History of the Seminole Wars

Florida’s three Seminole Wars were the longest, costliest, and deadliest of America’s Indian Wars.  Taking place between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, all three conflicts drew wide national attention.  They were also the only Indian wars in which slavery played a key part.

Seminole Origins

The ancestors of the Seminole Indians were primarily Creek Indians who migrated to Florida during the 18th century after the decimation of the aboriginal natives under Spanish rule.  Unable to understand the relationships between the many native tribes that inhabited Florida, Europeans began to identify all Native Americans in the peninsula as Seminoles, a term that means "separatists" or "those who live apart".  The two largest bands were the Mikasukis, who inhabited the area around Lake Miccosukee near present-day Tallahassee, and the Alachuas, who lived near what is now Gainesville.  Before and during the War of 1812, American forces attacked the Seminole villages in the Alachua area, forcing many natives south, into the area north of Tampa Bay.  These native Seminoles were joined by many refugee Creeks who had fled to safety in Spanish Florida after defeat in the Creek Civil War of 1814. 

The Seminole population also included a significant number of blacks, most of whom were runaway slaves from southern plantations.  The presence of this group was seen as a threat to the plantation economy and would prove one of the primary factors in causing friction between the Seminoles and the white Americans.

The First Seminole War

The First Seminole War was brought on by increasing tensions between the settlers of southern Georgia and the Seminole Indians residing in Spanish Florida.  Cross-border raids by both parties, the continued presence of runaway slaves among the Indians, and a strong desire on the part of the United States to possess the peninsula all led to an outbreak of hostilities in late 1817.  The spark that ignited the war was an attack on a Mikasuki village by the army, followed a week later by a retaliatory ambush on a boat traveling up the Apalachicola River that resulted in the deaths of thirty-five soldiers and six women.

The War Department dispatched General Andrew Jackson to invade Florida for the purpose of punishing the Seminoles and driving them out of north Florida.  In March of 1818 Jackson entered Florida with over 3,000 men, about half of which were Creek Indians.  After destroying the Seminole villages around Lake Miccosukee, Jackson turned south and captured the Spanish post at St. Marks.  He then continued south, eventually driving the Seminoles beyond the Suwannee River.  Jackson then returned to St. Marks and ordered the trial and execution of two British subjects who had been captured during the offensive. 

Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson as Governor of Florida

Declaring the war over, Jackson then re-opened it by traveling over 100 miles to the west to attack and capture the Spanish capital of Pensacola, claiming that the Spaniards were offering sanctuary to the Indians.  Leaving the army in possession of the city, Jackson returned to Tennessee.  The general's actions caused considerable diplomatic trouble with Spain and England and also led to lengthy debates in Congress concerning the power of the military and the President.  In 1819 Spain agreed to cede Florida to the United States and Andrew Jackson was appointed its first governor.

Territorial Florida

In September of 1823, the Seminoles relented to white pressure and signed the Treaty of Moultrie Creek.  This agreement forced the Seminoles to give up claim to all territory in Florida with the exception of a 4,000,000 acre reservation in the center of the peninsula.  The treaty also included annuities and other benefits that were to last for twenty years.  With reluctance and with little help from the government, the Seminoles slowly moved into their new homes.

In 1830, under intense pressure from President Andrew Jackson, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act.  The intention of this law was to relocate all Indians living east of the Mississippi to new lands in the west.  The five “civilized” tribes of the southeast were to be placed in what is now Oklahoma.  One by one, the native nations were forced to sign treaties agreeing to emigration.

In 1832 the Seminoles were forced to sign the Treaty of Paynes Landing, in which they agreed to leave Florida within three years.  As part of the agreement, a delegation of seven chiefs would inspect the proposed western reservation, and if found acceptable, the terms of the treaty would go into effect.  Although the chiefs did sign a document stating their satisfaction with the new land, upon their return to Florida they denounced both agreements as being fraudulent, claiming they had either been forced or tricked into signing away their rights to their Florida homeland. 

The Second Seminole War

Seminole Leader Osceola
For the next three years, the Seminoles quietly resisted all attempts to gather the tribe for deportation to the west.  Hostile feelings turned into open warfare on December 28, 1835, when the Seminoles attacked and nearly wiped out a detachment of 108 soldiers commanded by Major Francis L. Dade.  On the same day, the famed Seminole leader Osceola killed Indian Agent Wiley Thompson outside the agency at Ft. King (Ocala).

Within weeks, the Seminoles scored other stunning victories.  On December 31, they turned back a force of 750 soldiers and volunteers at the Withlacoochee River.  By the middle of January they had destroyed virtually every sugar plantation in Florida, ruining the Territory’s largest industry and freeing hundreds of slaves.  Hearing of Dade’s defeat, Maj. Gen. Edmund Gaines came to Florida in February of 1836 with over 1,000 men.  Instead of capturing the belligerent Seminoles, Gaines and his force soon found themselves held under siege for over a week before being rescued and forced to withdraw.

Gaines was soon followed by Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott, who fielded 5,000 men in an elaborate plan to surround and capture the Seminole warriors and their families.  The campaign ended in embarrassment when it failed to locate, kill, or capture any significant number of the enemy.  Due to heavy rains and rampant disease, the offensive was suspended for the summer months, but was resumed in the fall of 1836 under the leadership of Florida Governor Richard K. Call.  Call managed to force the Seminoles from their strongholds near the Withlacoochee, but was stalled at the Battle of Wahoo Swamp, allowing the Indians time to escape.

