by Ellen Isaacs, December, 2019
From the beginning, the credo of the US ruling class has been divide and rule. Not a new idea, but one that has been perfected in this nation. Not only was the enslavement of Africans made possible by driving a wedge of prejudice and circumstance between blacks and poor whites, but another schism was sown between slaves and Native Americans.
Having been murdered by disease and gunfire and displaced from their lands, many indigenous people were won to ally with black slaves fleeing their oppression. Perhaps the greatest tale is that of the Seminoles’ struggle against slavery that united escaped slaves and Native Americans from Florida to Texas to Mexico –a tale that is little taught in American classrooms. In this age of divisive identity politics it is important to recall how the unification of these two tortured peoples enabled at least the temporary liberation of both and to learn how recent divisions are tearing that unity asunder.
Unity of the Oppressed
Slaves escaping from Georgia and the Carolinas first went to Florida in the late 1600s. The then Spanish colony gave freedom to those who agreed to defend Spanish interests, and the first free black town in North America, Mose, was founded in 1738 near St. Augustine by 38 fugitives. During the 1700s, some Creeks, who disagreed with the pro-US sentiments of many tribesmen, migrated south to the safety of the dense woods and swamps of Florida. There, these so-called Red Sticks united with other militant Native Americans and fugitive slaves, also called maroons, and formed a new people known as the Seminoles.
White US residents had long sought to drive a wedge between slaves and Native Americans. To this end, indigenous people were recruited to act as paid slave catchers. In fact some Seminole Indians even “owned” slaves, but the relationship was more one of tenant farmers, who were required to give some of their crop to the owners. Native Americans also would be promised land or booty to cooperate with US military ventures, promises that were often broken. Creeks who remained loyal to the US served as frontline soldiers in the “Indian Wars” against the Seminoles in the 1800s. Colonial laws made it a crime for blacks and Indians to meet together in groups of four or more.
During the American Revolution, the British offered freedom to slaves who fought with them, and hundreds of blacks and Seminoles joined their side. At the end of the war, many ex-slaves remained in Florida and became more closely integrated with 4000 Seminoles. The ex-slaves became known as Seminole Negroes, Black Seminoles or Seminole Freedmen.
The Threat on the Southern Border
Slave owning whites wanted to recover their fugitive slaves and feared the armed bands on their southern border. Both President Thomas Jefferson, who obtained the vast Louisiana Purchase, and his successor, James Madison, desperately wanted Florida to become part of the US. In 1811, Madison initiated covert removal efforts against the Seminoles, who resisted with arms that had been given them by the Spanish.
The subsequent larger military campaign, part of the anti-British War of 1812, was led by Andrew Jackson, who had been promoted to major general for an earlier defeat of the Red Sticks. Survivors had taken refuge in the Florida territories near Pensacola. Some English officers sympathetic to slaves and Native Americans, most notably Edward Nicolls, led a diverse army that ultimately lost several battles to Jackson’s more numerous forces. The final defeat came at New Orleans, after which the British withdrew and the Treaty of Ghent was signed. It promised that all lands taken from the Indians would be returned, but this agreement was not kept, and hundreds of Creeks and Seminoles retreated deep into Florida. The approximately 5000 fugitive slaves who had sided with the British were given papers documenting their service and giving them full rights to freedom.
When the English withdrew from Florida after their defeat, they abandoned a fort in a key strategic location on the coast of what is now called the Florida panhandle, at the outlet of the Apalachicola River. They left it to the maroons who had been their allies, fully stocked with cannons, ammunition, and uniforms. The new occupants welcomed more American and Spanish fugitives slaves, and allied with indigenous people in the region. Although fugitive slave communities had existed since the early days of the Atlantic slave trade, this fort was to be the largest. It was surrounded by farming communities inhabited by people of diverse origins.
White slaveholders both feared this Negro Fort, which it came to be called, as a magnet for escaping slaves, and welcomed it as an excuse for war to secure US control over Florida. Forty years after having declared that all men are created equal, the US Government, under the leadership of Andrew Jackson, destroyed this fugitive slave refuge in a foreign territory. Just one year after it was established, its attackers detonated an ammunition store and the explosion killed most of the Fort’s inhabitants. Others fled to refuge with the nearby Seminoles and very few were recaptured. The two surviving commanders, one Indian and one black, were tortured to death. The site is now called the Fort Gadsden Historic Recreation Center, and its true history is completely obliterated.
