At the height for the push to relocate thousands of indigenous Americans, a conflict erupted between the Seminole of central Florida and the United States.
Known as the Second Seminole War, this conflict took place between 1835 and 1842. So what was the Second Seminole War? Tune in to find out.
Treaty Of Fort Gibson, On The Arkansas River With The Seminole On March 28, 1833. Accessed via John Horse. (LINK)
Treaty of Payne's Landing on the Ocklewaha River, Florida Territory with the Seminole on May 9, 1832. Access via John Horse. (LINK)
“The Seminole Wars.” Seminole Nation Museum. (LINK)
House Documents, Otherwise Publ. as Executive Documents: 13th Congress, 2d Session-49th Congress, 1st Session. United States: n.p., (n.d.).
Florida Memory. "Thomas Sidney Jesup and the Second Seminole War." Floridiana, 2012. https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/255861.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey everyone, welcome back.
Forced indigenous removal has been a topic on the show several times since its inception. If you are a long time listener, then you know I’ve covered the Indian Removal Act of 1830 as well as the First Seminole War, to name a few.
However, no history of U.S. and Indigenous relations is complete without a review of the Second Seminole War.
Considered the costliest, deadliest and longest conflict of the quote unquote Indian Wars, the Second Seminole War was a seven year conflict between the United States and the tribes of central Florida, collectively known as the Seminole.
So what was the Seminole War? When did it start? And what was it’s legacy?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
As I mentioned at the start of the episode, I have covered several of the events surrounding forced indigenous removal on the pod before - including the first Seminole War which is episode 78 in the catalog. If you are looking for a more detailed background, definitely head over and take a listen. As I mentioned in that episode, the Seminole Wars are typically broken into three separate conflicts and occured in the first half of the nineteenth century.
The first of these conflicts resulted in the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, providing a section of land, or reservation, in central Florida to be inhabited by the Seminole. The treaty, signed in 1823, established that in exchange for moving to the reservation and being quote unquote lawful, the United States would provide protection and provide some annuity payments, livestock and food until they were able to establish their own crops.
Neither side truly lived up to the treaty and it wasn’t long before the United States government wanted to renegotiate their deal. Sending agents to negotiate with what they assumed were tribal leaders, a new treaty - the Treaty of Payne’s Landing - was signed in 1832. This agreement stated, in part, quote: “The Seminole Indians relinquish to the United States, all claim to the lands they at present occupy in the Territory of Florida, and agree to emigrate to the country assigned to the Creeks, west of the Mississippi river;” end quote.
The deal was, should the leaders of the Seminole determine the land in the west was suitable to their needs, they would give up their residence on the reservation and move, with some costs defrayed by the United States, to the new territory. However, a portion of that treaty also mandated the Seminole removal within three years, so though there was text in the treaty providing the Seminole the opportunity to review and approve the land, there was also a section clearly outlining this deadline, without exceptions.
The Treaty of Payne’s Landing was questionable for several reasons. According to historian John Hall, unlike most other treaty signings, there were no witnesses. Also oddly, there were no minutes taken outlining the order of events and so, when the Seminole later claimed they were coerced into signing or didn’t agree to the terms as stated, the United States had no records to fall back on to prove what discussions were had.
As the Seminole understood it, the treaty they signed was just an agreement to consider other land; there was no guarantee they’d relinquish their claim on the reservation. Adding to the confusion was the fact that the Seminole were not an established nation with one central governing authority, like the Cherokee. They were more fractured and made most decisions on a local basis. They did not have one central authority speaking for them, which made any negotiations with the United States much more complicated. Ignoring this, the United States selected individuals they determined as chiefs and through translators, sought to finalize their removal.
This was followed by the Treaty of Fort Gibson. Signed in 1834, this treaty built upon the one signed two years prior and claimed that since the Seminole had reviewed and apparently approved the land choice, they were now under obligation to live up to the terms of the rest of the treaty and vacate the Florida reservation. If the Treaty of Payne’s Landing was questionable, the treaty of Fort Gibson is seen as downright unethical. U.S army troops who were present at the signing confirmed the indian agents were coercive in their tactics to get the treaty signed and only further exacerbated relations between the two parties.
Tensions came to a head on December 28th, 1835 when the Seminole led an attack against roughly one hundred soldiers, killing almost all of them. This was done at the same time as another band of Seminole attacked and killed the U.S. Indian Agent Wiley Thompson. These two events, with the former later being dubbed the Dade Massacre, are seen as the official start of the Second Seminole War. These initial attacks were followed just three days later by another charge, this time led by Osceola, against nearly 800 soldiers. Fought along the Withlacoochee River, the brief engagement led to the United States Congress apportioning funds to battle the indigenous warriors and force their removal from the territory.
These attacks were highly publicized with inflammatory language in order to get the country to support the cause. Despite these rallying cries by the United States to drum up support for the war, some expressed their disagreement with the conflict. As they saw it, the Seminole were not doing anything outside of the ordinary. They were working to defend their homeland and the United States had violated their agreements and acted dishonorably. One of the survivors of the so-called Dade Massacre, Major Ethan Allen Hitchcock, later wrote quote: “The government is in the wrong, and this is the chief cause of the persevering opposition of the Indians, who have nobly defended their country against our attempt to enforce a fraudulent treaty. The natives used every means to avoid a war, but were forced into it by the tyranny of our government,” end quote.
