Christmas Eve to Remember: The Freedom Fighters of 1837

by William Loren Katz on December 25, 2011

This post was originally published on January 4, 2010.

Each Christmas Eve marks the anniversary of a battle for liberty in 1837 on the banks of Lake Okeechobee, Florida, that helped shape the United States of America. An estimated 380 to 480 freedom-fighting African and Indian members of the Seminole nation threw back more than a thousand U.S. Army and other troops led by Colonel Zachary Taylor, a future President of the United States. The Seminoles so badly mauled Taylor’s invasion force that he ordered his soldiers to fall back, bury their dead, tend to their wounded . . . and ponder the largest single US defeat in decades of Indian warfare. The battle of Lake Okeechobee is not a story you will find in school or college textbooks or Hollywood movies, so it has slipped from the public consciousness. But in a country that cherishes its gallant freedom-fighting heritage, Black and Red Seminoles of Florida in 1837 sent everyone a message that deserves to be remembered and honored.

Around 1776 the Seminole nation had reconstituted itself as a multicultural nation by aligning itself with escaped Africans who had long lived in the peninsula. Beginning in the early 18th century hundreds of African Americans had fled bondage in Georgia and the Carolinas to find refuge and a productive life in Florida. Though Spain claimed Florida, it was an ungoverned land in which Native Americans roamed freely as did slave runaways, pirates and whites who rejected the limitations established by European colonial settlements.

For generations slave runaways in Florida established communities, tended plantations raised cattle and horses, brought up their children and took care of their elderly. For fifty miles along the Appalachacola river — reported a U.S. Naval officer in 1816 — Africans ran plantations, pursued a peaceful, contented family life. When the Seminoles, a break-away segment of the Creek Nation, arrived in the peninsula around the time of the American Revolution, Africans embraced and instructed them in methods of rice cultivation they had learned in Senegambia and Sierra Leone. Based on this cooperation, two peoples of color hammered out an agricultural and military alliance against US slaveholders whose posses periodically raided their communities.

In 1816 General Andrew Jackson, hero of New Orleans and commander of US Armies in Florida, determined to terminate this resistance on the US southern flank. To Jackson and the slaveholders who dominated the federal government, Florida’s free Seminole people of color constituted a clear and present danger to the US slave system. They saw these free communities as holding a beacon light that could entice thousands of runaways to bolt their chains in Georgia, the Carolinas and Louisiana and find a safe haven. Perhaps most important, since Africans played a leadership role in the new Seminole Nation, their villages stood as a successful, alternative societies, a clear refutation of white claims that Africans were meant to be slaves.

Prodded by slaveholders, Washington officials connived at destroying the Seminole alliance, and re-enslavement of the African members. Beginning in 1811 President James Madison, Virginia slaveholder and father of the U.S. Constitution, provided covert US support to this military effort. In 1816 the United States ordered a full scale invasion to dislodge 300 Africans and other Seminoles from “Fort Negro” on the Appalachacola river. One of the invaders, U.S. Army Lt. Colonel Duncan Clinch, reported: “The American negroes had principally settled along the Appalachicola river and a number of them had left their fields and gone over to the Seminoles on hearing of our approach. Their corn fields extended nearly fifty miles up the river and their numbers were daily increasing.” Here was a clear and present — and immediate — danger to the southern slaveholder system.

Finally, in 1819, the United States purchased Florida from Spain, and prepared to settle scores with the Seminoles.

The Seminole nation, however, refused to capitulate, and rejected any surrender its African brothers and sisters members. The result was three Seminoles wars that lasted until 1858. During these years of conflict Seminole forces at times tied up half of the US Army, cost the Congress a total of $40,000,000 and inflicted 1500 US military deaths. These wars also represented the single largest and longest explosion of slave resistance in the United States.

Africans played central roles in the Seminole defense. In 1837 during the second Seminole war U.S. General Sidney Thomas Jesup, the best informed US officer in the field, wrote “This, you may be assured, is a negro and not an Indian war.” He continued:

“Throughout my operations I have found the negroes the most active and determined warriors; and during the conferences with the Indian chiefs I ascertained they exercised an almost controlling influence over them.”

Because Seminoles fought in a homeland they knew better than the invaders, their armies ran circles around their numerically and technologically superior foe. Though they had the added burden of moving their families out of harm’s way, Seminoles soldiers were able to baffle, defeat ad humiliate US army, navy and marine operations. In a desperation to quell resistance, US officers ordered the taking of women and children as hostages and the violation other codes of warfare. These tactics failed to achieve victory or split the red-black alliance. They also appear to indicate a course of action that bear a strong resemblance to disastrous US interventions such as Vietnam and the tragedies of Iraq and Afghanistan.

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