The African Seminoles, an autonomous group of Africans living among the Florida Seminoles, led arguably the largest slave rebellion in United States history, which occurred in tandem with the Second Seminole War.1 Between 1835 and 1838, no fewer than 900 African Seminoles, maroons, and slaves participated in a rebellion that resulted in roughly 400 white casualties. 2 If such a marginalized group managed to organize and execute such a historical feat, why is it that very few historians mention them in the context of slavery and emancipation?
The African Seminoles cannot be classified simply as slaves or as maroons. Neither can they be identified as solely African or singularly Seminole Indian. The Black Seminoles were in fact a small nation of freedom-seeking people, who were born from slavery and in turn played a dynamic role in the shaping of Florida's geopolitical landscape, during the Seminole Wars and the United State's largest recorded slave uprising. Race and slavery cannot be separated from the Black Seminole people, who, while an independent entity, played a significant role in the shaping of Florida's slave and free past. I wish to bring to light the widely unknown truth that the Black Seminoles continued to challenge United States constructs of race even after Florida was won for the United States. How did they fight with the Seminoles and freed men of color against slavery and for racial justice?
"African Seminole" is a term chosen to identify the collective people of African ancestry and Native American ancestry and/or cultural influence. Primary documents give the African Seminoles a variety of identifying terms: Seminole Maroons, Negro Indians, negroes among the Seminoles, and escaped slaves are all terms commonly found in war documents, letters, and testimonies before and during the Seminole Wars. Secondary sources are mostly likely to refer to this community as Black Seminoles or Seminole Maroons. Historian, Terrance Weik, argues for the label, "African Seminole" as it transcends the more racialized labels of the 19th century and recognizes the African Seminoles and their existence as an autonomous community, which is deeply, connected, both biologically and culturally to both Africa and the Seminole Indians.3
The origin of the African Seminoles is largely disputed. Some argue that they were originally slaves fleeing the US to Florida during American Revolution, because the British offered them freedom in exchange for their willingness to fight against the Patriots. Other sources argue that the Spanish gifted or traded the slaves to the Seminoles, who did not treat them as slaves in the chattel slavery sense. Porter insists that origins matter very little as each story might very well hold some truth. The real issue concerns who they were in relation to the Seminole Indians. The African Seminoles, according to Porter, "living among the Seminole, either as legal slaves, through purchases from Spaniards, English, or Americans, or, in a greater number of cases, runaways and their descendants, but all thoroughly identified in customs and interests with the Indians, at the worst as their favored dependents, at the best as advisers to the chief men of the tribe, and in no case treated as chattels"(1996). Weik agrees that the relationship between the Seminoles and their "slaves" was a complicated one. No two Euro-American accounts are quite alike and while many recognized the relatively free nature of the African Seminole community, others saw them only as slaves to either whites or Indians. This variety of observations naturally played a part in the realization of slavery and freedom in Seminole territory. 4
While some historians argue that the Africans among the Seminoles largely remained bondsmen to the Seminole Indians, pre, during, and post Seminole Wars5 and were not necessarily an independent nation, others are adamant that the African Seminole developed as an independent community, which lived parallel to Seminole communities in Florida, adapting to the Seminole way of life, in culture as well as politics.6 Based on the primary evidence presented here, I insist that the African Seminoles were indeed a community defined by cultural autonomy, influenced by both African and Seminole ways. However, this same little nation was not entirely politically autonomous; they still belonged, in a sense, to the Seminoles. John Sprague wrote in his 1848 analysis of the Seminole Wars: "Sometimes they became free allies, sometimes slaves, but if they were slaves, the bondage was much lighter than enforced by white men.7
