Black Seminoles

by Mitakuye Oyasin

When the Europeans first arrived in North America, The Seminoles were part of the Creek Confederation, located primarily in what would become Georgia and Alabama. Then, for reasons never explained, they moved into Spanish territory, Florida, some time in the early 1700s. That, in fact, is how they got the name Seminole, which means runaways.

No understanding of the Seminole is possible without going back in time to the first foreign colony on U.S. soil. It happened in 1526, sixty years before the Lost Colony at Roanoke Island, 80 years before Jamestown, and a century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. A Spanish official by the name of Lucas Vasquez de AylIon founded a colony near the mouth of the Pee Dee River in South Carolina.

In his eye-opening book, ''Black lndians,'' William Katz, muses about why history books have overlooked the efforts of AyIIon to colonize what would later become a British colony. He concludes that this oversight might be ''perhaps because most people prefer to believe that U.S. life began with the arrival of English-speaking Anglo-Saxons living under British law. Perhaps his settlement is neglected because of its tragic fate -- death by mismanagement, disease, and slave revolt. Perhaps it is unmentioned because of its unique rebirth in the woods by people not considered a part of the white U.S. heritage.''

The cause of the colony-to-be was not helped by the men that Ayllon sent ahead to scout for a good landing site. They captured and enslaved about 70 natives, which AyIlon insisted had to be returned. (No record shows whether this order was obeyed.) The colony was begun with 500 Spaniards, both men and women, some horses, Dominican priests, a few sailors, and about 100 African slaves in chains. The natives kept their distance from the settlement, their memories still fresh from the pain of seeing 700 of their number carted off in chains.

Disease and starvation plagued the young colony, Ayllon himself succumbing to disease. A month later, aided by natives, the Africans rebelled and fled to the woods. After five months, the 150 survivors of the settlement left for home. The Africans remained, making homes with the Indians, learning survival skills from their new allies, sharing their own agricultural skills, intermarrying, and rejoicing in their celebration of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is not known how long they were able to remain in South Carolina before the invasion of white settlers from Europe would threaten their freedom. At least some of the later generations probably migrated to get away from the slave-hungry Whites moving into the South, and runaway slaves often sought them out to help them hide from their pursuers.

The first link of friendship between Africans and Indians was their common foe, and the slaves who escaped their bondage brought with them a knowledge of the White Man's way of thinking, his government, his firepower, his strength and his weaknesses. Sometimes the Africans could escape with weapons and gunpowder, a suitable contribution to the protection of their new home. WiIliam Katz points out the inevitable unity between Africans and Indians that resulted when they discovered their shared values. ''Family was of basic importance to both, with children and the elderly treasured. Religion was a daily part of cultural life, not merely practiced on Sundays. Both Africans and Native Americans found they shared a belief in economic cooperation rather than competition and rivalry. Each race was proud, but neither was weighed down by prejudice. Skill, friendship, and trust, not skin color or race were important. Since Indians willingly adopted people into their villages, Africans found they were welcome.''

There is no doubt that many Africans found their way Into Florida to live with the Seminoles, especially since Florida belonged to Spain (except for the years 1763-83, when it belonged to the British). During the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson soundly defeated the Creek Nation, an ally of Britain. As a result,the Creek ceded a huge tract of land to the United States,and since part of this land belonged to the Seminoles, they went to war with the Whites from 1816-18, the First Seminole War. Once again Jackson took his large army into Florida, driving the Seminoles to the Florida Peninsula. Finally, in 1819, Spain agreed to turn Florida over to the United States, an agreement that was fully ratified in 1821. Congress organized the territory of Florida the following year, installing William DuVall as the governor.

The squeeze began to be felt by the Seminoles almost immediately. First came the land-hungry Whites. Then came the government, urging relocation of all Indians to Indian Territory, west of the Mississippi. The Seminoles refused to budge, partially because this was their land, but secondarily because every white demand for removal carried with it a demand that the Africans be turned over to them. Seminoles went so far as to claim ownership of the Africans so that they couldn't be taken by the Whites, but while there was some division among the Seminoles about what to do, they never practiced the White Man's slavery and their law forbade the sale of slaves.

The Second Seminole War broke out in 1835. It might have been started by the seizure of Osceola's black wife, or it may have been brought on by the barrage of tricks and lies the white men used to trick Seminole leaders into signing treaties agreeing to leave Florida for Indian Territory. The Black Seminoles and their friends and relatives were alarmed because, under any agreement with the U.S., they would find themselves in bondage on some plantation. It was this desperation that made them such bold fighters, prompting General Sydney Thomas Jesup to assert,''This, you may be assured, is a negro and not an Indian war.''

For seven years, the fighting continued. It would shame any decent human being to read about the lies and subterfuge of General Jesup and other U.S. representatives. But the price of this war was high: 1,500 soldiers killed, hundreds of civilians, and 40 million dollars spent to subdue a relatively small group of Seminoles, black and red. By 1843, most of the Seminole Nation, together with 500 black people, had reached the Indian Territory.

Some holdouts remained behind, and their descendants occupy a small piece of Florida today. Occasional flare-ups occurred from time to time, and warfare erupted again in the 1850s, finally coming to an end in 1858.

It is enigmatic, isn't it? For over 40 years, a handful of Seminoles and Africans had battled a nation whose very motto is freedom, and many had died trying to live free

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online July 25, 2000

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