The Seminole Wars

Updated on May 22, 2020
Bee Williams profile image

With a degree in history, I enjoy researching and writing about historical events that the history books tend to gloss over.

Spanish Florida
Spanish Florida | Source

Native Florida

At the time of Ponce de Leon, it is estimated that there were over 100,000 Indians living in Florida. The Seminole had not yet arrived in Florida during that time. In the 1700s, bands of Upper and Lower Creek Indians began migrating to Florida. These bands became known as Seminole by the Spanish, who owned Florida, which means “run away.”

By the time the Seminole came to Florida, the earlier tribes from the time of Ponce de Leon had all but disappeared. The Seminole also provided refuge to escaped slaves. The former slaves were absorbed into the Seminole tribe and are often called Black Seminole. During a time of increased white settlers and a push to move the Indians from tribal lands, the government enacted many strategies to resettle Indians to reservations West of the Mississippi.

Together, the Seminole and Black Seminole fought for the right to remain on their lands in Florida. Through three hard-fought battles combined, cunning fighting techniques, and adaptation, the Seminole won tribal independence in Florida, when other tribes were forced onto reservations in the West during the nineteenth century.

First Seminole War
First Seminole War | Source

The First Seminole War

There was a total of three Seminole Wars. The First Seminole War began in 1816, a time when tribal lands across Indian Nations were already quickly dwindling. The First Seminole War began over the United States’ attempts to apprehend runaway slaves who were living among the Seminole in Spanish owned Florida. This war lasted two short years from 1816-1818. During this time, West Florida was Louisiana Territory, while Eastern Florida remained under Spanish rule.

General Andrew Jackson led troops during both the first, and the second Seminole War. To quell the fighting on the Spanish Florida border, General Jackson launched a campaign against the Creek and Seminole Indians. Jackson was known as Sharp Knife to the Cherokee and Indian Killer to many others. Jackson, a strong supporter of Indian removal, ordered troops to kill Native women and children after killing the men to make a thorough job of getting rid of them.

During his fifth annual message Jackson is quoted as saying, “They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition”. Jackson was also a strong supporter of slavery, a combination which fueled the First Seminole War.

Jackson Invades Spain
Jackson Invades Spain | Source

Invasion of Spain

Because Florida was Spanish-owned land rather than United States territory, Jackson “felt called upon to capture the fort of St. Marks and the capital city of Pensacola, together with its fortress of Barrancas.” After these sieges, General Jackson and his army further marched into Spanish held Florida, and razed towns, killed and enslaved many Creek, Seminole, and black people, as well as executed two British prisoners. The British prisoners had been tried and convicted of sympathizing with the Seminole in a military tribunal. The General’s actions caused the government to feel that not only had Jackson crossed a line and denied the prisoners proper legal process, but that he had also started a war with Spain when he attacked forts and villages.

Although this was a war against the Seminole because it took place in Spanish-owned territory, the actions of General Jackson were discussed in Congress for two months in 1818, to determine if Jackson’s actions had violated the Constitution. Congress ultimately determined that General Jackson did not act in a way that violated the Constitution. The ongoing argument by the Government regarding Indian nations as savage or sovereign, coupled with the slavery laws, eventually paved the way for policies such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Although the Seminole did not celebrate a decisive victory, they remained in Florida because Florida was not United States territory until 1819. Spain was forced to cede to the United States, in part due to the First Seminole War.

Indian Removal Act
Indian Removal Act | Source

Indian Removal Act

General Jackson was elected President of the United States in 1829, despite his previous difficulties with congress. While his battlefield tactics may have been called into question by congress, the people supported him. After receiving many petitions from white settlers to remove Indians from the Southeast, predominately Georgia, the Indian Removal Act was debated in Congress for seven months. This was a delicate subject dealing with more than native peoples, it also brought up issues of tribal sovereignty, and the legality of negating previous treaties.