Porter further argues this autonomy, which he states, "derived from their abilities to wield weapons, farm, and select their leaders. He also argued that African-Seminole opportunities were not diminished by a semi-feudal relationship that they had with the Seminole Indians. Other approaches to African and Seminole settlements recognize their mutable community membership, sociocultural “newness,” mobility, and ability to manipulate borderland politics" (1996). Weik calls these collective factors ethnogenesis.8
First Lieutenant George A. McCall, at the Camp on the Sabine River, 1 May 1836, provides valuable insight towards the role the African Seminole played within the larger Seminole community. He depicts an interaction between General Arbuckle and Chief Micanopy; Micanopy’s slave, Abraham, who was former property of a Dr. Sierra of Pensacola, interpreted this offer of western lands in exchange for secession of Florida lands. McCall notes in his letter that Abraham exercised influence over his master. A defining difference in role between United States, Seminole, and Spanish owned slaves, is this exercise of opinion and right. McCall recalls in his 1868 Letters from the Frontiers:
Micanopy quietly retired; -he returned the next morning, when Thompson directed Abraham, -a negro, once a slave of Dr. Sierra of Pensacola, but for many years past claiming to belong to Micanopy, and now his interpreter, -to ask the chief what he had to say in reply to the Agent's order to prepare his people to embark at an early day at Tampa Bay. The question was put, and the answer returned by Abraham in these words: "The old man says to-day the same he said yesterday, 'that the nation had decided in council to decline the offer of the United States Government"... This Negro, Abraham, exercised a wonderful influence over his master; he was a very shrewd fellow, quick and intelligent, but crafty and artful in the extreme... I doubt not that he had on this occasion, as usual, much to do in keeping he chief, who was of a vacillating character, steady in his purpose.9
This account illustrates the considerable power Abraham, an African Seminole, held within the Seminole community. Was he still regarded as a slave? Perhaps. But we must re-think our construct of slavery in the Euro-American sense, and consider what the term may have meant to the Seminole Indians, who fought alongside the African Seminole community during the Seminole Wars.
The three Seminole Wars, between the United States and the collective group of Seminoles, fugitive slaves, and African Seminoles, occurred in 1814-1819, 1835-1842, and 1865-1858, respectively. This purpose of this paper is to explore the impact of race relations on the African Seminole community, Seminole Wars, and finally eventual emancipation, so I have chosen to focus primarily on the Second and Third Seminole Wars, which occurred just before emancipation became a key issue in the United States. Many historians argue that the institution of slavery, in fact, led to the Seminole Wars.10
During the War of 1812 the British built a fort at Prospect Bluff, a rallying point to persuade the Florida Seminoles to join the British against the American troops and recruit ex-slaves for the British cause. The fort, the British Post, was fully stocked with weaponry but when the British left quickly in 1815, the fort was left unmanned; it subsequently became home to former black soldiers, who had fought for the British; Seminoles; and an estimated 800 fugitive slaves.11
Slaveholding states saw the fort as a threat to slavery as is evidenced by this article in the Savannah Constitution in 1816:
It was not to be expected, that an establishment so pernicious to the Southern States, holding out to a part of their population temptations to insubordination, would have been suffered to exist after the close of the war. In the course of last winter, several slaves from this neighborhood fled to that fort; others have lately gone from Tennessee and the Mississippi Territory. How long shall this evil, requiring immediate remedy, be permitted to exist?12
Andrew Jackson responded to the public insecurity, ordering an attack on the fort, now commonly called the Negroe Fort, in turn killing nearly all of the Seminoles, fugitives, and freed-men inside. Historian, John Mahon, argues that Seminole anger at the Americans for the fort's destruction would contribute to the breakout of the First Seminole War a year later.13 The attack on the Negro Fort represents the beginning of an ongoing struggle between the African Seminoles and the United States, but more importantly, the circumstances commenced the African Seminoles involvement in a national fight for freedom from slavery.
