Seminole Wars

Three protracted wars between Seminole Indians and the U.S. military over four decades were a continuation of the U.S. policy of containment and relocation of Native Americans from east of the Mississippi to reservations west of the Mississippi.

Summary of Event

The conflicts known as the First, Second, and Third Seminole Wars were never declared wars on the part of the U.S. government. The collectively known Seminole Wars were a continuation of U.S. policy to contain Native American populations east of the Mississippi and remove them to reservations west of the Mississippi, a policy that resulted in the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The wars also might be seen as early battles fought over the jurisdiction of runaway slaves Slavery;fugitives that would eventually escalate into the Civil War (1861-1865). Seminole Wars (1817-1858)
Native American wars;Seminoles
Florida;Seminole Wars
Jones, Sam
[kw]Seminole Wars (Nov. 21, 1817-Mar. 27, 1858)
[kw]Wars, Seminole (Nov. 21, 1817-Mar. 27, 1858)
Seminole Wars (1817-1858)
Native American wars;Seminoles
Florida;Seminole Wars
Jones, Sam
[g]United States;Nov. 21, 1817-Mar. 27, 1858: Seminole Wars[0940]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 21, 1817-Mar. 27, 1858: Seminole Wars[0940]
Bowlegs, Billy
Jesup, Thomas Sidney
Taylor, Zachary
[p]Taylor, Zachary;in Florida[Florida]

The First Seminole War was preceded by years of border disputes along the Florida-Georgia Georgia;and Seminole Wars[Seminole Wars] border, climaxing in the destruction of Fort Negro on the Apalachicola River. Built by the British in 1815 and turned over to a band of runaway slaves on the British departure from Florida, Fort Negro proved an obstacle in the supply route to Fort Scott in Georgia. When a U.S. vessel was fired upon from the fort, Andrew Jackson Jackson, Andrew
[p]Jackson, Andrew;and Native Americans[Native Americans] ordered General Edmund Gaines Gaines, Edmund to destroy the fort. A hot cannonball, fired from the expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Clinch Clinch, Duncan , landed in a powder magazine, blowing up the fort and killing 270 of its 344 occupants.

Neamathla, Neamathla the village chief of Fowltown, reacted to the destruction and death by warning General Gaines that if U.S. soldiers tried to cross the border into Florida, they would be annihilated. A gunfight between U.S. soldiers and Neamathla’s Seminoles on November 21, 1817, is considered the opening salvo of the First Seminole War. This conflict, ending with Andrew Jackson’s occupation of the city of Pensacola in May, 1818, led to the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819 Adams-Onís Treaty (1819)[Adams Onis Treaty (1819)];and Seminole Wars[Seminole Wars] , in which Spain ceded the territory of Florida to the United States.

The 1823 Fort Moultrie, Treaty of (1823) Fort Moultrie Creek Treaty restricted Seminole settlements to a reservation of four million acres north of Charlotte Harbor and six small reservations for north Florida chiefs. The Seminoles agreed not to make the reservations a haven for escaped slaves. The 1830 enactment of the Indian Removal Act mandated that all Indians be encouraged to trade their eastern land for western land. If they failed to do so, they would lose the protection of the federal government.

In May, 1832, U.S. commissioner James Gadsden Gadsden, James
[p]Gadsden, James;and Seminole Wars[Seminole Wars] convened a meeting with the Seminole chiefs at Payne’s Landing. What transpired at the meeting has been the subject of much political and scholarly controversy. All that is certain is that a treaty was signed on May 9, 1832, in which the chiefs agreed that a delegation would travel to inspect the lands in the territory that later became Oklahoma, Oklahoma;Seminoles and, if the lands were satisfactory, the Seminoles would agree to move west as a part of the Creek allocation. The ambiguity of who “they” were—the chiefs or their tribal councils—and the peculiar stipulation that the Seminoles Seminoles;and Creeks[Creeks]
Creeks;and Seminoles[Seminoles] would be absorbed by their longtime enemies, the Creeks, put the validity of the treaty into question. There have been allegations that bribery and coercion were used to get the Seminoles to sign the treaty. All of the chiefs whose names were on the treaty later repudiated it.

Seminole attack on a federal block house.

