The Seminole Wars

The Seminoles of Florida, a tribe said to have been derived from Creek refugees, resisted the efforts made to remove them, and started a war which proved to be the longest and most costly Indian war to which the United States had ever been subjected. Instead of being concluded in one or two severe campaigns, as in ordinary cases, it dragged its slow length along for seven years, until the government almost despaired of subduing its savage adversaries.

Difficulties with this tribe began in 1812, when Colonel Newnan invaded their territory and was forced to retreat with loss. The shelter which they gave to fugitive slaves, and their depredations on the settlements, were the cause of the next war, conducted by General Gaines and afterwards by General Jackson, which resulted in the cession of Florida by Spain to the United States in 1819.

The active efforts to settle this new territory which succeeded were partly checked by the presence and the lurking hostilities of the Indians, while the shelter which they gave to runaway slaves in their secret coverts formed another source of disturbance. Finally, in 1833 a treaty was made with the principal chiefs for the removal of the tribe to the Indian Territory. But many of the younger warriors resisted this treaty, which they declared to have been fraudulently obtained. The celebrated Osceola, in particular, displayed indications of determined hostility to the whites.

After evading the execution of the treaty until 1835, with studied dissimulation of their real intentions, in which Osceola acted his part so perfectly as completely to deceive the government agents, while in the mean time they collected all the arms and ammunition possible, they suddenly broke out into hostilities. Major Dade, with a party of over one hundred men, was ambushed, and the whole party killed or mortally wounded. At the same time Osceola and some followers made a sudden attack upon the government commissioner, General Thompson, and massacred him and several of his companions, within a short distance of Fort King. The war thus inaugurated was prosecuted with more or less vigor for several years succeeding. But such were the intricacies of the swamps in which the savages concealed themselves that they proved almost impossible to reach, while they constantly appeared at unexpected places and committed unceasing murders and depredations.

In October, 1836, Governor Call, with nearly two thousand men, penetrated the swamps, and defeated the Indians in two engagements. They received a severe blow in 1837. General Jessup, after several encounters with them, induced some of the principal chiefs to sign a treaty of removal. This treaty was soon broken through the influence of Osceola. But in October this chief, with several others, who had come into the American camp under the protection of a flag, was seized and held prisoner by General Jessup. Osceola was subsequently confined in Fort Moultrie, where he died of a fever in the following January.

In December, 1837, the army in Florida numbered about nine thousand men. Yet against this strong force the Indians still held out. A severe battle took place during this month near Lake Okechobee, in which General Taylor defeated the enemy, after a hard fight in the swamps.

Both sides now changed their tactics. The Indians avoided pitched battles, and confined themselves to unexpected onslaughts, while hiding effectively from the troops. The whites, on the contrary, penetrated the everglades more and more deeply, and gradually broke up the lurking-places of the foe. A warfare of a peculiar and unusual character ensued.

THE winter of 1838-39 was spent by the troops in active service in the endeavor to hunt out from their hiding-places the small Indian bands scattered through the country, but with little success, as the Indians, by their better knowledge of the country, were enabled to avoid their pursuers. Occasionally their settlements were reached and broken up, but few of the Indians were seen.

During the operations of this campaign, one hundred and ninety-six Indians and negroes surrendered or were captured and sent West.

The policy of the Indians was now, says General Taylor, to avoid giving battle to regular troops, even in single companies, while at the same time every opportunity was seized to wreak their vengeance on the unarmed inhabitants of the country. Moving by night, rapidly, in small squads, they were able to appear unexpectedly in remote parts of the country, their presence indicated only by their rifles and shrill yells as they approached at daylight the home of some unsuspecting settler. Murders were committed by the Indians within a few miles of Tallahassee and St. Augustine.

Discouraged at the failure of his efforts either to find the Indians or bring them to a stand, General Taylor adopted the plan of dividing the whole country into squares, and placing a block-house, with a small detachment, in each, a part of the number to be mounted. The officer commanding was to scout his district every alternate day, thoroughly examining the swamps and hammocks to see that they were clear of Indians. The merits of this plan were not tested, as it was never fully carried out.

