FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Christmas Eve Resistance to the First US Occupation

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.

 

More articles by:

William Loren Katz is the author of 40 books on African American history, and has been associated with New York University as an instructor and Scholar in Residence since 1973. His website is www.williamlkatz.com. Read an interview with Katz about his life teaching and writing history.

August 20, 2018
Carl Boggs
The Road to Disaster?
James Munson
“Not With a Bomb, But a Whimper” … Then More Bombs.
Jonathan Cook
Corbyn’s Labour Party is Being Made to Fail –By Design
Robert Fisk
A US Trade War With Turkey Over a Pastor? Don’t Believe It
Howard Lisnoff
The Mass Media’s Outrage at Trump: Why the Surprise?
Faisal Khan
A British Muslim’s Perspective on the Burkha Debate
Andrew Kahn
Inhumanity Above the Clouds
Dan Glazebrook
Trump’s New Financial War on the Global South
George Wuerthner
Why the Gallatin Range Deserves Protection
Ted Rall
Is Trump a Brand-New Weird Existential Threat? No.
Sheldon Richman
For the Love of Reason
Susie Day
Why Pundits Scare Me
Dean Baker
Does France’s Economy Need to Be Renewed?
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Mighty Voice for Peace Has Gone Silent: Uri Avnery, 1923-2018
Weekend Edition
August 17, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Daniel Wolff
The Aretha Dialogue
Nick Pemberton
Donald Trump and the Rise of Patriotism 
Joseph Natoli
First Amendment Rights and the Court of Popular Opinion
Andrew Levine
Midterms 2018: What’s There to Hope For?
Robert Hunziker
Hothouse Earth
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Running Out of Fools
Ajamu Baraka
Opposing Bipartisan Warmongering is Defending Human Rights of the Poor and Working Class
Paul Street
Corporate Media: the Enemy of the People
David Macaray
Trump and the Sex Tape
CJ Hopkins
Where Have All the Nazis Gone?
Daniel Falcone
The Future of NATO: an Interview With Richard Falk
Cesar Chelala
The Historic Responsibility of the Catholic Church
Ron Jacobs
The Barbarism of US Immigration Policy
Kenneth Surin
In Shanghai
William Camacaro - Frederick B. Mills
The Military Option Against Venezuela in the “Year of the Americas”
Nancy Kurshan
The Whole World Was Watching: Chicago ’68, Revisited
Robert Fantina
Yemeni and Palestinian Children
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Orcas and Other-Than-Human Grief
Shoshana Fine – Thomas Lindemann
Migrants Deaths: European Democracies and the Right to Not Protect?
Paul Edwards
Totally Irrusianal
Thomas Knapp
Murphy’s Law: Big Tech Must Serve as Censorship Subcontractors
Mark Ashwill
More Demons Unleashed After Fulbright University Vietnam Official Drops Rhetorical Bombshells
Ralph Nader
Going Fundamental Eludes Congressional Progressives
Hans-Armin Ohlmann
My Longest Day: How World War II Ended for My Family
Matthew Funke
The Nordic Countries Aren’t Socialist
Daniel Warner
Tiger Woods, Donald Trump and Crime and Punishment
Dave Lindorff
Mainstream Media Hypocrisy on Display
Jeff Cohen
Democrats Gather in Chicago: Elite Party or Party of the People?
Victor Grossman
Stand Up With New Hope in Germany?
Christopher Brauchli
A Family Affair
Jill Richardson
Profiting From Poison
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail