Seminole Wars: Summary and Secondary Sources

     The Seminole Wars of 19th century Florida were one of the starkest examples  of government & military mishandling, racial misunderstanding, and untold human suffering in American history. Yet this series of three wars, starting in 1817 and not being fully resolved until 1858, costing the US government around 30 million dollars, and resulting in the deaths of some 1500 American soldiers for the removal or death of less than 6000 Seminoles, is hardly remembered today. To begin my research project on this long and bloody conflict, I read a few secondary source books to gain a thorough background knowledge of the subject. So far I have read The Florida Wars by Virginia Bergman Peters, the Seminole Wars section in The Seminoles of Florida by James W. Covington, Guns Across the Loxahatchee by Richard J. Procyk, the essay “The Battle at the Loxahatchee River: The Seminole War” by John B. Wolf, the specific account of one of the most infamous conflicts of the Wars – Massacre! by Frank Laumer, and have started The Seminole Wars by John and Mary Lou Missall that I hope to finish in the course of the project. Together they’ve given me a basic understanding of the Wars – here’s my best attempt at a concise summary of this incredibly complicated over-40 year long conflict!

     “This, you may be assured, is a negro, not an Indian war…” said General Jesup, one of the commanders of US forces in Florida (Procyk). One of the most surprising themes I uncovered in researching was the enormous role of slavery in the beginning and perpetuation of the Wars. As Peters says, “It was fought not only to remove the Seminoles to the West but to safeguard the institution of slavery in the United States.”  When the British left Florida at the end of the War of 1812, they left a fort at Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River, which became a stronghold for runaway slaves, worrying many southern slaveholders. In 1816, American navy vessels exploded the fort, killing most of the inhabitants instantly. Also, Seminoles often had black slaves, having bought them from whites or captured them in battle. Generally the slaves lived in their own villages, protected by the Seminoles, and gave the Seminoles a portion of their crops. They could often build up property and livestock for themselves. In addition, both slave and free blacks were highly integrated into Seminole society; intermarriage was common, and there were often strong ties between Seminoles and their slaves – many prominent slave or free blacks would take up leadership positions or fight alongside their Seminole allies during the Wars. These prosperous slave villages presented a huge threat to Southern slaveholding and were one of the main reasons why there was so much support for an American invasion of Florida. The slave issue did not only lead to the start of the war, but also to its perpetuation, as many times the biggest issue standing in the way of the Seminoles’ peaceful acceptance of removal was the Americans’ insistence (military leaders often bowing to slaveholding interests) on their black allies being returned to white owners. It will be interesting to see how various sources deal with this issue and how much emphasis they place on it, given how important many of the secondary sources portrayed it as.

     The First Seminole War consisted of American invasions into Spanish-owned Florida. This was motivated by the slave issue, as discussed, but also because of the expansionist mindset of a growing America fueled by manifest destiny and fears that Florida could pose a foreign threat. By the war’s end in 1818, the American forces had invaded Florida, destroyed Seminole towns and the fort at Prospect Bluff, forcing Seminoles and black slaves and allies to scatter, and had convinced Spain that selling Florida to the US for $5 million in 1821 was a very good idea. The 1823 Treaty of Moultrie Creek pushed the Seminoles onto a reservation in the middle of the peninsula, guaranteeing it to them for twenty years. The reservation given them was poor for agriculture, and starving Seminoles sometimes resorted to raiding white settlements, causing laws to be enacted banning them from traveling outside the reservation, angering many. But as Laumer says, “White men, especially slave hunters, could see no wall around the Seminole lands until an Indian tried to leave.” White slavecatchers often seized slaves that belonged to the Seminoles. The 1832 Treaty of Payne’s Landing and the 1833 Fort Gibson treaty, signed by a delegation of Seminole leaders, stated the Seminoles’ agreement to give up Florida and move to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi in the eyes of the Americans, but the Seminole view was verbalized by Jumper, a Seminole chief: “When we saw the land, we said nothing: but the agents of the United States made us sign our hands to a paper, which you say signified our consent to remove; but we considered we did no more than say we liked the land, and when we returned, the nation would decide.” (Laumer) Americans would deny this and cite the two treaties as justification for the use of force for the rest of the Wars.

     The Second Seminole War was the largest and longest war of the three. It began with what is now known as Dade’s Massacre in December 1835, as well as the vengeful killing of the agent to the Seminoles, Wiley Thompson, by Osceola, a young Seminole who emerged as one of the most powerful leaders of Seminole resistance to removal. This started a conflict that would last until 1842 and see multiple American commanders try and fail to completely defeat and remove the Seminoles. As the War wore on, the Seminole population steadily shrank as warriors were killed, and as groups were sent west either through capture or individual groups accepting removal. But under chiefs and warriors including Osceola, Jumper, Alligator, Micanopy, Arpeika, Halleck Tustenuggee, Coacoochee, and many others, the Seminoles as a nation never stopped resisting. The war was vicious and bloody, and often involved deception on both sides: on multiple occasions overwhelmed Seminole leaders would agree to emigrate, only to use the preparation time to gather supplies and ammunition and then disappear back into the impenetrable landscape. General Jesup captured many important Seminole leaders, including Osceola and Coacoochee, by seizing them while under a white flag of truce, a violation of common practice in warfare everywhere. The War claimed many American lives, not only through Seminole bullets, but in large part because of the land itself, as hundreds of American soldiers died of disease and the terrible conditions of the swamps that the Seminoles retreated to and fought from. In 1842 the Second Seminole War was declared over, but a few hundred Seminoles still remained hidden deep in the swamps and Everglades.

