The Seminole Wars were the longest, bloodiest, and most expensive of America’s “Indian Wars”.
Reconstruction of Fort Christmas, FL
On March 3, 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon left the Puerto Rican port of Punta Aguada with three ships and sailed north. According to legend, de Leon’s voyage was in search of the fabled island of Bimini, where the Fountain of Youth was said to be located. In reality, de Leon was searching for the same things every Spanish Conquistador searched for—land and gold.
On April 2, during the Easter Week Festival of Flowers, de Leon sighted land near the present-day St Johns River, and, thinking he had found another Caribbean island, he named it La Florida (“the flowered land”) in honor of the holiday. He had, unknowingly, landed on the shore of an entirely new continent.
The original inhabitants of Florida were the Tocobaga, the Timucua, and the powerful Calusa group that covered most of southern Florida. By the end of the 16th century, however, European diseases had wiped out nearly all the Tocobaga and Timucua people who had been in contact with the Europeans, then spread into the rest of Florida and killed nearly the entire Calusa population.
Now virtually empty and considered worthless swampland, Florida was given to Britain in 1763 under the treaty ending the Seven Years War with France and Spain. When the American Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Florida, the “fourteenth colony”, remained loyal to the Crown and became a source of Royalist militia who launched raids into the rebellious colony of Georgia. In 1783, as part of the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 (which also granted independence to the United States), Florida was returned to Spanish control.
After gaining their independence from England, American settlers began pouring into the territories in Georgia and Alabama that were held by the Creek nations of Native Americans, and bands of Creeks, as well as refugees from other tribes including Choctaw, Shawnee and Yuchi, moved south into Florida. By 1800 there were some 5,000 of these Native Americans in Florida. Here they took up a farming and ranching lifestyle, formed their own distinct culture, and became known as “Seminoles”.
By 1809, Native resistance to American expansion had begun to build around a Shawnee war leader named Tecumseh. Negotiating with tribal chiefs from Minnesota all the way to Florida, Tecumseh tried to unite all of the various Native Nations into one gigantic confederacy that would work together to defeat the Americans and return their lands to the Natives. When war broke out between the US and England in 1812, Tecumseh allied himself with the British, hoping to drive the Americans out. In the southeast a faction of Tecumseh’s followers among the Creeks, known from their painted war clubs as the “Red Sticks”, launched attacks on American settlements in the Mississippi Territory. The Red Sticks were defeated by US troops led by General Andrew Jackson, and when the War of 1812 ended, many Creeks fled into Florida and joined with the Seminoles.
But another group of people was also moving into Spanish Florida, and it was of even more concern to the Americans. Spain had outlawed slavery in its territories, and any African-Americans who could escape plantations in Georgia, Alabama or Mississippi and make their way to Florida, was free under Spanish law (though this was not legally recognized by the United States.) It wasn’t long before hundreds of escaped slaves had established themselves in Florida, some forming villages of their own and some becoming adopted into the Seminole culture.
By this time, the pressures that would result in Civil War in just a few decades were already apparent. The agrarian culture in the southern United States was completely dependent upon enslaved labor, and there was nothing the plantation-owners feared more than an armed slave uprising. The presence of a colony of free African-American people, just over the border in Spanish Florida, was not only a constant lure for escaped American slaves, but presented the continuous danger of a spark that could ignite an armed uprising. As a result, in the first years of the 1800s there were regular cross-border raids by American militia and freebooters into Florida, to seize the escaped slaves there and bring them back into captivity.
These raids were resisted by the Seminoles, most of whom had fled to Florida in order to escape American incursions into their territory. They now retaliated with strikes of their own into Georgia, and in one of these, in 1817, a white setter’s wife and her children were killed. That November, a unit of US troops attacked the Seminole settlement of Fowl Town, which was located inside Georgia just north of the Florida border. About 20 Seminoles were killed and the village was burned.
The resulting series of raids and counter-raids would later become known as the First Seminole War. In January 1818 General Andrew Jackson arrived with 3000 troops and, crossing the border into Spanish Florida, pushed the Seminoles back past the Suwannee River. He then attacked and occupied several Spanish forts and towns before arresting and executing two British traders.
The crumbling Spanish Empire did not really have the resources to maintain a hold on its North American possessions, and it was unable to prevent Jackson’s incursions. Emboldened by Spain’s weakness, the US demanded possession of Florida, which Spain agreed to, in exchange for forgiving a $5 million debt she owed to the US. Florida became a US Territory in 1819. General Jackson was appointed the first territorial Governor, but he stayed only three months before placing William Duval as Governor and riding back to Tennessee.
