When the 19th century began, the Seminole had towns, farms, and pastureland across northern and central Florida. These towns were working not only with each other but also with the growing Maroon communities of free African people. These were relative newcomers, many of whom had escaped enslavement in the United States and found freedom in Florida. With the establishment of a working relationship with the colonizer Spanish and English, the Seminole had become the primary suppliers of beef and trade goods to the Spanish. The success of these lands, however, caught the eye of farmers and plantation owners across the northern border, in the southern United States.
Many Americans, already an expansionistic nation, wanted to lay claim to Florida. Northern Florida had good ranch and farmland, and a wealth of other natural resources. The presence of a Spanish Colony was a source of concern, but more frightening for many in the South was the promise of freedom Florida offered to the people they had enslaved. Spain had declared anyone who entered Florida was free, and because of this, the first Underground Railroad ran to Florida. None of these reasons, however, would sounds good in the newspapers as a reason for war. For that, the country turned to the sporadic border fights that took place between settlers and Natives, and claimed that war was necessary to pacify the “Wild and Uncivilized Savages”, the Seminole people.
The first American invasion began in 1812, when a collection of southern militias with tacit support from Washington invaded Florida. Called the Patriot War of East Florida by the Americans, but for Florida Natives it was the beginning of the Seminole War that would define the next half-century. American militias attacked Spanish holdings and then set their sights on the renowned cattle town of Alachua. The Seminole fought them off, but the attack took the lives of many, including King Payne. His brother Bowlek, who the Americans called Bowlegs, became the new leader of the Alachua band.
In 1817, American forces returned under the command of Andrew Jackson. Jackson’s army targeted and destroyed Seminole towns and seized Seminole farms and pastureland before taking Pensacola and marching on Bowleg’s Town, home of Bowlek, and the neighboring Nero’s Town, the largest Maroon settlement in Florida. After Spain ceded Florida to the United States, the Seminole leaders met with American representatives. The Treaty of Moultrie Creek, instructed Seminoles to give up their farms and ranches in the north, and move to a reservation south of Ocala, land they knew to be far less desirable.
Elected as president in 1828, Jackson called for the Indian Removal Act, which passed two years later. The act ordered the forced removal of all Native people east of the Mississippi River to “Indian Territory,” what would one day become Oklahoma. With one signature, the United States broke every treaty with Native people. Most populations, already surrounded by lands America had claimed, could not effectively resist without the threat of destruction. The Trail of Tears began as these people were forcibly marched from the homes of their ancestors to distant reservations across the Mississippi River. Thousands died along the way. In Florida, however, the government found stiff defiance in a land they never truly controlled. The Seminole refused to leave.
Faced with this resistance, the US government ordered the Army to Florida to “remove” the Seminole by force. For seven years, they fought this “Second” war, and it would prove to be the longest and most expensive of all America’s “Indian Wars.” With their knowledge of the land, the Seminole fought a guerilla resistance that American forces, classically trained, were not prepared for. As the war continued, Seminole forces continued to outlast the military. The names of warriors such as Wildcat (Coacoochee), Sam Jones (Abiaki), and Alligator (Halpatter) became famous, and the charismatic Osceola (Asi-Yahola) became the most famous Native American in the world. However, as the war dragged on, it took its toll. Both sides faced losses, but while fresh recruits from the states replaced every American loss, there were no reinforcements for the Seminole. General Thomas Jesup cast aside the rules of war, forever tarnishing his and the Army’s reputation as he captured Wildcat and Osceola under a flag of truce. While Wildcat would lead an escape from St Augustine, Osceola was too ill to follow, and would die in US custody shortly after, far from Florida. By 1842, the forced removal campaign resulted in the death and abduction of more than 3000 Tribal members. With less than a thousand remaining in the state, and faced with the war’s rising cost and unpopularity with the American people, the Army declared victory and left.
Over the next decade, the Seminole remaining in Florida worked to recover while staying wary of new American aggression. Holatta Micco, known to Americans as Billy Bowlegs, worked with American allies to try to find a peace that would allow the two people to coexist, but both sides held grudges from the violence of war. Despite efforts on both sides, the government continued to push for full removal. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis ordered increased troops into Florida to patrol and survey Seminole land, but these soldiers and the militias with them destroyed Seminole camps and farms. The steady pressure campaign worked, flaring again into open violence, creating the “third” war.
With less than a thousand Seminole present at the start, Army leaders building on the lessons of the second war, and a half century of fighting taking its toll on the Tribe, the war ended in three years. The US Army shifted tactics to target the home camps and capturing noncombatants: mostly women, children, and elders. Places like Egmont Key became concentration camps for those taken and held hostage. The warriors were informed that their families would be sent west, and if they wanted to be with their families, the warriors should surrender. The tactic was effective. Billy Bowlegs and many of his followers agreed to removal and taken to Oklahoma. The Seminole War was over.
Despite many losses, however, the American goal of Seminole removal was never realized. Several bands remained in Florida, written off by the Army as doomed. Polly, a woman on the last removal voyage, led an escape from the boat when it stopped in the Florida panhandle for fuel. This bold action allowed her and six other women to make the long trek back to Lake Okeechobee. The Tribe would then follow Abiaki, who at around 100 years of age had fought the long war from the beginning to the end, as he led them into the deep wetlands. There the remaining Seminole would not only survive, but thrive.
American histories record three Seminole Wars; Jackson’s invasion from 1817 to 1818, the first removal war from 1835 to 1842, and the third from 1855 to 1858. This captures the American perspective, marking the periods where Congress officially declared action. But for the Seminole people there was only one war. They came under armed and organized attack from America in 1812, and the fighting only ended in 1858. While there were negotiations and times where the Army did not directly engage them, the Seminole still faced regular aggression and violence from American settlers, militia, slave catchers, and even lawmen. In 1842, while America called their 2nd war to an end, Congress signed the Armed Immigration Act, specifically aimed to send armed settlers into Seminole Florida lands to pressure them to leave. There was never truly a peace for the Seminole during this time, only one long war.