The Seminole Wars

First Seminole War

After the American Revolution, Spain regained control of Florida from Britain as part of the Treaty of Paris. When the British evacuated Florida, Spanish colonists as well as settlers from the newly formed United States came pouring in. Many of these new residents were lured by favorable Spanish terms for acquiring property, called land grants. Even Seminoles were encouraged to set up farms, because they provided a buffer between Spanish Florida and the United States. Escaped slaves also entered Florida, trying to reach a place where their U.S. masters had no authority over them.

Seminole chiefs captured by U. S. soldiers during the First Seminole WarBack when Britain controlled Florida, the British often incited Seminoles against American settlers who were migrating south into Seminole territory.  This, combined with the safe-haven the Seminoles were providing to escaped slaves, led to the U.S. Army making increasingly frequent incursions into Spanish territory to attack the tribe and recapture the slaves. These skirmishes, led by forces under General Andrew Jackson between 1817–1818, became known as the First Seminole War. These campaigns attacked several key Seminole locations and forced the tribe farther south into Florida.  Following the war, the United States effectively controlled east Florida.  By 1821, the territory was brought under full U.S. control as Spain formally ceded Florida to the United States as part of the Adams-Onis Treaty. 

As soon as the United States acquired Florida, it began urging the Indians there to leave their lands and relocate along with other Southeastern tribes to the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River, in what is now present-day Oklahoma. 

Second Seminole War

In the spring of 1832 the Seminoles were called to a meeting at Payne's Landing on the Oklawaha River. The treaty negotiated with the U.S. government called for the Seminoles to move west, if the land was found to be suitable. A delegation of seven chiefs toured the area for several months and, on March 28, 1833, signed what they believed to be a statement that the new land was suitable for consideration.

Upon their return to Florida, however, there was disagreement as to the terms of the treaty.  Many of the chiefs stated that they had not committed to move their people to the new territory and that they had been coerced, through force and misinterpretation into signing.  Even some U.S. Army officers claimed that the chiefs had been "wheedled and bullied into signing." Others noted evidence of trickery in how the treaty was phrased.

The refusal of most Seminoles to Florida Seminole Warriors preparing for battle during Second Seminole War.abandon the reservation that had been specifically established for them north of Lake Okeechobee and to relocate west of the Mississippi River led to what was known as the Second Seminole War. The Second Seminole War was the longest and most costly of all the wars of removal fought by the U. S. Government.   It formally began with what is now known as Dade’s Massacre in December 1835, as well as the vengeful killing of the agent to the Seminoles, Wiley Thompson, by Osceola, a young Creek warrior  who emerged as one of the most powerful leaders of Seminole resistance to removal. This started a conflict that would last until 1842 and see multiple American commanders try and fail to completely defeat and remove the Seminoles. As the war wore on, the Seminole population steadily shrank as warriors were killed, and as groups were sent west either through capture or, rarely, acquiescence to removal.

Under chiefs and warriors including Osceola, Jumper, Alligator, Micanopy, Arpeika, Halleck Tustenuggee, Coacoochee, and many others, the Seminoles as a nation never stopped resisting. The war was vicious and bloody, and often involved deception on both sides: on multiple occasions overwhelmed Seminole leaders would agree to emigrate, only to use the preparation time to gather supplies and ammunition and then disappear back into the impenetrable landscape. General Jesup captured many important Seminole leaders, including Osceola and Coacoochee, by seizing them while under a false white flag of truce.

The Second Seminole War claimed the lives of over 1,500 U. S. soldiers and cost the government an estimated fifteen million dollars.  At its conclusion in 1842, with no peace treaty or armistice declared, roughly 3,000 Seminoles had been removed to the Indian Territory.  A handful – less than 500 – was left to die deep in the Florida Everglades.

The Third Seminole War

Photograph of Seminole Chief Billy BowlegsThe Third Seminole War, which was in reality a series of skirmishes largely over land, lasted from 1855 until 1858.  The war was also known as Billy Bowlegs' War because Billy Bowlegs was the main Seminole leader in this third and final installment. By the conclusion of the war in 1858, Billy Bowlegs finally agreed to emigrate, taking most of those remaining with him.   However, a small band of Seminoles under Sam Jones never left Florida, staying hidden in the Big Cypress Swamp. The approximately 3,500 Seminoles who are in Florida today are the descendants of these Seminoles, as well as a few families who found their way back from the West.