|Seminole warriors lie in ambush for an Army column under Major Francis Dade in 1835.|
The Battle of Lake Okeechobee was just one episode in an epic struggle that encompassed three official wars, countless scrapes and breaches of tenuous truces over more than 50 years. Together they are generally referred to as the Seminole Wars and reduced to a mere sentence or two in most high school and many college survey course American History text books. Yet more United States Government treasure was eventually expended on the various campaigns and removal schemes than in the War of 1812 and all of the other Indian campaigns between the American Revolution and the Civil War. And more U.S. soldiers—Regulars, Volunteers, and militia died in battle or of disease than in all of the legendary post-Civil War Western Indian wars combined. At the height of the conflict—the Second Seminole War (1835-1842)—10,000 regular army troops were engaged—the vast majority of the Army’s total manpower—plus thousands of volunteers, militia, and auxiliaries and scouts—fought no more than 3,000 warriors. Yet at the end of all of the waste in blood and treasure although most of the Seminole were relocated to reservations west of the Mississippi, a stubborn remnant held out in the depths of the Everglades, defiant and undefeated. They remain on their lands to this day.
Florida had famously been claimed for Spain by the Conquistador Ponce de León in 1513 and after some unsuccessful attempts and St. Augustine—the second oldest continuous settlement in what is now the United States—was founded in 1565. In the subsequent two centuries of Spanish occupation, most of the native peoples of the peninsula were killed in warfare, died of imported European diseases especially small pox, or were enslaved. Many of the enslaved were sold or shipped to plantations on the profitable spice and sugar islands of the Caribbean where the native Carib people had already been nearly wiped out. Spain was never able to control much of the Florida country except for areas around St. Augustine and costal enclaves of fisher folk, wreck scavengers, and buccaneers. But they had nearly depopulated the whole province.
Into this void came two groups. First were Black, freemen from the Spanish holdings, but mostly escaped slaves from both Spanish settlements and, increasingly, runaways from Georgia and the Carolinas. Whole villages sprang up inland along rivers away safe from Spain’s thinly spread troops.
The second were native peoples from the north, primarily break-away Creeks and other Hitchiti and Muscogee speakers who settled near what is now Tallahassee in the panhandle and around the Alachua Prairie. The Creeks were at the time the dominant tribe in the Deep South and aggressively expanding their hunting grounds. But they were also divided between Northern and Southern branches often at odds and in by local clans often in virtual civil war. Weaker groups fled the dominant Creeks as did members of other tribes including Alabamas, Choctaws, Yamasees, and Yuchis. Elements of these tribes mixed and mingled often forming villages in which the people retained their original tribal identity but took on new group loyalties. They were also for the most part welcomed by the Black villagers already there. Escaped slaves of African origins introduced the new arrivals to new agricultural practices more adapted to their swampy new homes, including the cultivation of rice. Some of the arriving natives already included Blacks in their numbers, either escaped slaves adopted into the tribe—just as there were also White people, mostly traders, who had been adopted—or in some cases owned as slaves. Over time more and more of the black settlers intermarried with the natives and assimilated into their culture. Their presence also attracted a steady stream of new runaways.
By the early 18th Century the Spanish had taken to calling these people Cimarrones, meaning wild ones or runaways which eventually morphed into Seminole. Still later Yankees began to apply the term to virtually all of the Florida peoples regardless of their own tribal identities.
During the chaos of the American Revolution, fighting in the South sent a new wave of Black runaways into Florida. The British then controlled Florida as a result of the treaties ending the Seven Years War (French and Indian Wars in North America). Through a network of traders operating and limited military operatives took advantage of the situation to encourage more runaways and raiding against isolated colonial settlements. This, of course, was bitterly resented by Southern planters who began agitating the new government to try to annex East and West Florida, which had been returned to Spain’s weak control by the Treaty of Paris.
With a steady stream of slaves continuing to escape across the border, the new Government began contesting the boundary of West Florida. By 1810 James Madison dispatched troops to occupy and annex some of the area, and there was nothing a pathetically weakened Spain could do about it. After Andrew Jackson and his Tennessee Volunteers defeated the Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in early 1814, many Creeks crossed into Florida and linked up with the Seminoles and with the Black villages. The British armed them and encouraged forays. Jackson drove the British and as many 700 warriors out of Pensacola, and back to the Apalachicola River.
