The United States Constitution

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Location: Middleton, Massachusetts, United States

I am concerned about the direction of the United States economy and politics, and about our declining influence in the world. I feel we are losing our moral and ethical bearings.

Friday, December 01, 2006

How the Seminoles Resisted Ethnic Cleansing From Florida

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After you read this post, you won't look at a 20 dollar bill - the one with Andrew Jackson's face on it -  the same way again.  When you think of the wars in American history, a standard list - including the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq - come to mind.  What about the Pequot War,   King Philip's War, Pontiac's Rebellion, the Creek War, or the Black Hawk War?  These were also wars we fought (King Philip's War was the bloodiest, pound for pound, in our history), but they're  invisible.  The reason - the "enemy" was native American.  In this episode, I will discuss how the Seminole Indians fought three wars in Florida, holding the United States Army at bay for nearly 4 decades, resisting the Indian removal policy.  The Seminoles, in fact, were never defeated in the field.

In the last episode, I discussed how the Cherokee nation was forcibly "removed" to Oklahoma in the 1830s, along paths which are now known collectively as the Trail of Tears.  The driving force behind this ethnic cleansing was Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the United States, known as Sharp Knife because of his lifelong dedication to Indian ethnic cleansing, by lies and deception if possible, by force if necessary.  Congress gave President Jackson the authority to relocate the Indians to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) by passing the Indian Removal Act of 1830.  The Cherokees, who had built a nation according to the white man's ways, decided to work through the legal system, and did not resort to armed resistance.  In this episode, I will discuss the Seminoles in Florida, who resisted fiercely, fighting three wars against the full might of the United States army, wars lasting 4 decades, in guerrilla fashion - hiding out in the mosquito and rat infested swamps of the Everglades, until both sides essentially tired of the struggle.  The Seminoles were never defeated on the battlefield.  At the end, the remnant bands retired to the remote parts of the Everglades until well into the 20th century, when the crush of development forced the Seminoles to settle more into the white man's ways.

Who are the Seminoles?  According to the white man, they're one of the Five Civilized Tribes, the others being the Creek (also called Muskoki), Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw.  By "civilized", the white man's view is that, unlike all the other Indian tribes, such as the Plains Indians, they adopted the white man's ways.   This of course is blatant nonsense.  Many of the tribes east of the Mississippi, such as the Iroquois, were as "civilized" as any white groups.  Foods like corn, squash, beans, and succotash, that we eat on Thanksgiving and in daily life, are of Indian origin.  Many Indians were farmers, some were large landowners.  Nevertheless, in spite of their civilized ways, they were for the most part "relocated" west of the Mississippi.  The reason had nothing to do with civilization.  Instead, it was the white man's hunger for land and, in the case of the Cherokees, gold.  They were forced to relinquish their land and other assets for land in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) with the promise that the area would be theirs exclusively, with white settlement banned.   In the next episode, when I explain the real story behind the "Oklahoma Land Grab", I'll set the record on that score straight.

According to the Official Seminole Tribe Web Site, the ancestors of the Seminole tribe have lived in the southeastern states (Florida and Georgia mainly) for 12,000 years.  When the Spanish "discovered" Florida in 1513, about 200,000 Maskoki speaking peoples lived there.  The origin of the word Seminole is obscure.  One theory is that it is a corruption of the Spanish word "cimarrones", which means free people.  The Seminoles are closely related to the Creeks and concentrated along the border between Florida and Georgia.

We tend to think of the War of 1812 as a fight between Great Britain and the United States.  Of course, they did fight each other, in such events as the Battle of Lake Erie, the seige of Fort McHenry (Baltimore), the burning of Washington, DC, and the Battle of New Orleans.  But relatively unnoticed, a large part of the war consisted of fighting Indian tribes along the western and southern frontier.  One of these tribes was the Creeks.  The Creek War (1813-1814) started out as a civil war between those Creeks who wanted to remain living in traditional ways (the Red Sticks), and those who wanted to become more "civilized", according to the ways of the White man (the White Sticks).   On August 30, 1813, at Fort Mims, Alabama, the Red Sticks killed 500 people in the Massacre of Fort Mims. This event prompted the United States to become involved on the side of the White Sticks, with the goal of clearing Alabama for white settlement.  Under the command of Andrew Jackson, eventually the United States army prevailed, at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (March 27, 1814).  According to the terms of the Treaty of Fort Jackson (August 9, 1814) - did you ever hear about this treaty in your history classes? - the Creeks gave up much of what is now the State of Alabama, and a chunk of south Georgia bordering Florida.

During this period, Florida was a Spanish territory.  The Florida-Georgia border was considered insecure, especially for southern slaveholders, because Florida was a haven for runaway slaves.  Some of the Creek bands who escaped from the Creek War wound up in Florida,  building towns, and sheltering runaway slaves.  In addition, our government considered Spain as a security threat.

