Seminole Wars: Primary Sources

     I ended up working on both primary sources and site visits at the same time, so these posts are going to come right on top of each other. It’s been really interesting looking at primary sources because I’ve been able to get more of an idea of the Wars from different perspectives. Granted, all of the accounts were written by Americans; however, quotes from different sources at least give an idea of the Seminole attitude, as well as the experiences of American settlers including women, and individual American soldiers – all of which are important to look at for a complete look at the Wars. I’ve been looking at a variety of sources – narratives written for the public, letters between American politicians and generals, General Taylor’s account of the 1838 Battle of Okeechobee, a FL General Assembly resolution, and the original Treaty of Moultrie Creek from 1823. All of these have provided an interesting perspective as to how the players in these Wars viewed the events and people involved in them. 

     First, the sensationalized narratives of the War, written for the public, gave a terrifying perspective – that of the American women and children settlers in Florida who often were victims of Seminole attacks. These stories of the encounters of settlers with attacking Seminoles gave a horrifying and heartbreaking picture of the fact that in addition to soldiers and warriors, these Wars claimed victims who were not involved with the fighting at all.  The Seminole point of view is also upheld in some of these documents – for example, in the 1823 Treaty of Moultrie Creek. In Articles 3 and 6 of this treaty, the grace period of “twenty successive years” for the Seminoles is laid out clearly. However, in 1832 and 1833, US agents coerced Seminole leaders into signing treaties of removal, even though their 20 year grace period was not over. When the Americans then began to complain that the Seminoles were not accepting the removal terms of the 1832 and 1833 treaty that they had signed, they didn’t take into account that they had badgered (there is general suspicion in many sources nowadays that they had in some way tricked the Seminoles into signing) the Seminoles into a treaty that violated the terms of the 1823 treaty that they had signed.

     The most interesting thing for me about reading these primary sources was thinking about the purpose of their bias. Informational bias in general can flow naturally from a skewed point of view, or it can have a goal. When reading a few of these sources I was able to think about what I thought may have been the reason the author presented the facts from the point of view in question. One claim that many of my sources made was that Seminole violence was, for the most part, unprovoked. In a March 1818 statement to the House of Representatives, President James Monroe says, “The enclosed documents show that the hostilities of this tribe were unprovoked…”. Unsurprisingly, the word “unprovoked” was used often in the two accounts of the wars written for the public, both published in 1836, that I read –  “An Authentic Narrative of the Seminole War; and of the Miraculous Escape of Mrs. Mary Godfrey and Her Four Female Children” (which told of the sufferings they endured when chased out of their house by Seminole raiders and forced to live in a swamp for days), and “A True and authentic account of the Indian War in Florida: giving the particulars respecting the murder of the widow Robbins and the providential escape of her daughter Aurelia and her lover, Mr. Charles Somers, after suffering almost innumerable hardships” (in which was told of murder of Mrs. Robbins and the success of Mr. Somers in holding off the Seminoles and subsequent flight into the swamp with Ms. Robbins). These two narratives focused on the stories of innocent settlers being attacked by murderous Seminole raiders without warning. In addition, a February 5, 1817 letter from the governor of Georgia to General Gaines complains of a seemingly unprovoked Seminole raid, and subsequent shooting of innocent whites who pursued and demanded their property back. However, I did realize that all these sources have authors and purposes that can explain why they portrayed Seminole attacks as unprovoked. President Monroe’s letter to the House of Reps was on the subject of American invasion and relation to Spanish FL, and the main point he was trying to make (the point used to justify American military invasion of Spanish FL) was that Spain couldn’t protect innocent American settlers from unprovoked Indian attacks. The more unprovoked and grievous these Indian attacks were, the more justified American troops were in going in to defend against them. As for the two narratives, it seems from their sensational sounding titles that these were accounts that hoped to attract readers. In this case, although the settlers described did indeed suffer much, it was very important for the authors to focus on their absolute innocence, and to portray the Seminole attackers as bloodthirsty and unprovoked, riding on public sentiment of the time to draw sympathetic or ghoulishly curious readers. And General Gaines’ response to the Georgian governor explaining the extent of his authority over troop movements makes it clear that the Governor hoped to received military aid for citizens in his area, providing an incentive for portraying them as being unjustly attacked.

     The Americans who wrote these sources clearly saw the Seminoles as wild and ferocious, but some also had great respect for the native warriors and wrote about them as such. Even in one of the sensational narratives, Osceola is described as having “daring courage, and admirable military turn of character”. Another interesting point was how the Americans viewed themselves. Throughout the secondary and primary sources were instances of Americans referring to themselves as protectors, looking out for the welfare of the Seminoles. An Oct. 21, 1837 talk between Gen. Hernandez and the Seminole chiefs after the now-infamous capture of Osceola records Hernandez as saying, “You know that, until now, the white people have let you do as you pleased; they did not wish to hurt you; they beat drums and fired the big guns to induce you to come in.” A Jan. 2, 1838 letter from John Ross to Secretary Poinsett on the same subject, about a message “from their [Seminoles’] elder brother the Secretary of War, who represents their father, the President of the United States.” In her book, Bergman Peters often records how American generals would refer to the president as the “Great Father” when talking to the Seminoles. They would use these terms to portray themselves as caring and acting for the good of the Seminoles – the idea of tough love. Maybe they wanted to portray themselves more favorably in written record for other readers? Or perhaps they truly believed that the Seminoles needed their guidance, as heavy-handed as it was, for their own good. There’s even the chance that thinking of themselves in this fashion allowed them to more whole-heartedly take pride in and be comfortable with the fact that they were evicting these people from their homes. Whatever it was, it is a thread that runs throughout the secondary and primary sources that I’ve looked at.