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19th-century engraving depicting a Black Seminole warrior of the First Seminole War (1817–8).

The Black Seminoles is a term used by modern historians for the descendants of free Africans and some runaway slaves (maroons) and Gullahs who escaped from coastal South Carolina and Georgia rice plantations into the Spanish Florida wilderness beginning as early as the late 1600s. By the early 1800s, they had often formed communities near the Seminole Indians.[1][2]

Together, the two groups formed a multi-ethnic and bi-racial alliance. Today, Black Seminole descendants still live in Florida, rural communities in Oklahoma and Texas, and in the Bahamas and Northern Mexico. In the 19th century, the Florida "Black Seminoles" were called "Seminole Negroes" by their white American enemies and Estelusti (Black People), by their Indian allies. Modern Black Seminoles are known as "Seminole Freedmen" in Oklahoma, "Seminole Scouts" in Texas, "Black Indians" in the Bahamas, and Mascogos in Mexico.

Contents

Origins

In eighteenth-century Spanish Florida, Black Seminoles became a distinct group, as escaped slaves were welcomed by the Spanish government.

Spain gave land to some Muscogee (Creek) Indians. Over time the Creeks were joined by other groups of Indians, such as the Miccosukee and the Apalachicola, and formed communities. By 1822, they had formed a new nation and took the name of Seminole.[3]

The Spanish strategy for defending Florida was based, at first, on organizing the indigenous Indians into a mission system with the mission Indians serving as militia to protect the colony from English incursions from the north. But a combination of raids by South Carolina colonists and new European diseases to which they did not have immunity decimated Florida's native population. After the local Indians had all but died out, Spanish authorities encouraged renegade Indians and runaway slaves from England's North American colonies to move south. The Spanish were hoping that these traditional enemies of the English would prove effective in holding off English expansion.

As early as 1689, African slaves fled from the South Carolina Lowcountry to Spanish Florida seeking freedom. Under an edict from King Charles II of Spain in 1693, the black fugitives received liberty in exchange for defending the Spanish settlers at St. Augustine. The Spanish organized the black volunteers into a militia; their settlement at Fort Mose, founded in 1738, was the first legally sanctioned free black town in North America.[4]

Not all the slaves escaping south found military service in St. Augustine to their liking. It is likely that many more runaway slaves sought refuge in wilderness areas in Northern Florida where their knowledge of tropical agriculture—and resistance to tropical diseases—served them well. Most of the blacks who pioneered Florida were Gullah people who escaped from the rice plantations in South Carolina (and later Georgia). As Gullahs, they had preserved much of their African language and culture heritage and their African leadership structure. These Gullah pioneers built their own settlements based on rice and corn agriculture. They were allies to Indians escaping into Florida at the same time.

Florida had been a refuge for runaway slaves for at least seventy years by the time of the American Revolution. Communities of Black Seminoles were established on the outskirts of major Seminole towns.[5]

A new influx of freedom-seeking blacks reached Florida during the American Revolution (1775–83). Several thousand American slaves agreed to fight for the British in exchange for liberty and were called black Loyalists. (Florida was under British control throughout the conflict.) During the Revolution, Seminole Indians also allied with the British, and Africans and Seminoles came into increased contact with each other. Members of both communities sided again with the British against the US during the War of 1812, solidifying ties and earning the wrath of the war's American hero General Andrew Jackson.[6]

When Africans and Seminoles first started to interact, the Native Americans were also recent migrants to Florida. Their community evolved over the late 18th century and early 19th century as waves of Creek Native Americans left present-day Georgia and Alabama. By the time the American naturalist William Bartram visited them in 1773, the Seminoles had their own tribal name, derived from cimarron, the Spanish word for runaway, which connoted the tribe's breakaway status from the Creeks. Cimarron was also the source of the English word maroon, used to describe the runaway slave communities of Florida, the Caribbean, and other parts of the New World.[7]

Culture

Abraham, a Black Seminole leader, from N. Orr's engraving published in 1848 in The Origin, Progress, and Conclusion of the Florida War by John T. Sprague.