After rushing to the defense of New Orleans and his decisive victory there, Jackson marched overland to secure Mobile and from there was poised to take further action against Florida. The British retained some presence in Florida even after returning nominal control to the Spanish and in particular armed a garrison of mostly freed slaves at the so-called Negro Fort on the Apalachicola. Their presence frightened southern planters who feared it would encourage mass slave escapes or perhaps even a slave insurrection. When some American sailors were killed by armed blacks troops under Jackson’s overall command attacked the Negro Fort, along with a large number of his former Creek foes, recruited on the promise that they could take possession of the contents of the armory of the fort. In an exchange of artillery fire, the magazine of the Fort exploded killing almost all 300 defenders. Survivors escaped to join the Seminole, who in turn were harassed by their old Creek enemies, now well stocked with arms salvaged from the fort.
The following year, 1816, Jackson invaded Florida on his own initiative convinced that his prestige would insulate him from blame. He marched with 800 troops and quickly took the Spanish fort at St. Marks, where he captured a Scottish born trader and hung two Red Stick Creek (Seminole allies) chief captured under ruse. Soon after he also captured a British agent. He put both men on trial for trading and arming the Indians and had them executed, causing an international incident. After briefly returning to Tennessee, Jackson returned with an expanded army and took Pensacola again from a 150 Spanish garrison and about 700 Indians, both Seminole and Red Stick Creek. His actions flagrantly violated international law but were said to “secure the frontier.” Jackson was bitter when faced with censure for insubordination, but that is another tale. More importantly Spain realized that it could not hold Florida if the United States chose to act against it. They were forced to cede their province to the U.S.
The Americans took possession in 1821, with Jackson being appointed Territorial Governor, a vindication of sorts. He did not remain in active command long, leading to a string of weak governors to try solve the ongoing problem of the Seminole and their Black allies.
The military adventures leading to the annexation of Florida became known, retroactively as the First Seminole War although most of the fighting occurred between U.S. troops and the Red Sticks, Spanish, and allies among the Black villages who were becoming called Black Seminoles.
With annexation came new waves of White settler from adjacent states, especially to the panhandle and the grass lands of the northern part of the Territory, the heart of the Seminole homeland along the Apalachicola and in the grass prairies of the north. There the people had established substantial permanent villages with sturdy log dwellings, and extensive fields of corn or rice in swampier areas. On the grassland substantial herds of cattle and hogs were raised. There was general prosperity that attracted both more run-away slaves and White land lust.
In 1823 the government negotiated the Treaty of Moultrie Creek during meetings near St. Augustine attended by over 400 Seminole and allied tribe who elected Neamathla, a prominent Mikasuki chief, to be their chief representative. The treaty ceded all of the lands of the panhandle and the northern half of the peninsula to the United States, except for six villages along the Apalochicola belonging to particularly influential chief. In exchange the Seminole and their allies were given a large reservation of about 4 million acres that ran down the middle of the peninsula from just north of present-day Ocala to a line even with the southern end of Tampa Bay. The boundaries were set well inland from both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to prevent trading for arms and to keep slaves escaping by boat from reaching them.
The Seminole would be able to keep Blacks who were their “lawful property” but were officially obliged to turnover escaped slaves. In practice that meant that the territorial governor would consider Blacks who were culturally integrated into the Seminole as legal property, even though United States law did not recognize the freedom that had been granted to runaways by the former Spanish authorities.
Large sums of money, several hundred thousand dollars, were set aside to compensate the Seminole for their property losses in the north, expenses in relocation, and as rations for the first year until new crops could be harvested. Chief got substantial gifts—bribes—for signing.
Although there was some resistance, most of the Seminole saw this as the best that they could do. By 1827 almost all were relocated. But the difficulty in clearing the heavily forested, swampy land, delayed planting new crops, then a prolonged drought damaged crops that were planted. The reservation was also soon over hunted leading to starvation in some villages. Despite a general peace, more and more bands of hunters left the reservation in search of food, sometimes clashing with the new white settlers in their old territory.
In 1830 Jackson was elected President and announced his intended program of removing all Eastern tribes west of the Mississippi—including his old enemies among the Seminole and their allies.
