Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Florida Wars


Anyone who has taken American history in school or watched a western movie probably knows that the United States spent a lot of time, money, and manpower on “subduing the savages” during Westward Expansion. But long before some of the most infamous western battles like Custer’s Last Stand, the longest, costliest, and most deadly of Indian wars occurred in Florida.

Let me set the stage. It was the early 1800’s, and Spain still owned Florida, although their grip was weakening. Americans had settled on both sides of the Florida/Georgia border. Seminoles Indians inhabited the territory only a little further south. Some lawless Americans took forays into Seminole areas to steal cattle and horses from the Indians. In retaliation, the Seminoles crossed the border into Georgia to commit raids on settlers there. In addition, a good number of slaves, escaped from southern plantations, lived among the Seminoles, and slave catchers often ventured into Florida's wilds to pursue them. Pirates and British opportunists would also traverse the Florida peninsula, causing whatever trouble they could between Americans and Seminoles.

This was the exact recipe that created the tensions leading to the Seminole Wars, also known as the Florida Wars. The Seminole Wars consisted of three periods of fighting, the second one being the longest, costliest, and most deadly Indian war I alluded to above. But let’s look at them in order.
Andrew Jackson
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
http://floridamemory.com/items/show/128711

The First Seminole War erupted when American General Edmund Gaines took the Miccosukee chief Neamathla captive in 1817 in order to stop the Indians from offering safe haven to escaped slaves. To avenge his capture, the Miccosukee, Seminole, and Creek tribes banded together to attack a military transport traveling along the Apalachicola River. Thirty-five soldiers and six women died in the attack. President James Monroe tapped war hero Gen. Andrew Jackson to go in and subdue the Indian forces, and in eleven weeks in the Spring of 1818, Jackson and his 3500 men did just that. They destroyed many Indian settlements west of the Suwanee River and captured the only two Spanish settlements in West Florida—St. Marks and Pensacola. After all of this, the fighting began to calm. Spain saw the truth that they were no longer able to hold onto Florida and ceded the land to the United States through a treaty in 1821. The Indians were shuffled off to a reservation in Central Florida where conditions were less than ideal.

Andrew Jackson became President in 1829, and the next year, he signed the Indian Removal Act, which said that all Indians living east of the Mississippi must move to the new Indian Territory (current day Oklahoma). The Seminoles were later forced to sign the Treaty of Payne’s Landing in 1832, giving up their claim to their Florida homes, and taking up residence in Indian Territory. They were given three years to comply. When the American military returned to enforce the treaty in 1835, the Seminoles were ready to defend their homes.

Sorrow of the Seminoles--Banished from Florida
 State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

In December of 1835, Seminole and black warriors burned sugar plantations along the St. Johns River. On December 28th, Seminole leader Osceola killed a government Indian agent and his associate outside of Ft. King (Ocala) at the same time a band of warriors massacred a column of 108 soldiers traveling between Ft. Brooke (Tampa) and Ft. King. The Second Seminole War had begun.

This war lasted from 1835 until 1842, and it pitted some 3000 Seminole and black warriors against four U.S. Generals and 30,000 troops. The Seminoles were masters of guerilla fighting and used the thick scrub and Florida swamps to their advantage. In addition, the heat, insects, and disease prevalent during Florida summers prolonged the fighting for years because the U.S. troops would pull out of the fight until weather conditions became more tolerable in the fall. But this pull-out each year gave the Seminoles time to recuperate and regroup, so when the forces returned, they were ready for more fighting. The war finally ground to an end when American forces began to employ captured black and Seminole warriors as guides to hidden Seminole encampments where they killed or captured many of the Indian forces. No treaty was ever signed, but peace was called in August 1842 when over 4000 Seminoles were forcibly removed to the Indian Territory. More than 1500 soldiers lost their lives, most to disease. Some 30,000 citizen soldiers also perished in the fighting. The final price tag for the war was $30 million. (To put that in perspective, the proposed budget for the federal government in 1836 was $25 million).

This hugely costly war wasn’t the last of the Seminole uprisings. Chief Billy Bowlegs led one more war starting in 1855. It was a two-and-a-half year conflict that pitted the remaining 350 Seminoles against the American settlers and military. But in the end, Billy Bowlegs realized he couldn’t stop the tide of settlers and accepted $8000 to move to Indian Territory with 165 of his people. At the last war’s end, less than 200 Seminoles remained in Florida.


Seminole Chickee
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
http://floridamemory.com/items/show/159015
Today, Florida is home to the descendants of those brave few who stayed behind, unwilling to give up their homeland. The Seminoles live as a sovereign nation on six reservations throughout the state. Depending on the reservations you visit, you might find upscale hotels and nightlife in the Seminole Hard Rock Tampa, or you might find more traditional Seminole attractions such as rodeos, powwows, and even the Billie Swamp Safari, where you can sleep in a traditional chickee, watch Alligator feedings, poisonous snake shows, and take airboat and eco-tour rides.

