A Black Seminole (left) is shown as being present at the saving of Duncan McKrimmon by Milly Francis in this artistic impression.

The story of the maroons or “Black Seminoles” is one of the most interesting in Florida history.

Maroons were escaped slaves. Slavery was against the law in Spanish Florida for much of its colonial history. In fact, the first American “Underground Railroad” ran south, not north.  African slaves from the Carolinas slipped south through the woods and swamps to freedom in Florida.

Spain granted them full citizenship if they converted to Catholicism. Many enlisted in the St. Augustine militia and a settlement was established for them at what is now Fort Mose Historic State Park just north of St. Augustine.

Some went to Cuba with other Spanish citizens when Florida was transferred to Great Britain in 1763 at the end of the French & Indian War. Others, however, moved to the Paynes Prarie area where the were absorbed by the Alachua Seminole bands under King Payne and Boleck (“Bowlegs”). They lived in towns of their own but were under the protection of and fought alongside the the Seminoles.

Antonio Wright portrays the Black Seminole leader Abraham during the Scott 1817 Reenactment at Chattahoochee, Florida.

This migration to Native American towns continued after Spain regained control of Florida in 1783. William Augustus Bowles welcomed maroons to serve in the military forces of his “State of Muskogee” and sent parties of Miccosukee, Lower Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole warriors into Georgia to liberate slaves and bring them back to Florida. A large community of maroons grew on the Apalachicola River near Ocheesee Bluff in today’s Calhoun County during this era and they continued to live there after the capture and death of Bowles, adapting to the lifestyles of their Native American neighbors.

The most prominent of the Apalachicola River Black Seminoles was an individual called Vacapachasie or “Cow Driver” by the Spanish but the “Mulatto King” by white Americans.

Little is known of his early life, but he was living in freedom on the Apalachicola River when the British arrived at Prospect Bluff during the War of 1812. No fan of the United States, Vacapachasie quickly enlisted in the battalion of Colonial Marines that Great Britain formed at the bluff in 1814-1815. He received military training there under the direction of Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls and Maj. George Woodbine of the Royal Marines, learning marine and light infantry tactics as well as instruction in both field and heavy artillery.

Prospect Bluff, site of the British Post (later called the “Negro Fort) and Fort Gadsden, was the scene of the deadliest cannon shot in American history.

The “Cow Driver” was among the men who remained behind at the Fort at Prospect Bluff – called the “Negro Fort” by American authorities – when the British withdrew from the river during the late spring of 1815. Whether he was there when U.S. forces blew up the fort, killing 270 of the 320 men, women and children inside, is not known.

Vacapachasie emerged as a chief in the Lower (Muscogee) Creek towns of Tamathli and Choconicla by 1817. Old Yellow Hair, who lived at Choconicla, was the principal chief of these towns but Vacapachasie was the leading figure in Tamathli were a large number of maroons or Black Seminoles had settled. The two adjoining towns were located just south of today’s Historic Highway 90 (U.S. 90) between the Town of Sneads and the west bank of the Apalachicola River in what is now Jackson County, Florida.

Yellow Hair sided with the United States when the Seminole War erupted during the winter of 1817-1818. Vacapachasie, however, had no interest in such an alliance and joined the alliance fighting against the U.S. military. He likely was present at the attack on Lt. Scott’s command at today’s Chattahoochee in which 34 U.S. soldiers, 6 women and 4 children were killed. When Yellow Hair was broken from power by Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle after his warriors accidentally fired on a canoe of “friendly” warriors, John Blunt was named to replace him as principal chief of the Apalachicola towns. This power vacuum also created room for Vacapachasie:

The reserve assigned to Vacapachasie (Mulatto King) can be seen in this 1839 diagram. The dotted line illustrates its outline.

…Blunt succeeded to the station of head chief of the towns, and Mulatto King, or Vacapichassee, the cowdriver, was made head chief of Choconicla by Colonel Arbuckle. Mulatto is half negro and Indian, was always a bitter enemy of the Americans, is bad tempered, insubordinate and mischievious, and would be more so but that he is totally without courage. [1]

The description above was written by John D. Westcott, Jr, the acting-Governor of Florida, in 1833. The language that he used with regard to Vacapachasie was consistent with that used by U.S. authorities to describe any chief who opposed the “removal” of the Seminole and Miccosukee people to the West on the Trail of Tears.

Col. Blunt, as chief John Blunt was known, told American authorities in 1833 that Mulatto King had bitterly opposed them during the War of 1812 and the 1817-1818 outbreak of the Seminole War.  “Old Mulatto King was their enemy; he was always mine for that reason,” he explained. “When I was General Jackson’s guide, he was skulking in the swamps, and in the negro fort with the hostile Indians and Spaniards, and Indians and negroes.” [2]

Vacapachasie was on good enough terms with the whites by 1823 that they carved out a reserve for him on the Apalachicola during the negotiations of the Treaty of Moultrie Creek:

…For Mulatto King and Emathlochee, a reservation, commencing on the Apalachicola, at a point to include Yellow Hair’s improvements; thence, up said river, for four miles; thence, west, one mile; thence southerly, to a point one mile west of the beginning; and thence, east, to the beginning point. [3]

A town of one of the Apalachicola bands as drawn by the Comte de Castelnau, a French nobleman, in 1838-1839.

Emathlochee was the chief of the Attapulgus band, which eventually settled with Vacapachasie after being driven from its original home in Southwest Georgia in 1817-1818.

The new reservation lay along the Apalachicola River just east of Sneads. It ran from about today’s CSX railroad south to the former Gulf Power generating plant. A reserve for the chiefs Blunt and Cochrane lay to the south in Calhoun County while one for Econchattimico was established about 10 miles north of Sneads on the west bank of the Chattahocohee River.