In 1832 the Reservation chiefs were called to Payne’s Landing to hear a proposal to relocate them beyond the Mississippi on a reservation already established for the Creeks, since the Seminole were officially considered by the Government as a division of that nation. The Seminole, however, now considered themselves their own nation, a nation historically at odds with most of the Creeks. Seven chief, however, did consent to travel west to inspect the proposed lands and to confer with the Creeks. They were also heavily gifted. They at first acknowledged that the new land was “acceptable” and agreed to sign a treaty. On returning home to the outrage of their people most of the chiefs repudiated their agreement.
None the less the Treaty of Payne’s Landing was ratified by the Senate in 1832 and the government began to relocate those who could be persuaded to leave. That included most of those still along the Apalochicola who suffered intense pressure from White settlers. But most on the Reservation refused to go, even after Jackson sent a message to a council saying that the Army would move to impose the relocation if they did not go. Eight of the chiefs agreed to move west, but asked to delay the move until the end of the year. Five other important leaders refused.
Isolated clashes between settler and natives erupted. Tensions mounted. One of the five resisting Chiefs, Charley Emathla, wanting no part of a war, led his people to Fort Brooke, where they were to board ships to go west. Other Seminoles considered this a betrayal and the rising young leader Osceola met Charley Emathla on the trail and killed him.
War broke out in 1835 as the Territorial government mobilized the militia to move against the Seminole. Raiding parties, including some led by Osceola began raiding and burning sugar plantations along the Atlantic coast with most of the slaves joining them. One militia supply column with hundreds of pounds of powder and shot was captured in another raid, which killed six guards.
On December 23, 1835 the two companies of U.S. regulars, totaling 110 men, left Fort Brooke under the command of Maj. Francis L. Dade to reinforce the more isolated Fort King. The column was shadowed by the Seminole who ambushed it on December killing all but three members of the command in what became known as the Dade Massacre, one of the worst Army defeats in the young nation’s history. The same day Osceola killed 7 troops outside Fort King.
|An idealized depiction of the Battle of Lake Okeechobee. No troops--and no horses--got this near to the Seminole defenses.|
Fighting and raiding spread across the peninsula with small units of regulars and militia often coming under attack and raids on plantations spreading south. Some officers, at least, saw justice in the Seminole resistance. Major Ethan Allen Hitchcock, an officer from New England whose troops found the slaughtered remains of Dade’s command the next February wrote home:
The government is in the wrong, and this is the chief cause of the persevering opposition of the Indians, who have nobly defended their country against our attempt to enforce a fraudulent treaty. The natives used every means to avoid a war, but were forced into it by the tyranny of our government.
Back in Washington Jackson had no such qualms. And neither did most of the officers in the service who hailed from the South. The Army scrambled to recover and respond. Virginian War of 1812 hero Winfield Scott, acknowledged to be the Army’s most capable soldier, was brought in as the overall commander. Meanwhile General Edmund Gaines gathered a force of 1,100 Regulars from scattered western post and volunteers in New Orleans and sailed for Fort Brook.
In marching and counter marching between Forts Brook and King, Gaines’ column, nearly out of food was trapped along a river at the site where Osceola had defeated a militia force some weeks earlier. Gaines erected a makeshift fort and sent word to Fort King to send re-enforcements. Scott would not at first risk exposing more troops. Gaines held out against a deadly siege by hundreds of warriors while his men were reduced to eating their mules and dogs. The local commander at King finally decided to ignore Scott’s order and send relief. But instead of trapping the attacking native forces, they just melted away. It was another humiliating setback for the Army.
Scott had resisted dispatching aid because he wanted to consolidate his forces and conduct a coordinated offense against the tribes. Three columns, totaling 5,000 men, were to converge on the Cove of the Withlacoochee, trapping the Seminoles with a force large enough to defeat them. Scott would accompany one column, under the command of General Duncan Clinch, moving south from Fort Drane. A second column, under Brig. Gen. Abraham Eustis, would travel southwest from Volusia, a town on the St. Johns River. The third wing, under the command of Col. William Lindsay, would move north from Fort Brooke. The plan was for the three columns to arrive at the Cove simultaneously so as to prevent the Seminoles from escaping. Eustis and Lindsay were supposed to be in place on March 25, so that Clinch's column could drive the Seminoles into them.
