The Seminole Wars

First Seminole War

After the American Revolution, Spain regained control of Florida from Britain as part of the Treaty of Paris. When the British evacuated Florida, Spanish colonists and settlers from the newly formed United States came pouring in. Favorable Spanish terms lured many new residents to acquire property, called land grants. Even Seminoles were encouraged to set up farms because they provided a buffer between Spanish Florida and the United States. Escaped enslaved people also entered Florida, trying to reach a place where their U.S. masters had no authority over them.

When Britain controlled Florida, the British often incited Seminoles against American settlers migrating south into the Seminole territory. This, combined with the haven the Seminoles provided escaped enslaved people, led to the U.S. Army’s increasingly frequent incursions into Spanish territory to attack the tribe and recapture the enslaved people. These skirmishes, led by forces under General Andrew Jackson between 1817–1818, became known as the First Seminole War. These campaigns attacked several key Seminole locations and forced the tribe farther south into Florida. Following the war, the United States effectively controlled east Florida. By 1821, the territory was brought under complete U.S. control as Spain formally ceded Florida to the United States as part of the Adams-Onis Treaty.

Soon after acquiring Florida, the United States began urging the Indians to leave their lands and relocate along with other Southeastern tribes to the Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma.

Second Seminole War

In the spring of 1832, the Seminoles were called to a meeting at Payne’s Landing on the Oklawaha River. The treaty negotiated with the U.S. government called for the Seminoles to move west if the land was suitable. A delegation of seven chiefs toured the area for several months and, on March 28, 1833, signed what they believed to be a statement that the new land was suitable for consideration.

Upon their return to Florida, however, there was disagreement as to the terms of the treaty. Many of the chiefs stated that they had not committed to moving their people to the new territory and were coerced through force and misinterpretation into signing. Some U.S. Army officers claimed that the chiefs had been “wheedled and bullied into signing.” Others noted evidence of trickery in how the treaty was phrased.

The refusal of most Seminoles to abandon the reservation north of Lake Okeechobee and to relocate west of the Mississippi River led to what was known as the Second Seminole War. The Second Seminole War was the longest and most costly of all the wars of removal fought by the U. S. Government. It formally began with what is now known as Dade’s Massacre in December 1835. The vengeful killing of Wiley Thompson, an agent to the Seminoles, by Osceola, a young Creek warrior who emerged as one of the most influential leaders of the Seminole resistance, started a conflict that would last until 1842. Multiple American commanders tried and failed to defeat and remove the Seminoles. As the war wore on, the Seminole population steadily shrank as warriors were killed and groups sent west through capture or, rarely, acquiescence to removal.

Under chiefs and warriors, including Osceola, Jumper, Alligator, Micanopy, Arpeika, Halleck Tustenuggee, Coacoochee, and many others, the Seminoles as a nation never stopped resisting. The war was vicious and bloody and often involved deception on both sides. General Jesup captured many influential Seminole leaders, including Osceola and Coacoochee, by seizing them under a false white flag of truce. On multiple occasions, overwhelmed Seminole leaders would agree to emigrate, only to use the preparation time to gather supplies and ammunition and then disappear back into the impenetrable landscape.

The Second Seminole War claimed the lives of over 1,500 U. S. soldiers and cost the government an estimated fifteen million dollars. At its conclusion in 1842, with no peace treaty or truce declared, roughly 3,000 Seminoles had been removed to the Indian Territory. A handful – less than 500 – were left to die deep in the Florida Everglades.

The Third Seminole War

The Third Seminole War, a series of skirmishes mainly over land, lasted from 1855 until 1858. The war was also known as Billy Bowlegs’ War because Billy Bowlegs was the prominent Seminole leader in this third and final installment. By the war’s conclusion in 1858, Billy Bowlegs finally agreed to emigrate, taking most of those remaining with him. However, a small band of Seminoles under Sam Jones never left Florida, staying hidden in the Big Cypress Swamp. The approximately 3,500 Seminoles in Florida today are the descendants of these Seminoles and a few families that found their way back from the West.