned that a group of Georgians who called themselves "Patriots" were plotting to attack Seminole settlements. The Seminoles got the jump on these potential invaders by attacking them on their plantations. This action infuriated the government and as a result, American troops led by Andrew Jackson crossed into Florida and destroyed towns in northern Alachua County.

Photo courtesy of Florida Historical Society
Billy Bowlegs with other Seminole Chiefs,
sketched in1852.
In 1816, American forces commanded by General Edmund Gaines attacked Fort Negro, an old British enclave on the Apalachicola River now occupied by mostly Black Seminoles. Led by Commander Garcia, the Seminoles refused to surrender. However, a cannonball fired by a U.S. ship landed right in the middle of the fort's munitions storage, causing a devastating explosion. Of the 337 men, women and children in the fort, only 31 survived. They were dragged back into the horrors of slavery.

Trouble erupted again in 1817 when Americans crossed the Florida border to arrest a Seminole chief. That led to the First Seminole War which began a year later when Andrew Jackson crossed the border with troops. Jackson and his men ruthlessly burned Seminole villages and captured the Spanish towns of St. Marks and Pensacola.

Unfortunately for the Seminoles, Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1819. This gave Americans wanting to settle the lush state an opportunity. Though they got the Seminoles to agree to move onto a reservation in the state's center, their greed was insatiable. The settlers wanted more.

On May 28, 1830, the settlers got the backing they wanted from the U.S. government. The Indian Removal Act was passed by Congress at President Andrew Jackson's urging. The Indian Removal Act gave the government the authority to remove all the Five Civilized Tribes east of the Mississippi to the Indian Territory in Arkansas and Oklahoma. While the bill specified that the consent of the Indians had to be obtained and compensation dispersed to the tribes, the reality of the situation was that those who did not go peacefully were forced to go anyway.

The Choctaws left for Indian Territory in 1831, the Creeks in 1835 and the Chickasaws in 1837. Some were deported in manacles. The Cherokees forestalled removal by using their legal knowledge to sue the government. They argued their case well. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall agreed with the Cherokees' viewpoint. Jackson defiantly stated, "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it." So, the Cherokees too were forced off their land and onto the "Trail of Tears," a horrendous march to the Indian Territory. The "Trail of Tears" claimed thousands of lives including one-fourth of the Cherokee Tribe due to hunger, cold, disease and sorrow.

Photo courtesy of the Seminole Tribe of Florida
Famous Seminole leader Osceola
Only one group of Indians -- the Seminoles -- successfully resisted removal and they did so fiercely. Their resistance to removal brought about the Second Seminole War. It began on December 28, 1835, when a column of 108 soldiers led by Major Dade was massacred by Seminole warriors at the Dade Battle in Sumpter County. Just four days later, on December 31, the famous Seminole leader Osceola (pronounced as Asi-Yaholo) with only 250 warriors attacked a column of 750 men under General Duncan Clinch in the Battle of Withlacoochee in Citrus County. He soundly defeated the soldiers. Osceola promised to fight the white invaders "till the last drop of Seminole blood has moistened the dust of my hunting ground."

Frustrated by Osceola's continuing successes, General Jesup resorted to deception, luring Osceola and fellow Seminoles into a trap under the guise of a meeting on peace. Osceola was captured and imprisoned, where he contracted a fatal illness and died. However, 19 of his fellow prisoners, including a daring leader named Wild Cat and John Horse, a Black Seminole, escaped. These two rode many miles together in a friendship that lasted a lifetime. After their escape, Wild Cat and John Horse made their way to friends who helped them by giving them supplies.

A force of 1,050 led by General Zachary Taylor pursued the escaped prisoners until they were met by hundreds of Seminoles lying in wait at Lake Okeechobee (a Seminole word which means "plenty big water") in the state's center. The withering fire delivered by the Seminoles under the leadership of Sam Jones, Alligator and Wildcat (Coachoochee) at the Battle of Okeechobee ended in resounding defeat on Christmas Day 1838, for the U.S. forces: 28 U.S. dead and 112 wounded. Only 10 Seminoles died in the battle.

Florida Historical Museum
Doctor Tiger, circa 1890
The Battle of Loxahatchee, waged in Palm Beach County in January of 1838, resulted in the defeat and surrender of a large group of Indians. The Second Seminole War, which dragged on until 1842, cost the United States the lives of 1,500 men and over $20 million. Most of the Seminole Nation, including some 500 Black Seminoles, were relocated to the Indian Territory.

Around 500 Seminoles remained in Florida, managing to hide in the Everglades, moving ever southward into areas where white men dared not venture. Though leaders such as Wild Cat, John Horse and others met with President Polk for peace talks in the nation's capital, the Seminoles' resistance did not fade.

War broke out again in 1855 when a military survey party was attacked by Chief Billy Bowlegs in Collier County. The Third Seminole War lasted until 1858. The few remaining Seminoles who lived in the Everglades traded skins and hides at trading posts and raised cattle.

Further Troubles
Life for those relocated to the Indian Territory was harsh. The land allotted to the Seminoles was dominated by the Creek Nation, whose members resented the Seminoles' previous abandonment. Unbelievably, the pursuit of Indian land by whites did not stop with the establishment of Indian Territory. In 1887, the Dawes General Allotment Act was passed by Congress. This act sought to divide tribal lands by decreeing that individual Indians would each own 160 acres. Any land left unclaimed could then be bought by whites.

The Dawes Act confused those who were used to tribal ownership and left the Indians prey to greedy whites waiting to snatch their land. At first the Five Civilized Tribes were spared having to abide by the Dawes Act, but by 1905, they too were allotted their lands under its rules.

Florida Historical Museum
1837 lithograph of a Seminole village
The Black Seminoles were upset in 1849, when the U.S. attorney general decided that Black Seminoles were still slaves. The final straw came when whites demanded that the Black Seminoles, who were living in separate towns, surrender their guns. Under the leadership of Wild Cat and John Horse, they left the U.S. for Mexico in 1850. The Mexican government provided the Seminoles with a home in exchange for protection of the border from marauders. After the Civil War, many of these Seminoles moved to Texas and again found work protecting the border. However, prejudice encountered in the formerly confederate state along with broken promises about the ownership of land eventually drove a band of them return to Mexico in 1914. Sadly, the Black Seminoles never owned land anywhere after they left Florida.

Ironically, Indians, who had inhabited the great continent long before the white man came, became citizens of the United States via the Snyder Act during World War I. In 1934, the Wheeler-Howard Act, or Indian Reorganization Act, made life better for the Indians. It allowed Indians to compose tribal constitutions, elect tribal councils, and create tribal institutions. It also extended financial credit to the tribes, stipulated needed improvements in educational and medical facilities, restored religious freedom and encouraged the revival of Indian culture.

"All Indians must dance, everywhere, keep on dancing. Pretty soon in next spring Great Spirit come. He bring back all game of every kind. The game be thick everywhere. All dead Indians come back and live again. Thay all be strong just like young men, be young again. Old blind Indian see again and get young and have fine time...."
- Wovoka, the Paiute Messiah
Modern Organization and Future
To combat a House resolution that would terminate assistance to Indian tribes, Seminole tribe members worked to officially organize the tribe with a constitution and charter. On August 21, 1957, a majority of the tribe voted in favor of the creation of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Some of the tribe, those speaking the Mikosuki language, split off to form the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida.

Today, the Seminole Tribe is engaged in creating economic opportunity for its members, preserving its proud heritage and culture and working to preserve its homeland, the Everglades of Florida. The Seminoles' indomitable spirit, that of the unconquered, will carry them far.