Eustis tarried to attack and burn a target of opportunity—a Black Seminole village—and was delayed. But so were the other two columns. By the time the columns converged on the final day of the month, the Seminole had slipped away, abandoning the Cove. There was only minor skirmishing with the native rear guard. Out of provisions the now united army had to retreat to Fort Brooke with nothing to show for their efforts.
Through the spring and summer of 1836 the Seminoles attacked and besieged a number of forts and outposts. When they attacked and burned the sugar mill on General Clinch’s personal plantation, he resigned the Army and abandoned his Florida holdings for Alabama. Meanwhile illness—yellow fever, malaria, and dysentery swept through the army further weakening it. Post, including Fort Drane and Fort Defiance had to be abandoned. Congress swallowed hard and appropriated another $1.5 million and authorized volunteer enlistments for a year rather than the customary three months just to finish the year.
Newly appointed Governor Richard Keith Call hoped to launch a dry season summer campaign using militia and Florida Volunteer troops instead of the exhausted regulars. But gathering men and supplies delayed him until September and the beginning of the rainy season. After re-occupying Fort Drane, he attempted another attack on the Seminole strong point, the Cove but his troops were trapped across a flooded river with no tools to build rafts or canoes and his men were peppered by rifle fire from across the river every time they were seen on the banks. He had to return to base, his men half-starved when their supply steamboat sank in the river. \
He tried again in November, made it across the Withlacoochee, but found the Cove abandoned. Call split his forces and marched up the river on both banks in search of his elusive enemy. He routed on encampment on November 17 and fought a running engagement the next day. He pursued the fleeing Seminoles into the Wahoo Swamp on November 21 where the Indians set up a fierce resistance to screen their families. They were forced across a river which, once again, Call could not cross. His men were exhausted and the terms of the Volunteers would expire in December. Call was relieved of command and his men ordered back to Fort Brooke where the Volunteers disbanded.
Meanwhile Scott was relieved and replaced by his greatest rival in the service, Major General Thomas Jesup who had just routed rebellious Creek removal holdout in Georgia. Jesup determined that using large units and trying to force a classic set piece battle with the Seminole, he would wear them down by actions against their villages and a war of attrition. Jesup assembled a force of nearly 10,000, half of them Regulars, the rest including not just the usual militia and Volunteers, but a brigade of Marines and sailors from both the Navy and the costal Revenue Service. The latter would man ships and boats sent up the rivers to harass villages along their banks and disrupt communications between villages and bands. The Seminole had started the war with just over 1,000 warriors who could not be replaced. The war to this point had already reduced the number to something under 800.
In January 1837 there were a number of limited but successful actions employing this strategy including the Battle of Hatchee-Lustee, where the Marine brigade captured between thirty and forty Seminoles and blacks, mainly women and children, along with 100 pack ponies and 1,400 head of cattle. Some Seminole leaders began to seek peace. In March Micanopy and a few other chiefs signed a capitulation agreeing to be transported with their cattle and bona fide property—supposed slaves.
As these bands gathered in camps to await transport, they were descended upon by slave catcher who laid claim to most Blacks. Since the Seminole could seldom, if ever, produce documentation of ownership, many were stolen from their people.
Two of the most important and successful war leaders, however, had not come in to surrender—Osceola and Aripeka, medicine man and war chief of the Miccosukee better known as Sam Jones. On June 1 these leaders and 200 Warrior surprised the lightly held garrison at Fort Brook and liberated 700 members of the bands surrendered by their chiefs.
This was a severe blow to Jessup’s plans especially since, believing that the war had essentially been won, he allowed the militia to go home, let Volunteer enlistments expire without recruiting new ones, and allowed the Army to reassign some of his regulars back to their usual posts. He spent the summer slowly rebuilding his forces. Despite a steep drop in revenues caused by the Panic of 1837, Congress reluctantly appropriated another $1.6 million for another year of campaigning.
In the fall he resumed sending his small unit raiding parties out and his river patrols had always continued. Many Seminole were exhausted having been driven from their villages and unable to plant crops and the warriors too busy to hunt. Small family groups of Seminoles and even Blacks began surrendering to the forces who encountered them. The Army captured the important Mikasuki chief known as King Philip and his band and a band of Yuchis, including their leader, Uchee Billy. Attrition was once again doing its slow work.
