Florida’s Underground Railroad (Part Three)

The Black Seminoles

Many might assume that the Underground Railroad traveled in one direction: north to freedom, away from slavery and the plantations of the South. Few realize that runaway slaves also fled south into Florida for almost two centuries before the Civil War.

In recognition of Black History Month, this three-part series of blog posts introduces aspects of resistance to slavery in Florida history. We conclude with the story of the Black Seminoles.

Runaway slaves forged close alliances with the Florida Seminoles in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Historians struggle to find an appropriate term for persons of African descent living in Seminole Country. In Florida, these people came to be known to historians as “Black Seminoles” or “Seminole Maroons.”

Excerpt from a map of Florida by H.S. Tanner (1823) showing Suwannee Old Town, situated on the path from Tallahassee to Alachua

Excerpt from a map of Florida by H.S. Tanner (1823) showing Suwannee Old Town, situated on the path from Tallahassee to Alachua

Prior to the Seminole Wars, Black Seminole communities could be found near Old Town on the Suwannee River, north of Tampa at Pilaklikaha, and near modern day Sarasota at a settlement sometimes referred to as Angola. Other smaller Black Seminole settlements existed throughout this range.

Excerpt from “A Map of the Seat of War in Florida,” by Captain John Mackay and Lieutenant J. Black, U.S. Topographical Engineers (1839), showing battles and natural features near Pilaklikaha

Excerpt from “A Map of the Seat of War in Florida,” by Captain John Mackay and Lieutenant J. Black, U.S. Topographical Engineers (1839), showing battles and natural features near Pilaklikaha

On several occasions Seminoles and their African allies banded together in the defense of their homelands.

In 1812, a combined force of Africans and Seminoles repelled Georgians known as the “Patriot Army” who intended to capture slaves and seize parts of Spanish Florida for the United States.

The success against the Patriot Army was followed by a series of defeats. On July 20, 1816, the Americans destroyed the “Negro Fort” on the Apalachicola River. The fort, built by the British in the closing stages of the War of 1812, held hundreds of defenders who were killed when a heated cannon ball blew up the powder magazine.

The American drive to acquire Florida caused further hardship for Black Seminoles. After Andrew Jackson’s slave raid into Spanish Florida, also known as the First Seminole War (1816-1818), most Africans abandoned their towns along the Suwannee River and took refuge further south in the remote interior sections of central Florida.

The number of runaway slaves in Florida increased when the United States acquired Florida from Spain in 1821. As planters from Georgia and the Carolinas arrived in northern Florida, some of the people they held in bondage escaped and joined the Seminoles. Article VII of the treaty made at Camp Moultrie in September 1823 compelled the Seminoles to be “active and vigilant” in preventing runaway slaves from entering their territory. Moreover, the treaty required Seminoles to “apprehend and deliver” fugitive slaves to federal agents.

Excerpt from “Treaty with the Florida Tribes of Indians,” also known as the Treaty at Camp Moultrie or the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, September 18, 1823

Excerpt from “Treaty with the Florida Tribes of Indians,” also known as the Treaty at Camp Moultrie or the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, September 18, 1823

Seminoles and Black Seminoles pushed back when American officials attempted to enforce the Indian Removal Act in Florida. In late 1835 and early 1836, Seminoles and their African allies launched a series of raids on U.S. Army fortifications and attacked sugar plantations in East Florida. Africans enslaved on these plantations fled during the chaos and in many cases joined the Black Seminoles.

These events marked the beginning of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), the longest and costliest American Indian War in U.S. history. Because of the prominent role of Africans in the conflict, General Thomas Sidney Jesup famously proclaimed, “This is…a negro, not an Indian war.” Historians consider this statement reflective of southern plantation owners’ fears of the Seminole Wars erupting into a broader slave rebellion.

Abraham, a Black Seminole interpreter, figured prominently in the tense negotiations during the early stages of the Second Seminole War.

Abraham, intrepreter and war leader (circa 1837)

Abraham, intrepreter and war leader (circa 1837)

Abraham delivered messages on several occasions to General Jesup from principal Seminole leaders and also participated in talks with U.S. military officials. In the entry below from his field diary, dated March 18, 1837, Jesup mentions spending the “whole evening” in conference with Seminole leaders accompanied by Abraham.

Jesup diary, March 18, 1837

“Micanopy and Aligator, with Abra[ha]m spent the whole evening with General Jesup.” [pg. 75-76]

“Micanopy and Aligator, with Abra[ha]m spent the whole evening with General Jesup.” [pg. 75-76]

The end of the Seminole Wars in 1858 struck a major blow to the aspirations of runaway slaves in Florida. No longer able to find freedom in Seminole Country, runaway slaves increasingly sought the Underground Railroad or, during the Civil War, service in the Union Army as the path to escape slavery.

To learn more about the African peoples who resisted slavery in the southeast, visit the National Park Services’ Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor website.

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6 thoughts on “Florida’s Underground Railroad (Part Three)

  1. My mother, a 5th generation Floridian, and the great great granddaughter of Eli O. Morgan, has written a novel about this very thing: Mary Grace Osteen, Unless We Dance (Trafford, 2012).

  2. It’s time to correct the term runaway slaves. Slaves did not runaway,they escaped. This term of runaway is a term that needs to be corrected. Horses,cattle and children runaway and then they were returned. Slaves had no intentions of coming back or returning. So, the term escaped slaves is much better.

    • No story of the Black Seminole is complete without a visit to the Loxahatchee River Battlefield in Jupiter, Forida.

      This episode in history stands out as one of the largest and final major battles in the history of the Florida Wars (Over 1500 troops fought over 300 Seminoles, Over half of the warriors were Black Seminoles). After the Battles of the Locha Hatchee (Jan. 15 and 24, 1838)over six hundred Seminoles and Black Seminoles were captured in camp at Fort Jupiter under a white flag of truce. In the following days more than 600 were sent on the southern most route of the “Trail of Tears” through northern Palm Beach County from Fort Jupiter to Fort Brook in Tampa. Then on to the reservations to the west and the Blacks to the Southern Plantations to the north and into the cold iron shackles of slavery. Loxahatchee Battlefield Park info: (561)748-4014.

      Glenn PS My brother Lorenzo is correct in his statment regarding the all inclusive term “runaway”. You can meet Lorenzo at the Loxahatchee River Battlefield by appointment to hear the Black Seminole Story in Jupter Florida.

      • Lorenzo and Glenn,

        Thank you both for the great comments.

        Lorenzo, can you give our readers more information about tours and programs at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge? People are surprised to learn how many sites you can visit in Florida that are connected with the Seminole Wars. These sites are the place to go to learn more about the under appreciated series of conflicts that shaped Florida history.

        The point about terms like escaped slaves v. runaways v. contrabands, etc. is a good one and brings up the complex issue of terminology used to describe these conflicts. Perhaps Florida War(s), as Glenn uses, is also better than Seminole Wars?

        Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.fws.gov/loxahatchee/.

        Loxahatchee from Seat of War (1839)

        Excerpt from “A Map of the Seat of War in Florida,” by Capt. John Mackay and Lieut. J.E. Blake, U.S. Topographical Engineers (1839), showing the area near the Battle of Loxahatchee.

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