The Black Seminole culture that took shape after 1800 was a dynamic mixture of African, Native American, Spanish, and slave traditions. In the tradition of the Native Americans, maroons wore Seminole clothing; strained koonti, a native root; and made sofkee, a paste created by mashing corn with a mortar and pestle.

Living apart from the Native Americans, however, the maroons developed their own unique African-American culture. Black Seminoles inclined toward a syncretic form of Christianity inherited from their lives on the plantations. Certain cultural practices, such as jumping the broom to celebrate marriage, hailed from the plantations; other customs, such as the names used for blacks' towns, clearly echoed Africa.

Language showed the Black Seminoles' distinct culture. Afro-Seminole Creole was strongly related to Gullah, the dialect of Sea Islanders along the Carolina and Georgia coast. Like Gullah, Afro-Seminole was a creole language that incorporated words from Spanish, English, and Muskogee, as well as Bantu and other African languages.[8]

African-Seminole relations

By the early 19th century, maroons (free blacks and runaway slaves) and Seminoles were in regular contact in Florida, where they evolved a system of relations unique among North American Native Americans and blacks. In exchange for paying an annual tribute of livestock and crops, black prisoners or slaves found sanctuary among the Seminole. Seminoles, in turn, acquired an important strategic ally in a sparsely populated region.

Typically, many or most members of the Black Seminole communities were not identified as slaves of individual Native American chiefs. The Black Seminoles were not slaves of the Seminole. Black Seminoles lived in their own independent communities, elected their own leaders and could amass wealth in cattle and crops. Most importantly, they bore arms for self-defense. Florida real estate records show that the Seminole and Black Seminole people owned large quantities of Florida land. In some cases, a portion of that Florida land is still owned by the Seminole and Black Seminole descendants in Florida.

Under the comparatively free conditions, the Black Seminoles flourished. U.S. Army Lieutenant George McCall recorded his impressions of a Black Seminole community in 1826:

We found these negroes in possession of large fields of the finest land, producing large crops of corn, beans, melons, pumpkins, and other esculent vegetables. [I] saw, while riding along the borders of the ponds, fine rice growing; and in the village large corn-cribs were filled, while the houses were larger and more comfortable than those of the Indians themselves.

"An Indian town, residence of a chief," from Lithographs of Events in the Seminole War in Florida in 1835, published by Gray and James in 1837.

An 1822 census estimated that 800 blacks were living with the Seminoles, constituting by far the largest maroon community in North American history. The Black Seminole settlements were overall highly militarized, which was hardly the condition of most of America's southern slaves. The military nature of the African-Seminole relationship led General Edmund Pendleton Gaines, who visited several flourishing Black Seminole settlements in the 1820s, to describe the African Americans as "vassals and allies" of the Seminole.

In terms of spirituality, the ethnic groups remained distinct. Indians followed the nativistic principles of their Great Spirit. Blacks had a syncretic form of Christianity inherited from the plantations. In general, the blacks never wholly adopted Seminole culture and beliefs, nor were they accepted into Native American society. The Indians did not consider their black allies to be "Seminoles." [9]

Blacks in the Seminole Wars

From the time of the Revolution, the existence of armed black communities in Florida was a major concern for American slave owners. Slaveholders sought return of Florida's black fugitives under the Treaty of New York (1790), the first treaty ratified after the adoption of the United States Constitution.[10] General Andrew Jackson wanted to disrupt Florida's maroon communities in 1816 and attacked the Negro Fort, a Black Seminole stronghold. Breaking up the maroon communities was one of Jackson's major objectives in the subsequent First Seminole War (1817–18).[11]

Massacre of the Whites by the Indians and Blacks in Florida, engraving by D.F. Blanchard for an 1836 account of events at the outset of the Second Seminole War (1835–42).