     The Third Seminole War lasted from 1855-1858. It began after the US once again began talking removal, partly in response to attacks on settlements by some rogue Seminoles. When they renewed their efforts to send all the Seminoles west, those remaining fled back to the safety of the swamps, preparing to resist emigration. The rest of the War consisted of skirmishes between US troops and small groups of Seminoles who remained under leaders like Billy Bowlegs and Arpeika (Sam Jones). In 1858, Billy Bowlegs finally agreed to emigrate, taking most of those remaining with him. However, a small band of Seminoles under Sam Jones never left Florida, staying hidden in the Big Cypress Swamp. The approximately 3500 Seminoles who are in Florida today are the descendants of these Seminoles, as well as a few families who found their way back from the West.

     My original plan was to use secondary sources as a factual basis of comparison for what I assumed would be bias in primary sources and monuments. But part way in I realized that really, all sources have bias, no matter how small. Most of the secondary sources I read do have a more neutral tone. The secondary sources I read were written by historians, most of whom have written more than one book. As published historians all of these authors presumably have a reputation to uphold, and an interest in presenting a true and accurate account. However, no matter how close to neutral their accounts are, there will still be elements that introduce bias into the reader’s perception of events. For example, all the books I read included the story of Chekaika, a chief who had raided a white settlement during the Second Seminole War. In her telling of this exploit, Peters describes it as “reminiscent of Osceola’s brilliant attacks in 1835”. In retaliation, US Col. Harney ambushed his village and hung him and a few other warriors, in a scene where Peters describes the Seminoles as “his victims”. Two violent acts that resulted in death and suffering, yet Peters describes one as “brilliant” and then categorizes the perpetrators as “victims” when attacked in retaliation. Not to say that the Seminoles did not suffer many injustices during the Wars, for the conflict was in many aspects a personification of injustice. Rather, it illustrates how simple word choice can cause a reader to perceive two equally tragic events in slightly different lights. Also, both Peters and Covington did not include a follow-up story that I found in Guns Across the Loxahatchee. Procyk tells of how Arpeika, furious at the manner of Chekaika’s death, had white captives burned alive by setting aflame pine splinters that had been stuck into them. This brutal retribution shocked me the first time I read it, and although I don’t know the reasons behind its absence in the other books (it is possible the story couldn’t be confirmed by the historical evidence) it did make me re-evaluate the heavily one-sided opinion I had been forming. After reading the first two books I had a fairly negative view of the American military in general, but after reading Frank Laumer’s Massacre!, which relied on many different primary sources to bring even the characters’ thoughts to life, I began to see the Wars as more two-sided. The books that I had read made the Seminoles more personal by focusing on individual Seminoles as well as the Seminole nation as a whole, but didn’t often personalize the American soldiers, portraying for the most part a nameless, faceless army controlled by the big figures of the US government and military who probably should shoulder much of the blame for the Wars. Reading Laumer’s account enabled me to understand the average American soldier who had enlisted to defend what he thought was his home, or for the love of his country, or merely for survival, and showed me that there was suffering on both sides of the Wars. So, authors can influence readers’ feelings towards the different sides by making them personal through establishing and exploring individual characters. If readers are made to know and understand a character in history enough to have an idea about what it might have been like to be them, they will inevitably sympathize more with the character and cause. This pretty much goes for any story, real or fictional. I’m sure it will play into my exploration into bias even more when reading primary sources, which I’m going to dive into next.


  1. arhartley says:

    Very interesting, Avery! Reminds me a bit of our freshman seminar too =]

    I liked your point at the end that even secondary sources have a bias, this time against the American military, just as the primary sources are biased against the Seminoles. I’ve finally gotten around to reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History as well as some supplemental comments he had made in regards to teaching sensitive issues in American history, and one of his comments was that there is a need for a historical affirmative action, giving attention to people and sides of the story that were once ignored. Your analysis of the biases demonstrates the problems of Zinn’s approach. I feel that history should be looked at in shades of grey, as opposed to a black and white “They were wrong, they were right” approach.

    As a random aside that’s not exactly related to the Seminole Wars, I do know that Abraham Lincoln fought in the Black Hawk War in Illinois at about the same time. It’s probably outside of the scope of your project, but it would be an interesting source of comparison to compare Lincoln’s sources describing his time in the Black Hawk War with the primary source recorded experiences of American military participants in the Seminole War.

  2. I definitely agree – if nothing else, this project has taught me that every record or source will have a bias, and so it is important to remember that history is probably never completely black and white. I would love to take a look at Lincoln’s memoirs at some point, as it would definitely be interesting to see how a similar conflict played out for the participants in a very different setting and terrain. Thank you for the suggestion!