Unraveling the Legacy of the Seminole Wars

Wed, Mar 27, 2024 at 9:30AM

In the years after the American Revolutionary War fought between 1775-1783, the Treaty of Paris which ended the conflict between the American colonies and Great Britain gave the Spanish control of Florida from our mother country.  The British evacuated Florida and Spanish colonists from the newly formed United States pretty much rushed in and acquired property as a result of a process called “land grants.”  Even then, Seminoles were welcomed.  The unwelcomed were enslaved who were trying to reach safe haven where their former masters had no authority over them.  When Britain controlled Florida, the British often encouraged the Seminoles to provoke trouble with American settlers who were migrating south into the Seminole territory.  This along with the sanctuary that the Seminoles gave to escaped slaves, led to the US Army’s frequent incursions into Spanish territory to attack the tribe and recapture the slaves.

This campaign, led by US General Andrew Jackson between 1817-1818, became known as the First Seminole War. The operation’s real objective was to force the Seminoles to move further south into Florida. It successfully gave the United States control of eastern Florida.  By 1821, the territory was brought under complete control as Spain formally ceded Florida to the United States as part of a treaty.

Andrew Jackson, US General during the First Seminole War and eventual seventh president of the United States.

Andrew Jackson, US General during the First Seminole War and eventual seventh president of the United States.

Soon after acquiring control, the United States began the process of strongly urging the Seminoles to leave their land and relocate, along with other Southeastern Indian tribes, to what was called the Indian Territory in what is now known as Oklahoma, a far distance from Florida.

In spring of 1832, the leadership of the Seminoles was called to a meeting along the Ocklawaha River.  The treaty formerly negotiated with the U.S. government stated that if land west was found suitable, the Seminoles would agree to move there.  A commission of seven chiefs toured the area for several months, and in late March of 1833 signed what they believed to be a document affirming that the new land was suitable for settlement.

Upon review after the chiefs returned, there was some serious disagreement with the terms of the treaty.  Many of the chiefs stated that they did not commit to moving their people to this new territory and some stated that they were coerced by force and misinterpretation.  Others noted evidence of trickery in the phrasing of some terms.  Even some U.S. Army officers claimed that the chiefs had been “wheedled and bullied into signing.”

Finally, the refusal of most Seminoles to leave the reservation north of Lake Okeechobee to relocate west of the Mississippi led to what is now known as “The Second Seminole War,” the longest and most costly of all wars of removal fought by the U.S. Army.  It began with what is called Dades’s Massacre and the attack on the newly built lighthouse on the Mosquito Inlet in December 1835 and really did not end until 1842.  As the war wore on, it became a matter of attrition, as the Seminole population steadily shrank as its leaders and warriors were killed and groups were sent west through capture.  In retrospect, the Seminoles as a nation never stopped resisting.  On more than ten occasions, overwhelmed Seminole leaders would agree to emigrate, only to use the time, not to prepare for the move, but to use the time to gather supplies and ammunition and then disappear back into the landscape of the Everglades to fight again.

Seminole Chief Coacoochee “Wildcat” during the Second Seminole War

Seminole Chief Coacoochee “Wildcat” during the Second Seminole War

The Second Seminole War claimed the lives of more than 1,500 U.S. soldiers, and cost an estimated fifteen million dollars.  No peace treaty was ever signed.  Roughly 3,400 Seminoles were removed to the Indian Territory, and a handful, estimated at 500 were left to die in the Everglades.

The Third Seminole War, lasted three years and was mostly a series of skirmishes over the possession of land.  It ended in 1858, when its Seminole leader, Billy Bowlegs (the war is also called “Billy Bowlegs’ War”) agreed to emigrate with most of his followers.  However, a small band of Seminoles never left Florida.  They stayed hidden in the Big Cypress Swamp.  Our present 3,500 Floridian Seminoles are descendants of those folks and the few families that found their way back from the West.

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