The Second Seminole War (1835–42) marked the height of tension between the U.S. and the Black Seminoles and also the historical peak of the African-Seminole alliance. Under the policy of Indian removal, the US wanted to relocate to the western Indian Territory Florida's 4,000 Seminole people and a portion of their 800 Black Seminole allies. During the year before the war, prominent white citizens claimed at least 100 Black Seminoles as runaway slaves.

Fearing the attempt to re-enslave the 100, and anticipating attempts to re-enslave more members of their community, Black Seminoles opposed relocation. In councils before the war, they threw their support behind the most militant Seminole faction, led by Osceola. After war broke out, individual black leaders John Caesar, Abraham, and John Horse played key roles.[12] In addition to aiding the Indians in their fight, Black Seminoles conspired in the rebellion of at least 385 plantation slaves at the commencement of the war. The slaves joined Indians and maroons in the destruction of 21 sugar plantations from December 25, 1835, through the summer of 1836. Some scholars have described this as the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history.[13]

By 1838, U.S. General Thomas Sydney Jesup succeeded in dividing the black and Seminole warriors by offering security and promises of freedom to the blacks. His act was the only mass governmental emancipation of African Americans prior to President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.[14]

Black Seminoles in the West

After 1838, more than 500 Black Seminoles walked with the Seminoles thousands of miles to the Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. Because of harsh conditions, many of the Black Seminoles and Seminoles died along this trail from Florida to Oklahoma, also known as The Trail of Tears.

Despite U.S. Army promises of freedom, however, in the west the Black Seminoles were still threatened by slave raiders. These included pro-slavery members of the Creek tribe and some former Seminole allies, whose allegiance to the blacks diminished after the war. Officers of the federal army may have tried to protect the Black Seminoles, but in 1848 the U.S. Attorney General bowed to pro-slavery lobbyists and ordered the army to disarm them.[15] This left hundreds of Seminoles and Black Seminoles unable to leave the settlement nor to defend themselves against slavers.

Facing enslavement, a Black Seminole leader named John Horse and about 100 Black Seminoles staged a mass escape in 1849 from the Indian Prison to Mexico, where slavery had been abolished twenty years earlier. The black fugitives crossed to freedom in July 1850. They rode with a faction of traditionalist Seminoles under the Indian chief Coacochee, who led the expedition. The Mexican government welcomed the Seminole allies as border guards on the frontier.[16]

For the next 20 years, Black Seminoles served as militiamen and Indian fighters in Mexico, where they became known as los mascogos. Slave raiders from Texas continued to threaten the community. Arms and reinforcements from the Mexican Army enabled the black warriors to defend themselves.[17]

Throughout the period, several hundred Black Seminoles remained in the Oklahoma Indian Territory. After the Civil War, the US made a treaty with the Seminoles and other Five Civilized Tribes requiring their emancipation of slaves and extension to them of citizenship rights in the tribes. In Oklahoma, Black Seminoles became known as Seminole Freedmen. They lived —as their descendants still do— in and around Wewoka, Oklahoma, the community founded by John Horse as a black settlement in 1849. Today it is home of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.

Key locations in the 19th-century odyssey of the Black Seminoles, from Florida to Mexico.

In 1870, the U.S. Army invited Black Seminoles to return from Mexico to serve as army scouts for the United States. The Seminole Negro Indian Scouts (originally a black unit despite the name) played a lead role in the Texas Indian Wars of the 1870s. The scouts became famous for their tracking abilities and feats of endurance. Four men were awarded the Medal of Honor. They served as advance scouts for the commanding white officers and the all-black units known as the Buffalo Soldiers, with whom they were closely associated. After the close of the Texas Indian Wars, the scouts remained stationed at Fort Clark in Brackettville, Texas, until the army disbanded them in 1914. Family members settled in and around Brackettville. Scouts and family members were buried in its cemetery. The town remains the spiritual center of the Texas-based Black Seminoles.[18]

The black Seminole community in Nacimiento, Coahuila, inhabits lands adjacent to the Kickapoo tribe. Descendants of another Black Seminole community reside half a continent away on Andros Island in the Bahamas. Refugees from 19th-century Florida wars went there to find sanctuary from American enslavement. By that time Great Britain had abolished slavery.[19]

