The Great Xmas Eve Black-Seminole Victory

This Christmas Eve, the freedom-loving Bush administration has a chance to mark the anniversary of a great victory for formerly oppressed people on U.S. soil. The President is unlikely, however, to notice or heed the meaning of this particular milestone, whose cast of characters and historical lessons he would undoubtedly regard as all wrong.

December 24th, 1837 marks the 170th anniversary of the U.S. government’s first significant military defeat in its first foreign incursion. The place was Florida, then a Spanish colony. The foe was a united force of Africans, on the run from the south’s slave plantations, and Seminoles, whose self-determination was endangered. The runaway Africans had been establishing prosperous, self-governing communities in the peninsula since 1738. During the American Revolution they merged with Seminole Indians into a multicultural nation that cultivated crops according to techniques learned in Senegambia and Sierra Leone. Out of this came an alliance that shaped effective diplomatic and military responses to invaders and slave-catchers.

By the early 19th century, U.S. slave-holding classes saw these groups as a clear and present threat to their system of wealth production through chattel slavery. Hoping to plug the leak, they began invading Florida during the administration of President James Madison, father of the U.S. Constitution and Virginia slaveholder. Then in 1811, Madison authorized covert U.S. military operations to assist the posses, and in 1816 General Andrew Jackson invaded, seeking annexation. A leader in that invasion, Army Lt. Colonel Duncan Clinch, reported: “The American negroes had principally settled along the Appalachicola river and a number of them had left their fields and gone over to the Seminoles on hearing of our approach. Their corn fields extended nearly fifty miles up the river and their numbers were daily increasing.”

Spain, whose claim to Florida rested on a visit by Ponce De Leon and imperial hubris, gave in to U.S. persuasion and agreed to sell the colony. But this led to a protracted U.S. occupation known as the “Three Seminoles Wars.” In 1837, the well-informed Major General Sidney Thomas Jesup found that Africans had become resistance leaders. He stated: “Throughout my operations I have found the negroes the most active and determined warriors; and during conferences with the Indian chiefs I ascertained they exercised an almost controlling influence over them.”

Citing the dangers presented by the two peoples from different continents having forged a single nation, he said U.S. tactics aimed at racially dividing the Africans and Seminoles also failed. … 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.”

Although U.S. forces destroyed crops, cattle and horses, violated agreements, and seized women and children as hostages, the multicultural Seminoles, as they protected their families and homes, ran circles around the technologically and numerically superior invaders. U.S. tactics aimed at racially dividing the Africans and Seminoles also failed. “The negroes rule the Indians,” Jesup observed, and to seek peace, “it is important that they should feel themselves secure.” But peace lay two decades in the future.

The day before Christmas in 1837, U.S. Colonel Zachary marched 1,000 troops in pursuit of about 400 Seminoles. Commander Wild Cat and his sub-chief, the African Seminole known as John Horse, positioned their black and red marksmen in trees and tall grass in the northeast corner of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. As Taylor’s 180 Missouri riflemen, 800 soldiers from the U.S. Sixth, Fourth, and First Infantry Regiments and 70 Delaware scouts approached, the wary Delawares hesitated, then fled. Next, the Missourians broke and ran. Taylor then ordered his regular Army forward, reporting later that pinpoint Seminole rifle fire had brought down “every officer, with one exception, as well as most of the non-commissioned officers” and left “but four… untouched.”

On Christmas morning Taylor found the Seminoles had fled in canoes. He counted 26 U.S. dead and 112 wounded, found less than half a dozen slain Seminoles and took no prisoners. This Second Seminole War alone (1835-1842) would involve U.S. Naval and Marine units, at times half of the Army, cost 1500 military deaths and taxpayers $30,000,000.

Once his decimated army limped back to Fort Gardner, Zachary Taylor won promotion by claiming, “the Indians were driven in every direction.” Later, his self-promotion as an “Indian fighter,” won Taylor election as the 12th President of the United States.

Lake Okeechobee was the Army’s worst defeat in Florida. But the truth of that battle and the war remain buried or distorted. For example, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. in The Almanac of American History, wrote: “Fighting in the Second Seminole War, General Zachary Taylor defeats a group of Seminoles at Okeechobee Swamp, Florida.” Well, not exactly.

The Seminoles’ sustained and heroic resistance to the new American Republic’s first foreign invasion created one of liberty’s proudest moments. Those who cherish freedom-fighters should know their story. And how about those in power who have a penchant for waging “preemptive” wars?

* This article first appeared at the Black Agenda Report

William Loren Katz is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage and forty other books, and has been associated with NYU for 35 years. Read other articles by William, or visit William's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Steven L. Snyder said on December 19th, 2007 at 8:12am #

    Gee, you don’t consider Little Turtle’s defeat of large army invading his homeland in Ohio and slaying between 700-800 soldiers to be significant? It was only the largest loss by American troops to aboriginal people in history

  2. heike said on December 19th, 2007 at 9:49am #

    The situation of the Seminoles today makes them the envy of the rest of us. Every member of the tribe will receive a dividend from gambling profits this year of $120,000. Talk about reparations!

    http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/southflorida/sfl-semday1newsbnov25,0,5727424.story

  3. dan elliott said on December 19th, 2007 at 12:48pm #

    Comment on the preceding Comment: them Injun Fighters never stop, do they. Still a lot of them around, but I guess it’s progress that most prefer to remain incognito?

    “The Invisible War: the African-American Anti-Slavery Resistance from the Stono Rebellion through the Seminole Wars” by Dr. Y. N. Kly covers much mentioned in Dr. Katz’ excellent article; also has a lot of really great pictures from the time & shortly after. Plus includes a section on the Gullah/Geetchee culture. Available in paperback from Clarity Press, Atlanta. (which is also Jas Petras’ & Francis Boyle’s publisher).

    Kly makes the point (among others) that while we’ve heard a great deal in recent years about the Underground Railroad to Canada , less attention has been paid to the much more heavily travelled route to Spanish Florida.

  4. hp said on December 19th, 2007 at 1:28pm #

    Just like Alexander “defeated” King Porus..

  5. HR said on December 19th, 2007 at 4:34pm #

    Kinda nice to read something uplifting for a change, what with all the flag waving, allegiance pledging, good-hearted murcan myths, and god bless murca crap we get fed most of the time.

  6. catherine said on December 20th, 2007 at 9:13am #

    Great article and holiday gift, Mr. Katz, thanks so much. I’m going to get the book from the library and if they don’t have it, ask them to order it. We all hear, of course, that the Seminole people are still formally at war with the U.S., but never hear any of the details.

    Also thanks for other book recommendation, Dan Elliott.

  7. The only war we ever lost… « Homeless on the High Desert said on December 20th, 2007 at 4:45pm #

    [...] William Loren Katz / December 19th, 2007 [...]

  8. s. claassen said on December 27th, 2007 at 3:03am #

    Florida became part of the United States in 1819. The first military incursion by the U.S. was against the Barbery pirates of northern Africa, late 1700′s. Some other historical missteps, but the general thread of the article is still valid. In the age of Google it doesn’t take that much effort to check this kind of stuff out. Didn’t check for sure about the pirates though.