The year of 1837 proved a turning point in the war.  Command of the war was given to Maj. Gen. Thomas Jesup, who began a methodical offensive to drive the Seminoles from the Territory.  Forts were established throughout the Indian territory and mobile columns of soldiers scoured the countryside.  Feeling the pressure, many Seminoles, including head chief Micanopy, offered to surrender.  The Seminoles slowly gathered for emigration near Tampa, but in June they fled the detention camps, driven off by disease and the presence of slave catchers who were hoping to take Black Seminoles captive.  The war was on again.

General Jesup
Maj. Gen. Thomas Sidney Jesup

Incensed at what he felt was Seminole treachery, Jesup responded in kind, taking many Seminole leaders prisoner while under a flag of truce, including Osceola, who would later die in captivity.  In December of 1837 Jesup began a massive offensive, employing over 9,000 men, a significant number when one considers that at the beginning of the war the entire US Army numbered only 7,000 men.  The offensive swept southward through the peninsula, culminating in the Battle of Okeechobee on Christmas Day, 1837.  The battle, led by Col. Zachary Taylor, would be hailed as a great American victory, but could also be considered a Seminole victory, as it stopped the army, inflicted severe casualties on the Americans, and provided time for the Seminole women and children to escape.

Having killed or captured the majority of Seminoles and their senior leaders and having driven the remnants deep into the Everglades, General Jesup asked the War Department to declare an end to the conflict.  Not wishing to compromise the Administration's Indian Removal policy by allowing any Seminoles to remain in Florida, Secretary of War Joel Poinsett refused to let the war end.  Feeling he had done all that he could, Jesup asked to be relieved and was replaced by Zachary Taylor, who had been promoted to Brigadier General after the Battle of Okeechobee.  The war now entered a new phase, a war of attrition that would last another four years and accomplish very little, other than the waste of hundreds of lives and millions of dollars.  Taylor fought a defensive war, concentrating on protecting the settled portions of the Territory and building numerous roads and bridges.

During this time, the government realized that it would be almost impossible to drive the remaining Seminoles from Florida, so President Martin Van Buren sent the army’s highest officer, Maj. Gen. Alexander Macomb, to negotiate a peace with the Seminoles.  It was the only time that a Native American nation had forced the United States to sue for peace.  An agreement was reached allowing the Seminoles to remain in southwest Florida, but the peace was shattered in July of 1839 by an attack on a trading post located on the Caloosahatchee River.  The government now felt there was no choice but to continue the war until every last Seminole was removed.

After two years in command and with no end to the war in sight, Zachary Taylor asked to be relieved.  He was replaced by Brig. Gen. Walker K. Armistead, who began a policy of continuing the offensive during the summer months, penetrating the Everglades by canoes and small boats, thereby forcing the Seminoles from their safe havens.  Fighting against him were two of the Seminole’s most courageous leaders, Abiaca (Sam Jones), an aging medicine man who remained one step ahead of the army, and Coacoochee (Wild Cat), a young chief who took the war north, into the settled portions of the Territory.  Slowly, as small groups of Indians surrendered or were taken prisoner, the Seminole forces dwindled.

Armistead was replaced by Col. William Worth, who increased the pressure on the Indians.  The navy, which had been employed to patrol the coasts and to explore the Everglades, increased its activities.  This marks the only time the navy played a significant part in an Indian war.  Finally, in the summer of 1842, after seven years of desperate warfare, an agreement was reached with the few hundred remaining Seminoles that would allow them to live in southwest Florida.  America’s longest Indian war was over.  Losses included over 1,500 men in the army, nearly 50 in the navy, and uncounted hundreds of volunteers and militiamen.  Over 3,000 Seminoles were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to inhospitable lands in what is now Oklahoma.  The war cost the government approximately $30 million, at a time when the annual federal budget was only about $25 million.  No one won the Second Seminole War; they only survived it.

The Third Seminole War

Billy Bowlegs
Chief Billy Bowlegs (Holata Micco)

Florida became a state in 1845, but settlement was hampered in part by the effects of the Second Seminole War.  Throughout the war, people had heard that the land was worthless, often under water, and plagued by disease and unbearable temperatures in the summer.  In addition, the presence of the remaining Seminoles, whose tenacity and ferocity in the past war had become legendary, made other portions of the nation appear more favorable for settlement.  Wanting to remove the perceived Seminole threat, the government began to pressure the remaining Seminoles to emigrate to Oklahoma.  Chief Billy Bowlegs (Holata Micco) refused, and war again erupted in December of 1855.

Once again the army brought in thousands of soldiers and began to patrol the Everglades in search of Seminole hideouts.  The frontier population fled to the cities or nearby fortifications as the Seminoles raided isolated homesteads.  For two and a half years the fighting went on, with numerous small skirmishes and few large battles.  Finally, in the spring of 1858, after meeting with chiefs who had been brought from the reservations in the west, Billy Bowlegs agreed to emigrate.  The Seminole Wars were over.  Less than 200 Seminoles remained in Florida, led by the ancient medicine man Abiaca, who, with his small group of followers, refused to give up the land they loved.