Seminole Wars

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Seminole Wars (1818; 1835–42; 1855–58).The southeastern border of the United States was continuously turbulent during the early nineteenth century. Runaway slaves escaped into Spanish Florida, while Indian bands and white bands marauded unrestrained. Open war finally broke out on 27 November 1817, when Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines sent a detachment to Fowltown, a Seminole village, to arrest its chief, Neamathla, for defying the authority of the United States.

Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson took over command on 26 December 1817. With an army of about 4,000 men, half of them Creek Indians, he invaded Spanish Florida and destroyed Seminole power west of the Suwannee River. He went on to take St. Marks and Pensacola, offending Spain; then offended Great Britain by executing two British citizens for aiding the Seminoles. The war seemed over to him, and on 30 May 1818, he left Florida. The next year, because of Jackson's conquests, the Spanish government transferred Florida to the United States by the Adams‐Onís Treaty.

For the Seminoles, American acquisition ended an era of prosperity and began one of deprivation. The first U.S. policy, initiated in 1823, confined them to a reservation of 4 million acres of poor land. There were numerous violent confrontations, many of them disputes over the ownership of blacks. U.S. slaveholders, Creek Indians, Seminoles, and the blacks themselves harried each other over slave property.

As Americans shoved into Florida in the years after the war, the Seminoles, a loose association of diverse bands, prepared to fight once more. In 1834, however, their leadership came not from hereditary chiefs but from Osceola, a part‐white warrior without ancestral or tribal standing, whose courage and determination inspired the bands to act together. Miccosukees ravaged the plantations east of the St. Johns River, while Alachuas and others killed the Indian agent, Wiley Thompson, and annihilated Maj. Francis L. Dade's detachment of 108 men on 28 December 1835. Dade's defeat began the undeclared Second Seminole War, 1835–42.

By September 1836, the Seminoles controlled all of North Florida east of the Suwannee River except Newnansville, Micanopy, and Garey's Ferry. But when Osceola sickened in the late summer, cooperation among the bands slackened. Leadership passed from Osceola to Wildcat ( Coacoochee), Alligator ( Halpatter Tustenuggee), Jumper ( Ote Emathla), Halleck Tustenuggee, Billy Bowlegs ( Holata Mico), and Sam Jones ( Arpeika). These men led not a nation but disparate bands that sometimes cooperated.

For the United States, Brig. Gen. Duncan L. Clinch commanded first, followed by Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott. After Scott, the civilian governor of Florida, Richard K. Call, took charge for six months. Then the sequence of ranking general officers recommenced: Maj. Gen. Thomas S. Jesup, Brig. Gen. Zachary Taylor, Brig. Gen. Walker K. Armistead, and Brig. Gen. William J. Worth.

Scott's Napoleon‐like strategy failed. Jesup, frustrated, began to seize key leaders when they came in to negotiate; his most notorious capture was of Osceola on 27 October 1837. Zachary Taylor directed the notable battle near Lake Okeechobee on Christmas Day, 1837. He threw his 800 men head‐on against a position meticulously prepared by the three bands of Seminoles waiting there. He finally dislodged them but sustained 138 casualties.

About 400 blacks, effective fighters, stood with the Seminoles until the spring of 1838. In March of that year, General Jesup reversed previous policies and promulgated his order that all blacks who joined the U.S. force would become free. Thereafter, the blacks shifted allegiance, ceasing to serve alongside the warriors.

The last two U.S. commanders relied on small detachments led by junior officers. Blacks or captured Indians guided them to the ultimate hideaways of the Indians, where they destroyed the remaining Seminole means of subsistence. Ragged, hungry, and short of ammunition, hostile bands began to surrender; in August 1842, General Worth was able to declare the Second Seminole War ended. About 350 Indians remained south of Lake Okeechobee and Pease Creek.

For a few years, Billy Bowlegs and Sam Jones strove to keep the peace; but the United States, pressed by settlers, began to build roads and survey within the Indian preserve. Escalating white encroachments brought an attack on an army camp on 20 December 1855. It was the catalyst for the Third Seminole War. U.S. volunteers rather than regulars provided the main military force this time. The last fight took place on 5 March 1857. Billy Bowlegs, convinced that the cause was lost, accepted several thousand dollars to emigrate, taking with him 165 followers. About 120 Seminoles remained behind. One of them was Sam Jones, who never left, but died in Florida in 1867, one hundred eleven years old. The United States declared the Third Seminole War officially ended on 8 May 1858.
[See also Native American Wars.]