(Library of Congress)

An exploratory party left for Oklahoma in October, 1832, and returned to Fort Gibson, Arkansas, in March, 1833, where they entered into a series of negotiations. Again, there have been allegations of coercion and forged marks on the Fort Gibson Treaty, by which the chiefs agreed that the Seminoles would move west within three years.

In October, 1834, Indian agent Wiley Thompson Thompson, Wiley brought the chiefs together to discuss plans for a spring removal. The Seminoles gathered in their own council after Thompson’s initial meeting, and strong opposition to migration emerged, especially from the Seminole war leader Osceola. Relations deteriorated and skirmishes increased between the government and Seminoles throughout 1835, culminating in the outbreak of war in December. The two most notable incidents occurred on December 28. Ote Emathla, also known as Jumper Jumper , and a warrior known as Alligator Alligator led 180 warriors in ambushing a relief column under the command of Major Francis Dade Dade, Francis . Only 3 of the 108 soldiers escaped slaughter in the fierce battle that followed. Meanwhile, Osceola led sixty warriors in an attack on Fort King with the express purpose of killing Thompson, who had imprisoned Osceola in chains earlier in the year.

The army was in disarray during most of 1836. General Winfield Scott immediately began to feud with General Gaines Gaines, Edmund . General Call was put in charge of the troops until November, when General Thomas S. Jesup Jesup, Thomas Sidney arrived in Florida and assumed the command until 1839. Jesup’s command in Florida was crucial for the outcome of the Seminole Wars. The general had persuaded a large number of chiefs and their tribes to emigrate on the condition that they would be accompanied by their African American allies and slaves. When opposition arose among landowners claiming that the Seminoles harbored runaway slaves, a compromise was reached: Only those black people who had lived with the Seminoles before the outbreak of the war would be permitted to go.

More than seven hundred Seminoles had gathered at Fort Brooke north of Tampa by the end of May, 1837. On the night of June 2, Osceola and the Mikasuki shaman Sam Jones (Arpeika) surrounded the camp with two hundred warriors and spirited away nearly the entire population.

The defection caused a drastic shift in Jesup’s tactics; no longer did he feel any compunction about using trickery to gain his ends. In September, General Joseph Hernandez Hernandez, Joseph captured King Philip, Yuchi Billy, Wildcat, and Blue Snake in the vicinity of St. Augustine and imprisoned them at Fort Marion. When Osceola and Coa Hadjo sent word to Hernandez that they were willing to negotiate, he set up a conference near Fort Peyton. Jesup ordered him to violate the truce and capture the Indians. News of Osceola’s capture spread through the nation, and when he was transferred to Fort Moultrie in Georgia, George Catlin visited him and painted his portrait. His death on January 30, 1838, enshrined him as a martyr to the Indian cause.

After Wildcat Wildcat escaped from Fort Marion on November 29, 1837, he headed south to join bands led by Jumper Jumper , Jones, and Alligator Alligator . The largest and last pitched battle of the war was fought on the banks of Lake Okeechobee on December 25. Colonel Zachary Taylor Taylor, Zachary
[p]Taylor, Zachary;in Florida[Florida] commanded eleven hundred men against approximately four hundred Indians. The Indians finally retreated from the two-and-a-half-hour battle, leaving 26 killed and 112 wounded and having sustained 11 killed and 14 wounded.

In February, 1838, further treachery at Fort Jupiter netted more than five hundred Seminoles. Persuasion and mopping-up operations sent many of the remaining Seminole leaders, including Micanopy, Micanopy the chief, on the westward migration. Jesup’s Jesup, Thomas Sidney tenure in Florida, which had resulted in the capture, migration, or death of more than twenty-four hundred Indians, ended in May, 1838, when General Taylor took over command of the Florida forces. Taylor Taylor, Zachary
[p]Taylor, Zachary;in Florida[Florida] remained in Florida for another two years, during which time operations were carried out against scattered bands of Indians throughout the peninsula.

General Alexander MacComb MacComb, Alexander , the commanding general of the army, came to Florida in April, 1839, and declared the war over when he concluded an agreement with the Seminoles, who agreed to withdraw south of the Peace River by July 15, 1839, and remain there until further arrangements were made. Although a guarded trading post was set up on the Caloosahatchee River, the Indians learned that they were not to be allowed to stay in Florida. Chekika, Chekika the chief of the Spanish Indians, led an attack and destroyed the post in July. After he led a raid on Indian Key in August, 1840, Chekika was surprised in the Everglades and executed.

