The Black Seminoles are descendants of free African Americans and fugitive slaves traditionally allied with Seminole Indians in Florida and Oklahoma. Twentieth-century historians popularized the name "Black Seminoles" to describe the community, whose members were known in the nineteenth century as Seminole Negroes, Seminole maroons, or simply the black allies of Seminole Indians. Today Black Seminoles are concentrated in parts of Oklahoma, where they are known as Seminole Freedmen; in Nacimiento, Mexico, where they are known as los mascogos; and along the Texas-Mexico border near Del Rio and Brackettville, Texas, where they are more likely to describe themselves as Black Seminoles. How they came to live in these former frontier regions constitutes one of the lesser known but more remarkable odysseys of nineteenth-century America.
Origins of the Black Seminoles
Black Seminole Culture
Blacks in the Seminole Wars
Black Seminoles in the West
Origins of the Black Seminoles
As early as 1689, African slaves fled from the British American colonies to Spanish Florida seeking freedom. Under an edict from the King of Spain, the black fugitives received liberty in exchange for defending the Spanish settlers at St. Augustine. The Spanish organized the blacks into a militia; their settlement at Fort Mose, founded in 1738, was the first legally sanctioned free black town in North America.
A new influx of freedom-seeking blacks reached Florida during the American Revolution (1775–83), when several thousand American slaves agreed to fight for the British in exchange for liberty. (Florida was under British control throughout the conflict.) During the Revolution, Seminole Indians also allied with the British, and as a result, Africans and Seminoles came into increased contact with each other. Members of both communities sided again with the British during the War of 1812, solidifying ties and earning the wrath of the war's American hero, General Andrew Jackson.
When Africans and Seminoles first started to interact, the Seminoles were themselves fairly recent immigrants to Florida. Their community evolved over the late 1700s and early 1800s as waves of Creek Indians left present-day Georgia and Alabama. By the time the American naturalist William Bartram visited them in 1773, the Seminoles had their own tribal name, derived from cimarron, the Spanish word for runaway, which connoted the tribe's breakaway status from the Creeks. Interestingly, cimarron was also the source of the English word maroon, used to describe the runaway slave communities of Florida, the Caribbean, and other parts of the New World.
By the early 1800s, maroons (free blacks and runaway slaves) and Seminole Indians were in regular contact in Florida, where they evolved a system of relations unique among North American Indians and blacks. In exchange for paying an annual tribute of livestock and crops, maroons found sanctuary among the Indians. Indians, in turn, acquired an important strategic ally in a sparsely populated region.
Typically, many or all members of the Seminole maroon communities were identified as slaves of individual Indian chiefs. Seminole slavery, however, bore little relation to the system of chattel slavery practiced in the American South. Historians have compared the practice to a feudal arrangement. Maroons lived in their own independent communities, elected their own black leaders, and could amass moderate wealth in cattle and crops. Most importantly, they bore arms for self-defense.
We found these negroes in possession of large fields of the finest land, producing large crops of corn, beans, melons, pumpkins, and other esculent vegetables. [I] saw, while riding along the borders of the ponds, fine rice growing; and in the village large corn-cribs were filled, while the houses were larger and more comfortable than those of the Indians themselves.
An 1822 census estimated that 800 blacks were living with the Seminoles, constituting far and away the largest maroon community in North American history. The black settlements were on the whole highly militarized, which was hardly the condition of America's southern slaves. The military nature of the African-Seminole relationship led General Edmund Pendleton Gaines, who visited several flourishing Black Seminole settlements in the 1820s, to describe the maroons as "vassals and allies" of the Indians.
While Seminole slavery was benevolent compared to southern slavery, it remained a relationship of inequality. Seminole chiefs won prestige and wealth from their association with black warriors and slaves. Neither Seminoles nor whites considered the Black Seminoles to be members of the Indian tribe. Black headmen were occasionally admitted into Seminole bands through marriage or recognition of service, but this was the exception, not the rule.
The Black Seminole culture that took shape after 1800 was a dynamic mixture of African, Indian, Spanish, and slave traditions. In the tradition of the Indians, maroons wore Seminole clothing, strained koonti, a native root, and made sofkee, a paste created by mashing corn with a mortar and pestle.
Living apart from the Indians, however, the maroons developed their own unique African American culture. Black Seminoles inclined toward a syncretic form of Christianity inherited from the plantations. Certain cultural practices, like jumping over a broom to celebrate marriage, hailed from the plantations; other customs, such as the names used for blacks' towns, clearly echoed Africa. Language especially showed the Black Seminoles' distinct culture. Afro-Seminole was strongly related to Gullah, the dialect of Sea Islanders along the Carolina and Georgia coast. Like Gullah, Afro-Seminole incorporated words from Spanish, English, and Muskogee, as well as Bantu and other African languages.
