The Black Seminoles’ Long March to Freedom

THE BLACK SEMINOLES

  The Black Seminoles, now called Seminole Maroons by ethnologists, are a group of people who live in Oklahoma, Texas, the Bahamas, and Coahuila, Mexico. Their ancestors were runaways from the plantations of South Carolina and Georgia beginning in the late seventeenth century who sought refuge in Spanish-controlled Florida. They lived among the Seminole Indians and were closely associated with them, but they maintained a separate identity and preserved their culture and traditions. Following the First and Second Seminole Wars (1817 -1818 and 1835 1842) some escaped to the Bahamas and others were removed with their Native American allies to the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). Ten years later some of them moved to Mexico where their descendants, known as Indios Mascogos still live. After the Civil War, a group of them moved to Texas, where in the 1870s and 1880s, they served with the U.S. Army on the Texas frontier as the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts.

Their quest involved contact with Native Americans, Spanish, British and American soldiers, settlers, traders and government officials. They suffered and survived deprivation, exploitation and destitution. Today their descendants celebrate the persistence and perseverance of their ancestors.

Our people have lived in Texas for over 100 years. Before that, we were in Mexico, where some of us still live and before that we were in Oklahoma, and even earlier than that, Florida. And before that, we came from Africa. As far as weve come, in all our travels, we have never lost an awareness of our identity and pride in our freedom, because it is our freedom which makes us different from other Americans of African descent.

—- Miss Charles Emily Wilson

THE WORLD OF THE BLACK SEMINOLE

The experience of the Black Seminoles was similar to other maroon societies which proliferated throughout the Americas before slavery was abolished. Because they were in constant fear of being recaptured, they defended their freedom by developing extraordinary skills in guerilla warfare. They were proactive in finding ways to survive economically in new environments and they were savvy in their interaction with Native Americans. Leaders emerged from their communities who were skilled at understanding and negotiating with whites. Most important, all of these maroon communities, borrowed and blended elements of their experiences and integrated them into their own African heritage.

Historically the central question for those who came in contact with the Black Seminoles was whether they were African or American Indian. This issue of classification hounded them throughout their search for freedom. Individuals, agencies and institutions labeled them for their own purposes, more often than not determined by their own vested interests.

Today the Black Seminole community in Texas refer to themselves as Seminoles to set themselves apart from other Blacks and to emphasize the pride that they have in their unique history of having run away and resisted slavery. For similar reasons, the descendants living in Coahuila, Mexico, refer to themselves as Indios Mascogos, and in Oklahoma as Freedmen.

In the I 7th century our ancestors fought against slavery and escaped into the northern bushlands of Spanish FIorida. There we joined our Indian brothers and sisters who had also escaped from the oppression of the European slavers; together, for many years, we resisted their attempts to recapture us.

—- Miss Charles Emily Wilson

FUGITIVES IN SPANISH FLORIDA

When the first fugitive slaves from Charleston arrived in Spanish St. Augustine, Florida, in 1687, they were given refuge and were integrated into a cohesive, multiracial, multicultural community. The men worked as cartwrights, jewelers, butchers, and innkeepers, while the women worked as cooks and laundresses. Some even owned small businesses. Interracial unions and marriages were common. This open society, bolstered by a relaxed attitude toward slavery and race, made it possible for slaves to use the courts to change their status, to lodge complaints against ill treatment, or to change owners. Those who were free acquired property, often converted to Catholicism and served in the militia. In this regard the Spanish were not entirely altruistic. They were willing to grant freedom to the Blacks and expected loyalty and service in return.

In 1838, the Spanish governor established a settlement for the runaways called Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, becoming the first free Black settlement in North America. The residents of Mose, some one hundred men, women and children came in contact with various bands of Indians living nearby. In this multilingual environment, they no doubt adopted folkways of their neighbors and absorbed some of them into their ranks. On this frontier, these Blacks showed an ability to adapt, to be creative and to survive. Even with the support of the Spanish who gave them supplies and building materials, it took intelligence and determination to forge lives for themselves and their families.

BLACKS AND INDIANS: VASSALS AND ALLIES

At the same time the Blacks were establishing themselves at Mose, bands of Creeks split off from the main body of their tribe, dislocated through war and conflict, drifted into northern Florida. These people were called Seminoles. The name Seminole comes from the Spanish word cimaroon meaning “fugitives” or “wild ones” and was incorporated into the Creek language. The English word “maroon” comes from the same Spanish source.

