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 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 fifth post in the series.
Florida Indians herded cattle long before the outbreak of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). Indian (and African) cowboys tended Spanish livestock as early as the 17th century. After the destruction of Spanish Missions in northern Florida by the Creeks and white settlers from Carolina (1702-1704), Muscogee-speaking Indians migrated south into the vacant lands.
By the late 18th century, these Muscogee-speaking migrants came to be known as Seminoles. The largest of the Seminole settlements was Cuscowilla, located on the Alachua Prairie near modern day Micanopy, Florida. The naturalist William Bartram, who came to Florida in the mid-1770s, wrote that the Seminoles worked thousands of cattle on the Alachua Prairie. They sold hundreds of animals yearly to the Spanish and the British. The leader of the Alachua Seminoles during Bartram’s time was appropriately known to the British as the “Cowkeeper.”
After Florida became a territory of the United States in 1821, Seminoles increasingly came into conflict with white settlers over land, cattle and runaway slaves. The ill-defined boundaries between Seminole and American lands resulted in numerous instances of violence along the frontier. Whites stole Seminole cattle, and vice versa. The issue of slavery compounded the problem, as plantation owners often ventured into the Seminole Country in search of runaway slaves.
The Second Seminole War began after a series of coordinated attacks by Seminoles and their African allies in late 1835 and early 1836. The swiftness of these offensives caught the Americans off guard and required a significant change in strategy on the part of the U.S. Army. Jesup arrived in Florida to implement this plan, which included building a network of forts and supply depots and conducting raids into the heart of Seminole territory.
Seizing cattle and burning crops formed the basis of undercutting the Seminoles’ ability to sustain their war effort. In this entry, Jesup reports the capture of “several hundred” head of Seminole cattle near the Withlacoochee River. Jesup regularly reported that his men rounded up hundreds of animals (cattle and horses) at a time. Nearly every week of the diary includes references to the depletion of Seminole herds.
During negotiations with Jesup, Seminole leaders insisted that they be allowed to drive their animals west as a condition of their agreement to emigrate. Jesup refused and instead offered compensation for livestock left behind in Florida (see Jesup diary, March 5-6, 1837). Through the efforts of the U.S. Army, Seminole cattle were reduced to near zero by the end of the Seminole Wars in 1858. Federal Indian agents in the early 20th century counted only a handful of oxen owned by Seminole camps.
It was not until federal programs in the 1930s and 1940s that cattle again became a mainstay of Seminole life. Today, the Seminole Tribe is one of the largest cattle owners in the state of Florida.