Race relations in Florida were different from other places in the South. The Seminole population was largely committed to peaceful relationships with white residents following the annexation of Florida to the United States. Porter explains, "There had been peace between the whites and the Seminole ever since the annexation of Florida to the United States. The Indians and their Negroes had been accustomed to come frequently into St. Augustine and other towns to trade, and were familiar with the city and its in- habitants. Racial ties made the relations among the various categories of Florida Negroes particularly close"14 The relationship between the Black Seminole and the Seminole Indian was also well developed through generations of support leading up to the Seminole War. The general white American was disdainful towards the African Seminoles, considered runaways or stolen property. White accounts referred to this community as fugitives, convicts, or the Negroes among the Indians. This perpetuated a sub-human stereotype, which carried into the nineteenth century. In times of peace, the African Seminole/Seminole relationship acted as a cultural bridge for the African Seminoles and the white occupants of Florida.
When peacetime ended, the African Seminoles played a significant, strategic, and relentless role in the first Seminole War, fighting alongside their trusted Seminole comrades, but also championing their own cause. Unlike their Indian counterparts, many of whom considered the proposed relocation to Arkansas, the Black Seminoles had everything to lose should they lose their rights to land in Florida. Porter stresses this fact in his analysis:
The Florida War was not merely an "Indian war," but one in which the Negro element among the Seminole played an important and perhaps a dominating role. On this there was general agreement among the officers participating. "The negroes," it was said, "exercised a wonderful control. They openly refused to follow their masters, if they removed to Arkansas. Many of them would have been reclaimed by the Creeks, to whom some belonged. Others would have been taken possession of by the whites, who for years had been urging their claims through the government and its agents15
The Seminoles Wars were no doubt about the Seminole Indians and their fight for Northern Florida Territory, a cause that the African Seminoles supported; But, the wars were also a strategic attempt to fight for autonomy and ultimately freedom from bondage.
Joshua Giddings, an American lawyer, politician, and opponent of slavery took an interest in the African Seminoles as he experienced the Second Seminole War. In 1858, he published, "The Exiles of Florida, or the Crimes Committed by Our Government Against the Maroons, Who Fled From South Carolina and Other Slave States, Seeking Protection Under Spanish Law". The collection of letters details his observations---specifically in regards to the African Seminoles' reaction to General Jackson and the prospect of enslavement or re-enslavement at the close of the Seminole Wars. Giddings writes:
The Exiles appear to have viewed the approach of General Jackson with coolness and firmness. They had evidently calculated the result with perfect accuracy.... With the Exiles, there was no alternative other than war or slavery; and they greatly preferred death upon the battlefield, to chains and the scourge. We may well suppose they would fight with some degree of desperation, under such circumstances; and the battle of Suwanee gave evidence of their devotion to freedom. They met the disciplined troops, who constituted General Jackson's army, with firmness and gallantry
Porter also insists that "the importance of the Indian Negroes is confirmed, and reinforced, by the frequent references to battles in which the Negro warriors equaled or exceeded the Indians in numbers and courage, attacks on Negro villages, the death or capture of Negro fighters, the activities and exploits of Negro chiefs. The extent to which the plantation slave and free Negro population of Florida participated in the war, as allies, overt or covert, of the Indians and Indian Negroes, has, however, received little or no attention from the historian. The African Seminoles, along with escaped slaves led no little rebellion, but a large-scale event, which, along with the Second Seminole War, caused considerable death and destruction16
Though Porter, Weik, and Kokomoor agree on the significance of the Black Seminoles in Florida's history, this same significance has been traditionally overlooked by a plethora of reputable sources including but not limited to, John Hope Franklin's 1999, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation; Eugene Genovese's 1974 Roll, Jordan, Roll; and Stanley Elkin's Slavery (1963).