Slavery among the Seminoles was not new. They captured other Indians in battle, “adopted” them into their tribe to replace members who had been killed and treated them amicably. Some Black slaves were purchased, others were given as “gifts” to chiefs by the British who had acquired Florida from the Spanish in 1763. Many of these Blacks lived independently in villages separate from their Indian “owners.” This independent living was the foundation of a new social group. They were efficient and productive farmers, owned livestock, and armed themselves against intruders. In deference to the Indian chief, they paid an annual tax, usually corn or some other foodstuff to be used for the common good. In return for their allegiance they were given the protection of the larger Seminole Indian community. An American general aptly described the relationship between the two groups as “vassals and allies.”

Gradually the distinction between who was slave and who was free blurred and the two communities, Black and Indian, were interdependent. The Blacks adopted Seminole ways of living and dressing. They spoke their own language, Creole, as well as English, Spanish and Indian dialects. They also understood the Europeans because they had lived on plantations.

These skills made them invaluable to the Seminoles as interpreters, go-betweens and advisors. Life for the Blacks amongst the Indians was idyllic, far different than it had been under the strict codes of plantation slavery. They were free and independent and they thrived under these conditions.

THE SEMINOLE INDIAN WARS

By the early 19th century the Blacks and Seminoles had established such strong communal ties that they banded together to fight side by side defending their land and their freedom. Their adversaries were the Americans who wanted to annex Florida and to prevent its use as a haven for fugitive slaves.

During the First Seminole War (1817-1818) General Andrew Jackson invaded Florida, destroyed Black and Indian towns, burned Spanish forts and routed the British. In this chaos, some Blacks fled to the Bahamas where some of their descendants now live. Ultimately Jackson captured Pensacola and the Spanish ceded Florida to the United States in 1821. During this conflict Blacks were recognized for their aggressive military prowess.

In 1823 some Seminole Indian leaders were induced to move to a reservation in Florida and to return any runaway slaves that did not “belong” to them. In typical “divide and rule” fashion, the Indians were warned that the Blacks cared nothing for them, but only wanted their protection from enslavement. Later the Indian Removal Act of 1830 decreed that the Indians would be removed to the West. The Blacks feared that if they assembled at one place along with their Indian allies to be transported, they would be returned to slavery.

They took the lead in stirring up resistance to removal and joined the Seminoles in a guerilla war known as the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). It turned out to be the longest and most expensive war in the United States to date. Once again, the Blacks proved to be courageous fighters and served prominent roles as advisers, spies and intermediaries. Their influence on the Seminole Indian chiefs prompted General Thomas S. Jesup to say: “This you may be assured is a negro and not an Indian War.” To end this long, bloody and costly war Jesup resorted to expedience. He granted freedom to the Blacks if they would go West as part of the Seminole Nation.

This war turned out to be a “War of Independence” for the Blacks. Some authorities say that this was the time that they emerged as a distinct social group because they shared the experience of running away, resisting slavery and fighting for that freedom. It was evident not only to themselves but to the outside world that they possessed the skills and intellect to subsist on their own and to create self-sufficient communities. In the years to come, this determination to remain separate and independent would face other challenges as they searched for a home where they could live as free men.

When we had to leave for safer territory in the 1830s to escape the slave raids in Florida, we went to Indian Territory and settled along the Canadian River in what is today Oklahoma. But slave raids continued from nearby states. In our search for peace, we left once again and went to Mexico, though some of our people stayed behind in Oklahoma, where their descendants still live today.

—- Miss Charles Emily Wilson

THE INDIAN TERRITORY

Once settled in the Indian Territory (1841-1850) the Black Seminoles and the Seminole Indians faced another common enemy: the Creeks. The Creeks were intent on enslaving the Black Seminoles and integrating the Seminole Indians into their community. Wild Cat, leader of the Seminole Indians and John Horse, leader of the Black Seminoles, resisted this domination.

Wild Cat didn’t want his power diminished by the Creek chiefs and planned to form a confederation with other southwestern Indians of which he would be the leader. John Horse and his band of Black Seminoles were most concerned about acquiring land where they would be safe from Creek slave hunters. Kidnapping of the Black Seminoles by the Creeks and white slave hunters became so prevalent that John Horse was forced to find ways to leave the territory. He went to Washington, D.C., to negotiate a special removal policy for his people. Unfortunately, nothing came of these efforts so that he was forced to join Wild Cat’s plan to move their bands to Mexico where slavery had been abolished in 1829. The Mexican government promised citizenship to colonists in exchange for helping to maintain peace along the northern border. In 1850, more than 300 Seminole Indians, Black Seminoles and Kickapoo Indians set out for Mexico on the nine month trek to the border.

