The Seminole were one of the "Five Civilized Tribes" that included the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw. The Seminoles were a people made up of refugees from several southeastern tribes and runaway black slaves. The name Seminole comes from the mispronounced Spanish word "cimmarones" meaning wild.
This conflict began with the massacre of about 50 Americans near an army post in Georgia-climax to a series of raids against American settlements by Seminoles based in Spanish Florida. Brig. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines, Indian commissioner of the area, attempted countermeasures but soon found himself and his force of 600 Regulars confined to Fort Scott (Alabama) by the Seminoles. War Department instructions to Gaines had permitted the pursuit of Indians into Florida but had forbidden interference if the Indians took refuge in Spanish posts. Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, who was ordered to take over the operation, chose to interpret Gaines' instructions as sanctioning a full-scale invasion of the Spanish colony. He organized a force of about 7,500 volunteers, militia, subsidized Creeks, and Regulars (4th and 7th Infantry and a battalion of the 4th Artillery), and invaded Florida with part of thin force in the spring of 1818. Jackson destroyed Seminole camps, captured Pensacola (capital of Spanish Florida) and other Spanish strongholds, and executed two British subjects, Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Ambrister, accused of inciting and arming the Indians. These activities threatened American relations with Great Britain and jeopardized negotiations with Spain pertinent to cession of Florida (Adams-Onis Treaty, 1819). Eventually the British were mollified and a compromise agreement was reached with the Spanish under which American forces were withdrawn from Florida without repudiating the politically popular Jackson. As for the Seminole problem, it was temporarily allayed but by no means solved.
In 1823 some of the Seminoles agreed to live on lands in central Florida located along Okeechobee Lake. By the 1830s pressure from white settlers convinced the U.S. Government to attempt moving all Seminoles out west. Osceola stood out as a strident defender of his people, viewed by whites as the leading Seminole voice for resistance. Beginning in 1835 with successes during the Second Seminole War, Osceola gained fame as a fierce and cunning fighter.
During the 1830s Osceola led the Seminole people of Florida in a valiant attempt to resist U.S. Government efforts to relocate them to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. The Seminole Wars were the longest and costliest Indian wars fought by the United States military at a cost of $50,000,000 and over 2,000 soldiers died. Osceola's death at Fort Moultrie in 1838 foreshadowed the outcome of their struggle. The majority of the Seminole people were eventually forced from their traditional homeland.
The word Osceola is a corrupted English pronunciation of the Seminole name for Black Drink Singer. During purification rites, a Seminole warrior drinks a black liquid brewed from the leaves of holly bushes. The word "Assin-ye-o-la" is the long, drawn-out cry that accompanied the ceremonial drinking.
There is little known for sure about Osceola's early life. It is believed he was born in Alabama in 1804 to a Creek Indian mother. The only father Osceola knew was his stepfather, a Scotsman named Powell. As a child Osceola went by the name Billy Powell but years later he would sever those connections and claimed that "no foreign blood runs in my veins." When he was nine years old, Osceola and his mother were one of many families displaced after the Creek War of 1813-1814. They moved from Alabama to Spanish-held Florida, homeland of the Seminole.
In the Treaties of Payne's Landing (1832) and Fort Gibson (1833) the Seminoles had agreed to give up their lands, but they refused to move out. Following the arrest and release of Osceola, their leader, in 1835 Seminole depredations rapidly increased. These culminated 28 December in the massacre of Capt. Francis L. Dade's detachment of 330 Regulars (elements of the 2d and 4th Artillery and 4th Infantry) enroute from Fort Brooke (Tampa) to Fort King (Ocala)-a disastrous loss for the small, Regular force of 600 men in Florida. Brig. Gen. Duncan L. Clinch, commanding Fort King, took the offensive immediately with 200 men and on 31 December 1835 defeated the Indians on the Withlacoochee River.
The War Department, meanwhile, had ordered Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott, commander of the Eastern Department, to Florida to direct operations against the Seminoles. Most of the hostilities had occurred in General Gaines' Western Department, but the War Department expected impending troubles in Texas to keep Gaines occupied. Nevertheless, Gaines had quickly raised about 1,000 men in New Orleans and, acting on his own authority, embarked for Florida in February 1836. Even after learning of Scott's appointment, Gaines seized supplies collected by Scott at Fort Drane and pressed forward until heavily attacked by Seminoles. He succeeded in extricating his force only with help from Scott's troops. Shortly thereafter Gaines returned to New Orleans.