As I mentioned earlier, the official White House biography is silent on what Andrew Jackson was doing between his victory in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and his inauguration as President in 1828.  He didn't just retire to the Hermitage and sip mint juleps.  Most of the time he was fighting Indians, including the Seminoles.  The First Seminole War erupted over forays staged by U.S. authorities to recapture runaway black slaves living among Seminole bands, who stiffly resisted. In 1818, Major General Andrew Jackson was dispatched with an army of more than 3,000 soldiers to Florida to punish the Seminole. After liquidating several native settlements, then executing two British traders held for reportedly encouraging Seminole resolve, General Jackson captured the Spanish fort of Pensacola in May 1818 and deposed the government.  Jackson did more than fight the Seminoles.  He instigated a crisis between the United States and Spain, making war without any authorization from Congress or the President (Monroe at the time).  His strategy worked, because in 1819, as a result of the Adams-Onis Treaty, Spain ceded Florida to the United States.

The Seminoles continued to be a problem for the United States.  In 1823, under the terms of the Treaty of Moultrie Creek - another one you've probably never heard of - some of the Seminoles agreed to relocate to a reservation area in central Florida.  This still didn't stop conflict between Seminoles and whites over the treatment of runaway slaves.

After the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was passed, the official United States policy under President Jackson was relocation to Oklahoma.  I already discussed how the Cherokees were relocated.  They went peaceably, with horribly tragic results.  The government expected the same scenario with the Seminoles.  In 1834, by the Treaty of Payne's Landing - another treaty that I'm sure is on the tip of your tongue - the Seminoles were ordered to relocate to Indian Territory in 1835.  In 1835, President Jackson ordered the Seminoles to start moving west.  Here's how the Wikipedia article describes it:

In March 1835 Thompson (Jackson's agent) called the chiefs together to read a letter from Andrew Jackson to them. In his letter, Jackson said, Should you ... refuse to move, I have then directed the Commanding officer to remove you by force. The chiefs asked for thirty days to respond. A month later the Seminole chiefs told Thompson that they would not move west. Thompson and the chiefs began arguing, and General Clinch had to intervene to prevent bloodshed. Eventually, eight of the chiefs agreed to move west, but asked to delay the move until the end of the year, and Thompson and Clinch agreed

Five important chiefs resisted the order.  One young warrior, Osceola, said:

The white man shall not make me black. I will make the white man red with blood; and then blacken him in the sun and rain ... and the buzzard live upon his flesh.

Osceola made good on his threat.  Although about 3,000 Seminoles voluntary relocated to Indian Territory following their version of the Trail of Tears, Osceola's band of 300 to 500 insurgents managed to hold off a sizeable fraction of the United States Army from 1835 to 1842.    One estimate of the cost of the Seminole War was $30,000,000 to $40,000,000 - a huge sum for its time.  At its height, the Army had 9,000 soldiers pursuing the Seminole bands.  There were significant battles in what is now Dade and Broward Counties in South Florida.  The Second Seminole War was the most expensive Indian war in United States history, lasting longer than any war the United States fought between the American Revolution and Vietnam.

The story of Osceola's capture by deceit was considered a black mark in American military history at the time.  Here's the story from the Wikipedia article about Osceola:

On October 21, 1837, on the orders of U.S. General Thomas Sidney Jesup, Osceola was captured when he arrived for supposed truce negotiations in Fort Payton. He was imprisoned at Fort Marion, St. Augustine, Florida. Osceola's capture by deceit caused uproar even among the white population and General Jesup was publicly condemned. Opponents of the contemporary administration cited it as a black mark against the government. The next December, Osceola and other Seminole prisoners were moved to Fort Moultrie, South Carolina. There painter George Catlin met him and convinced him to pose for him for two paintings. Robert J. Curtis painted an oil portrait of him. These pictures inspired a number of other prints, engravings and even cigar store figures. Afterwards numerous landmarks, including Osceola Counties in Florida, Iowa, and Michigan, have been named after him, along with Florida's Osceola National Forest. Osceola died of malaria on January 20, 1838 less than three months after his capture, and was buried with military honors.

By 1843, both the Seminoles and the US army were exhausted.  No formal treaty ended the war.  The Seminoles are the only tribe that never signed a peace treaty with the United States government.  The remnants of the Seminoles retreated to the Everglades and the Army units withdrew.  Peace reigned for a while.  Florida entered the Union as a slave state in 1845.  The government tried to remove the remaining Seminoles from Florida, prompting a third Seminole war from 1855 to 1858.  Scattered bands of Seminoles lived off the land until well into the 20th century.

In recent years, the Seminoles of Florida have recovered.  The tribe runs a number of profitable enterprises, such as gambling casinos, eco-tourism, cheap tobacco shops, and resorts, as a visit to their Web site shows.  If you're ever in Hollywood, Florida, not too far from Fort Lauderdale, pay a visit to their headquarters on Stirling Road and I-441.  The logo of the Florida Seminoles features Chief Osceola - it has the official seal of approval of the Seminole tribe.  There are also about 3,000 Seminoles in Oklahoma.


Blogger Keith Leach said...

Excellent article! Americans do not condemn unethical imperialism throughout history, and it has led us to today. Well written account.

10:59 AM  

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