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Osceola: Great Leader
of the Seminole Nation



Best of the Update!
Defending Sacred Land: the Unconquerable Seminoles

Are Walmart Super Saver Tents alligator-proof?

It is the early 19th century. The five Indian tribes who live east of the Mississippi River have been handed an eviction notice by the U.S. government. Now they must decide what to do about it. According to the white man's instructions, it's quite simple: Each tribe must pack up their belongings and relocate to "Indian Territory" in far-off Oklahoma at once.

The Indians' hearts, however, tell them otherwise. This is the sacred land of their ancestors. How could they leave it?

On the other hand, if they opted to stay, blood would surely be spilled.

Is land worth the sacrifice of life?

In short, should they stay or should they go?

Up to now, these five tribes have been remarkably accepting of the white man's culture. They converted to Christianity, adopted agriculture over hunting, sent their children to boarding schools, and accepted written laws. They played the white man's game by the white man's rules. But where did that get them? Despite all their sacrifices and compromises, they've been asked to relinquish their land. Could it get any worse?

Two of the tribes - the Choctaw and Chickasaw - think that it can. They've seen what happens to tribes who challenge the white man, and they want no part of it. So they sign the treaties, pack their bags and head out West. Bloodshed is minimal. The Creeks, meanwhile, elect to stand their ground until the last possible second. Nearly half of the tribe is killed in the process. The Cherokees opt for nonviolent resistance as they are rounded up at bayonet-point and banished. At least 4,000 perish along the 800-mile route to Oklahoma.

The Seminoles, however, see life and land as one. They decide to fight back. The three wars that ensued span nearly half a century and cost the United States thousands of troops and tens of millions of dollars. But when the smoke finally cleared, at least 100 Seminoles remained. Today, they are known as the Unconquerables.

Seminoles traditionally lived in palm-thatched huts called chickees
Impressed? Nick and I were too. So we decided to brave the alligator-and-mosquito-infested swamplands of south-central Florida to learn more about the warriors who dared to defy the U.S. government. As we quickly discovered, this tribe has a history of dissent.

Let's start our story in the early 1700s, when a band of Seminoles amassed a considerable amount of wealth in Spanish Florida by building log cabins, planting crops and gathering stray cattle.

Needing assistance on their farms, some Seminoles bought or stole African slaves from northern plantations. Almost immediately, the Seminoles proved to be kinder, gentler masters than the white men up north. Among other things, Africans were allowed to live in their own villages with their families, and their children could be freed. They were also treated with a great deal of respect. It wasn't long, then, before Florida became a haven for runaway slaves.

Chickees, chickees and more chickees
Naturally, this raised some eyebrows. Once Andrew Jackson caught wind of it, he sent in some soldiers and volunteers to hunt down the escaped slaves. Thus began the First Seminole War of 1814-1818. Jackson's soldiers ravaged the Floridian countryside in search of slaves, burning Seminole towns, hanging chiefs and medicine men and seizing Spanish forts along the way. In the end, the Spanish had little choice but to sell the land, and once that happened, Seminole territory was up for grabs. American settlers came in waves, seizing land along Florida's fertile coastal strip and pushing the Seminoles further into the swampy interior.

Right about this time, Indian agents started meeting with Seminole chiefs to convince them to migrate out West. For the most part, these requests were met with a resounding 'No.' As one Seminole put it: "Your talk is a good one, but my people cannot say they will go. We are not willing to do so. If their tongues say yes, their hearts cry no, and call them liars." Another said: "If suddenly we tear our hearts from the homes around which they are twined, our heart-strings will snap."


See ya later alligator: It was 2 a.m. and Nick and I...

As the pressure to migrate mounted, something else snapped as well. The Seminoles resolved to fight for their land to their deaths. So when the United States ordered the Seminoles to assemble for the long journey west in December 1835, hardly a soul showed up. Instead, the tribe launched a series of guerrilla attacks on the coastal settlements, murdering white families, capturing slaves and destroying property. It wasn't long before Congress declared a second war with the Seminoles. Apparently, they didn't know what they were up against. When U.S. troops invaded the Everglades, they found themselves knee-deep in a cesspool of mud, mosquitoes, snakes, alligators and disease. Few soldiers could hack it: More than 100 commissioned officers resigned from the regular army in 1836 alone. As one described it: "If the devil owned hell and Florida, he'd rent out Florida and live in hell."

The Seminoles, however, were accustomed to the unforgiving climate. Under the leadership of a young warrior named Osceola, they defeated U.S. troops in several battles. By fall of the following year, however, the U.S. military had gained the upper hand. Hundreds of Seminoles were captured and imprisoned.

Hundreds of Indians were imprisoned between these walls in the 19th century
In October, Osceola met with U.S. troops under a white flag to discuss peace, but General Thomas Jesupe had him arrested. For two months, Osceola and 200 other Seminoles were imprisoned at the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, but not even prison bars could hold the Seminoles at bay. A warrior by the name of "Wild Cat" starved himself until he was slender enough to squeeze between the bars.

Stephanie and Nick atop the Castillo de San Marcos of St. Augustine, Florida
Then, on a November night, he and 19 others slipped out of their cells and climbed out of the fortress with a rope made of blankets. When General Jesupe heard the news, he was so angry that he slapped leg irons on the remaining Indians. That wasn't good enough for the townspeople of St. Augustine, however. They feared that the runaway Seminoles would return for revenge. So Jesupe moved Osceola and the other prisoners to Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina. Osceola died there, but Wild Cat continued the war for four more years.

It took seven long years for the Second Seminole War to finally peeter out. By then, some 1,500 U.S. soldiers had lost their lives in the swamp. The United States also had to foot a $20 million bill - the most expensive Indian war yet. This was also the only Indian war in which the Army, Navy and Marines participated. As for the Seminoles, roughly 3,000 had been hunted down by bloodhounds, rounded up like cattle and either killed, imprisoned or shipped out West. Approximately 300 survived the war, however, and remained on their beloved homeland.

Nick is ready for a safari
According to some historians, the Third Seminole War could have been avoided altogether if a survey team for the U.S. Army hadn't stolen melons from Seminole Billy Bowleg's prized patch. When Bowlegs asked for compensation, the survey team beat him up. He retaliated, and before long, another war had been waged. A few more Seminoles were captured and sent out West, but yet again - at least 100 managed to hold onto their homeland. Their descendants make up the present-day tribes of "Unconquerable" Seminoles. Amazingly enough, they have turned their swamps into a major tourist destination complete with safaris, airboat rides, Bingo, gambling and alligator wrestling.

This all brings me back to my original question: Is land worth the sacrifice of life? The Seminoles seem to think so. Do you?


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Nick - A warrior, a prophet and a general unravel the Creek nation
Stephanie - Sequoyah's talking leaves, or how the Cherokees took back their voices
Nick - Let's lose Chief Win 'Em All
Nick - Still walkin' the Trail of Tears
Team - Beware: Surprise Indian attacks ahead!