The Seminole Wars; America’s Longest Indian Conflict by John Missall & Mary Lou Missall. University of Florida Press, 2016.
There were three Seminole Wars, extending from 1818 to 1858. Mary Lou Missall and John Missall, authors of this account of the warfare between Florida’s Seminoles and the U.S. government, contend that all three together constitute the longest Indian conflict in our history. They point out that what historians call the First Seminole War involved Spain’s colonial empire, including the Florida Peninsula. During the Second Seminole War (sometimes called The Florida War), Florida was now a territory of the United States. The Third Seminole War was a few skirmishes beginning in 1855. By then Florida had been a state in the American union for a decade. The admission of a southern slave state had been paired with admission of a northern free state; Florida was paired with Iowa.
The Seminole Wars were part of the broader struggle over slavery. Many that fled from slavery in South Carolina and Georgia had escaped to Florida. They had joined the Seminoles and participated in their struggle with the United States army, its navy, and the state militias which had joined in efforts to move the Indian populations in the Southeast to lands west of the Mississippi River.
The Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribes had earlier been settled in reservations in the Southeast. But as white settlers moved south into what would become cotton-growing lands, Indian removal to more distant reservations became essential to the South’s growing cotton economy. Their presence and accompanying insecurities discouraged white settlement. These tribes made the decision to move without a fight and were escorted west along the “trail of tears and death.” The Seminoles chose to resist.
There was a considerable sympathy for the Seminoles around the country. Their relentless warfare resembled what would later be called guerilla combat. It involved among other tactics their massacre of an occasional settler family. Retaliation involved sending detachments of the U.S. army out to hunt down and kidnap Seminole women and children. The Missalls argue that even those sympathetic to the Seminoles were, however, appalled by the cost of the war, almost a half billion in today’s dollars.
Black Seminoles suffered a cruel fate. When captured they faced being returned to their owners or being sold into an even worse slavery within the Native American economy. The Creeks regularly kidnapped black Seminoles and sold them to slave traders for resale.
Most of the largest rivers in the Southeast and the Gulf Coast of Florida ran through lands dominated by Seminole tribes, hence harder for the U.S. navy to guard. Those harbors and estuaries provided opportunities for smugglers operating out of Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Several Seminole chiefs signed an agreement with the U.S. government in 1823 declaring a truce and granting a stipend to the chiefs, perhaps shared, perhaps not. They agreed to retreat to a track of land south of present-day Ocala. But then within a few years, they were told that they had to move again. The Seminoles were not migratory; they needed time to establish their farms and room to pursue their profitable trade in hides.
The authors have written with much sympathy for the Seminoles but believe that the move west was an inevitability. Armed resistance was useless. That was particularly true once the Seminole Wars became an issue debated in Washington and provided career-building opportunities in presidential politics: Andrew Jackson, Winfield Scott, William Henry Harrison, and Zachery Taylor boasted of their military engagements with the Seminoles. Career army officers found opportunities to build their military careers, especially when battling Seminoles was combined with serving in the Mexican War from 1846 to 1848. Also anyone who has lived through the genocides and ethnic cleansing of the twentieth century, cannot help but feel uncomfortable with the similarities to “the trail of tears and death.”
John Missall and Mary Lou Missall are generous in the credit they give to John Mahon (formerly on the faculty of the History Department, University of Florida) and his History of the Second Seminole War, 1835 to 1842. University of Florida Press, 1989. The Seminoles are still living in South Florida where they have become tourist attractions.