Some of the descendants of the Black Seminoles who did not emigrate still live in Florida today. For the most part, these Black Seminoles are not members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, but are recognized by the sovereign Miccosukee Seminole Nation.[1]

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Seminole Freedmen in Oklahoma were in the national news because of a legal dispute with the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma over membership and rights within the tribe. Freedmen were trying to gain access to services provided by a $56 million settlement, a judgment trust, awarded to the Seminole Nation because of land taken from them at their removal from Florida. As the judgment trust was based on the tribe as it existed in 1823, when Black Seminoles did not have citizenship rights, the Seminole Freedmen were excluded from the benefits. In the dispute over citizenship, controversy also arose over the tribe's decision in 2000 to exclude any who did not have an Indian ancestor on the Dawes Rolls. Although the Seminole Freedmen brought suit against the nation, they did not succeed in the courts.[20] The dispute developed after Seminole Indians voted to exclude some Freedmen from inclusion in the settlement and membership in the tribe. In June 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to allow the Seminole Freedmen to sue the federal government for inclusion in the settlement unless they could obtain the Seminole Nation's consent.[21]

See also

Endnotes

  1. ^ "FAQ on the Black Seminoles, John Horse, and Rebellion". www.johnhorse.com. http://www.johnhorse.com/black-seminoles/faq-black-seminoles.htm. Retrieved 2009-08-04.  
  2. ^ "Black Seminoles -- Gullahs Who Escaped From Slavery". www.yale.edu. http://www.yale.edu/glc/gullah/07.htm. Retrieved 2009-08-04.  
  3. ^ "Handbook of Texas Online - Black Seminole Indians". www.tshaonline.org. http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/BB/bmb18.html. Retrieved 2009-08-04.  
  4. ^ Landers Black Society in Spanish Florida, p. 25, citing Royal Decree of Charles II.
  5. ^ "The USF Africana Heritage Project: Black Seminoles, Maroons and Freedom Seekers in Florida, Part 1". www.africanaheritage.com. http://www.africanaheritage.com/black_seminoles_1.asp. Retrieved 2009-08-04.  
  6. ^ Wright Creeks and Seminoles 85–91, Mulroy Freedom on the Border 11. According to Black Seminole oral traditions, Florida was also home to free black refugees who had escaped from early exploring parties or slave ships. See Bird "Were all Black Seminoles descendants of fugitive slaves?".
  7. ^ Sturtevant "Creek into Seminole" 102–105; Wright, 106, Mahon History of the Second Seminole War 7; Simmons, Notices of East Florida, 54–55.
  8. ^ Mulroy 20–22; Porter, Black Seminoles 6; Foster Negro-Indian Relations in the Southeast 51–59; Simmons 44; Hancock ,The Texas Seminoles and Their Language.
  9. ^ "Afro-Indian Culture". Johnhorse.com. http://johnhorse.com/trail/01/a/14.htm. Retrieved 2009-08-20.  
  10. ^ Miller Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States 2: 344, Twyman The Black Seminole Legacy and Northern American Politics 78–79.
  11. ^ United States American State Papers: Foreign Affairs 4: 559–61, Army Navy Chronicle 2: 114–6, Mahon 65–66.
  12. ^ Mahon 69–134; Porter Black 25–52.
  13. ^ Bird "The Largest Slave Rebellion in U.S. History", Brown, Race Relations in Territorial Florida, 304; Rivers, Slavery in Florida, 203.
  14. ^ Bird "Jesup's Proclamation."
  15. ^ Porter Black 97, 111–123, United States Attorney General Official Opinions 4: 720–29, Giddings Exiles of Florida 327–28, Foreman The Five Civilized Tribes 257, Littlefield Africans and Seminoles 122–25.
  16. ^ Foster 42–43; Mulroy 58; Porter, Black, 130–31.
  17. ^ Mulroy 56–73, Porter Black 124–147.
  18. ^ Porter Black 175–216, Wallace Ranald S. Mackenzie 92–111.
  19. ^ Goggin "The Seminole Negroes of Andros Island" 201–6, Mulroy 26.
  20. ^ "Seminole Freedmen lawsuit dismissed", Indianz.com, 10 April 2002, accessed 9 Oct 2009
  21. ^ "Indianz.Com > Seminole Freedmen rebuffed by Supreme Court". 64.38.12.138. http://64.38.12.138/News/2004/003156.asp. Retrieved 2009-07-20.  