The commands of General Walker K. Armistead Armistead, Walker K. and General William J. Worth Worth, William Jenkins saw the final years of the Second Seminole War. Following the successful policy of deceiving chiefs who came to negotiate, most notably Wildcat Wildcat , and through continuing guerrilla warfare, the army managed to remove all but about six hundred of Florida’s Indians, who were restricted to a temporary reservation south of the Peace River because Congress refused to continue to fund any further campaigns in 1842. The Second Seminole War was more costly than all of the other Indian wars combined. Nevertheless, new settlers came to the interior of Florida, which had been made accessible by the mapping, exploration, and road-building entailed by the wars. The military had gained skill in guerrilla warfare and an understanding of the need for interservice cooperation, and the federal government learned to exercise its power to convert economic power into military strength.

Between 1842 and the outbreak of the Third Seminole War in 1855, the Seminoles kept to the reservation and followed the dictates of regulations imposed upon them. They remained adamant in their opposition to removal until Secretary of War Jefferson Davis declared that, if they did not leave voluntarily, the military would remove them by force.

In December, 1855, a patrol investigating Seminole settlements in the Big Cypress Swamp was attacked by a band of forty Seminoles led by Billy Bowlegs Bowlegs, Billy and Oscen Tustenuggee, marking the first skirmish of the war that was dubbed Billy Bowlegs’s War. It was a war of skirmishes, raids, and harassment against small settlements, both white and Seminole, and was to be the last of the Florida wars.


A treaty signed on August 7, 1856, which granted the Seminoles more than two million acres in Indian Territory separate from the Creek allotment, along with a generous financial settlement, was the catalyst to the end of the conflict in Florida. A government offer of money in return for removal was accepted on March 27, 1858. Bowlegs Bowlegs, Billy and his band left Florida in May, and two other bands left the following February. Only the Muskogee band led by Chipco, hidden north of Lake Okeechobee, and Jones’s Mikasuki band, buried deep in the Everglades, a remnant of one hundred to three hundred persons, remained in relative peace in Florida, the ancestors of twentieth century Seminoles.

Further Reading

  • Covington, James W. The Seminoles of Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993. The most thorough history of the Seminoles in Florida, which devotes six chapters to the Seminole Wars.
  • Knetsch, Joe. Florida’s Seminole Wars, 1817-1858. Mount Pleasant, S.C.: Arcadia, 2003. Part of Arcadia’s Making of America series. The author examines the Seminole Wars, pairing historical images with a comprehensive narrative. Includes maps, sketches, paintings, and battle plans.
  • Mahon, John K. History of the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842. Rev. ed. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1985. Describes the battles and leaders, the problems of military organization and ordnance, and Seminole culture and history in the period of the Second Seminole War.
  • Missall, John, and Mary Lou Missall. The Seminole Wars: America’s Longest Indian Conflict. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004. A history of the three Seminole wars, examining their causes and significance in American history.
  • O’Brien, Sean Michael. In Bitterness and in Tears: Andrew Jackson’s Destruction of the Creeks and Seminoles. Guilford, Conn.: Lyons Press, 2005. Engagingly written history of Andrew Jackson’s role as a military commander in the Creek War of 1813-1814 and the First Seminole War of 1818.
  • Tebeau, Charlton W. “The Wars of Indian Removal.” In A History of Florida. Rev. ed. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1980. This chapter in a standard Florida history covers the Seminole Wars.
  • Tour of the Florida Territory During the Seminole (Florida) Wars. Comprehensive Web site on the Seminole Wars maintained by Christopher D. Kimball. Includes maps of the battle areas by county, a narrative by Kimball, a list of forts, and links to related documents. Accessed January, 2006.
  • Wickman, Patricia R. Osceola’s Legacy. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991. A study of the life and myth of Osceola, based on a survey of artifacts and documents from the time period.
  • Wright, J. Leitch. Creeks and Seminoles: The Destruction and Regeneration of the Muscogulge People. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986. An examination of the culture of the Creeks and Seminoles, and their Spanish, British, and African connections.

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Native American wars;Seminoles
Florida;Seminole Wars
Jones, Sam