By 1823, an uneasy peace was in place between the Americans and the Seminoles. In September, Duval asked the Seminole chiefs to meet with him to negotiate an agreement to prevent future conflicts. The Treaty of Moultrie Creek set aside a reservation in central Florida for the Seminoles: at the insistence of the Natives, another reservation was established in the north along the Apalachicola River. Most of the Seminole chiefs signed. One who did not was Neamathla from the Miccosukee band, who defiantly told Duval, “Ever since I was a small boy I have seen the white people steadily encroaching upon the Indians, and driving them from their homes and hunting grounds . . . I will tell you plainly, if I had the power, I would tonight cut the throat of every white man in Florida.”
In 1830, with Andrew Jackson now President, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which declared that all Native American tribes east of the Mississippi would be moved, voluntarily or otherwise, to the “Indian Territory” established in what is now Oklahoma. So in 1832, the Seminoles were called to another meeting, at the Oklawaha River, and informed that they must sign another agreement. The Treaty of Payne’s Landing committed the Seminoles to leaving Florida for resettlement in Indian Territory, on condition that they found the land suitable. In 1832 a Seminole delegation was taken to Oklahoma, then pressured into signing a statement that they accepted the area. Congress ratified the Treaty in 1834.
Conflict was immediate. Many Seminole leaders hadn’t signed the Treaty, or had signed only under duress. The terms of the agreement gave the Natives three years to move, but the US now argued that the clock had started running in 1832 when the Treaty was signed, not 1834 when it was ratified. That brought opposition from some of the chiefs who had already signed. Amidst the rancor, a young war leader named Osceola pledged to resist the relocation. In a series of raids, both Americans and Seminoles were killed: when the Seminole chief Emathla agreed to move to Fort Brooke (present-day Tampa) to be relocated, Osceola met him on the road and killed him.
Fearing another outbreak of war, the Army sent a group of 110 men from Fort Brooke, under the command of Major Francis Dade, to reinforce the outpost at Fort King, near present-day Ocala. On December 28, 1835, Dade and his men were ambushed by around 200 Seminole warriors led by the war chiefs Micanopy, Alligator, and Jumper, near the current town of Bushnell. Only one trooper survived to retreat back to Fort Brooke and tell the tale. The Second Seminole War was on. It would be the longest and bloodiest of all the “Indian Wars” fought by the United States.
For the next seven years, the Seminoles would wage a relentless guerrilla war in the Florida swamps. The Natives, with around 3000 warriors, divided themselves into small bands that conducted hit-and-run raids on the US troops. When their leader Osceola was captured in 1837 under an American offer of truce and died in prison in 1838, the war continued. The US would send almost 30,000 troops to Florida, losing 1500 of them to raids and to the swampland’s tropical diseases. Walled strongholds were built at Fort Myers, Fort Lauderdale, and Fort Pierce, which later became major cities. Four different US Army commanders took their turn at trying to run down the Seminoles before giving up. By 1842, the US had spent $20 million on the war, and although the constant fighting had reduced the Seminoles to less than 1000 by deaths and by the capture and deportation of small bands, they had retreated into the impenetrable wilderness of the Everglades, and the war was no closer to an end than it had been seven years earlier.
There was no formal treaty or truce ending the Second Seminole War—the US Army, exhausted and worn out, simply gave up. The policy of “removal” was quietly dropped, and the Seminoles were tacitly granted de facto independence in the Florida swamps.
There would be a Third Seminole War. In 1855, with about 500 Seminoles still hiding out in the Everglades, there were some 700 US troops still stationed in Florida to surround them. In December, a patrol of 11 soldiers from Ft Myers stumbled upon a village occupied by a band led by Billy Bowlegs, and were attacked by a band of warriors. Within weeks, Seminole raiding parties had struck settlers as far north as Tampa Bay.
The Florida Government organized its militia, and for the next three years there were raids and skirmishes. About 150 Seminoles were captured and sent to Oklahoma, including Billy Bowlegs. By May 1858 the fighting was over: the remaining Seminoles retreated back into the swamps, and the US Army was unwilling to pursue them there.
The Seminole Wars finally came to an end. Forty years of fighting had reduced the band to just a few hundred. But they had survived, unconquered, the only Native nation to beat the US in open warfare. Today, there are about 4000 Seminoles living in Florida.
The Seminole Wars are commemorated by the Fort Christmas Historical Park, a full-size replica of a stockade fort that had been built in December 1857, near present-day Orlando, during the Second Seminole War. It served as a base for 2000 US troops and militia from Alabama. The county park displays a number of artifacts from the period, and also exhibits a series of historical settler houses from the 1870s and 1880s.