Jessup had King Philip send a message to his son, the important war leader Coacoochee (Wild Cat) inviting him to a parlay. When he arrived under a flag of truce he and his companions were arrested. In October Osceola and Coa Hadjo, another chief, requested a parley with Jesup. A meeting was arranged south of St. Augustine where the Army also arrested them under the White flag. All of these important prisoners were sent to Fort Marion—the historic Spanish Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine. All jammed together in a dungeon like cell. Twenty of his cell mates including Coacoochee and the Black war Chief John Horse escaped by squeezing their half-starved frames through a narrow window. Osceola was too ill to join them. He died in the same cell not long after.
Jessup had the respected Cherokee leader John Ross come down from Georgia to parlay with some of the holdouts. When Micanopy and others came in to meet the Cherokee delegation, they, too were arrested. Ross protested but Jessup told him that any Indian who came in would be detained and deported.
After these incidents the remaining resistors learned never to trust Jessup.
By late fall Jessup had built up a new large Army including Volunteer units from as far away as Pennsylvania and Missouri. He divided his command into strong columns set to push south down the peninsula. General Joseph Marion Hernández led a column down the east coast, General Eustis took his column up the St. Johns River Colonel Zachary Taylor led a column from Fort Brooke into the middle of the state, and then southward between the Kissimmee River and the Peace River. Other commands cleared out the areas between the St. Johns and the Oklawaha River, between the Oklawaha and the Withlacoochee River, and along the Caloosahatchee River. A joint Army-Navy unit patrolled the lower east coast of Florida. Other troops patrolled the northern part of the territory to protect against Seminole raids.
Taylor’s campaign started well. In the first two days after setting out on December 19 with 1000 man force more than 90 Seminole surrendered to him. He stopped for a day to throw up a hasty palisade, Fort Basinger, where he left his sick and enough men to guard the Seminoles that had surrendered.
He then took off in pursuit of what he understood was the main body of the hostiles. He caught up to them on a fateful Christmas Day.
About 450 Seminoles and Blacks under the leadership of Billy Bowlegs, Abiaca, and Alligator set up well concealed defensive positions between Lake Okeechobee and a large hammock with half a mile of swamp in front of it. Seven foot high saw grass provided cover and water and mire three feet deep in places meant that horses would be useless. The Seminole carefully prepared their position, cutting the top off of some of the saw grass for a clear field of fire and notching surrounding trees to steady their rifles.
Despite this, Taylor decided to attack head on to the hammock ignoring advice to try and flank and surround the warriors. He let his trusted Lenape (Delaware) auxiliaries, about 80 strong, lead the way. Withering file sent then running back to and beyond the lines. Next in order of battle were 180 Missouri Volunteers who became bogged down in the swamp and easy targets. Almost all of their officers and non-coms were picked off. Colonel Richard Gentry, himself mortally wounded was unable to stop a panicked rout, especially after some of the Seminole counter charged them.
That left if to the Regulars, troops from the 1st, 4th, and 6th Infantry Regiments. They pressed forward trying to maintain formation but were soon struggling in the saw grass. The 6th was especially mauled Lieutenant Colonel Alexander R. Thompson, commanding and all but one officer were killed as were most of the non-coms. When the unit fell back and tried to reform they found only three men unwounded. Other companies pressed the attack with nearly the same results. Sharp fighting continued for hours until dark when both side disengaged. The Seminole melted away in the night. In a hard day’s fight they had lost 11 dead and a score wounded.
Taylor’s command lost 26 dead—almost exclusively officers and non-coms and 122 injured. His auxiliaries and militia were demoralized to uselessness and the heavy loss to the Army’s leadership crippled it. Taylor limped back to Fort Brooke, managing to take back with him no more prisoners, but about 150 horses and 600 head of cattle that he had cut off from the Seminole forces. The later was a blow to the Indians.
In his official report Taylor claimed victory on the narrow traditional terms of seizing control of the battle field at the end of the conflict. But it was a strategic loss. Worse, a humiliating mauling. The administration, however, was desperate to report some success in Florida and proclaimed Taylor a hero, promoting him to Brigadier General. The soldier earned the nick name he would wear through the Mexican War and into the White House—Old Rough and Ready. Many historians who have even bothered to take note of the Second Seminole War have unquestioningly swallowed the claims. Specialists in military history, even professional Army apologists, know better.