Giddings saw the African Seminoles and the crimes against them and exiled slaves, as an opportunity to oppose slavery. He recognized their desperate fight for freedom and cultural autonomy and he subsequently brought these truths to light, influencing Northern sentiments about abolishing slavery in reaction to Jackson’s invasion of Florida. He exposes General Jackson's purposeful ignorance towards the crimes against the African Seminoles as well as their influence in the Seminole Wars. Giddings examined two popular histories at the time and discovered that both Williams in A History of Florida and Monette agree on several facts; they state that three hundred and forty Negroes rallied and battled during the 1836 Black Seminole and slave rebellion, and among these numbers, eighty were killed on the field.17 Interestingly enough, according to Giddings, General Jackson, avoided mention of this rebellion or the African Seminole community, as it seems he was resistant to regard them as people. Giddings notes,
Indeed such was the policy of the Administration, and of its officers, and of all slaveholders. They then supposed, as they now do, that slavery must depend upon the supposed ignorance and stupidity of the colored people; and scarcely an instance can be found, where a slaveholder admits the slave to possess human intelligence or human feeling; indeed, to teach a slave to read the Scriptures, is regarded as an offense, in nearly every slave State, and punishable by fine and imprisonment18
In the January 30, 1836 entry of Nile's Weekly Register, several Congressional resolutions regarding slavery were published, just pages before updates on the Second Seminole War.
3. Resolved: That the non-slaveholding states of the union are respectfully but earnestly requested, promptly to adopt penal enactments, or such other measures will effectually suppress all associations within their respective limits, purporting to be, or having the character of, abolition societies; and that they will make it highly penal to print, publish or distribute newspapers, pamphlets or other publications, calculated, or having a tendency, to excite the slaves to Insurrection and revolt.
4. Resolved: That this general assembly, would regard any act of congress, having for its object the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, or the territories of the U. States affording just cause of alarm to the slaveholding slates, and bringing the union into imminent peril.
5. Resolved: That it is highly expedient for the slaveholding states to enact such laws and regulations as may be necessary to suppress and prevent the circulation of any incendiary publications within their respective limits.
6. Resolved: That confiding in the justice and loyalty of our northern brethren to the principles of the union, enforced by the sympathies of common dangers, sufferings and triumphs, which ought to bind together in fraternal concord, we are warranted in the expectation, that the foregoing requests will be received in the spirit in which they are made, and complied with.
7. Resolved, That congress has no constitutional power to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia or in the territories of the United States.19 The next several pages of the Register provide a detailed update of the Second Seminole War. An excerpt from Major Belton's official report of the Dade Massacre, which I have come to recognize occurred as one significant portion of the African Seminole and slave Rebellion, follows:
Through the interpretation of Providence, I am now alive to let you know it. We are really in the theatre of war of the most horrible kind.... We are at work, night and day, entrenching ourselves in every possible manner. We expect every moment to be attacked, as the savages have sworn we should all he massacred before the 6th of January. We are only about 200 strong... The savages are said to number 4,000
It is no small coincidence that conversations of slavery occurred in tandem with the slave rebellion led by the African Seminoles during the Seminole Wars. In fact, the events were positioned in such a way that opened the floodgates for controversy and the discussion of emancipation in wartime.
While the rebellion was magnificent in scale, history has dictated that the result was not quite positive for the African Seminoles, Seminole Indians, and maroons who staged the revolt and Seminole Wars. By 1858, after the Third Seminole War, nearly all of the Seminole Indians had been relocated out West via the notorious Trail of Tears. The few remaining in Florida were pushed into the unkind territory of the Everglades. The African Seminoles were no better off; according to Littlefield Seminole, African Seminoles and their maroon counterparts "emigrated under a tangled web of legal and social arrangements. Roughly speaking, half of them went west under Army promises of freedom, and half emigrated under traditional, private arrangements with Seminole Indian masters." 20 The end of the wars and rebellion did not, however, mark battles fought entirely in vain. The African Seminoles did win a conditional victory, in which a US policy was reversed to allow freedom to black warriors who surrendered before the end of the second war.21 General Jesup, who issued the arrangement, argued that it would “weaken [the Indians] more than the loss of the same number of their own people.”22 These terms arguably marked the beginning of more liberal policy and treatment of the African Seminoles and the race they represented. It is also the first technical emancipation of black rebels.
The significance of the African Seminoles is most notable during leading up to Florida's shift from slaveholding to emancipated state. I argue that the Black Seminole quest for national freedom expedited the abolitionist agenda. The juxtaposition of Giddings's published work and the Civil War is indicative of this influence, as is the timing of the Dade Massacre and talks of slavery in the US Congress.