From the time of the founding of the United States, the existence of armed black communities in Florida was a major concern for American slave owners. Slaveholders sought return of Florida's black fugitives under the first treaty in U.S. history, the Treaty of New York (1790). General Andrew Jackson targeted Florida's maroon communities in 1816 by orchestrating an attack on the Negro Fort, a Black Seminole stronghold. Breaking up the maroon communities was one of Jackson's major objectives in the subsequent First Seminole War (1817–8).
The Second Seminole War (1835–42) marked the height of tension between the U.S. and the Black Seminoles and also the historical peak of the African-Seminole alliance. The war resulted from U.S. efforts, under the policy of Indian Removal, to relocate to the western Indian Territory Florida's 4,000 Seminole Indians and a portion of their 800 Black Seminole allies—a portion, because during the year before the war, at least 100 Black Seminoles were being claimed by prominent white citizens as runaway slaves. Fearing the direct attempt to enslave these 100, and anticipating attempts to enslave more members of the community, the Black Seminoles became staunch opponents of relocation. In councils before the war, they stoked efforts to resist removal and threw their support behind the most militant Seminole faction, led by Osceola. After war broke out, individual black leaders John Caesar, Abraham, and John Horse played key roles. In addition to aiding the Indians in their fight, Black Seminoles conspired in the rebellion of at least 385 plantation slaves at the commencement of the war. The slaves joined Indians and maroons in the destruction of 21 sugar plantations from December 25, 1835, through the summer of 1836. Some scholars have described this as the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history.
By 1838, U.S. General Thomas Sydney Jesup succeeded in separating the interests of the black and Seminole warriors by offering security and promises of freedom to the blacks. His act was the only emancipation of rebellious African Americans prior to the emancipation of the southern slaves by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.
After 1838, 500 Black Seminoles emigrated with Seminole Indians to the Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. Despite Army promises of freedom, however, out west the Black Seminoles found themselves threatened by slave raiders, including pro-slavery Creek Indians and even some former Seminole Indian allies, whose allegiance to the maroons diminished after the war. Officers of the federal army tried to protect the Black Seminoles, but in 1848 the U.S. Attorney General bowed to pro-slavery lobbyists and ordered the army to disarm the maroons.
Facing possible enslavement, in 1849 the maroon leader John Horse and about 100 Black Seminoles staged a mass escape from the Indian Territory to Mexico, where slavery had long been outlawed. The black fugitives crossed to freedom in July 1850. They rode with a faction of traditionalist Seminoles under the Indian chief Coacochee, who led the expedition. The Mexican government welcomed the Seminole allies as border guards on the frontier.
For the next 20 years, Black Seminoles served as militiamen and Indian fighters in Mexico, where they became known as los mascogos. Slave raiders from Texas continued to threaten the community, but with arms and reinforcements from the Mexican army, the black warriors ably defended themselves.
Throughout the period, several hundred Black Seminoles remained in the Oklahoma Indian Territory as allies of the Seminole Indians. With the end of slavery in the U.S., these maroons became known as Seminole Freedmen. They lived—as their descendants still do—in and around Wewoka, Oklahoma, the community that John Horse founded as a black settlement in 1849 and that is presently home of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.
In 1870, the U.S. Army invited the Mexican-based Black Seminoles to return to the U.S. and serve as army scouts. The Seminole Negro Indian Scouts (originally a black unit despite the name) played a lead role in the Texas Indian wars of the 1870s. The scouts became famous for their tracking abilities and feats of endurance. Four of them won Congressional Medals of Honor. They served as advance scouts for the commanding white officers and the all-black units known as the Buffalo Soldiers, with whom they were closely associated. After the close of the Texas Indian wars, the scouts remained stationed at Fort Clark in Brackettville, Texas, until the army disbanded them in 1914. Family members settled in and around Brackettville, which houses a cemetery for the scouts and remains the spiritual center of the Texas-based Black Seminoles.
The community in Nacimiento, Coahuila, persists on lands adjacent to the Kickapoo Indians. Yet another Black Seminole community resides half a continent away on Andros Island in the Bahamas, where refugees from the nineteenth-century Florida wars found a sanctuary from American slavery.
In 2003 and 2004, Seminole Freedmen in Oklahoma were in the national news because of a legal dispute with the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma over membership and rights within the tribe. Freedmen were trying to gain access to services provided by a $56 million settlement awarded to the Seminole Nation. The dispute developed after Seminole Indians voted to exclude some Freedmen from inclusion in the settlement and membership in the tribe. In June 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to allow the Seminole Freedmen to sue the federal government for inclusion in the settlement unless they could obtain the Seminole Nation's consent.