Jessup pressed on with his overall offensive, with Taylor’s troops rejoining the push. In southwest Florida a joint Army-Navy force under Navy Lt. Levin Powell was surrounded and nearly trapped by a large Seminole force and barely made it back to their boats with 4 dead and 20 wounded.
|Emboldened Seminoles began attacking and besieging forts and block houses.|
At the end of January Jessup caught up with a large concentration east of Lake Okeechobee. Once again the Seminole positioned themselves behind a hammock with their back to a river, the Loxahatchee. Once again they leveled deadly, effective fire on charging troops. But this time Jessup had artillery and rockets. Still, the Seminole were able to get across the river and disappear.
That was the last of major battles, although skirmishes and ambushes set up by both sides persisted. Many of the Seminole were on the run deeper and deeper into inhospitable swamps. In February 1838 the chiefs Tuskegee and Halleck Hadjo proposed surrendering if they could remain on a smaller reservation south of Lake Okeechobee. Jessup by now figured this was a good deal thinking that years of campaigning would be needed to clear all of the Seminole by force. He agreed to the terms and forwarded his recommendation to Washington. The chiefs brought in many of their nearly starved people to a camp near army headquarters which provided food and rations. It looked like the war would be over.
But Washington rejected the proposed treaty. Jessup summoned the troops to deliver the news, but they had already heard it and refused to come in voluntarily. Jessup dispatched troops to the camp where he took more than 500 into custody with little resistance.
In August Jessup returned to his regular duty as Quartermaster General of the Army and new Brigadier Taylor was placed in command in Florida with a force reduced to about 2,800 men. A few thousand Seminole and a few hundred warriors remained on the loose. Taylor concentrated on defending the north from raids and building a string of small, closely spaced Forts across the old Reservation connected by wagon roads. Larger units continue to hunt bands, but in 1838 only 200 were brought in and transported. Fighting did subside to minimal levels, but the expense of Taylor’s strategy was enormous.
Public opinion in the north was actually swinging toward the Seminole, and many people thought those who had fought so hard to remain had earned the right to do so, especially since they now inhabited country thought to be uninhabitable for white men. The new President, Martin Van Buren, was committed to continuing Jackson’s Indian removal policy, but was not motivated by the visceral hatred of his old boss.
Commanding General of the Army Alexander Macomb was sent to try and negotiate a final treaty. Finally, Sam Jones, the most important remaining war chief sent his chosen successor, Chitto Tustenuggee, to meet with Macomb. On May 19, 1839, Macomb announced reaching agreement with the Seminole. They would stop fighting in exchange for a reservation in southern Florida.
Except for some sporadic raiding by independent bands, the peace seemed to hold through the summer. Then on July 23 a new trading post on the north shore of the Caloosahatchee River was attacked. Most of the 23 members of the garrison and all of the civilians were killed. Colonel William S. Harney and a handful of soldiers made it to the boats to escape.
In retrospect most scholars believe that this attack was not by the Seminole or their Black allies by from remnants of the so-called Spanish Indians of south Florida who were resentful of the Seminoles entering what they considered their territory. They hoped to sabotage the peace and the settlement. If so, they succeeded. The war was back on.
On the other hand after an incident near Fort Lauderdale, Sam Jones and Chitto Tustenuggee were accused of the Harney Massacre. The Army tried unsuccessfully to track the elusive enemy with Bloodhounds with little success since the dogs can’t track in water. Meanwhile well to the north despite the blockhouse and road system heavy patrolling, small raids still harassed settlers and small, isolated troop deployments well into 1840.
In May Taylor was replaced by Brig. Gen. Walker Keith Armistead, Jessup’s former second in command. He called for another tactical change. He sent out units of 100, large enough to discourage small scale ambush but small enough to move rapidly and what amounted to seek and destroy missions aimed at villages and encampments and particularly planted fields of crops and herds of cattle. Also, for the first time he allowed the Regular Army to campaign during the summer which Army doctrine had avoided as the “sick season.” Previously all summer operations were conducted by Volunteers and militia. The tactic were working but at a cost of ramping back up Army deployment which now included the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 8th, and Infantry Regiments, nine companies of the Third Artillery, and ten companies of the 2nd Dragoons—once again more than half of the Regular Army.