Early settlers flooded in around the limits of these three reserves and by 1830 pressure was on for the remaining chiefs and warriors to give up their lands and move west. Blunt favored leaving the Apalachicola River with his followers and relocating to the Trinity River in Texas, but Vacapachasie and Econchattimico opposed any movement and especially any movement to Texas. Econchattimico was too powerful to be removed from his position, but Blunt “broke” Vacapachasie and ordered that he be replaced by his principal sub-chief, Hiatiga:

The site of Vacapachasie’s reserve as it appears today.

…The Governor considered Blunt had the authority to do so, and as Mulatto King had been guilty of diverse acts of misconduct, had disobeyed orders, was imprudent and troublesome, and behaved altogether quite badly, he did not disapprove Blunt’s course. Hiatiga was an intelligent and smart Indian, and exceedingly well disposes, consulting the true interests of the town; he was in favor of going with Blunt to Texas. Blunt invited him and Young Yellow Hair to go with his exploration party to Texas, and paid their expenses out of his own funds. Last spring Hiatiga, while on a visit to Gov. Duval on business, died. [4]

“Young Yellow Hair” or John Yellow Hair was Old Yellow Hair’s son. Blunt elevated him to chief of the now blended towns of Choconicla and Tamathli upon the death of Hiatiga but Vacapachasie immediately launched a quiet campaign to regain his former position of leadership.

The railroad trestle at Chattahoochee marks the northern limit of Vacapachasie’s reserve, which was on the right or west bank in this view.

William S. Pope, who lived at Pope’s Store near the reserve, was named U.S. Sub-Agent to the Apalachicola bands and sided with the old Black Seminole chief in the dispute and against Blunt and Acting-Governor Westcott. Col. James Gadsden, who had negotiated the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, was summoned to the scene and decided that Vacapachasie and Pope were on the correct side of the argument:

…At [Pope’s] instance, however, Col. Gadsden was requested again to attend at his town, and did so. To ascertain who was the chief, I understand he consulted the Indians then present, a majority of whom designated Mulatto King, who was also stated to be the chief by the sub-agent. I had regarded Yellow Hair as the head chief of the town, and think he should have been so considered. [5]

Members of one of the Apalachicola bands paddle downstream to Vacapachasie’s Reserve in this drawing by the Comte de Castelnau. The structure from which it was drawn was an old tavern that stood on one of the prehistoric American Indian mounds at River Landing Park in Chattahoochee.

Vacapachasie was returned to his position of leadership by Col. Gadsden but John Yellow Hair was broken from power. The government signed new treaties with the Apalachicola bands at Pope’s Store, offering to deed to them the land of their reserves if they would agree to a reduction in the size of their holdings. Because this would give them absolute legal title to the property, both Mulatto King and Econchattimico agreed to sign the treaty although they continued to oppose relocation to the West.

John Blunt and his band left the Apalachicola for Texas in 1833-1834, taking with them some of John Yellow Hair’s people. Their descendants live on the Trinity River to this day.

Econchattimico and Vacapachasie remained behind, but pressure on them increased dramatically. White slave stealers convinced local citizens that the two chiefs contemplated violence so they entered the reserves and disarmed the chiefs and their warriors, leaving them in a defenseless state. This accomplished, the slave stealers raided the reserves and carried away Black Seminoles from them and sold them into slavery. Econchattimico sued for their return in Federal court and won, but the lost people were never brought back.

Vacapachasie passed away during these years and was buried on his remaining lands. His sub-chief John Walker ascended to the leadership of his band. He and Econchattimico were forced to give up their lands and move west to what is now Oklahoma in 1838 as Seminole War once again raged across Florida. Gen. Zachary Taylor, who later became President of the United States, personally supervised their forced removal by U.S. troops. Vacapachasie’s son, Jack Vaca, was among those who made the long journey west on the Trail of Tears.

Legend holds that the headless ghost of Vacapachasie, Coa-Hadjo and Lewis haunt the site of the reserve.

The story of the Black Seminole leader might have ended then with the taking of his lands from his descendants and followers were it not for a bizarre episode that followed.

As soon as the inhabitants were gone, Dr. Joseph R. Buchanan of Cincinnati, Ohio, appeared on the former reserve and dug up the graves of Vacapachasie, the Muskogee (Creek) chief Coa-Hadjo and a warrior named Lewis. Buchanan was a phrenologist.

Phrenology was a now-discredited science which held that the personality and other important information about a deceased individual could be determined through the study of their skull. He took the heads of Vacapachasie, Coa-Hadjo and Lewis back to his laboratory in Cincinnati and made them part of his display.

What eventually became of the three skulls is not known. Local legend holds, however, that the disturbed spirits of the three headless men continue to haunt the banks of the Apalachicola River. You can read this story and a number of other ghost stories from Jackson County in the book The Ghost of Bellamy Bridge: 10 Ghosts & Monsters from Jackson County, Florida.

Vacapachasie’s descendants live in Oklahoma to this day, not far from the modern city of Muskogee. The site of his Jackson County preserve can be seen along the west bank of the Apalachicola River from the CSX trestle that connects Chattahoochee and Sneads south to the vicinity of the now-closed Gulf Power plant.

To learn more about the story of the “Negro Fort” at Prospect Bluff, where the chief once served in the British Colonial Marines, please enjoy the video below by clicking the play button:

[1] John D. Westcott, Jr., acting-governor of Florida, to E. Herring, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, November 13, 1833.

[2] Statement of John Blunt given in conference with Indian Agent Wiley Thompson, October 28, 1833.

[3] Additional Article of the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, September 18, 1833.

[4] Westcott to Herring, November 13, 1833.

[5] Ibid.