At least initially, the Seminole were dominating in the conflict. With home field advantage, the Seminole were able to strike at the various militia groups and quickly disappear into the surroundings, leading to several large losses for the United States. The Seminole were led by a charismatic warrior known as Osceola. Born in 1804 in what is now Georgia, Osceola was very opposed to forced relocation and opposed to the highly questionable treaty of Payne’s Landing. He took no prisoners, even killing a fellow leader, Charley Emathla in 1835 ahead of the start of the conflict for Emathla’s passive response to the calls for relocation. A chief of the Seminole, Emathla encouraged his people to abide by the treaty with the United States and join him in relocating to the newly identified lands. Osceola, and other Seminole warriors, saw this as betrayal and killed him in response.
Though many followed Osceola, he was never a chief. Instead, he gained respect as a forceful and powerful warrior and was passionate in his belief that the United States had taken advantage of chief leaders. His leadership was key in the Seminole’s early victories and for a while it looked as though the Seminole would succeed in driving out the United States invasion of their reservation. However, the tide of war shifted with the appointment of General Thomas Jesup in late 1836.
Jesup, who was a veteran of the War of 1812, was put in place with high expectations for success. Embarrassed by the volume of losses at the hands of what were perceived to be savages, the United States wanted a strong response and a commander who could successfully blunt their attacks. Jesup, who had achieved victory against the Creek during the Second Creek War, was seen as the man capable of extracting compliance from the Seminole and finally bring the conflict to an end. Jesup did, indeed, change up the military strategy and began seeing results. Instead of large calvaries marching through the thick Florida everglades, Jesup ordered small units of men to track down Seminole fighters.
However, Jesup is perhaps best known for his questionable capture of Osceola and several other Seminole warriors. Coordinating a meeting with the leaders under a white flag - often seen as a temporary truce - Jesup instead detained the warriors. While not the first military leader to use this tactic of deception, Jesup’s actions were seen as highly dishonorable in a military system that, at the time, held honor as a cornerstone of service. In writing to Secretary of War Joel Poinsett, native leader and Chief John Ross hoped to play on this sense of honor when he wrote quote: “General Jesup immediately ordered his troops to be put in motion for hostile operations, and also caused all the chiefs and warriors who had come in under the Cherokee flag to be forthwith made prisoners of war’ they were then placed in the hold of a steamboat, and shipped to the fort at St. Augustine, and there imprisoned,” end quote.
Osceola was dead within three months of his capture and many who were against the conflict placed his death at the hands of Jesup. This turn of events would forever be a black mark on the commander’s record of service and he never fully regained the status or respect he once held.
As one of the longest wars against the indigenous population, support began to wane. The country had begun to think of the prolonged engagement as a waste of tax dollars and that the Seminole had earned a right to stay in their reservation. This change of opinion was seized and used as political opposition, with members of the Whig party calling for the end of hostilities in an attempt to undermine the Van Buren administration and to remove the Jacksonian Democrats from power. According to historian John Hall, at its peak, the United States had nearly nine thousand troops engaged in the effort. When you make adjustments for population growth, this mirrors the peak U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At one point, the United States army even approved the use of bloodhounds in an attempt to try to locate and capture seminole warriors. However, given Florida’s swampy landscape, the hounds proved ineffective at actually tracking any warrior. This, in addition to the public outcry against using dogs to potentially attack women and children and the military quickly gave up their use.
Over the course of the conflict, the United States military went through seven different leaders, including future president Zachary Taylor. As I’ve mentioned, this was not an effort that benefitted from wide ranging support and many military leaders were ambivalent to, if not downright against, serving in the territory. In their estimation, Florida was useless land to fight over and many were worried about their reputations and losing their tightly guarded sense of honor.
However, despite the initial successes by the Seminole and the revolving door of military leaders for the United States, the second Seminole War came to a tepid conclusion in 1842. The end of the war, as it was, was not signified by any peace treaty or agreement about the end of hostilities. It was simply a matter of the United States deciding the war was over. Though the Seminole never relented in their opposition, the United States had successfully forced enough to relocate that their resistance became futile.
To help expedite its conclusion, the United States passed the Armed Occupation Act in 1842. The law provided that settlers would be granted free land in Florida under the condition they improved their lots and agreed to be responsible for their own defense against any potential indigenous attack.
It is estimated the United States spent upwards of forty million dollars in the Second Seminole War, making it one of the most expensive military engagements for the young nation and still holds the crown as the costliest of the various wars against the native population. Though tensions deescalated in the immediate aftermath of the war, the Seminole continued to be distrustful of the white settlers pouring into the state. However, without an adequate oppositional force, many Seminole avoided contact with their white neighbors. The Second Seminole War remains the conflict identified as having the most impact given costs and forced emigration. Between its origins in 1835 and the conclusion in 1842, nearly four thousand Seminole chose the path of least resistance and relocated to the new reservation west of the Mississippi. For those who remained, they primarily kept to themselves, trying to avoid the attention of the increasing population flooding into the new territory. Just a few short years after the Second Seminole War, Florida entered the union as the 27th state in 1845.
Things remained quote unquote peaceful until Florida residents once again got it in their head that all Seminole had to leave the area, leading to the third Seminole War in 1855. Again, the war was declared over by the United States military when they felt they had successfully relocated a sufficient amount of Seminole for the territory to be safe from any savage invasion.
Today, there remains a small band of Seminole in Florida, who set up their own tribal government in the twentieth century and who currently maintain several parcels of reservation land. But their size remains miniscule as a result of the activities the United States government took throughout the nineteenth century to ensure available land for American frontiersmen. Carried out during the peak of the push to remove the first americans from their territory, the Second Seminole War is an example of the long term impacts felt by the indgenous people who first occupied our landscape.
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