Osceola (ah-see-oh-la) was a warrior and chief of the Seminole Indian tribe during the Indian removal from Florida to unsettled U.S. territory in the West during the early 1800s. His significance in the academy and the social sciences is linked to issues related to Native American identity and the political relationship between Native Americans and the U.S. government. Significant as well is his historical relationship to African slaves and contemporary African Americans’ tenuous relationship to Native American tribes—the Seminoles in particular, but also the Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee, and Chickasaw, who were removed from their original homelands in the southeastern United States to their present, primary home in Oklahoma.
Osceola is seen as a major figure in securing the rights of Seminoles and other native peoples during the colonial period—not through signing agreements and treaties with agents of the U.S. governments, as some tribal leaders had done, but through guerrilla warfare tactics that kept the U.S. military at bay for a long time and so slowed the removal of Seminoles and the taking of Seminole lands. Osceola has also been viewed as a symbol of the ancestral mixture that formally and informally linked African peoples to the Indian tribes, a link that fuels contemporary claims to tribal government benefits.
The Seminoles in Florida were remnants of other Indian tribes that fled to Florida and established a lifestyle, culture, and politics that were indigenous and self-governing. Osceola strenuously objected to the United States’s offer to buy Seminole Florida lands in exchange for removal and settlement to open territory west of the Mississippi. Though his position differed from those of many of his tribal brethren, he found allies among another group of wanderers who had fled to Florida—free Africans and fugitive slaves who had several years before merged with the Florida Seminoles. These freedmen and fugitives—referred to by the Seminoles as Estelusti —joined the faction of Seminoles led by Osceola in opposing relocation, fighting alongside them in the Seminole Wars.
Although these “Black Seminoles” were loyal to the Seminole tribe, adopting many of their customs, intermarrying, and settling with them in the new Indian Territories in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and other surrounding states, neither the Seminoles nor whites during that period recognized them as official tribe members. Later, when the Dawes Act of 1887 required a census of Native American tribal members, Black Seminoles— referred to as Freemen—were counted as part of the tribal role, and received allotments of tribal lands. As a result of Jim Crow laws enacted after Oklahoma statehood, Black Seminoles were physically separated from their Seminole tribal brethren and their legal status as official tribal members was called into question. The ensuing controversy lasts until the present, in large part due to the refusal of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to grant official certificates of Indian blood to Black Seminoles not originally on the Dawes rolls. Blacks were officially enrolled as tribe members and recognized as such by the federal government. In 1991 the federal government awarded the Seminoles $56 million for their Florida lands, but nonblack members of the tribe claimed that the black members had no claim to share in the award. This prompted black members of the tribe to file suit in federal court; in one argument, they pointed to the original relationship their ancestors had with Osceola (and one of his wives who was African descent) and their loyalty in fighting with him as a reason that they should be recognized as full tribal members.
Hartley, William B., and Ellen Hartley. 1973. Osceola, the Unconquered Indian. New York: Hawthorn.
Porter, Kenneth W. 1996. The Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-Seeking People. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Dispossessed by Andrew Jackson's settlement of the Creek War of 1813–14, he and part of his family migrated southward into the Spanish Floridas. His plight and passion captured the imagination of the U.S. press, which romanticized Osceola as a symbol of Indian resistance to forced removal. Acquisition of the territory by the United States in 1821 increased tensions, and the young warrior spoke vehemently against the treaties by which the United States sought to confine Florida Indians to peninsular reservations. Imprisoned for several days by U.S. Indian agent Wiley Thompson in 1835, Osceola determined to fight removal. Along with tribal leaders, he planned the opening gambits of the Second Seminole War.
On 28 December 1835, Osceola murdered Agent Thompson at Fort King (Ocala) as his compatriots were attacking a U.S. Army column under Maj. Francis Dade en route there. Two days later, he was one of the leaders of the Battle of the Withlacoochee, in which U.S. regulars and volunteers were routed by the numerically inferior Indian forces. He led warriors throughout 1836–37 although his health declined.
