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 American 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 third post in the series.
On December 3, 1836, Lieutenant Colonel David Caulfield captured 41 black Seminoles after destroying their towns near the Ocklawaha River.
General Thomas Sidney Jesup was ordered to force the Seminoles and their African allies out of their villages in central Florida and compel them to emigrate west of the Mississippi River. He intended to achieve this by building a series of forts and supply depots surrounding the Seminole Country, and launch raids against their villages. When his troops encountered American Indian and African settlements, they were instructed to burn crops, destroy homes and round up livestock.
In this entry, Jesup reported that Lt. Col. Caulfield captured 41 “negroes” near the Ocklawaha River. Historians struggle to find an appropriate term for persons of African descent living in the Seminole Country. From the earliest beginnings of African slavery in the Americas, runaway slaves sought refuge among Native American tribes. From the mountains of Jamaica and Brazil, to the swamps of Florida, Africans formed independent communities and forged alliances with Native peoples.
In Florida, these people came to be known to the Americans as “black Seminoles” or “Seminole Maroons.” Prior to the Seminole Wars, black Seminole communities could be found near Old Town on the Suwannee River, east of Tampa at Piliklakaha, and near modern day Sarasota at a settlement known as Angola. Other smaller settlements of black Seminoles existed throughout this range. After Andrew Jackson’s slave raid into Spanish Florida, also known as the First Seminole War (1816-1818), some American Indian and African towns took refuge in the remote interior sections of central Florida.
In early 1836, Seminoles and their African allies launched a series of attacks on sugar plantations located along the east coast of Florida. Africans enslaved on these plantations fled during the chaos and in many cases joined black Seminole towns.
One of Jesup’s primary objectives in the early stages of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842) was to uncover and destroy black Seminole towns. From the perspective of plantation owners, the existence of free-blacks and runaway slaves among the Seminoles was the primary cause of the war. To most non-Indians, all blacks living among the Indians were slaves. They did not understand the often complex relationships between Africans and Native Americans.
The Seminoles held few Africans in bondage in the manner practiced on southern plantations. Instead, most black Seminoles played important roles as military allies and contributors to herding, hunting and planting activities. A few black Seminoles such as Abraham served as advisors and interpreters for Seminole leaders. Abraham interpreted and provided council for Micanopy, the principal leader of the Seminoles until 1837, at all of the major negotiations covered in the Jesup diary.
As with the majority of the Seminoles, the U.S. Army removed most of the black Seminoles from Florida during the Second Seminole War. Very few black Seminoles remained in Florida after the Third Seminole War (1855-1858) and by the 20th century, only a couple Seminole families traced their roots back to the black Seminoles.