Meanwhile far to the south Navy Lt. John T. McLaughlin was given command of a joint Army-Navy amphibious force known as the Mosquito Fleet to interdict arms trade to the Seminoles from Cuba. McLaughlin established his base at Tea Table Key in the upper Florida Keys. He also sent out patrols in canoes far up rivers not previously penetrated and attempted to cross the Everglades by boat in 1840. His first attempt failed due to illness, but in January 1841 succeeded, demonstrating that the Government could project force even into the most remote refuges of the Seminole.
Despite the presence of the Mosquito force a party of Spanish Indians attacked Indian Key, a community of wreckers and sometime pirates, killing 40 of the 50 inhabitants. A depleted garrison at Tea Table Key, including the surgeon and hospital orderlies attempted to relieve the neighboring island with cannon hastily mounted on oar driven flat boats. But the recoil from the cannon swamped the boats and the raider burned and looted the island.
Armitage had been given $55,000 by Congress to bribe remaining leaders to relocate. In November he parlayed at Fort King with Thlocklo Tustenuggee, a Tallahassee known as Tiger Tail, and Mikasuki Halleck Tustenuggee. But instead of offering them the generous bribes Congress had authorized, subordinates soon realized that he had pocketed the money and was demanding that the leaders relocate their bands under the old terms of the Payne’s Landing Treaty. And while negotiations were going on, he dispatched troops to threaten Halleck’s village. Disgusted, the two leaders slipped away from the Army camp one night.
Tallahassee chief Echo Emathla did surrender his band, but Tiger Tail and most of the tribe refused.
In December of 1840 Harney got revenge of sorts for the attack that nearly wiped out his command. On a tip he entered the Everglades with a party on boats borrowed from the Marines. He penetrated deep into the swamp before encountering a couple of Indian canoes. He set of in pursuit killing two. His guide, a Black turncoat, led him near the encampment of Chakaika and the Spanish Indians. He attacked at dawn with his men disguised as natives. Chakaika was away from camp but was located and shot without offering resistance. Harney hung three captives and Chakaika’s body beside them. He had killed four others in the fire fights and driven a dozen or so survivors into the swamp.
In February Coosa Tustenuggee finally accepted $5,000 for bringing in his sixty people with sub chiefs and warriors getting proportionally smaller settlements, reluctantly played by Armitage under threat of exposure for embezzlement. In March the wily Coacoochee agreed to bring in his people in three months. He accepted his bribe and took an authorization to provide provisions for the band with him. Coacoochee then visited several forts, presented his requisition, and made off with supplies at each. At one he even procured a fine new horse and five and one-half gallons of whiskey.
By spring of 1841 Armitage had sent 450 Seminoles, including 120 warriors west. Another 236 were at Fort Brooke awaiting transportation. Others were expected to arrive shortly. Then in May Halleck Tustenuggee sent word he would bring his band in. Armitage figured that there were only 300 Seminole warriors left in Florida.
Congress demanded a rapid wind down of the war and cut back on expenses, which under Armitage had run to more than $93,000 a month. Colonel William Jenkins Worth was placed in command of a much reduced force. He cut 1000 civilian employees, mostly teamsters and carpenters, and consolidated posts. He sent out another sweeping small unit summer campaign which finally drove the last Seminoles out of the north including their stronghold at the Cove of the Withlacoochee, cite of earlier Army humiliations.
In May 1841 Coacoochee was up to his old tricks at Fort Pierce where Major Thomas Childs agreed to give him one month to bring his people in. After weeks of coming and going at the fort—mostly leaving with supplies, Child concluded that Coacoochee did not intent to bring his people in. He arrested the chief and 40 others and immediately packed him on a ship bound for New Orleans. Worth, who needed Coacoochee to lure the other chiefs in was furious and dispatched a fast boat to intercept the ship and bring back the chief. Under heavy guard and with no prospect of escape he finally agreed to accept $8,000 and send messages urging the others to come in.
211 surrendered directly as a result of Coacoochee’s plea. Hospetarke was drawn into a meeting at Camp Ogden near the mouth of the Peace River in August and he and 127 of his band were captured. In the north most of the Seminole were cleared out, but reduced numbers helped those remaining to stay safely in hiding. In the far south action in Big Cypress Swamp in which a number of villages were burned helped convince others to surrender.
The Seminole were now dispersed in small bands across the territory and elusive. Moreover those still on the loose included Sam Jones, and Billy Bowlegs perhaps the most dangerous leaders of them all.