John K. Mahon , History of the Second Seminole War, 1835–1842, 1967.
James W. Covington , The Billy Bowlegs War, 1855–1858, 1981.
Virginia Bergman Peters , The Florida Wars, 1979.
Kenneth W. Porter , The Black Seminoles, 1996.
Frank Laumer , Dade's Last Command, 1995.
John K. Mahon , The First Seminole War, 1817–1818, Florida Historical Quarterly, Summer 1998.

John K. Mahon

Seminole Wars

views updated Jun 11 2018

Seminole Wars

From the beginning of the 1700s and continuing for over a century, American Indians from various groups streamed into Spanish Florida. They fled there to escape white expansion, violent rivalries with other Indian nations such as the Creeks, and wars between the European settlers. In time, these Indians became identified as Seminoles, a Muskogee term that means “runaways.”

The various groups of Seminoles cemented relationships with each other, eventually establishing loose military and political alliances. African Americans figured prominently in this alliance in the nineteenth century, both as slaves of the Indians (who had started keeping slaves at the end of the eighteenth century) and as Maroons, African Americans who had escaped slavery in Georgia and the Carolinas and made their way to live among the Seminoles in Florida . Even while Florida remained a Spanish holding, the Seminoles and other Florida Indians ran into conflicts with the United States. The result was a series of three wars.

First Seminole War (1817–18)

In 1816 the United States built Fort Scott near the border between Georgia and Spanish-held Florida. Across the Flint River in Florida was a settlement of the Mikasuki, a Florida tribe. Their chief, Neamathla, was violently anti-United States. He used the village as a base from which to stage raids into the southeastern part of the country and as a collecting point for loot and runaway slaves. The United States put together a small army to confront Neamathla. The result was a small battle on November 21, 1817, the opening action of the first Seminole War. After that battle the Mikasuki retreated eastward.

Two months later the U.S. secretary of war, John C. Calhoun , ordered Major General Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) to lead a war against the Seminoles. At Fort Scott, Jackson built up a force of 1,500 white men and 2,000 Creek Indians. With this force, he pursued the Seminoles eastward, destroying their villages along the way. By early April he had broken all Indian resistance west of the Suwannee River. He next turned his force against the territories held by the Spanish in that area, all of which he conquered.

Second Seminole War (1835–42)

The first Seminole War persuaded Spain to give Florida to the United States before it was lost through conquest. The transfer was completed in 1821. Without being consulted, the Florida Indians, including the Seminoles, were transferred to U.S. rule. Then, in 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized relocating all Indians living in the eastern United States to lands west of the Mississippi River. Most of the Seminole Indians fiercely opposed being forced from their lands. They prepared to fight.

In December 1835 the war chief Osceola (1804–1838) killed an Indian agent and some U.S. soldiers. By that time Andrew Jackson was president, and he was an ardent believer in moving Native Americans out of the way of white settlement. He ordered American forces to fight the Seminoles. At first, the U.S. Army used classical military methods. The Indians countered with guerrilla tactics, using small, independent combat groups that wore down the regular army and made victory impossible. Jackson then sent Major General Thomas S. Jesup (1788–1860) to Florida.

Jesup had little respect for Indians and soon abandoned the conventions of so-called civilized war. He experimented with bloodhounds, forced captives on pain of death to betray their friends, and violated flags of truce and promises of safe conduct. Under a flag of truce he seized Osceola in October 1837. By the time Jesup was relieved of duty in May 1838, about one hundred Indians had been killed and twenty-nine hundred captured.

Warfare continued for four years. By 1842 there were no more than three hundred Seminoles left in Florida. The United States decided it would be easier to give them a small amount of land in Florida than to continue the battle. Accordingly, the few remaining Indians agreed in mid-August 1842 to confine themselves to the area south of Pease Creek and west of Lake Okeechobee.

