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.

Thomas Sidney Jesup and the Second Seminole War (Part Three)

General Thomas Sidney Jesup commanded military operations against the Seminoles in Florida during the early stages of the conflict now known as the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). The Second Seminole War was the longest and costliest American Indian War in American history. Jesup’s field diary, available on Florida Memory, contains his perspective on the war from October 1, 1836, to May 30, 1837. This series of blog posts places significant entries from the Jesup diary in the context of the Seminole Wars and the history of Anglo-American Indian-African relations in the American South. Below is the third post in the series.

On December 3, 1836, Lieutenant Colonel David Caulfield captured 41 black Seminoles after destroying their towns near the Ocklawaha River.

“L[ieutenant] Col[onel] [David] Caulfield returned about 9 AM with forty one negro prisoners, having surprised the village, captured the greater part of its inhabitants, and burnt the houses and the property which they could not bring in.”

“L[ieutenant] Col[onel] [David] Caulfield returned about 9 AM with forty one negro prisoners, having surprised the village, captured the greater part of its inhabitants, and burnt the houses and the property which they could not bring in.”

“L[ieutenant] Col[onel] [David] Caulfield returned about 9 AM with forty one negro prisoners, having surprised the village, captured the greater part of its inhabitants, and burnt the houses and the property which they could not bring in.”

General Thomas Sidney Jesup was ordered to force the Seminoles and their African allies out of their villages in central Florida and compel them to emigrate west of the Mississippi River. He intended to achieve this by building a series of forts and supply depots surrounding the Seminole Country, and launch raids against their villages. When his troops encountered American Indian and African settlements, they were instructed to burn crops, destroy homes and round up livestock.

In this entry, Jesup reported that Lt. Col. Caulfield captured 41 “negroes” near the Ocklawaha River. Historians struggle to find an appropriate term for persons of African descent living in the Seminole Country. From the earliest beginnings of African slavery in the Americas, runaway slaves sought refuge among Native American tribes. From the mountains of Jamaica and Brazil, to the swamps of Florida, Africans formed independent communities and forged alliances with Native peoples.

In Florida, these people came to be known to the Americans as “black Seminoles” or “Seminole Maroons.” Prior to the Seminole Wars, black Seminole communities could be found near Old Town on the Suwannee River, east of Tampa at Piliklakaha, and near modern day Sarasota at a settlement known as Angola. Other smaller settlements of black Seminoles existed throughout this range. After Andrew Jackson’s slave raid into Spanish Florida, also known as the First Seminole War (1816-1818), some American Indian and African towns took refuge in the remote interior sections of central Florida.

In early 1836, Seminoles and their African allies launched a series of attacks on sugar plantations located along the east coast of Florida. Africans enslaved on these plantations fled during the chaos and in many cases joined black Seminole towns.

One of Jesup’s primary objectives in the early stages of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842) was to uncover and destroy black Seminole towns. From the perspective of plantation owners, the existence of free-blacks and runaway slaves among the Seminoles was the primary cause of the war. To most non-Indians, all blacks living among the Indians were slaves. They did not understand the often complex relationships between Africans and Native Americans.

The Seminoles held few Africans in bondage in the manner practiced on southern plantations. Instead, most black Seminoles played important roles as military allies and contributors to herding, hunting and planting activities. A few black Seminoles such as Abraham served as advisors and interpreters for Seminole leaders. Abraham interpreted and provided council for Micanopy, the principal leader of the Seminoles until 1837, at all of the major negotiations covered in the Jesup diary.

As with the majority of the Seminoles, the U.S. Army removed most of the black Seminoles from Florida during the Second Seminole War. Very few black Seminoles remained in Florida after the Third Seminole War (1855-1858) and by the 20th century, only a couple Seminole families traced their roots back to the black Seminoles.