It was prevented from being put into operation by the arrival of General Macomb as a government agent to treat with the Indians. He made an arrangement with the chiefs in which they agreed to confine themselves to a designated portion of the south of Florida until other arrangements could be made. It was now announced that the war was at an end, and great joy was felt by the citizens, who prepared to return to their devastated fields. Yet in July, when the season for active operations by the troops had passed, hostilities broke out in all directions, and many murders were committed. Colonel Harney, with a detachment of twenty-five men, was attacked and many of his men killed, while he himself escaped only by swimming to a fishing-boat.

The prosecution of the war now became extremely discouraging, and the end seemed farther off than three years before. The Indians had become familiarized with the exhibition of military power, and had learned to contemn it. They found themselves at the close of four years still in possession of the country, and powerful for annoyance and to inflict revenge, and their ferocity seemed to increase with its exercise..

The citizens and troops had become so exasperated against the Indians for their repeated massacres of the feeble and the unprotected that a feeling had grown up that they were deserving of extermination, and that any and every means should be used to hunt and capture or destroy them. The great difficulty in so wide an extent of country, abounding in thick hammocks, palmetto and scrubby lands, swamps, islands, and morasses, was to pursue them successfully.

An attempt was made to run them down with Spanish bloodhounds, but these proved unsuited to the country. The Indians continued their old tactics, coming in, professing friendship, claiming to be tired of the war, receiving food, and suddenly disappearing. New murders would quickly follow. Severely as they had been hunted, the country was so adapted to concealment that they were yet spread through all parts of the Territory.

Billy Bowlegs, the Prophet, and Hospetarkee, Shiver and Shakes, were the head-men of a large party of Seminoles who occupied the country south of Pease Creek. In December, 1840, Colonel Harney, with a detachment of one hundred men, penetrated this hitherto-unexplored region in canoes, and created much alarm among the occupants of this almost inaccessible portion of the country. Chekika, the Spanish-Indian chief, was overtaken by a detachment of troops and killed, and six of his companions captured and hung on the spot, and, it is said, their bodies were suspended from the trees.

This expedition, and the summary punishment inflicted by Colonel Harney, greatly intimidated the Indians, and they resorted to their old expedient of having "a talk" and expressing a strong desire for peace and amity. As their sincerity could only be tested by the result, their offers were accepted, and they came in and received clothing and subsistence, thus gaining time to plant their fields and devise new measures of security for their families. During the winter and spring, every day they could delay operations against them was important. In April, having accomplished their purposes, they again disappeared, leaving the baffled officers of the government to speculate once more on the uncertainty of Indian professions..

Five years had elapsed, and still the Indians remained, and the government was in the position of almost a suppliant for peace. The efforts of the troops against the Indians were evaded by the exercise of the utmost caution and cunning. With the sagacity and thorough wood-craft of natives of the forest, while the white soldier was plodding his weary way dependent upon guides or the compass for a knowledge of his route, the Indian stopped behind some clump of bushes or peered forth from some leafy covert and saw his pursuers pass by, and then stole back to attack some point in the rear of the pursuing troops, which had been left unprotected. Ill success brought, naturally, criticism and wholesale censure. Those who knew least were wisest in such matters, and had always a plan which, if adopted, would infallibly succeed. Constant changes of plans, of officers, and of troops made matters worse. An uncertain policy, holding out the olive-branch at one time and fire and sword at another, alternately coaxing and threatening, gave to the Indians a feeling of distrust mingled with contempt. They thought they had been deceived by fair words and false professions, and they used the same means to further their own purposes.

General Armistead, who had succeeded General Taylor in command, asked to be relieved in May, 1841. He was succeeded by General William J. Worth, the eighth commander since the war opened. It was an excellent choice. He quickly proved himself the man to bring the war to an end.