Third Seminole War (1855–58)

When Florida became a state in 1845, it decided to expel the Seminoles completely. The state built roads leading into the Indians' lands, and the U.S. Army took measures to harass the Seminoles, hoping to push them into committing violent acts. One patrol vandalized some property deep in Seminole country that happened to belong to the foremost Seminole leader, Billy Bowlegs (c. 1810–c. 1864). This heedless act set off an explosion. Bowlegs, leading thirty-five warriors, attacked the U.S. patrol in 1855, killing six men. The third Seminole War was under way.

At the start of the third war there were perhaps 360 Seminole in Florida, 120 of them warriors. The United States and the state of Florida had a force of thousands, including hardened Indian fighters. The Seminoles were soon forced to surrender, and 165 Seminoles, including Billy Bowlegs, were sent to the lands in Indian Territory , in present-day Oklahoma. Bowlegs returned to Florida in December 1858 and helped to persuade another 75 to move to Indian Territory. Roughly 125 Florida Seminoles remained in their homeland and were never forced to leave.

Seminole Wars

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The first Seminole War, which began in 1817, was a continuation of tensions stemming from conflicts with the Creek Confederacy during and after the American Revolution and from the presence of runaway and freed slaves in border settlements in Spanish Florida. The Seminoles were a group of Muskogee- and Hitchiti-speaking tribes

living in towns along the frontier. They incorporated within their population the militant Red Stick Creeks, refugees from the defeat of the Creeks by Andrew Jackson in 1814. These Creeks refused to acknowledge the stringent land cession terms of the Treaty of Fort Jackson (1814) and continued to occupy lands on both sides of the Spanish Florida–American border. Under the protection of the Spanish, and the British as well, the Seminoles took in not just Creeks, but slaves fleeing plantations, which infuriated their white owners.

From the American perspective, the situation was exacerbated by the continuing presence of British agents during the War of 1812 (1812–1815), notably Lieutenant Colonel Edward Nicholls of the Royal Marines. He armed the Red Stick Creeks and their African American allies but was prevented from using them by the British defeat at New Orleans and the Treaty of Ghent. Instead, Nicholls—recruiting two British expatriates and merchants, Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Ambrister—kept up agitation amongst the Red Sticks regarding their ceded land and lands that part of the tribe had ceded to Forbes and Company and now wanted considered an illegal transaction. Many of the former slaves belonging to Nicholls's force left with the evacuating British, but some stayed, increasing American anxiety that their armed presence would encourage slaves in the United States to revolt or flee.

Open warfare began when Andrew Jackson, acting on petitions from slaveholders, ordered his subordinate, Major General Edmund Gaines, to destroy what was called Negro Fort, a Seminole and freed slave settlement fortified by the British and located over the border in Spanish Florida on the Apalachicola River. The attack, which occurred on 27 July 1816, destroyed the fort, with refugees fleeing to join other Seminole communities. In October and November 1817, American officers at Fort Scott ordered the arrest of Seminole leaders living at Fowl Town, a settlement just north of the Spanish border; they were accused of being banditti and of threatening the Americans when they attempted to harvest timber. When the Seminole leaders refused, Fowl Town was destroyed in a series of raids. Survivors retaliated with devastating force, ambushing a transport boat on the Apalachicola River and killing fifty-one Americans, four of them children. Meanwhile, raids continued to be made by both the Fort Scott soldiers against Seminole towns and Native Americans against Georgia plantations.

Jackson replaced Gaines on 9 March 1818 and proceeded to invade Spanish Florida, sacking the town of Suwanee on 16 April. Although the Seminoles did not suffer high casualties, they were driven out of settlements and lost substantial amounts of stored food to Jackson's deliberate policy of destruction. Arbuthnot and Ambrister were captured by Jackson, court-martialed for treason for their role in encouraging the tribes, and executed. The international controversy generated by the execution of these British subjects was compounded on 24 May 1818, when Jackson seized Pensacola, deposed the Spanish governor, and forced the surrender of all those Seminoles who had fled there to Spanish protection. En route to Pensacola, Jackson looted and destroyed British plantations, Seminole villages, and Spanish property, even though he faced virtually no opposition.

