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Seminole Wars shaped Florida's history


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During the first two decades of the 19th century, Americans living in the Southern states looked to a new frontier - Florida. The former Spanish colony became, after 1821, a United States territory.

Prior to that, American settlers along the Florida-Georgia border clashed with the Seminoles living in the Spanish territory. Raids were conducted in order to recapture runaway slaves and steal Seminole cattle. Since the U.S. government did little to restrain the settlers along the border, the Seminoles retaliated with raids on ranches and homesteads in Georgia.

In an effort to combat the problems arising between Georgia settlers and Seminoles in Florida, Maj. David E. Twiggs was given permission by Gen. Andrew Jackson to remove the Seminoles from the border area. Twiggs led 250 Georgia militiamen into the village of Fowltown, Ga., and attacked at dawn on Nov. 21, 1817. Four men and one woman were killed in the assault.

The remaining Seminoles escaped into the nearby swamps. In retaliation, a group of Seminoles ambushed a boat commanded by Lt. Robert Scott on the Apalachicola River near Fort Scott on the Florida-Georgia border. The Nov. 30 attack ended with some 30 whites killed or captured, including soldiers, women and children. The Seminoles remained in control of the river near Fort Scott off and on for three months, attacking military vessels and supply boats bound for the fort.

On Dec. 26, 1817, the War Department ordered Jackson to raise a sufficient number of troops and march into Florida - still a Spanish territory - and bring the Seminoles under control. Jackson arrived at Fort Scott on March 9, 1818. His troops marched into the Florida peninsula, picking up reinforcements of volunteers from Tennessee and Creek Indians friendly to the American cause along the way. This combined force of approximately 3,500 men, 2,000 of whom were Creeks, was close on the heels of the Seminoles, who offered minor resistance as they fled.

Jackson and his army continued south to St. Marks, a Spanish fortress due south of Tallahassee on the Gulf coast. Once again, Jackson met with little resistance and on April 6, 1818, he demanded the surrender of the Spanish fort. By the end of May, St. Marks and Pensacola had been captured by Jackson. His actions caused great concern in the United States and Spain and led to the negotiation of the transfer of Florida to the United States.

Between 1818 and 1835, the U.S. government and the Seminole people were on uneasy, if not hostile, terms. In 1823, a group of Seminoles signed the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, designating a reservation in the middle of Florida. This treaty also stipulated that the Seminoles agreed to move out of Florida in 20 years.

In 1832, Col. James Gadsden met with several Seminole town chiefs at Payne's Landing on the Ocklawaha River to gain their cooperation in the removal. They agreed on little, and Gadsden issued an ultimatum - the Seminoles must leave Florida for the Indian Territory in the West by Jan. 1, 1836.

Many Seminoles vehemently opposed removal. The Seminoles, who by this time included many former slaves and free blacks in their numbers, were harassed by slave raiders and were nearly starving due to their constant need to keep moving. Some bands began to organize resistance. One of the most prominent leaders among them was Osceola. Asked to sign the Fort King Proclamation and agree to removal, Osceola allegedly plunged his knife into the document and said, "This is my mark, and I will make no other." Until this time Osceola had been considered an archetype Indian and was a friend of Indian agent Wiley Thompson. Thompson had Osceola placed in chains for six days until he agreed to sign the document.

The earliest battle, and among the most intense, took place on Dec. 28, 1835, near the modern town of Bushnell. Maj. Francis L. Dade commanded two companies that had been ordered from Fort Brooke in Tampa to reinforce Fort King at modern Ocala. Expecting an attack, Dade deployed scouts and advanced guards until the company crossed the Withlacoochee River into territory believed to be safer. Possibly at the signal of Abraham, a black servant with Dade's troops, Seminole leaders Micanopy, Jumper and Alligator, along with approximately 180 Seminole warriors, opened fire. Dade was killed in the first volley and only three of 108 soldiers survived the withering assault poured on by the Seminoles. Ransom Clark crawled out from the woods and staggered off in the direction of Fort Brooke. His is the only soldier's account of the incident, as he and the other two survivors died shortly after the incident.

Many Seminoles were marched, in chains, into Fort Brooke. And on April 11, 1836, the first ship of deportees, exiled to Oklahoma, sailed out of Tampa Bay. The war continued for six years, with sporadic skirmishes punctuated by the occasional large-scale battle. Finally, on Aug. 14, 1842, the war was over. At a cost of more than $20 million, with 1,500 soldiers and civilians dead, 3,930 Seminoles deported and uncounted numbers killed, the United States could claim no strategic or moral victory. The remaining Seminoles, about 400, were pushed to the edge of the Everglades. Lasting from 1835 to 1842, it was the longest, costliest and bloodiest Indian war in American history.

The 1842 truce was little more than recognition that the Seminoles had, for the moment, moved south of the lands that white settlers found desirable. Once cattle ranchers pushed into the Everglades, tensions resumed. Seminoles occasionally stole or killed cattle, resulting in another government demand that they leave Florida. When the Seminoles refused, Congress enacted a law in 1849 prohibiting them from traveling beyond the reservation borders.

Billy Bowlegs, principal chief over the 300 to 400 remaining Seminoles, and Sam Jones, head of the Mikasuki, tried to abide by the terms of the treaty signed at the end of the Second Seminole War. The conscientious chiefs delivered three young warriors who had killed outside the reservation to the white government. Floridians seemed little affected by this - wanting to get rid of the Seminoles altogether. A St. Augustine newspaper advertised a bounty on the Seminoles - $1,000 per man and $500 for women and children, alive or dead. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis placed an embargo on all trade with the Seminoles and had reservation land surveyed for white settlers. These actions pushed the Seminoles toward war once again.

Violence erupted in 1855, when a group of soldiers, led by Lieutenant George L. Hartsuff, found Bowlegs' vacant camp and wantonly chopped down Bowlegs' prized banana trees and uprooted his crops. On Dec. 10, 1855, Bowlegs led an attack on Hartsuff's camp that left four soldiers dead. The government was once again in conflict with the Seminoles.

The Third Seminole War was not caused by the loss of a few banana trees. In reality the government, with its constant pressure on the Seminoles to relocate to the Indian Territory, placed a total embargo on their trade and rebuilt neglected military camps around the reservation. The incident in Bowlegs' camp and his retaliation provided the excuse for action.

"The Indians are a blight to our prosperity and their presence prevents the influx of population and retards the sale of large acres of land. The state will never submit to any policy short of removal," Gov. James Broome stated. He ordered citizen militia companies into service. In January 1856, local patriots organized militia units in Tampa. Composed of 125 men from Manatee, Hillsborough and Hernando counties, they found themselves paralyzed by the threat of Indian raids only three months later. The militia, mostly cow men who insisted on serving as horse troops, found it impossible to enter the swamps. So a non-military group entered through the knife-like sawgrass into Bowlegs' camp on Nov. 19. The men burned down more than 50 dwellings, took corn and oxen, and destroyed hundreds of acres of crops.

Fighting continued until 1858, when some 125 remaining Seminoles, including Bowlegs and his family, accepted monetary payment from the government in return for their agreement to emigrate to the Oklahoma reservation. On May 7, 1858, the last Seminole exiles left the Tampa Bay area and followed the famous Trail of Tears. Their departure brought an end to an era of American history. The approximately 300 remaining Seminoles continued to live in the Everglades. Led by chiefs such as Chipco and Sam Jones, these people lived beyond the reach of "civilization," their numbers too small and their land too poor to attract farmers and settlers.

Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He can be reached by phone at (813) 228-0097 or by email at rkp@tampabayhistorycenter.org.

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