Presented here are the text panels and citations of books, government documents and journal articles of an exhibit displayed in Cohen Library of The City College during Black History Month, February 1998. The purpose of the exhibit is to illuminate the history of the Black Seminoles and their struggle for freedom, dignity and self-determination.
THE BLACK SEMINOLES
THE WORLD OF THE BLACK SEMINOLEThe 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 FLORIDAWhen 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 ALLIESAt 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 WARSBy 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
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 SCOUTSAt 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
EPILOGUEEven 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.