In 1821 Spain implemented the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819 by leaving its Florida possessions, which placed the Seminoles, Creeks, and the former slaves allied with them at the mercy of Jackson and the American government. The British, also not wanting conflict, overlooked the deaths of Arbuthnot and Ambrister. Some Seminole leaders, under pressure, accepted a series of treaties promising annuities and a reservation and agreed to return runaway slaves. However, these treaties, which specified that the Seminoles would join with the Creeks and also placed a limit on the annuities, proved impossible for the American governor to enforce. That only some tribal leaders had signed also gave rebellious Seminoles reason to feel themselves not bound by the agreements, which led to further conflicts beginning in 1835.

See alsoAmerican Indians; Florida; Transcontinental Treaty .


Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler. Old Hickory's War. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole, 1996.

Knetsch, Joe. Florida's Seminole Wars, 1818–1858. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2003.

Porter, Kenneth Wiggins. "Negroes and the Seminole War 1817–1818." Journal of Negro History 36 (1951): 249–280.

Wright, J. Leitch. "A Note on the First Seminole War as Seen by the Indians, Negroes, and Their British Advisors." Journal of Southern History 34 (1968): 565–575.

Margaret Sankey

Seminole Wars

views updated May 08 2018


SEMINOLE WARS. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Seminole Indians in the Spanish colony of Florida faced numerous pressures. With the Spanish and then the French expelled from Louisiana, interior southeastern Indians no longer had European allies for protection or as markets for their goods. Everywhere, Americans were turning Indian lands into farms—particularly along the fertile rivers of the South, where cotton plantations mushroomed. Many Seminole communities increasingly incorporated runaway African American slaves into their societies, in which the escapees became productive community members. Meanwhile, as southern plantation owners became more militant, raids and counterraids across the U.S.–Florida border characterized Seminole–white relations.

In 1816, detachments of the U.S. Army began pursuing runaways into Florida, and in March 1818, General Andrew Jackson assumed control of nearly three thousand men in an invasion of Seminole Florida that began the First Seminole War. Focusing on several Seminole communities in northern Florida, Jackson marched southward, burning Seminole fields, villages, and houses. As Seminoles abandoned their settled communities and retreated into the interior, Jackson turned west, capturing St. Marks in April 1818 and Pensacola the following month. In 1819, Spain relinquished control of Florida to the United States, and when Florida became a territory of the United States in 1822, thousands of settlers rushed south to claim plantation lands. Jackson became the first governor of the Florida Territory.

Throughout the 1820s and into the 1830s, Florida officials attempted to pressure Seminole groups to leave their lands and move westward. The Seminoles, however, were required to leave behind their black community members, who were to become the slaves of whites. Refusing to leave their homelands and to break up their families—many runaway slaves had intermarried with Seminoles—Seminole leaders defied all attempts to force their removal. In 1835, as U.S. officials attempted a final drive to displace the Seminoles, a young warrior, Osceola, was arrested after failing to sign a removal treaty. After his arrest, Osceola killed a proremoval leader and called on his community members to join him in driving out white officials. This began the Second Seminole War.

From 1835 to 1842, Osceola and other Seminole leaders orchestrated guerrilla campaigns against U.S. Army stations throughout north-central Florida. Often overwhelming vastly superior forces, Seminoles became renowned for their military prowess and strategy. In the last week of 1835, Osceola led his forces to three stunning victories over the Americans, culminating in his triumph at Withlacoochee on 31 December, when the Seminoles dispersed a force of about 750 whites under General Duncan Clinch. Andrew Jackson, now president of the United States, appointed nine commanders before finally capturing Osceola, who died in captivity in 1838.

The Second Seminole War continued until 1842, when the U.S. government at last accepted the futility of its campaign. Although three thousand Seminoles were removed west to Indian Territory, with about a thousand left behind, the government lost just under fifteen hundred soldiers and spent nearly $40 million, including fighting the Third Seminole War in 1855. Although enduring recurrent infringements on their lands, the remaining Seminole groups created lasting communities in the Florida Everglades.


Walton, George. Fearless and Free: The Seminole Indian War, 1835–1842. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1977.

Weisman, Brent Richards. Like Beads on a String: A Cultural History of the Seminole Indians in North Peninsular Florida. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989.


See alsoFlorida ; Indian Policy, U.S.: 1775–1830, 1830–1900 ; Indian Removal ; Indians and Slavery ; Wars with Indian Nations: Early Nineteenth Century (1783–1840), Later Nineteenth Century (1840–1900) .

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