Traditional U.S. history downplays Native people who settled the land and Africans enslaved to cultivate it while glorifying European whites and ignoring when the “other side” won, as on Christmas Day 1837, writes William Loren Katz.
By William Loren Katz
On Christmas Day in 1837, Africans and Native Americans who formed Florida’s Seminole Nation defeated a vastly superior U.S. invading army bent on cracking this early rainbow coalition and returning the Africans to slavery. The Seminole victory stands as a milestone in the march of American liberty.
Though it reads like a Hollywood thriller, this amazing story has yet to capture public attention
Despite its significance, it does not appear in school textbooks and social studies courses, Hollywood and TV movies.
This daring Seminole story begins around the time of the American Revolution of 1776 as 55 “Founding Fathers” were writing the Declaration of Independence with its noble words about all people being “created equal [and] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
About the same time, Seminole families, suffering ethnic persecution under Creek rule in Alabama and Georgia, fled south to seek independence. African runaway slaves who earlier had escaped bondage welcomed them to Florida. The Africans did more than offer Seminole families a haven; they taught them methods of rice cultivation the Africans had learned in Senegambia and Sierra Leone in Africa.
Then the two peoples of color forged a prosperous bi-racial nation and a military alliance strong enough to withstand European invaders and slave-catchers. The Seminoles were led by such skilled military figures and diplomats as Osceola, Wild Cat and John Horse.
This alliance drove U.S. slaveholders to sputtering fury since these armed Black and Indian communities lived a stone’s throw from what was then the southern U.S. border. The slaveholders claimed that the Seminole unity – along with the community’s relative prosperity and guns – posed a lethal threat to the plantation system. After all, here was a beacon that enticed more Africans to escape from bondage and offered them a military base for protecting their freedom. Further, these peaceful and successful agricultural communities destroyed the slaveholders’ myths claiming Africans required white control.
The U.S. Constitution of 1789 embraced slavery and protected slaveholder interests, even letting them count their slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation in Congress, thus enhancing the political power of slave states. From George Washington to the Civil War, slave owners sat in the White House two-thirds of the time, the same proportion of time that slaveholders were Speakers of the House of Representatives and Presidents of the U.S. Senate. Further, 20 of 35 U.S. Supreme Court Justices owned slaves.
The War on Freedom
With the support of their Northern trading partners – merchants and businessmen, and the politicians who served them – slaveholders directed U.S. foreign policy, keeping up a drum-beat of demands for U.S. military intervention in Florida. In 1811, President James Madison, himself a slave owner, authorized covert U.S. invasions by slave-catching posses called “Patriots.”
Then in 1816, General Andrew Jackson ordered General Gaines to attack the Seminole alliance and “restore the stolen negroes to their rightful owners.” A major U.S. assault began on hundreds of people of color living in “Fort Negro” on the Apalachicola River.
As U.S. Army Colonel Clinch sailed down the Apalachicola he wrote: “The American negroes had principally settled along the river and a number of them had left their fields and gone over to the Seminoles on hearing of our approach. Their cornfields extended nearly fifty miles up the river and their numbers were daily increasing.”
When a heated U.S. cannon ball hit “Fort Negro’s” ammunition dump, the explosion killed most of its more than 300 defenders. The survivors were marched back to slavery. Then in 1818, General Jackson invaded and claimed Florida. The United States “purchased” it [$5,000,000] from Spain in 1819, and sent a U.S. army of occupation for “pacification.”
But suddenly the U.S. faced the largest slave revolt in its history, its busiest “underground railroad” station, and the strongest African/Indian alliance in North America. The multicultural Seminoles carefully moved families out of harm’s way from 1816 to 1858 as they resisted the U.S. through three “Seminole wars.” Today many Seminoles still claim they never surrendered.
In June 1837, Major General Sidney Thomas Jesup, the best-informed U.S. officer in Florida, described the danger posed by the Seminole alliance: “The two races, the negro and the Indian, are rapidly approximating; they are identical in interests and feelings. … Should the Indians remain in this territory the negroes among them will form a rallying point for runaway negroes from the adjacent states; and if they remove, the fastness of the country will be immediately occupied by negroes.”
A Disputed ‘Victory’
Then on Christmas Day of 1837, 380 to 480 Seminole fighters gathered on the northeast corner of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee ready to halt the armies of Colonel Zachary Taylor, a Louisiana slaveholder and ambitious career officer. He was building a reputation as an “Indian killer.” Taylor’s troops included 70 Delaware Indians, 180 Tennessee volunteers, and 800 U.S. Infantry soldiers.
As Taylor’s army approached, Seminole marksmen waited perched in trees or hiding in tall grass. The first Seminole volley sent the Delaware fleeing. Tennessee riflemen plunged ahead until a withering fire brought down their commissioned officers and then their noncommissioned officers. The Tennesseans fled.
Then Taylor ordered the U.S. Sixth Infantry, Fourth Infantry and his own First Infantry Regiments forward. Pinpoint Seminole rifle fire brought down, he later reported, “every officer, with one exception, as well as most of the non-commissioned officers” and left “but four . . . untouched.”
On that Christmas Day, Colonel Taylor counted 26 U.S. dead and 112 wounded, seven dead for each slain Seminole, and he had taken no prisoners. After the 2½-hour battle, the Seminoles took to their canoes and sailed off to fight again.
The battle of Lake Okeechobee became the most decisive U.S. defeat in more than four decades of Florida warfare. But after his survivors limped back to Fort Gardner, Taylor declared victory – “the Indians were driven in every direction.” The U.S. Army promoted him and he later became the 12th president of the United States.
The battle of Lake Okeechobee was part of the Second Seminole War that took 1,500 U.S. military lives, cost Congress $40,000,000 (pre-Civil War dollars!) and left thousands of American soldiers wounded or dead of disease. Seminole losses were not recorded.
The truth of what happened at Lake Okeechobee remained buried. When President Taylor died in office, former Congressman Abraham Lincoln memorialized him on July 25, 1850. “He was never beaten,” Lincoln said, adding, “in 1837 he fought and conquered in the memorable Battle of Lake Okeechobee, one of the most desperate struggles known to the annals of Indian warfare.”
A century and a half later, noted Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in The Almanac of American History: “Fighting in the Second Seminole War, General Zachary Taylor defeats a group of Seminoles at Okeechobee Swamp, Florida.”
The United States needs to face its past. Americans of all ages have a right to know and to celebrate the freedom fighters who built this country, all of them. Our schools, children, teachers and parents deserve to learn about a daring Christmas Day battle that has been too long buried in lies and distortions.
This 2016 copyrighted essay is adapted from William Loren Katz, Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage [Atheneum, 2014 revised edition]