In August 1842 First Lieutenant George A. McCall found a band in the Pelchikaha Swamp, about thirty miles south of Fort King. After a brief fight some were captured. Halleck Tustenuggee came to the fort to parlay and was captured. More of his followers were taken when they came to visit him, then McCall found and took his camp including women and children.
Despite the outstanding bands, in 1842 Congress felt confident to offer under the aptly named Armed Occupation Act free land for White settlement to any who would improve it and “were ready to defend it without recourse to the army.” If this risky offer did not exactly start a land rush, enough land hungry Americans were willing to take a chance. Previously unpopulated former native lands began falling to the ax and plow.
In August that year General William Bailey and planter Jack Bellamy led a posse of 52 men in pursuit of Tiger Tail’s warriors who had been harassing the new settlers. After three days they found their camp and attacked killing all 24 men they found. It turned out to be the last action of the long war. A teenager, William Wesley Hankins who executed the last warrior was credited with firing the last shot of the war.
Worth met with many of the remaining chiefs in August. Some accepted their “gifts” and agreed to be relocated. Other’s indicated that they would cease hostilities if allowed to live on a reservation in southwest Florida. Worth considered this good enough to declare hostilities at an end. After returning from a 90 day leave and hearing disturbing reports about raids on northern Florida farms for livestock and provisions, Worth reluctantly ordered the detention of the recalcitrant chiefs. Tiger Tail was brought in on a litter desperately ill. He died on board ship in New Orleans.
In an official report Worth estimated that there were only 300 Indians left in Florida including 42 Seminole, 33 Mikasuki, 10 Creek and 10 Tallahassee warriors all living peacefully on the reservation. This was undoubtedly and underestimation and disregarded small bands still holding out in remote placed in the north. It also does not seem to account for Sam Jones’s band. Still it was a fraction of their pre-war population.
Less than 3,000 had been relocated to Indian Territory on a reservation tensely shared with the Creeks. Those people did not fare well and by 1870 their numbers had dropped to 2,543. The total number lost to combat, starvation, and disease is unknown.
The government spent an aggregate of $30 to $40 million dollars on the war depending on how it was accounted for. The Regular Army lost 1,466 men, more than 10% of all of the men who served in the conflict, most of them to disease. The Navy and Marines lost about 60. Some reports indicate that 55 Florida Volunteer officers and men were killed in battle, but no figures are available for the militia or from Volunteers from other states—or for those who died of disease, surely many times the battle deaths. About 80 White civilians are thought to have been killed.
The Second Seminole War was a bad business all around.
Yet, astonishingly the conflict with the Seminoles would flare again.
Although most Seminole tried hard to stay away from contact with Whites, over the years incidents flared up, including the killings of natives who strayed into White areas. By the early 1850’s small scale raiding, mostly for livestock, was picking up in the north. That brought retribution from informal posses. Political agitation for a definitive removal was also on the rise as were tensions.
|Billy Bowlegs was one of the fiersest Seminole leaders and one of the last to surrender. From Harper's Magazine in 1855.|
In December 1855 hard core rejectionists led by Sam Jones and Billy Bowlegs decided to strike. On December 7 they ambushed a wagon patrol on the reservation killing and scalping four men and wounding several including First Lieutenant George Hartsuff. They killed the mules, burned the wagons, and looted the wagons. The Third Seminole War was on.
This was not nearly as long or bloody an affair. There were too few Seminole left for that. There were numerous skirmishes over the next two years, but the bands remained elusive. Harney returned to command and initiated a strategy of trying to confine the Seminole to the Everglades and Big Cyprus Swamps hoping that winter floods would make it impossible to survive there. But they did. A sweep of Big Cyprus burned some villages and destroyed some island crop fields.
On March 15, Bowleg and Assinwar finally accepted a payment offer and agreed to go west. On May 4, a total of 163 Seminoles were shipped to New Orleans. Four days later Colonel Loomis declared the war to be over.
However Sam Jones and his band continued living in southeast Florida, inland from Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Chipco’s band was living north of Lake Okeechobee, although the Army and militia could never find them. Individual families and clans were scattered across the wetlands of southern Florida. These never-surrendered Indians were allowed to remain.
And their decedents do to this day, considering themselves unconquered and beholden to neither the State of Florida nor the government of the United States. It gladdens the heart a little to know that they are there.