Let’s hear from you. Have you ever visited an Indian reservation? Which reservation? What was your experience like?


Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won the 2012 CWOW Phoenix Rattler, 2012 ACFW First Impressions, and 2013 FCWC contests, all in the historical category. She is also the winner of the 2013 Central Florida ACFW chapter's "Prompt Response" contest. In addition to writing, she has been a schoolteacher of English, literature, and history, as well as a marketing director. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and four fur children.

14 comments:

  1. Thank you for the history lesson on Florida. I live here now but I am from Nebraska. I have been on the Winnebago Indian Reservation many times as well as I have been to the Macy Reservation in Nebraska and the Fort Randall Reservation in South Dakota which is the Yankton Sioux Tribe. I have grown up around Indians and their reservations my whole life and enjoy learning about their heritage and my husband and children have a small part of them that is American Indian but we don't know what tribe, I know his grandma has told us what kind before but unfortunately I can't remember. One day I hope to go to the Seminole Reservation, I have heard it is nice.

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    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Angela. My husband is also from Nebraska, so I know a tiny bit about the Native American culture of that state. Very little, but like you, I find it interesting to learn about their cultures.

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  2. When I was 18, I went to help some missionaries in Arizona. They took me to visit the Havasu reservation that some friends were missionaries at. All I got to see was what we saw on the drive in, and then at the church service in the community center. But I remember the missionaries telling me how poor the community was, and how hopeless the people were. What a blessing to be able to take the Good News to people who have had so much taken from them!

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    1. Amen, Bethany. I recall some trips out West during my childhood where we passed through or near various reservations, and I remember the feeling of culture shock at how run down the buildings looked, but even more, the downtrodden demeanors of the residents. I'd bet it is a special memory, having gotten to be there to share the Gospel.

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  3. Wow. Crazy what our government did to the Indians in pure selfish, land owning reasons. These wars were something I do not remember from high school history class! Thanks for the interesting info. :) I have never been to a reservation before.
    Susan P

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    1. Isn't it crazy, Susan? If you read much about the history of most Native American tribes, it's a dismal picture. I remember having read Lucia St. Clair Robson's "Ride the Wind" many years ago. It is the fictionalized account of real-life Cynthia Parker, who was kidnapped by Indians as a child and grew up and married a Comanche man, eventually giving birth to one of thier last chiefs, Quannah Parker. The author did a phenomenal job of depicting the life and culture of the Comanches, and how their lives changed with the whites encroaching into their world. It's one book that I will never forget because it made that struggle so real. It was a great book, but left me depressed for weeks afterwards out of sadness for the way so many Indian tribes were treated.

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    2. Yes, you worded it perfectly. I can totally relate with the sadness lingering with that knowledge. I might have to look up that book for the history it provides.

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  4. I had the privilege of visiting a reservation and working on one in Oklahoma as a teen. We painted the dorms and other rooms at Bacone College, a native American college there. I'm married to a native American whose mother was born on a reservation and doesn't even have a birth certificate. We sponsored a Lakota family for one year up on Pine Ridge --the poorest part of the nation. My WIP deals with the trail of tears and the injustices of people of color. People of color at that time were simply rounded up and sent to Oklahoma. If your skin wasn't white, you were at risk for being sent. It's a terrible blight on our history. My husband's ancestors were among them and that's how his people ended up in Oklahoma instead of their native Tennessee. Great post.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Karla! How exciting that you're writing about the trail of tears. Those stories never get old to me. Best wishes with it!

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  5. I have not...it sounds like a great and interesting time...thanks for the post.

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  6. HI Jennifer, As a relatively new Floridian, I'm still learning about the state's history which I find fascinating. One of the days I'd like to visit a Seminole village or Micanopy. What I find very strange is that in Fort Walton Beach, FL, near me, they have an annual Billy Bowlegs Festival. However, Billy Bowlegs is a pirate, so it's basically a pirate festival! How'd that happen? I think someone got their history mixed up!

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    1. That's funny, Marilyn. I haven't been to Ft. Walton Beach or heard of the Billy Bowlegs Festival, so I can't really explain why a Pirate festival would carry a Seminole name. Might be fun to research that historical tidbit just to find out!

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  7. I have a couple of connections to Indians - my 2nd cousin was a missionary to the Seminole Indians in Florida for many years, I never got to visit that reservation - but did visit a Cherokee reservation, museum, & outdoor drama & found learning about their lifestyle very interesting.

    I don't feel the Indians in the USA have always been treated fairly.

    Another connection is that I am a descendant of Marmaduke VanSwearingen - who reportedly was the only white man ever made an Indian war chief (supposedly because the Indians were so impressed with his bravery after he was captured). As the story goes - he loved the Indians so much that he decided to stay with them. There was an outdoor drama about him in Xenia, Oh. that ran for 26 years before DNA evidence of Blue Jacket descendants supposedly proved that Blue Jacket couldn't have been a white man.

    bonnieroof60@yahoo.com

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