No more unpromising field for distinction could have been found than Florida presented at the period when General Worth was assigned to the command. As the number of Indians had been reduced, their tactics had been changed. They no longer presented themselves, as at first, to contest the passage of troops in the open field. They now found that by subdividing into small squads they could distract the attention of the troops, and, by the smallness of their number, find ready concealment and elude pursuit. They had become accustomed to the mode of conducting military operations, and knew that with the approach of the summer heats they would remain unmolested. Far down in the Everglades there were islands never trodden by the foot of the white man, where they could place their families in security and plant their crops in peace. From these fastnesses they could sally forth on long expeditions for murder and rapine; acquainted with coverts to which they might readily fly in all parts of the country, able to support themselves upon the abundant game, they possessed an unlimited power of doing mischief, and were almost as unapproachable as the birds in the air. Where they had been, was easily ascertained by the bodies of the slain victims and the ashes of destroyed homes, but where they were, it was a matter of impossibility to more than conjecture, and when other means of support failed, or it was desirable to check a too active movement in the direction of their camps, they had the convenient resort of a friendly talk and peaceful overtures, accompanied with an abundant supply of whiskey and rations.

They had now, however, a man to deal with who was ready to profit by the experience of his predecessors, and who particularly saw the bad policy of going into summer quarters at the approach of the hot weather. He at once organized his troops for a continuous campaign. "Find the enemy, capture, or exterminate," were his orders to his subordinates. Major Childs had captured Coacoochee and several other chiefs and warriors and sent them off to Arkansas. Worth ordered their return, as he wanted to make use of them. Coacoochee, pleased at being returned to Florida, promised to bring in his whole band.

A simultaneous movement was ordered to take place in each district, for the purpose of breaking up any camps which the Indians might have formed, destroying their crops or stores wherever they might be found. Boat-detachments ascended the Withlacoochee, found several fields of growing crops, and destroyed them. Every swamp and hammock between the Atlantic and Gulf coasts was visited, and the band of Halleck Tustenuggee routed out of the Wahoo swamp. Many fields were found in the hammocks and islands of the Charl-Apopka country, with huts, palmetto sheds, and corn-cribs. Tiger Tail had a large field upon one of these islands, which was his reliance for the ensuing year, and from a tree in the hammock he witnessed its entire destruction by the troops.

These operations proved very harassing and destructive to the Indians. Yet they resolved not to surrender, and to put to death any messenger who should approach them. The detachments of troops continued to scour the country for twenty-five days, with the thermometer averaging 86 deg, and clearly demonstrated their ability to stand a summer campaign. During this time they destroyed thirty-five fields and one hundred and eighty huts or sheds.

General Worth now used his prisoners with good effect. Keeping Coacoochee in chains, he released five of his companions, and sent them out with the message that unless they returned in forty days, with their band, he would hang the chief and all the prisoners on the last day. This measure proved effective. One hundred and eighty-nine Indians came in, seventy-eight of them being warriors.

Coacoochee was by no means the great warrior his vanity led him to estimate himself. He was vain, bold, and cunning. General Worth had operated upon his weak point by treating him as a great chief. The general now proposed to make still further use of him by procuring his services in bringing in the other bands, which he thought might more easily and certainly be brought to surrender by negotiation than by hostile pursuit. Coacoochee having surrendered, he desired to increase his influence at the West by carrying with him a larger force, and readily consented to use his influence in inducing the rest to emigrate. At his instance, the active operations of the army were in some degree suspended.

The examination of the hiding-places of the Indians was thorough and complete. The troops marched through swamps, deep in mud and water; their boats penetrated every creek and landed upon every island. The Indians, apprised of their presence, fled towards the coast and were seldom seen; extensive fields were found and destroyed, and every hut and shelter burned. The Indians now saw that no hiding-place was secure, and that, with a vigilant and energetic commander like General Worth to deal with, they were to encounter war in a different form from that which they had previously experienced..

A year more of such operations ended it. All the Indians, with the exception of about three hundred and sixty men, women, and children, had been sent to Arkansas. These, under the chiefs Billy Bowlegs and Arpaika, were allowed to remain, within the district south of Pease Creek, no apprehension of further difficulties being felt.

The Florida War may be said to have commenced with the massacre of Major Dade's command, on the 28th of December, 1835, and closed, by official proclamation, on the 14th of August, 1842. It was generally said to have cost the United States forty millions of dollars.. Captain Sprague, in his valuable work, states the expenditure at nineteen millions.. The number of deaths among the regular troops during the war amounted to an aggregate of fourteen hundred and sixty-six, of whom the very large number of two hundred and fifteen were officers.

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 3)