On 21 October 1837, Osceola was captured by U.S. troops, while under a white flag of truce, near St. Augustine, East Florida. He was transferred from Fort Marion (St. Augustine) to Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, where he died a prisoner on 30 January 1838.
[See also Native Americans, U.S. Military Relations with; Native American Wars: Wars Between Native Americans and Europeans and Euro‐Americans; Seminole Wars.]
John K. Mahon , History of the Second Seminole War, 1967; reprint 1991.
Patricia R. Wickman , Osceola's Legacy, 1991.
Patricia R. Wickman
The Seminole Indian war chief Osceola (ca. 1800-1838) led his tribe's fight against being removed from their lands in Florida.
Born about 1800 on the Tallapoosa River in the present state of Georgia, Osceola was a member of the Creek nation. His mother's second husband was William Powell, a Scottish trader, but Osceola, sometimes called Powell, was a full-blooded Creek.
In 1808 Osceola and his mother moved to Florida. They were associated with the Seminoles, and with them Osceola fought in the War of 1812 and in 1818 against American troops under Andrew Jackson. By 1832 Osceola was living near Ft. King in Florida. Apparently he was not hostile, for he was employed occasionally by the Indian agent to pacify restless tribesmen. Such activities gradually brought him to prominence among the Seminoles.
In 1832, however, the United States government was under pressure to move the Seminoles west of the Mississippi River. Some Seminole chiefs were persuaded to sign a treaty of removal. Osceola opposed this, as he did a similar agreement made in 1835. Most Seminole chiefs signified their disagreement by refusing to touch the pen; Osceola did so by plunging his knife into the paper. He was arrested for this defiance. To secure his release, he pretended that he would work for approval for the treaty. By now a Seminole war chief, once freed, he began gathering warriors for battle.
On Dec. 28, 1835, Osceola and his warriors brutally murdered the agent Wiley Thompson and Chief Charley Emathla, thereby precipitating the Second Seminole War. With Indian followers and fugitive slaves, Osceola overcame many enemies during the next 2 years.
The first of his major battles occurred when Osceola killed Maj. Francis L. Dade and 110 soldiers. Days later, with 200 followers, he fought against Gen. Duncan L. Clinch and 600 soldiers. Wounded, he was forced to retreat. On June 8, 1836, he was repelled at a fortified post, but on August 16 he almost overwhelmed Ft. Drane. Osceola's fight was so successful that it led to widespread public criticism of the U.S. Army, especially of Gen. Thomas S. Jesup, who ordered Osceola's arrest while under a flag of truce on Oct. 21, 1837.
The captured Seminole chief was imprisoned at Ft. Marion, Fla., then removed to Ft. Moultrie, S.C. He died there on Jan. 30, 1838, of unknown causes.
A full-length biography of Osceola is James B. Ransom, Osceola (1838). Information on him is in Theodore Pratt, Seminole: A Drama of the Florida Indian (1953), and Alvin Josephy, Jr., The Patriot Chiefs: A Chronicle of American Indian Leadership (1961). A good general study of the Seminole problem is Edwin C. McReynolds, The Seminoles (1957). For an overview of the war which Osceola commanded see John K. Mahon, History of the Second Seminole War (1967). □
Osceola (ŏsēō´lə, ō–), c.1800–1838, leader of the Seminole. He was also called Powell, the surname of his supposed white father. In the early 1830s, Osceola was living close to Fort King, near the site of Ocala, Fla. Although not a chief, he rose to a position of prominence among the Seminole and led the young warriors who denounced the treaties of 1832 and 1833, which provided for the removal of the Native Americans to the West. In Dec., 1835, Osceola's warriors killed Wiley Thompson, the Indian agent in charge of the removal. U.S. troops under General Jesup drove his band southward into the Everglades, but Osceola, skillfully using guerrilla tactics, resisted capture. Fighting ceased early in 1837, only to break out again in June. Overtures for peace were sent to Osceola, and he agreed to meet with Jesup in St. Augustine under a flag of truce. Jesup, never intending to discuss peace, had Osceola seized and imprisoned at Fort Moultrie, S.C., where he died shortly afterward.
See study by W. and E. Hartley (1973).