After many revisions, President Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act in 1830. The Act provided resettlement of Indians from east of the Mississippi River, to lands in the west. While the act was intended to be voluntary, the government was granted permission to forcefully remove tribes, when they felt it was necessary. The goal of relocation was to civilize and Christianize Native Americans. Furthermore, the Indian Removal Act freed up land once occupied by Indians for settlers to claim. While some tribes rose in resistance, the United States army quelled rebellions and tribal warriors eventually submitted to reservation life or died in battle. Other tribes moved west voluntarily or were forced by armies when they took too long to leave. By the 1840s, there were no longer any tribes living in the South, except the Seminole.

Treaty of Payne's Landing
Treaty of Payne's Landing | Source

Treaty of Payne's Landing

The Seminole refused to leave Florida under the Indian Removal Act. Many hid their families in the Everglades so as not to be forcefully removed. A new treaty was then written to convince the Seminole to leave Florida peacefully. The Treaty of Payne’s Landing was a treaty between the United States Government and the Seminole Indians. The treaty, created April 12, 1834, was written by James Gadsden on behalf of the United States Government and several Seminole chiefs. It was signed and enacted on May 9, 1834, sixteen years after the First Seminole War.

To move the Seminole to Western Territory the treaty outlined the demands of the United States Government to the Seminole Indian. One of those demands was, again, to return escaped slaves to slaveholders. It has been asserted that the treaty was written in vague terms, for example giving the Seminole three years to remove West. This would generally be interpreted as three years from 1834, however, the government interpreted it as three years from 1832, the year when some Seminole Chiefs left for Western territories to examine the reservation, thereby giving the Seminole less than a year to leave.

The Seminole saw this yet another lie of the United States Government. Because Chief Osceola, as well as others had married former slaves and had children with them, they would not abandon their family to slaveholders. In 1835, led by Osceola, the Seminole, rebuffed the Treaty of Payne’s Landing, and mounted a guerrilla-style war against US troops in the swamps of Florida in resistance to relocation beginning the Second Seminole War.

Second Seminole War
Second Seminole War | Source

Second Seminole War

The Black Seminole were one of the reasons that Andrew Jackson was not able to roust Seminole Indians from their native lands. The Treaty of Payne’s Landing, 1832, stipulated that any Seminole with black blood was considered a fugitive slave and must be returned. This concerned the Seminole, as many black people had married Seminole and had adopted their culture.

Chief Osceola opposed the surrender of the Black Seminole. Most of the United States soldiers were farmers in their 40s and 50s who were not accustomed to fighting in the swamps. In January of 1836, Seminole warriors under the leadership of Osceola, known as Powell, in addition to escaped slaves, attacked Major Dade’s camp near Tampa, Florida. The entire camp was slaughtered, including Major Dade and Captain Fraser. It has been said of Chief Osceola was regarded as one of the greatest Generals of his day.

Chief Osceola
Chief Osceola | Source

Chief Osceola

Chief Osceola was a half-breed. His father was a white man named Powell from Georgia and his mother an Indian. In 1837, during negotiations, Osceola verbally assaulted an Indian agent, and was captured under a flag of truce. He was confined at St. Augustine but was later sent to Fort Moultrie in South Carolina. With Osceola in prison, the United States government thought that his army would give up and the fighting would end. On the contrary, on Christmas day in 1837, Colonel Zachary Taylor attempted to ambush a group of Seminole at Okeechobee. However, it was they who were ambushed by the Seminole. While the army entered a cleared field for battle, the Seminole used guerilla tactics to take out most of the unit’s officers.

Osceola died in prison in January of 1838. Osceola’s army, however, continued to fight for the next several years. In 1842, the Seminole surrendered to the government, and ended the Second Seminole War. Some were removed to the West, but some still refused. Those who remained were permitted to remain in the swamps of the Everglades. The Seminole were granted permission to remain on their land, so long as it was a life of peace. Their chief was now Billy Bowlegs, who had been part of the ambush against Colonel Taylor.

Third Seminole War
Third Seminole War

Third Seminole War

Billy Bowlegs was called the King of the Everglades. He was the descendant of Chief Secoffee who broke from the Creek Indians and settled in Florida. Billy Bowlegs and many Seminole lived and farmed in the swamps of the Florida Everglades.

In 1855, government surveyors, under the leadership of Colonel Harney accompanied by army engineers, who were under orders to not provoke the Indians, stole crops and damaged banana trees belonging to the Seminole. It was an act of provocation and aggression. When confronted by the Seminole, the men showed no remorse. They admitted that they wanted to see Chief Bowlegs brought down. This lead to the Third Seminole War. This was the final war attempting to force the Seminole out of Florida and onto reservations out West. Additionally, this was the final push from the Seminole to remain on their own lands.

The war began the morning after the theft. Seminole warriors attacked the surveyor’s camp killing four and wounding four more. In response, the United States Army marched against the Seminole with the Seminole outnumbered fourteen to one. Many skirmishes ensued for the following two years. The United States Army aimed to kill or evict the Seminole from their land, and the Seminole fought for their right to remain and live in peace. It had been speculated that the surveyors attacked the camp of Billy Bowlegs, in an attempt to provoke the Seminole to attack so that the United States government would have a reason to go to war with them, thus ridding Florida of the Seminole once and for all.

Col. Harney
Col. Harney | Source

Col. Harney

Colonel Harney was a family friend of Andrew Jackson. He had also fought in the First and Second Seminole Wars with General Jackson. He was a man of contradiction. He publicly took the stance that wars with Indians should be avoided by being good neighbors. However, it was men under his command who vandalized the camp of Billy Bowlegs.

Furthermore, while he may have befriended the Crow, he fought against the Black Hawk with Colonel Zachary Taylor. During the Third Seminole War, he threatened to hang women and children to coerce the Seminole to disclose the location of Billy Bowlegs. At one point, he placed a noose around the neck of a child until his parents gave the desired information.

Billy Bowlegs
Billy Bowlegs | Source

Billy Bowlegs' War

To end the fighting, the government offered another treaty to tempt the Seminole to move West, in 1856. The Seminole were promised a government independent of other tribes if they would surrender their lands and move West. This treaty did not end the fighting. After years of small skirmishes, the final conflict of the Third Seminole War came in 1857 when the camp of Billy Bowlegs was burned to the ground by the United States Army. The conflict also became known as Billy Bowlegs' War, which only lasted for a year ending in 1858.

The American Government met with Billy Bowlegs under a flag of truce to end the Third Seminole War. The Seminole people were offered various sums of money, payable upon boarding a ship in Egmont Key to leave the state. The offer was accepted after discussion in an Indian council. Billy Bowlegs, his family, and his people boarded the ship and removed to reservations in the West. However, approximately two hundred Seminole remained in Florida. These two hundred Indians were the last Indians to remain on their own land. They moved deeper into the Florida swamps and avoided all contact with white settlers.

Seminole Indian Village
Seminole Indian Village

The End Result

After three hard-fought wars, the Seminole had won their freedom to remain on native soil. They were the only Indian tribe to have won such freedom. All other tribes had been removed to reservations West of the Mississippi. The Seminole, however, made a life for themselves in the swamps of Florida. After the Third Seminole War, they were rarely seen. Tribespeople would only leave their lands for short times to trade at near-by frontier villages. Despite contact with white settlers during trade, most Seminole shunned the whites and kept to their native ways and language.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, there were efforts by concerned citizens, and missionaries to reach out to the Seminole and teach them; however, the United States government left them alone.


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Questions & Answers


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      • Miebakagh57 profile image

        Miebakagh Fiberesima 

        6 days ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

        Brandy, this is real history. But what the United State in the person of General Jackson, later president did to the local aborigins is condemnable. The America peoples are very inhuman to support Jackson. Hanging an innocent child to grab aborigin lands is cruely inhuman. Such issues are still to be hear in the courts. Thanks for sharing.

      • Bee Williams profile imageAUTHOR

        Brandy R Williams 

        6 days ago from Virginia

        I am so glad you enjoyed the article! As a native Floridian myself, the history of the Seminole is near and dear to my heart.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        7 days ago from Sunny Florida

        This is an interesting bit of history since the Seminole indians had the right to stay in FL. We treated the indians so bad overall, but it is nice to know the Seminole indians were allowed to stay.

        I have done a lot of genealogy work and I really enjoy reading history. This is a very well-written article about this time in FL, which is where I live now.


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