Explosion on the Florida Frontier

by Dale Cox

December 1835 brought the event that frontier settlers of Florida most feared and yet helped cause: a new Seminole war.

To be fair, in the minds of the Seminole, Miccosukee, and Maroon (black Seminole) people, the previous conflict never ended. In fact, many Native Americans view the 1812-1858 wars with the United States as a single long encounter. In truth – although historians usually distinguish between the First, Second and Third Seminole Wars – they are correct.

Members of the Jacksonian Guard and frontier militiamen open fire during the 2018 Scott 1817 Seminole War Battle reenactment.

There was never any doubt that the United States wanted Florida. And there was never any doubt that most of its citizens saw no future there for its Native American inhabitants. No less a figure than Thomas Jefferson proposed that all of the American Indian nations in the east be “removed” to new lands west of the Mississippi. It was part of the logic behind the Louisiana Purchase.

And then there were the Maroons. The term maroon refers to Africans and their descendants who either escaped from slavery or were free and joined settlements removed from areas where chattel slavery was practiced – areas such as the United States.

The noted Maroon leader Abraham (portrayed by Antonio Wright) discusses history with visitors at the Scott 1817 Seminole War Battle event in Chattahoochee, Florida.

Spain welcomed them into the Florida colonies prior to the American Revolution, with one large group forming the community of Fort Mose near St. Augustine. Others found better lives among the Seminole and Miccosukee towns around Paynes Prairie and today’s Tallahassee. A third large group settled on the Apalachicola River, where they were enlisted to fight for the British during the War of 1812 at Prospect Bluff (“Negro Fort”) and Pensacola.

U.S. views of the African people of Florida were varied. A minority saw them as human beings worthy of the freedom in which they lived. Most, however, saw them either as a threat or an opportunity for profit. There can be no denying that subjugating them was a major factor in the Seminole War.

Luminaries at Chason Memorial Park in Bainbridge, GA honor the U.S. and Native American casualties from the Battle of Fowltown, the first engagement of the Seminole Wars.

The initial large outbreak or First Seminole War took place in 1817-1818 when U.S. troops launched an unprovoked attack on the Lower Creek village of Fowltown in Southwest Georgia. An alliance of Red Stick Creek, Seminole, Miccosukee, and Maroon fighters struck back at the Scott Battle of 1817 on November 30, 1817, killing Lt. Richard W. Scott, 34 U.S. soldiers, 6 women and 4 children in an attack on a boat on the Apalachicola River. The war culminated with Andrew Jackson’s 1818 invasion of Florida and, as a result, the cession of the colony from Spain to the United States. (Please see The Battle of Fowltown and Scott 1817 Seminole War Battle).

By 1835, it came down to a simple fact. Many if not most white Americans wanted the Native Americans of Florida “removed” to new homes west of the Mississippi and their African allies either returned to slavery or removed with them. 

The Treaty of Moultrie Creek in 1823 pushed the Seminole and Miccosukee people into a reservation in the center of the Florida peninsula or one of several smaller ones along the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers. The Treaty of Paynes Landing in 1832 further assaulted Native American territorial rights, requiring them to move west if suitable lands could be found.

Legend tells that the Seminole leader Osceola drove a knife into the Paynes Landing treaty when asked to sign it. The original document does have an otherwise unexplained slit in it.

A delegation of seven chiefs went west to look and, according to the United States, assembled at Fort Gibson in today’s Oklahoma and approved of the lands they saw on March 28, 1833. Some of the chiefs later denied that they signed the Fort Gibson document and others said they had been forced to do so. A few humane army officers agreed with them.

Regardless of the allegations, the United States Senate ratified the Paynes Landing treaty in April 1834 and gave the Seminole and Miccosukee people three years to leave Florida. Military troops – including a column led by Brevet Maj. Francis Dade – were put in motion to assure their compliance.

The war of words exploded into a war of bullets after a party of Alachua County settlers accused a handful of Miccosukee hunters of rustling cattle. The hunters were flogged with bullwhips until some of their friends arrived and opened fire on the whites. (Please see “Flogged them with their cow-whips”).

The first skirmishes took place around Paynes Prairie between Micanopy and Gainesville, Florida. This scene is in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

A series of attacks and counter-attacks followed in the fall of 1835, culminating in December with an actual engagement between Florida Mounted Volunteers and a large party of warriors near the settlement of Micanopy. (Please see The Battle of Black Point).

As hundreds of settlers evacuated their farms along the Seminole frontier, a large group of Seminole and Miccosukee warriors gathered with their families and allies in the Cove of the Withlacoochee. Much of this area of lakes, swamps, marshes, islands and high ground along the Withlacoochee River is known as Tsala Apopka Lake today. It is between I-75 and the Gulf Coast southeast of Ocala. The area was a natural stronghold, as U.S. soldiers soon discovered.

From the Cove, two large forces emerged to carry out simultaneous attacks at Fort King and on Dade’s command on December 28, 1835. The first of these was led by Osceola and resulted in the death of Gen. Wiley Thompson, the U.S. Agent to the Seminoles. The second, led by Micanopy, ended with the destruction of Dade’s command and the deaths of 106 U.S. soldiers. (Please see Dade Battlefield Historic State Park).

Dade Battlefield Historic State Park in Bushnell, Florida.

Both forces fell back into the Cove of the Withlacoochee to see what might happen next. Before commanders at either Fort Brooke (Tampa) or Fort King (Ocala) learned of Dade’s defeat, Brevet Brig. Gen. Duncan Lamont Clinch marched out on a preplanned campaign to attack the warriors gathered in the Cove. In fact, he left Fort Drane (east of Williston) on December 28, the same day as the attacks at Fort King and the Dade Battlefield.

The Seminole War erupted in fury. 

This series of articles continues with The Battle of the Withlacoochee, which took place on December 31, 1835.

Other articles and programs of interest include: