During the nineteenth century the United States engaged in three wars with the Seminole Indians in Florida: 1816 to about 1824; 1835 to 1842; and 1855 to 1858.
Contrary to some popular opinions, there was no traditional overall governmental or political organization among the Seminole at this time. They tended to be politically organized around busk groups, each of which had its own medicine bundle on which the annual busk (green corn) ceremony was focused. Thus, the Seminole military actions against the U.S. military did not have a single leader or coordinator.
The Second Seminole War (1835-1842) stemmed from the American policy of removing all Indians from east of the Mississippi River and relocating them in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Many of the Seminole, however, were not in favor of removal and resisted American attempts at forcing their removal. The war began when a group of anti-removal warriors under the leadership of Osceola killed Charley Emathla, a pro-removal leader, and Wiley Thompson, the Seminole agent. Over a period of seven years, the United States spent nearly $40 million in trying to defeat, capture, and remove the Seminole. As a result of this conflict, most of the Seminole were relocated onto the Creek Nation in Oklahoma. When the government troops withdrew in 1842, declaring victory, several hundred Seminole remained in Florida.
Prelude to Second Seminole War:
The Second Seminole War began during Andrew Jackson’s Presidency and may be seen as an extension of his Indian policy. Jackson felt that the mere existence of Indians was a threat to American peace and tranquility. He felt that Indians should either be removed from the United States or they should be eliminated. In his 1833 annual message to Congress, he stated:
“They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvements which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.”
With regard to the Seminole, Jackson had a deep personal resentment against them as they sheltered and adopted runaway slaves. Jackson felt that the United States had a duty to seize all runaway slaves and return them to their masters.
The 1832 Treaty of Payne’s Landing, signed by Seminole leaders Charley Emathla and Foke Luste Hadjo, required all Indians to leave Florida in exchange for lands in Indian Territory, plus grants of clothes and money. The men who signed the treaty were not empowered to represent the Seminoles, and the treaty was therefore clearly fraudulent. Micanopy did not make his mark on the treaty and yet his name appeared on the treaty.
As one excuse for the treaty, the U.S. government had declared that the land reserved for the Seminole in Florida was not worth cultivating, a fact well-known among the Seminole. However, the more important reason involved runaway slaves and the conflicts between slave-owning Americans and the Seminole. From a Seminole perspective, they were facing starvation due to a prolonged drought which provided some incentive for signing the treaty.
The Treaty also specified that any Seminole with Black blood were to be considered runaway slaves and were to be returned.
In 1834, the Americans held councils with the Seminole to discuss their removal to Indian Territory. While it was clear that the majority opposed removal, the Indian agent informed them that they were to sell their cattle and horses in preparation for removal and to move to the port of embarkation. If they do not do this, they are told, U.S. troops would use force against them.
The Second Seminole War:
In 1835, 25 Seminole leaders meet with the American Indian agent to discuss their removal concerns. Holata Emathla was selected by the chiefs to speak for the Seminole people. The Indian agent at Fort King was a former Georgia congressman named Wiley Thompson. Thompson intended to take out of office any Seminole chiefs who did not agree to removal.
One of the Seminole concerns was the fate of the Blacks who were living among them. Some of the Blacks had married Seminole; they dressed like Seminole; they spoke the language; and they took part in both hunting and war parties. Yet the Americans had encouraged slave-owners to seize many of these Blacks, an action that aroused a great deal of bitterness among the Seminole. Osceola was one of the leaders who opposed the surrender of runaway slaves. Osceola then made some nasty comments to the Indian agent and was placed in irons and jailed. He was released when he agreed to sign an acceptance of the two treaties requiring the Seminole to be removed to Indian Territory.
A short while later, a war party led by Osceola ambushed Charley Emathla, the Seminole leader who signed the removal treaty with the Americans. As a symbolic gesture, Osceola scattered the money Emathla received from the Americans over his dead body. Osceola’s warriors then ambushed Indian agent Wiley Thompson, killing seven of the Americans. Warriors led by Alligator, Micanopy, and Jumper attacked American soldiers near Tampa Bay, Florida and killed 105 of the 108 soldiers. This marks the formal beginning of the Second Seminole War.
With regard to the war leader Osceola, historian Patricia Wickman, in her book Osceola’s Legacy, writes:
“Osceola lacked the hereditary credentials necessary for the Indians to recognize him as an official leader at any level in his society.”
Osceola is also known by the American name of Billy Powell.
The standard military philosophy which the Americans had used against other Indian tribes—to bring in a massive force, build forts, and to attack villages—failed to work against the Seminole. The Americans were unfamiliar with the terrain and the swamps proved good hiding places for the Seminole.
In 1836, the United States negotiated a deal with Creek leaders Opothle Yaholo, Little Doctor, Tukabahchee Micco, and Yalka Hadjo in which the Creek were to supply 600 to 1,000 warriors for service against the Seminole. The warriors were to be paid like soldiers and they would be able keep plunder (taken to mean slaves) which they captured from the Seminole. Believing that the Seminole War would be of short duration, 776 Creek warriors under the leadership of Jim Boy enlisted in the army. They assumed that they would be released from duty in time to remove to Oklahoma and get their crops planted in the spring. The following year, however, they found that their enlistments had been extended.
In 1837, Seminole leaders Jumper, Davy Elliott, Cloud, and Alligator signed an agreement with the Americans that an immediate cease fire was in effect for the Second Seminole War. The Seminole leaders gave their word that they would remove to Indian Territory.
About 200 Seminole, including Jumper and Micanopy, moved toward Tampa Bay and were lodged in two camps eight miles from Fort Brooke. Another group of Seminole, including Osceola, Sam Jones (Arpeika), Philip, and Coacoochee gathered at Fort Mellon on Lake Monroe, about a hundred miles from Tampa Bay.
A party of about 200 Mikasuki Seminole under the leadership of Osceola and Sam Jones, traveled from Fort Mellon to Tampa where they seized Micanopy, Jumper, Cloud and their followers. They then fled to the interior with their captives.
The cease fire gave the Seminole bands a chance to grow and harvest some crops, to obtain more gunpowder and firearms and to prepare for the resumption of the war.
At a peace council called by the Americans at Fort Augustine, a number of Seminole leaders come in under a white flag of truce. The purpose of the council, however, is to attack and arrest the Seminole leaders. This was a common military strategy used by the Americans. Osceola was struck on the head and then tied up. Osceola died after being in captivity for just a few months. Jerry Keenan, in his Encyclopedia of American Indian Wars, 1492-1890, writes:
“Seminoles who surrendered were immediately deported to the Indian Territory. Blacks unfortunate to be captured were often sold to white slave owners.”
Most of the battles of the Second Seminole War were guerilla skirmishes in which small groups of Seminole warriors quickly vanished. One of the largest battles of the war was the 1837 Battle of Lake Okeechobee. Alligator, Arpeika, and Wildcat led their Seminole warriors against Colonel Zachary Taylor’s troops. The Americans, with 1,000 soldiers, were under orders to destroy any Seminole force which they met. The American troops were met with well-directed fire from the Seminole warriors. The Seminole warriors had breech-loading Spanish long guns with rifled barrels which meant that they were more accurate and could be reloaded quickly. Taylor’s plan was for his militia to retreat at first fire and then re-form behind the regular soldiers. However, the militia sustained heavy losses and the frightened volunteers broke and ran for their horses, too shattered to re-form. The battle left 26 soldiers dead and 112 wounded. The Seminole casualties included 11 dead and 14 wounded.
From the Seminole perspective the Battle of Lake Okeechobee was a victory as they had confronted a military force nearly twice their size and had stalled it long enough to ensure the escape of the Seminole women and children. American officials in Washington, D.C., on the other hand, declared the battle to be the greatest victory of the Second Seminole War. Zachery Taylor was hailed as a hero and promoted to brigadier general.
By 1838, the Americans had learned a lot about the Seminole hiding places. Along with Indian allies from a number of tribes, the American forces were attacking Seminole camps, burning their houses, capturing their livestock, and destroying their fields. During this time, the Seminole began to shift from cabins to chickees: open-sided log shelters that were easily constructed. They also began to use a new style of clothing made by sewing rags together.
During this time, one of the important Seminole spiritual leaders was Otulke-thloco (the Big Wind), a Creek prophet who was living in the Big Cypress Swamp and had influence over Billy Bowlegs, Hospetarke, Assinwar, and Fuse Hadjo. He was able to hear the approaching troops before other people, he knew where the deer were hiding, and he was able to cause the death of another person. He kept in constant touch with the Great Spirit with midnight fires, dances, and songs.
