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 United States 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 Southeast. Below is the eighth and final post in the series.
Thomas Sidney Jesup left Florida in 1838. The mood of many Americans had turned against the General following the dubious capture of Osceola under a white flag of truce in October 1837. Northern politicians and abolitionists were especially critical of Jesup, particularly vocal opponents of Indian Removal. The time had long passed since Native Americans dominated the New England frontier, and northern politicians did not sympathize with their Southern counterparts.
Abolitionists, on the other hand, based their objections on the existence of slavery in the Southern states. They saw the Seminole Wars as more of a slave rebellion than anything else. Based on statements made early in the war, Jesup tended to agree. Abolitionists argued that if slavery did not exist there would be no runaway slaves, and hence, no Seminole Wars. Perhaps the best known abolitionist tract on the Seminole Wars is Joshua R. Giddings, The Exiles of Florida (1858).
Zachary Taylor assumed command of U.S. troops in Florida following Jesup’s departure. He was the next in line of a succession of officers that attempted to bring about a conclusion to the war, but it was not until 1842 that the conflict came to an end. Unlike other wars in U.S. history, there was neither a decisive battle, nor a detailed treaty that ended the Seminole Wars. The U.S. Army simply decided to stop pursuing the enemy. Most Seminoles had relocated to the deep recesses of the Everglades, and the troops lost the desire and the political backing to follow. By 1842, the government estimated that no more than 500 Seminoles remained in Florida.
Jesup would have welcomed the end of the war. Shortly after being relieved of his command in Florida, Jesup lobbied on behalf of the Seminoles to allow them to remain in South Florida. He concluded that the war did little good opening up new lands for settlement, as the area south of Lake Okeechobee was considered nothing more than an expansive, malarial swamp. The aftermath of the battles of Okeechobee and Loxahatchee had significantly reduced the number of Black Seminoles in Florida and thereafter escaped slaves ceased to be the primary concern of the U.S. Army.
However, tensions between the Americans and the Seminoles did not end in 1842. Another war nearly broke out in the late 1840s and, in 1855, a surveying team destroyed property at Billy Bowlegs’ camp in the Big Cypress Swamp. Bowlegs retaliated and thereafter began the Third Seminole War, which lasted until 1858. The war ended when Bowlegs agreed to surrender and emigrate with his people to the Indian Country west of the Mississippi River. When the steamboat Grey Cloud embarked from Tampa on May 8, 1858, it marked the last forced removal of Seminoles from Florida.
In the early 1880s, government officials attempted the first census of the Seminoles since the end of the third war. Two different enumerators found 208 and 296 Seminoles in Florida, respectively. It is likely that others, understandably suspicious of the government, hid from the census takers. In any case, the Seminole population in Florida had been reduced from approximately 5,000 to less than 300 as a result of forced removal and warfare.
The Seminole population recovered over the next several decades. They developed innovative means of adjusting to the new environmental realities of life in South Florida. The animal hide trade of the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought relative prosperity to Seminole families. For example, through the acquisition of sewing machines during the hide trade, Seminoles created the vivid patchwork clothing styles now synonymous with their culture. Patchwork designs are just one example of the new traditions invented by Florida Indians following the trauma of the Seminole Wars.
Life was certainly not easy for the Seminoles who remained in South Florida. The collapse of the hide trade impoverished Seminole communities from the 1920s until the emergence of income from casino gaming in the 1980s. The few bright spots for the Seminoles during their years of want were federally funded cattle, education, and health programs.
The present-day association of Seminoles with casino gaming has obscured the long and difficult history experienced by these people. The story told in this series on the Jesup’s field diary is certainly one of the darkest chapters in Seminole history. Nevertheless, the diary and the larger context in which it was produced have much to tell us about the changing nature of Anglo-American Indian-African relations, and the important place of the Seminole Wars in United States history.