Over the course of the last several months I have been working to understand Florida’s historic Indians, especially the Miccosukee and Seminole histories. What makes these subjects so challenging is that they are so often told from a European or American perspective. More challenging still is that they are then further viewed largely through a military lens. As a result, many Seminole histories fail to take into account the “savage” point of view.
An excellent example is the Seminole War or Seminole Wars, depending on who is telling the history. Non-tribal historians tend to break down the 40-year conflict into the First Seminole War, the Second Seminole War, and the Third Seminole War. By comparison, the Seminole people consider it one long, drawn out engagement.
The war was the result of American doctrines created to remove Native American people living east of the Mississippi River. It proved to be the most expensive war in the country’s history and introduced a level of guerilla warfare the United States’ military would not again encounter until the Vietnam War.
Whether referred to as one war or three, it is generally agreed to have commenced with the November 21, 1817 attack by General Edmund Gaines on the Seminole town of Fowltown located along Georgia’s Flint River. Town Chief Neamathla and his people, taken by surprise, were surrounded and fired upon. During their escape, three warriors and one woman were killed. Many others were shot and wounded. After the attack on Fowltown, the Indians retaliated at what is remembered as the Scott Massacre killing 34 soldiers, 7 women, and 4 children. This first of three notable escalations (1817-1818) was the shortest lived.
What should be noted from the previous paragraph is the use of the words attack and massacre. American forces made a strategic plan and attacked. When Indian forces acted on a strategic plan, a massacre was recorded. In either case, General Andrew Jackson was assigned the role of suppressing the Indian hostilities and assembled a force of 2,000 men including regular army, Tennessee volunteers, and friendly Creek Indians.
Jackson did the unexpected and marched his troops south into Spanish Florida, burning every Indian encampment he found along the way. Congress was outraged by Jackson’s overreach. Not only had he led troops into another country without authorization, but he charged British citizens with inciting Indian aggressions and, going a step farther, had some hanged. The significant result of this first escalation was Spain’s realization that it was unable to secure its borders against future American incursions. Subsequently, Spain ceded control of Spanish Florida to a growing America under terms of the Adams-Onis Treaty (1819-1821).
The second escalation of the Seminole War (1835-1842) proved to be the longest of the three. The now President Andrew Jackson, acting on the Indian Removal Act of 1830, gave the order that all Seminole Indians were to be removed from the Florida Territory on February 16, 1835. As defined by Indian Agent Wiley Thompson that same year, all Indians in Florida were considered Seminoles.
Cementing the second escalation was the ambush of a garrison of 110 men led by Major Francis L. Dade. Three survived the attack. It was during this second escalation that the “Indian Key Massacre” occurred in the early morning hours of August 7, 1840. In addition to the burning, destruction, and looting of much of the island, six of the approximately 50 people on the island died during the attack. One boy succumbed after hiding in a cistern when the structure above it was lit aflame.
Between the end of the second escalation and the start of the third there was nearly a decade of diminished conflict. It was during this time, in 1845, when Florida achieved statehood. In 1853, Florida passed a law making it illegal to trade with Indians. Furthermore, it was illegal for any Seminole to be within Florida state lines making the third and final escalation of the Seminole War (1855-1858) inevitable as hundreds of Indians remained living on reservations in the Everglades.
While aggressions had been accruing on both sides for some time, hostilities flared once more after a band of men surveying the land for future development destroyed Seminole farmland without suffering formal consequences. In the end, the government spent three years trying to root out the last of Florida’s historic Indians. They would ultimately give up leaving several hundred Indians still living in the Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades. These hardy souls represent the ancestors of today’s Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, and the Independent Seminoles.
Brad Bertelli is a freelance writer and Upper Keys historian who has written or co-written six books about Keys history, snorkeling, and the Netflix series Bloodline. His column, Notes on Keys History, appears monthly in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.