MANATEE COUNTY – The largest slave rebellion in American history is seldom talked about. It is a story of self-emancipated Africans, knocking down the bounds of pain and degradation, freeing themselves to grab the most basic of our freedoms: that all men, no matter what race, creed or color, are created equal.
The story starts not on those often famed and largely misunderstood Civil War battlefields, nor in the Oval Office where Abraham Lincoln would sign the Emancipation Proclamation not long before his assassination. This story starts in the untamed wilds of Florida, where those freed slaves first encountered the natives of the land.
Nearly a century before Harriet Tubman secretly led more than 300 slaves north to freedom, slaves were escaping south into the Florida wilderness and forming alliances with another group of exiled people, the Seminole natives.
The Seminole Nation was the collective name given to the combination of various groups of Native Americans and black people who settled in Florida in the early 18th century — who were the first associated with Alachua County (of which Manatee County was part of).
Over time, the groups melded together and formed what history refers to as a race of “maroon people.”
While many have heard the term Black Seminoles, their efforts against the U.S. Government have been suppressed and are hardly mentioned in history books. However, according to to Dr. Martha Bireda, founder of the Blanchard House Museum in Punta Gorda, they produced the largest slave rebellion; there was no other effort in the U.S. that compared in size or duration, she said.
'This is the story of self-emancipated Africans,' Bireda said. 'No one helped these people escape; they did it on their own.'
The fugitive slaves and free blacks besmirched the country's leading generals and inspired fear across the South, according to the Black Seminole Rebellion exhibit at www.blackhorse.com.
In the 50 years preceding the Civil War, blacks had the most significant influence shaping Seminole affairs, including the First and Second Seminole wars. But the alliance of the Africans and Native Seminoles was a source of concern to the U.S. Government because the Seminoles were seen as a major threat to the institution of slavery.
The relationship between escaped slaves and Seminoles was a fundamental concern during the Second Seminole War, the longest and most costly of any Native American War in history. The war was initiated by the slave industry and fought specifically over the issue of slavery and removal of Seminole peoples west to “Indian Territory.”
History books refer to two events that supposedly ignited the war. The first being the U.S. government's decision to enforce the Treaty of Payne's Landing at Fort Gibson; that is, an agreement made by seven Seminole Leaders who agreed to move west to Arkansas territory and join their known archenemy, the Creek Indians, in exile. The greater majority of natives violently opposed this migration. The Seminole Nation was outraged; it was the beginning of the Second Seminole War, or the Seven Year War, which lasted from 1835-1842.
Abraham, a famous “maroon” leader, was one of the seven who signed the treaty. Historians have theorized that the leaders were tricked into signing the agreement. However, Bireda said the allegiance was only a ploy for Abraham to receive the supplies he needed to attack U.S. Troops. Abraham gave the impression that he was in favor of enforcing the treaty. He requested gun powder, and arms from Cuba and secretly instructed slaves still living on plantations to revolt when the war began and join forces with the native nation.
U.S. Troops initiated a policy designed to separate the African and Native Seminoles. This policy called for the re-enslavement of Africans in addition to the deportation of natives.
Abraham led his troop of half breeds, strategizing Guerrilla war tactics, which were used to attack U.S. Troops, and negotiating with U.S. Military when necessary.
For the most part, Abraham's military tactics were successful during the war, but he was forced to surrender during the Battle of Big Cyprus in the Everglades. Abraham eventually worked with General Jessup to convince members of the Seminole Nation that emigration was the only way to truly find peace. Abraham left Florida in 1839 accompanied by his family and 90 other black Seminoles.
During the Second Seminole War, the U.S. government lost 1,500 troops and spent $40 million to return 300 to 500 slaves to their masters. Bireda estimates that the capture of each slave cost the U.S. $80,000 and the lives of three soldiers.
Most of the Seminole Nation left Florida, but a few stayed. Those holdouts still exist in the deep swamps of Big Cypress, the same place where their ancestors had raised a white flag so many years ago.
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