Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Black Seminoles”

The-Black-Seminoles-9780813014517The Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-Seeking People. By Kenneth W. Porter. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.

I greatly enjoyed this history of the Native Americans of Florida and their intermarriage with escaped slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Kenneth W. Porter, a professor of history at the University of Oregon, was writing this manuscript when he died in 1981. He had been working on it since the 1930s, so this is a work that has enjoyed a very long gestation period. Revised and brought to book state by Alcione M. Amos and Thomas P. Sentrer, it now represents the state of the art about what is known about this subject.

This study ranges broadly; it relates the escapes of African slaves in the American Southeast into the swamps of Florida where they found refuge among the native tribes of the region. Intermarrying with the various Florida tribes they created an amalgam of African and Native American cultures. That does not mean that they rejected slavery; both the Creeks and the Seminoles both took slaves, as did many other Native American tribes. They never did, however, develop the large-scale agriculture that drove the plantation lifestyle of the antebellum South.

If there is a center to this book it revolves around the life of John Horse, a mixed blood Seminole whose father was a tribesman but whose mother was an escaped slave. Born around 1812, his early memories involved the horrors of war with the United States when Andrew Jackson commanded troops against the Creek Nation under the leadership of Red Stick. He led Seminole forces during the Second Seminole War; he fought at Okeechobee and was probably at Dade’s Massacre as well as other battles. John Horse understood that the American army had two objectives—making him fight all the harder—(1) forcing the Native population to move West of the Mississippi into what was called Indian Territory, and (2) reenslaving African Americans living among the tribes.

John Horse eventually surrendered on the promise that he and other Black Seminoles would be allowed to relocate to the West. When pressure from Floridians forced army commanders to rescind that agreement, Horse and others took action to free some 700 fellow Seminoles. John Horse continued to fight the U.S. until 1837 when he was sent to Indian Territory by the U.S. Army. He had a postwar career with the Army as a scout, but in the 1850s he led a group of Seminoles to Mexico to escape the Americans. After slavery ended, in the 1870s Horse and most of his fellow Seminoles returned to Texas and some, including Horse, served once again as an Army scout. It is a fascinating story well worth reading.

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