IMMIGRANTS IN MEXICO

Upon entering Mexico in July 1850, John Horse exclaimed: “When we came fleeing slavery, Mexico was a land of freedom and the Mexicans spread out their arms to us.” The Black Seminoles eventually settled in Nacimiento (where some of their descendants remain to this day) and the Seminole Indians settled in nearby Muzquiz. Given food subsidies, tools for farming and building materials, the Blacks put them to effective use and soon had a thriving agricultural community. A school and church were established.

One of the requirements for colonists was for the men to serve as a border patrol and protect the towns from raids by Comanche and Lipan Indians. The Black Seminoles once again proved to be excellent soldiers and with their Seminole Indian comrades, they gained a reputation for being loyal troops. In time, however, the Black Seminoles tired of this role, particularly when they were called upon to engage in the civil and foreign conflicts which engulfed Mexico in the early 1860s. This separatism and isolation increased after the death of Wild Cat and the return of the Seminoles to the Indian Territory. When the Civil War ended in the United States, the Black Seminoles looked forward to returning to the United States.

In 1870 a few hundred of our ancestors were asked to come to Texas to fight the Native Americans so that white people could settle in the region. Those Seminoles served as Scouts for the U.S. Army out of Ford Duncan in Eagle Pass and Fort Clark in Brackettville, where we live today.

—- Miss Charles Emily Wilson

THE SEMINOLE NEGRO INDIAN SCOUTS

At the end of the Civil War more white settlers moved to the Southwest and used the Overland Trail to cross Texas into New Mexico, Arizona and California. This brought them in conflict with southwestern Indian tribes, among them the Comanches and the Apaches, who had been relocated from their traditional hunting grounds to reservations in the New Mexico Territory. In retaliation, they raided white settlements, stole livestock and horses and destroyed property.

Army personnel at frontier bases in Texas were ill-equipped to stop the raids, track down and confront the fast-moving Indians. Nor did they have the necessary manpower to guard the porous Texas border. What they needed were experienced Indian fighters who knew the rugged terrain of the borderlands, understood the ways of the Indians and could speak the border language–a mixture of English and Spanish. The Black Seminoles had a reputation for being fearless fighters, and they were approached by army recruiters. Finally, in 1870, an arrangement was reached with them. The army formed a “Detachment of Seminole Negro Indian Scouts” and enlisted ten Black Seminoles. On July 4, 1870, the men and their families crossed the Rio Grande into Texas.

Under the command of Lieutenant John Bullis, from 1873 to 1881, the scouts went on twenty-six expeditions and were engaged in twelve battles without suffering any losses. They had excellent tracking skills, were precise marksmen and could endure searching for months at a time. Famed for their bravery, four of the Black Seminole scouts were awarded the Medal of Honor in the 1870s for “gallantry in action.”

In return for their services the men were promised salaries, rations, and living quarters for their families at the forts where they were stationed. Some accounts say that they were guaranteed their own land in Texas or in the Indian Territory following their service as scouts. But this promise was never fulfilled in spite of numerous appeals by the scouts and the officers who supported their requests. The War Department claimed not to have land that they could legally give them. Because they were not “ethnic” Indians, the Bureau of Indian Affairs would not honor their claims. In addition, registration for Seminole Indian reservation lands was closed in 1866, thus excluding the Black Seminoles from this opportunity.

By the 1880s the number of enlisted scouts was cut back and their rations reduced. In spite of such setbacks, they continued to live on the Fort Clark military post. It was a precarious existence, however, and the group was often destitute. The unenlisted men found extra work on nearby ranches. Some of the women worked as laundresses. But as the Indian wars declined, the scouts were transferred to custodial and constabulary work and were finally disbanded in 1914. The same year, their dependents were told to leave the post where they had lived for more than a generation.

We have given our loyalty and our skill to our country, and we have contributed to its history I can rest now, knowing that this has been recognized at last, and that future schoolchildren, both American and Seminole, will learn the part we have played in the growth of our great nation.

—- Miss Charles Emily Wilson


EPILOGUE

Even though the Black Seminoles never numbered more than several hundred at any given time, they have a special place in the history of Blacks in America. Their contribution is one which illuminates how personal and group determination overcame barriers of discrimination, poverty and deprivation. What emerged from their wanderings was a sense of identity, self-awareness and confidence which permitted them to keep moving in pursuit of a place to call their own, in pursuit of freedom. Out of the nightmare that was slavery, this is a heroic story of a people who persevered and managed to survive constant setbacks and repeated removals in an effort to achieve self-determination, justice and liberty.

– courtesy City College Library

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