By 1838, Major General Thomas Jesup had concluded that the Seminole War could not be militarily won and recommended ending the hostilities with a truce that would grant the Seminole a reservation in southern Florida. He met with Seminole leaders and found that they would agree to stop hostilities if they were allowed to remain south of Lake Okeechobee. He sent this proposal to the Secretary of War, but President Martin Van Buren, determined to continue Andrew Jackson’s Indian policies of removal and eradication, rejected the idea.
In 1839, a band of Calusa under the leadership of Chakaika joined the Seminole under the leadership of Billy Bowlegs and Hospetarke, in the Second Seminole War. The combined forces attacked the camp and store established by Colonel William S. Harney. Thirteen Americans were killed.
In 1839, the Americans re-opened peace talks with the Seminole. Chitto Tustenugee, Halleck Tustenugee, and Macomb made a verbal agreement to a cease fire and to move to southwestern Florida to await arrangements for removal.
In 1840, a band of nearly 100 Seminole warriors under the leadership of Wildcat ambushed an American army detachment, killing a lieutenant and five soldiers. The group then attacked a number of unescorted wagons traveling to St. Augustine. In response to these attacks the army searched through Big Swamp. They destroyed 500 acres of Seminole corn fields. When the troops had finished searching an area, the Seminole usually moved back in.
In 1840, the army tried using bloodhounds to track down the Seminole. Nearly three dozen dogs were imported from Cuba to be used in the military campaign against the Seminole. The effort failed.
In 1840, the Americans offered Seminole chiefs Tiger Tail and Halleck Tustenugee $5,000 each if they would bring in their bands for removal to the West. The Seminole considered the matter for two weeks while eating army food. The leaders and the warriors then declined the offer.
In 1841, the American army began a scorched earth policy in their war against the Seminole. Second Lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman writes to his brother that he wants “a war of extermination—the most certain and economical method.” The soldiers burned all crops, canoes, and shelters that they found. In response Wildcat surrendered to the army. He and two of his aides were dressed in Shakespearian costume from trunks which they had captured from a theatrical company.
Halleck Tustenuggee, Tiger Tail, Nethlockemathlar, Octiarche, and 120 of their warriors met in council at the Long Swamp and they agreed that no peace terms with the Americans were to be accepted. Furthermore, they declared that any Seminole or Black who attempted to deliver such terms was to be killed. Similarly, the Big Cypress Seminole bands under the leadership of Billy Bowlegs, Sam Jones, the Prophet, Hospetarke, Fuse Hadjo, and Parsacke met in council and agreed that anyone who brought them terms of surrender from the Americans would be killed.
In 1842, the Seminole under Billy Bowlegs surrendered and the government announced the end of the Second Seminole War which cost the United States the lives of 1,500 soldiers and $30 million. Bowlegs refused to relocate in Oklahoma and was given a small piece of land in the Great Cypress Swamp.
The Seminole understood if they remained in Florida they would receive no money or food but would be allowed to occupy their land. While the agreement allowed the Seminole to remain peacefully in Florida, the policy of the federal government was that they should be removed to Indian Territory. Therefore, their reservation was not to have any permanent or exact boundaries. The American understanding of the agreement was that the Seminole would be allowed to remain “for a while.” Historian James Covington, in his book The Seminoles of Florida, writes:
“By concluding a negotiated peace with the federal government, the Seminole Indians had accomplished something that many other larger tribes had not: they had fought a war with the whites during the nineteenth century in the eastern United States and under the peace terms had been allowed to remain in their own land.”
The Seminole bands remaining in Florida at this time include: the Seminole band of Billy Bowlegs; the Mikasuki band of Sam Jones which lived deep in the Everglades; the Muskogee band led by Chipco which lived near Lake Istokpaga; a northern band under the leadership of Octiarche (since Octiarche is a Creek, many do not consider it to be Seminole); the Muskogee band under the leadership of Tiger Tail.
Immediately following the treaty, the Americans captured Creek leader Octiarche and his band while they were visiting Fort Brooke. They were then shipped to New Orleans for removal to Indian Territory. While this appeared to be a violation of the peace agreement with the Seminole, the Americans justified it on the basis that Octiarche would cause problems if his band were moved to the south to be with the other Seminole bands.