References

  • Akil II, Bakari. "Seminoles With African Ancestry: The Right To Heritage," The Black World Today, December 27, 2003. Retrieved Aug. 29, 2005.
  • Army and Navy Chronicle. 13 vols. Washington: B. Homans, 1835–1842.
  • Bird, J.B (2005). "The Largest Slave Rebellion in U.S. History." Retrieved Aug. 29, 2005.
  • Bird, J.B. (2005). "Jesup's Proclamation." Retrieved Aug. 29, 2005.
  • Bird, J.B. (2005). "Were all Black Seminoles descendants of fugitive slaves?" Retrieved Aug. 29, 2005.
  • Brown, Canter. "Race Relations in Territorial Florida, 1821–1845." Florida Historical Quarterly 73.3 (January 1995): 287–307.
  • Foreman, Grant. The Five Civilized Tribes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1934.
  • Foster, Laurence. Negro-Indian Relations in the Southeast. PhD. Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1935.
  • Giddings, Joshua R. The Exiles of Florida, or, crimes committed by our government against maroons, who fled from South Carolina and other slave states, seeking protection under Spanish laws. Columbus, Ohio: Follet, 1858.
  • Goggin, John M. "The Seminole Negroes of Andros Island, Bahamas." Florida Historical Quarterly 24 (July 1946): 201-6.
  • Hancock, Ian F. The Texas Seminoles and Their Language. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980.
  • Indianz.com (2004). "Seminole Freedmen rebuffed by Supreme Court," June 29, 2004. Retrieved Aug. 29, 2005.
  • Landers, Jane. Black Society in Spanish Florida. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
  • Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr. Africans and Seminoles. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.
  • Mahon, John K. History of the Second Seminole War, 1835–1842. 1967. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1985.
  • McCall, George A. Letters From the Frontiers. Philadelphia: Lippincot & Co., 1868.
  • Miller, David Hunter, ed. Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America. 2 vols. Washington: GPO, 1931.
  • Mulroy, Kevin. Freedom on the Border: The Seminole Maroons in Florida, the Indian Territory, Coahuila, and Texas. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1993.
  • Porter, Kenneth Wiggins. The Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-Seeking People. Eds Thomas Senter and Alcione Amos. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1996.
  • Porter, Kenneth Wiggins. The Negro on the American Frontier. New York: Arno Press, 1971.
  • Rivers, Larry Eugene. Slavery in Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.
  • Schneider, Pamela S. It's Not Funny: Various Aspects of Black History Charlotte PA: Lemieux Press Publishers, 2005.
  • Simmons, William. Notices of East Florida. 1822. Intro. George E. Buker. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1973.
  • Sturtevant, William C. "Creek into Seminole." North American Indians in Historical Perspective. Eds Eleanor B. Leacock and Nancy O. Lurie. New York: Random House, 1971.
  • Twyman, Bruce Edward. The Black Seminole Legacy and Northern American Politics, 1693–1845. Washington: Howard University Press, 1999.
  • United States. Attorney-General. Official Opinions of the Attorneys General of the United States. Washington: United States, 1852–1870.
  • United States. Congress. American State Papers: Foreign Relations. Vol 4. Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1832–1860.
  • United States. Congress. American State Papers: Military Affairs. 7 vols. Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1832–1860.
  • Wallace, Ernest. Ranald S. Mackenzie on the Texas Frontier. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1993.
  • Wright, J. Leitch, Jr. Creeks and Seminoles: The Destruction and Regeneration of the Muscogulge People. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

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