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Florida 1837
Christmas Eve Resistance to the First US Occupation
by WILLIAM LOREN KATZ

Some 167 years ago United States Army, Marine and Navy units were engaged in an occupation and pacification of dangerous foes in Florida. The first foreign invasion launched by the new US government began in 1816 and met fierce and prolonged resistance from the multicultural Seminole nation. Part of three Seminole wars lasting to 1858, this "Second Seminole war" was the most cataclysmic Indian conflict in history. It cost taxpayers $40,000,000 (pre-Civil War dollars!), at times tied up half of the Army, and led to 1500 US military deaths. Untabulated were wounded US soldiers and civilians, and Seminole casualties.

The US invasion of Florida led to 42 years of fighting, a quagmire and a failure to subdue the resolute Seminoles. As casualties rise and Iraq spins out of control, this first US foreign venture offers important lessons.

In 1776, when 55 white patriots arrived in Philadelphia, put on white wigs, and crafted an immortal declaration, the Seminole nation also was fighting for its independence. To avoid persecution under Creek rule, Seminoles had fled south to Florida. There they were welcomed by Africans who had escaped from slavery in Georgia and the Carolinas — and who since 1738 had built prosperous, free, self-governing communities.

Africans began to instruct Seminoles in methods of rice cultivation they had learned in Senegambia and Sierra Leone. Then the two peoples forged an agricultural and military alliance that challenged slave-hunters and then US troops. Some African families lived in separate villages, others married Seminoles, and the two peoples with a common foe shaped joint diplomatic and military initiatives. Africans, with the most to lose, rose to Seminole leadership as warriors, interpreters, and military advisors.

Major General Sidney Thomas Jesup, the best informed US officer in Florida, explained how two dark peoples created a multicultural nation:

The two races, the negro and the Indian, are rapidly approximating; they are identical in interests and feelings. . . . Should the Indians remain in this territory the negroes among them will form a rallying point for runaway negroes from the adjacent states; and if they remove, the fastness of the country will be immediately occupied by negroes." [1]

In 1816 Army Lt. Colonel Duncan Clinch reported on the first US invasion of Seminole settlements on Florida’s Appalachicola River bank:

The American negroes had principally settled along the river and a number of them had left their fields and gone over to the Seminoles on hearing of our approach. Their corn fields extended nearly fifty miles up the river and their numbers were daily increasing. [2]

On the Appalichacola Clinch found former slaves ran plantations, raised crops, cattle, horses, traded with neighbors, and brought up their children. His response was to destroy a "Fort Negro" and its 300 inhabitants.

Race and slavery lay at the heart of the Florida wars. Southern slaveholders obsessed with plugging up their leaky labor system saw Florida as a clear and present danger — a beacon luring slaves from Georgia and the Carolinas, and offering a safe haven. Also, successful free Black communities also destroyed a major justification for slavery.

Slave-catching posses invaded Florida, and masters demanded government action. It was a time when slave owners commanded the White House, Congress, Supreme Court and the military. In 1811 President James Madison, father of the US Constitution, initiated covert military operations against the Seminoles. In 1816, General Andrew Jackson led a major invasion, and three years later Spain [whose ownership rested on a visit by Ponce De Leon and imperial hubris] sold the Florida to the United States.

But the "Seminole threat" remained. Seminoles chose combat to capitulation. Because they fought on their own soil, Seminole forces ran circles around the numerically and technologically superior US armies. US officers were confounded, humiliated and beaten by guerilla techniques that would resurface more than a century later in Viet Nam.

US officers violated agreements, destroyed crops, cattle and horses, and seized women and children as hostages. They tried to racially divide the Seminole Nation. Nothing worked and resistance only stiffened. But these political, ethical and racial blunders would be carried forward to the Philippines in 1898, then Vietnam, and Iraq.

By 1837, the multicultural Seminole Nation had battled the US forces to a standstill. General Jesup concluded, "This, you may be assured, is a negro and not an Indian war." He continued:

Throughout my operations I have found the negroes the most active and determined warriors; and during the conferences with the Indian chiefs I ascertained they exercised an almost controlling influence over them. [3]

On the day before Christmas, 1837 US troops had tracked Florida’s dark freedom-fighters to the northeast corner of Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida. An estimated 380 to 480 Red and Black Seminoles, commanded by Wild Cat and his friend, African sub-chief John Horse, waited, their marksmen perched in tall grass or trees. US Colonel Zachary Taylor and his army approached — 70 Delaware Indian mercenaries, 180 Missouri riflemen and 800 soldiers from the US Sixth, Fourth, and First Infantry Regiments. The Delawares sensed disaster, and fled. Next the Missourians broke and ran.

Taylor then ordered his US troops forward. He later reported that pinpoint Seminole fire brought down "every officer, with one exception, as well as most of the non-commissioned officers" and left "but four . . . untouched." After a two and a half hour battle the Seminole forces took to their canoes and escaped. On Christmas Day Colonel Taylor’s men counted 26 US dead and 112 wounded, 7 died for each dead Seminole fighter. US troops captured cattle and horses but no prisoners.

Lake Okeechobee stands as the most decisive US defeat in more than four decades of warfare in Florida. But several days after his decimated army limped back to Fort Gardner, Taylor’s declared victory — "the Indians were driven in every direction." The US Army promoted him.

However, US field officers recognized the unity and strength of the African-Seminole alliance. Said General Jesup, "The negroes rule the Indians, and it is important that they should feel themselves secure; if they should become alarmed and hold out, the war will be resumed." [3]

Proclaiming his "Indian fighter" reputation, Zachary Taylor later was elected the 12th President. Pleased with their victory, most Black and Red Seminoles agreed to migrate to Oklahoma, but defiant others remained.

The US debacle at Lake Okeechobee remains part of a buried and distorted heritage. In The Almanac of American History, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote: "Fighting in the Second Seminole War, General Zachary Taylor defeats a group of Seminoles at Okeechobee Swamp, Florida."

In its first foreign invasion the US sought to vanquish a free people and take possession of their mineral-rich homeland. For 42 years brave Seminoles mounted a valiant resistance, a milestone in the struggle for human liberty. This distant episode should sound warning bells today.

WILLIAM LOREN KATZ is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. He can be reached through his website: www.williamlkatz.com

Copyright 2004 by WILLIAM LOREN KATZ

Notes

[1] Major General Jesup, June, 1837, in American State Papers, Military Affairs, cited in Kenneth W. Porter, The Negro on the American Frontier [New York, 1971] 251, 281.

[2] Report of Col. Duncan Clinch on "the destruction of Fort Negro, on the Appalachicola, July 29, 1816" [Washington: War Records Office, National Archives]

[3] Major General Sidney T. Jesup, Jesup Papers, box 14; 25th Congress, Second session, 1837-1838, House Executive Document, Vol III, no. 78, p. 52.

[4] Major General Jesup, March 26, 1837 in American State Papers, Military Affairs, VII. 835.