Though not widely known, the story of the Black Seminoles is deeply rooted in the fabric of American history.
Fleeing plantations in the American South, slaves first began making their way to Spanish Florida in the late 1600s, when Spain offered freedom to fugitives who agreed to defend the Spanish crown. Just north of St. Augustine, black refugees from British America founded the settlement of Mose, the first legally sanctioned free black town in North America. By the 1780s black fugitives were forming strategic alliances with another set of newcomers to Florida, Seminole Indians, who migrated from Georgia and Alabama.
The American Revolution (1775-1782) drove the blacks and Indians closer together in Florida, as the British pursued alliances with the rebels all along the American frontier. When England offered freedom to rebellious American slaves in 1775, thousands crossed over, choosing British freedom over American ideals. Hundreds of these black rebels joined the Seminoles and other frontier Indians in the fight against the Americans.
Most of the pro-British blacks left Florida after the British lost and the Revolution ended in 1782, but scores remained behind. By the early 1800s, these fugitives were emerging as a distinct community. Known as "maroons" and "Indian Negroes," they were initiating ties to the Florida Indians -- ties that would eventually cause them to be known as Seminole Negroes, or today, Black Seminoles or Seminole Freedmen.
From the earliest days of the United States, the Black Seminoles were a pressing concern for southern Americans, who wanted to recover the fugitives, and who viewed a free, armed colony of blacks on the frontier as a dangerous menace.
The blacks were all the more formidable because of their neighbors -- 4,000 Seminole Indians with whom they forged a pragmatic military alliance. The pressure from American slaveholders ultimately forced two wars with the Seminole allies, including the largest and most costly "Indian" war in American history, the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), which historians have long recognized as a joint Indian-black uprising.
In 1838, the vanguard of black warriors in the Second Seminole War accepted a promise of freedom from the U.S. in exchange for surrendering and agreeing to move west to the new Indian Territory in Oklahoma. By 1842, more than 500 black rebels had emigrated. The war in Florida persisted for four more years, but not one major engagement took place after the blacks stopped fighting.
The Oklahoma period of the Black Seminole odyssey (1838-18549) proved torturous for the maroons, as Southern politicians and western slaveholders (whites and Indians alike) conspired to reenslave them. Surprisingly, the blacks found their closest allies among U.S. Army officers, including men whom they had recently fought in Florida, like Generals Zachary Taylor and Thomas Sydney Jesup.
The officers tried to intervene on behalf of the Black Seminoles, but sectional politics in Washington ultimately led to their downfall. While a few blacks were able to make peace with white and Indian slaveholders in Oklahoma, hundreds under John Horse remained threatened with reenslavement, especially after a devastating legal decision in 1848. As a result of the decision, in 1849, John Horse and his closest Indian ally, the traditionalist chief Coacoochee (otherwise known as Wild Cat), staged a mass exodus of blacks and Indians to Mexico, where slavery had been outlawed since 1829.
South of the border the black fugitives were able to found a legally free settlement at Nacimiento, in the present state of Coahuila. The Mexican Black Seminoles became known as los mascogos, presumably from their Muskogee-Creek origins in the American Southeast. To this day, descendants of the original mascogos still live in Nacimiento, the settlement that John Horse founded in the 1850s.
The American chapter of the Black Seminole story did not close with the move to Mexico. In the 1870s, younger black warriors came north looking for work, and by 1872 they had formed one of the most celebrated fighting units in western American history, the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts. Scouts won four Congressional medals of honor for valor in the field and they played a leading role in the pacification of the Texas frontier.
In the decades after the 1870s, Reconstruction-era Texans were not overly quick to resurrect the history of the Scouts, which perhaps too clearly demonstrated the vital part that African Americans played in the much-mythologized defense of the Texas frontier. In our own time, this part of the story has attracted considerably more attention, and it remains the most widely known chapter of Black Seminole history, not least for its connection to the famous Buffalo Soldiers, with whom the Scouts often served.
The life of John Horse structures the trail narrative and stands as the consummate expression of the Black Seminoles' nineteenth-century odyssey.
Though not widely known, this black pioneer's life forms one of the most heroic chapters of frontier America -- an Homeric hymn to the ideals, injustice, and complexities of the American experiment.
Born in Spanish Florida in 1812 of allegedly mixed African and Indian ancestry, John Horse rose to prominence during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). Several times during the conflict, his daring exploits sparked new life into the allied Seminole resistance. By 1837, he led the black portion of the uprising in the climactic Battle of Lake Okeechobee. More than any other leader, his actions helped produce the promise of freedom that the U.S. Army extended to black rebels to close out their portion of the war.
For forty years after the rebellion, John Horse led his followers in Oklahoma, Texas, and Mexico as they overcame slave raiders, corrupt politicians, and hostile Native Americans in their pursuit of a free homeland.
Out west, with strong ties to both the Army and the Seminole tribal leadership, John Horse could have pursued security for himself and his family. Instead, he chose to pursue the wider good of his community. This course of action nearly got him killed on several occasions, but it ultimately allowed him to contribute to the lives of all Americans by advancing the cause of national freedom.
Not only did John Horse's actions save hundreds of lives from slavery, but his leadership, albeit anonymously, inspired the country's leading abolitionists. Stirred by the results of John Horse's actions in Florida, the leading antislavery lawmakers Joshua Giddings and John Quincy Adams advanced arguments in the U.S. Congress that eventually created a national legal precedent for emancipation. That precedent, rooted in the Black Seminole armistice of 1838, surfaced in congressional debates in the 1840s and finally in the 1860s, when antislavery activists pressed President Lincoln to free the southern slaves.
For this remarkable connection alone, not to mention leadership of the country's largest slave rebellion, John Horse and the Black Seminoles deserve a much more prominent place in American history. These rebels lived on the margins, but their actions truly shaped the lives of millions.
In Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, and Mexico, John Horse and the Black Seminoles risked their lives for freedom. Against great odds, they won. For over a century their contribution has remained on the margins of history, just as they themselves lived on the fringes of three American frontiers.
Today, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma has two Freedman Bands, the Cesar Bruner Band and Doser Barkus Band. Each band has its own form of tribal leadership and three General Council Representatives.