Completion of preparations for Scott's proposed three-pronged offensive converging on the Withlacoochee were delayed by Gaines' use of Scott's supplies, expiration of volunteer enlistments, and temporary diversion of troops to deal with the Creeks who were then on the warpath in Georgia and Alabama. Before the campaign could get underway, Scott was recalled to Washington to face charges of dilatoriness and of casting slurs on the fighting qualities of volunteers. Beginning in December 1836, Maj. Gen. Thomas S. Jesup carried out a series of small actions against the Seminoles, and in September 1837 Osceola was captured while negotiating under a white flag of truce. Colonel Zachary Taylor decisively defeated a sizeable Indian force near Lake Okeechobee in December 1837.
While Osceola's capture was cheered, there was also public outcry at the tactics employed by the army. Osceola was imprisoned at St. Augustine within the walls of Fort Marion (today known as Castillo de San Marcos). In December 1837, Captain Pitcairn Morrison of the 4th U.S. Infantry transferred Osceola and 202 other prisoners to Fort Moultrie in South Carolina.
The steamship Poinsett landed the Seminoles on Sullivan's Island on New Year's Day 1838 causing a sensation in Charleston's social circles. Contrary to popular myth, Osceola was not locked in a prison cell but housed in the Fort Moultrie Officers' Quarters. He was also permitted the privelege of "liberty within the walls" of the fort and received visits from the elite of Charleston society.
Osceola's imprisonment attracted national attention. The famed artist of Indian life, George Catlin, obtained a commission from the War Department to paint portraits of the Seminole leaders. Many evenings, Osceola spoke to Catlin through an interpreter, about his people's continued struggle against removal from Florida. Catlin remembered Osceola as "a most extraordinary man ... a cunning and restless spirit." Osceola Osceola enjoyed spending entire mornings posing for many artists.
By the end of January 1838 Osceola's health quickly faded. Dr. Frederick Weedon, who had accompanied the Seminoles from Florida, diagnosed the warrior's illness as a throat infection resulting from malaria. Near the end, Osceola would not allow further help from the white doctors and sought comfort from only his fellow Seminole healer/prophet. Unable to speak, Osceola gestured through hand signs to summon his two wives and children, all his chiefs and the military officers. He lay upon the floor attired in his full war dress and then proceeded to paint half of his face, neck, wrists and the back of his hands red. Then he shook hands with Dr. Weedon and the officers. Finally he was laid upon his bed where he placed his knife across his breast. Death came for Osceola at 6:20 p.m. on January 30, 1838.
At the end of February 1838, the Seminoles remaining at Fort Moultrie were taken to New Orleans where they began the journey to their new reservation. From 1835 to 1842 over 4,000 Seminoles were moved to Indian Territory which today is the state of Oklahoma.
Osceola's request that his bones be permitted to rest in peace was not honored. Though the reason why may never be known, Dr. Weedon removed Osceola's head prior to the burial. Scientific research appeared to be his motivation but it is interesting to note that the doctor's brother-in-law, General Wiley Thompson, was killed by Osceola. The physician gave the head to his son-in-law who in turn presented it to Dr. Valentine Mott, founder of the New York University Medical School. The head was displayed in the school's medical museum until 1866 when it was allegedly lost in a fire.
In 1966 evidence was found that someone had been digging at the gravesite. A National Park Service archeological dig found that the grave had not been disturbed. The investigation confirmed the story of Osceola's missing head but also raised another mystery. A second coffin was found at the site. It was the remains of an infant, perhaps a newborn. Some speculate that one of Osceola's wives miscarried over the trauma of her husband's death. The lack of information on Osceola's life and the fact of his untimely death combine to make his story seem more legendary than real. Though much about Osceola's life will remain a mystery, his role as defender of his people is undeniable.
After Taylor's expedition no more large forces were assembled on either side. Numerous small expeditions were carried out chiefly by Regular troops commanded successively by Jesup, Taylor, and Brig. Gen. Walker A. Armistead, and many posts and roads were constructed. Col. William J. Worth finally conceived a plan which consisted of campaigning during the enervating summer seasons with the object of destroying the Indian's crops. This plan was successful in driving a sufficient number of Seminoles from their swampy retreats to permit official termination of the war on 10 May 1842.
During the long and difficult campaign some 5,000 Regulars had been employed (including elements of the 1st, 2d, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th Infantry) with a loss of nearly 1,500 killed. Nearly 20,000 volunteers also participated in the war which cost some thirty-five million dollars and resulted in the removal of some 3,500 Seminoles to the Indian Territory.
The final campaign against the remnants of the Seminoles in Florida consisted mainly of a series of skirmishes between small, roving Indian bands and the 4th Artillery which was stationed at Fort Brooke.
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