By 1817, hundreds of ex-slaves and Seminoles had established new settlements in Florida, the biggest being Bowlegs and Nero’s Town. In 1817, Jackson was again ordered to invade Florida and end this menace, initiating the First Seminole War. His victory resulted in a treaty that gave the US control of all of Florida and initiated the era of formalized white supremacy.
Fugitive slaves and Native Americans then set up defenses farther south near Tampa and prepared for the inevitable next conflict. Some blacks applied for sanctuary in the Bahamas, which was a British slave-holding colony, but were rejected by a government that feared further conflict with the US. In 1821, some opportunistic Creek chiefs ceded large amounts of land in Georgia to the US, but they refused a demand that they march on Tampa to recapture slaves for no reward to themselves. Meanwhile, Florida politicians chose to establish a new capital in Tallahassee, occupied primarily by Seminoles. Promised honesty and respect, the Seminoles signed the Treaty of Moultrie, which in reality stripped them of all rights and property.
Several hundred fugitive slaves sailed again to the Bahamas, but they took care to land on remote islands. Eventually the British allowed them to live as free people on Andros Island, where a settlement remains today. About 430 other blacks and many Seminoles set up over 30 multiracial communities in central and southern Florida. In December, 1835, about 800 of these combined inhabitants successfully attacked a US army column. The next year a huge American military force launched the Second Seminole War of 1835-42, in which blacks and indigenous Seminoles fought together against the US army. In 1852, over 500 black fighters and many Seminoles accepted a promise of freedom in return for moving to the new Indian Territory in Oklahoma, traveling along the same Trail of Tears on which the Cherokees had suffered. Several hundred other fugitives were sold back into slavery. About 300 Seminoles who remained in Florida and fought another doomed war from 1855-8, the so-called Third Seminole War.
Life After Florida
In Oklahoma, the Government put the Seminoles under the authority of the Creeks, who were slave owners, and white slave traders also tired to capture ex-slaves. In 1850, their black leader, John Horse, and his indigenous Seminole ally, Chief Coacoochee, led a mass exodus to Mexico, where slavery had been outlawed since 1829. There they built the free settlement of Nacimiento, where their descendants still live. In 1855, the Texas Rangers were sent to destroy this Seminole settlement, but they were stopped by the slave and Native American alliance. Many of the Native Americans returned to Oklahoma, but the ex-slaves remained until after emancipation. In 1870, they were invited to join the US Army, which officially established the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts. Two large groups of combined ancestry still live in Seminole County, Oklahoma and Brackettville, Texas.
Racism Rears its Head
In a tragic example of how racism in America can divide even such long-standing allies, a bitter legal battle broke out in the early 1990s over $56 million awarded to the Seminoles by Congress to compensate for the Government’s seizure of their land Florida in 1823. Following the advice of the Department of the Interior, the tribe, now numbering 15,000, tried to exclude black members. This is despite a good deal of intermarriage and black Seminoles having been officially recognized as tribal members in a treaty with the Federal Government in 1866. The court battle has gone back and forth, but as one black Seminole leader has said, the racial harmony of their ancestors has been lost forever.
Nonetheless, we must remember and celebrate this alliance of two centuries between two disparate groups of people tortured and murdered by the US Government for its own profit. This history is little known and less taught, for the same profiteers do not wish the Native American, black, immigrant and non-Christian peoples who still comprise the most exploited on American soil to unite together. And just as poor white workers were turned against African slaves and Native Americans as a way to increase their own oppression, so do white workers today have to ally with the most oppressed in order to liberate us all from the jaws of greed and capitalism.
Racism is and has always been the most potent weapon of the US ruling class to keep us divided and weakened.
Finding Florida, T.D. Allman, Grove Press, 2013
The Battle of Negro Fort, Matthew Clavin, New York University Press, 2019