American State Papers: Military Affairs 6:461-464. Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov (accessed March 29, 2013).
This correspondence is between Seminole agent Wiley Thompson and General D.L. Clinch. Wiley expresses frustration about Seminole refusal to emigrate or sell slaves, possibly out a fear of separation.
"The Exiles of Florida, or The Crimes Committed by Our Government Against the Maroons, Who Fled From South Carolina And Other Slave States, Seeking Protection Under Spanish Laws." by Joshua R. Giddings. Columbus, Ohio: Published by Follett, Foster, and Company. 1858.
George A. McCall. Letters From the Frontiers. (1868), pp. 299-332.
Niles' Weekly Register 49.22 (January 30, 1836): 368-370.
Sprague, John T. The Origin, Progress, and Conclusion of the Florida War. New York: D. Appleton, 1848: 106.
American State Papers: Military Affairs 7: 834, Mahon 200, Genovese 73, and Bruce Edward Twyman, The Black Seminole Legacy and Northern American Politics, 1693-1845 (Washington: Howard University Press, 1999)
Kokomoor, Kevin. 2009 “A Re-assessment of Seminoles, Africans, and Slavery on the Florida Frontier.” The Florida Historical Quarterly no. 2: 209 JSTOR Arts & Sciences V, EBSCOhost (accessed March 30, 2013).
Landers, Jane. Black Society in Spanish Florida. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Wasserman, Adam. A People's History of Florida, 1513—1876: How Africans, Seminoles, Women, and Lower Class Whites Shaped the Sunshine State. (4th ed.; [Sarasota, Ra.]: Published by the author, 2010. Pp. 634.
Weik, Terrance. : The Role of Ethnogenesis and Organization in the Development of African-Native American Settlements: an African Seminole Model." International Journal of Historical Archaeology 13, no. 2 (June 2009) 206-238. Art & Architecture Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed May 25, 2013).
Porter, Kenneth Wiggins, Alcione M. Amos, and Thomas P. Senter. The Black Seminoles [electronic resource]: history of a freedom-seeking people / Kenneth W. Porter; revised and edited by Alcione M. Amos and Thomas P. Senter. n.p.: Gainesville:
Millett, Nathaniel. 2007. “Defining Freedom in the Atlantic Borderlands of the Revolutionary Southeast.” Early American Studies, An Interdisciplinary Journal 5, no. 2: 367-394. Literary Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed March 25, 2013).
1 Kenneth Wiggins Porter's Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-Seeking People (edited by Thomas Senter and Alcione Amos, Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1996)
2 Niles' Weekly Register 49.22 (January 30, 1836): 368-370, Florida Herald, January 13, 1836, as cited in Jacob Rhett Motte, Journey into Wilderness: An Army Surgeon's Account of Life in Camp and Field During the Creek and Seminole Wars, 1836-38. Ed. James F. Sunderman. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1953: 277-278ff, Sprague, John T. The Origin, Progress, and Conclusion of the Florida War. New York: D. Appleton, 1848: 106, United States Congress. American State Papers: Military Affairs. 7 vols. Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1832-1860. 6: 21-22, citing St. Augustine Herald, January 13, 1836.
3 Terrance Weik, The Role of Ethnogenesis and Organization in the Development of African-Native American Settlements: an African Seminole Model."(2009).
4 Weik, 211.
5 Rivers, Slavery in Florida, Mulroy, Seminole Freedmen, and Porter, Negro on the American Frontier.
6 Melinda Beth Micco, "Freedmen and Seminoles: Forging a Seminole Nation", and Kevin Kokomoor, "A Re-assessment of Seminoles, Africans, and Slavery on the Florida Frontier".
20 Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr. Africans and Creeks. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979, p 17
21 American State Papers: Military Affairs 7: 834, Mahon 200, Genovese 73, and Bruce Edward Twyman, The Black Seminole Legacy and Northern American Politics, 1693-1845 (Washington: Howard University Press, 1999)