The Three Seminole Wars: Florida’s Forgotten Wars, Part 1

I find that if modern day Floridians know there was a Seminole War in our past, they often have a vague notion of what is known as the 2nd Seminole War. It was a war, of sorts, then it ended and Florida became a State. Oh, and Andrew Jackson fit in there somewhere and marched across the panhandle. These statements are certainly true, though some were in the 1st Seminole War not the 2nd, but do not provide much context about our ancestors’ lives during the early years of the territory and the State. My guess is if you had ancestors in Florida during the period of the 2nd Seminole War (December 1835-August 1842) or the 3rd Seminole War (1855-1858), they likely served for at least a brief period, especially in the 2nd which was protracted and participation widespread. That may be true even if your ancestors were in Georgia, Alabama or another deep south State since a number of them provided militia units during at least one of the three wars. In this blog and the next, I am going to try to give a broad overview of the three wars, provide some information on the records out there that might be informative on an ancestor’s service, and provide one of the rosters of men who served in the 2nd Seminole War from what was then Walton Co, but would soon become Santa Rosa and eventually Okaloosa Co, Florida.

The Second and Third Wars to Expand America

The War of 1812, another often forgotten war in America’s past, was fought between June 1812 and February 1815. Near the end of the war, Andrew Jackson and his men marched through the panhandle on their way to New Orleans, where they fought a decisive battle against the British after the war was actually over. But the victory made him a national hero. He was in the area because he was leading the militia against the Creek Indians (Muskogee) in what is known as The Red Stick War, mostly in Alabama but also into Florida. The Red Stick War ended in August 1814 at the Treaty of Fort Jackson, freeing Jackson and his men to march to New Orleans via the Florida panhandle. He essentially invaded Florida and drove a British force from Pensacola. It was good practice because three years later he would return to Florida in what is known as the 1st Seminole War.

If you try to lock down dates for the 1st Seminole War you will find your eyeballs spinning. During this time period, the deep south and the Gulf Coast was the southwestern frontier. Native peoples were desperately trying to stop the encroachment of Americans onto their lands. Misunderstandings, confrontations, and indiscriminate murder occurred on both sides. Therefore, the dates can range from 1814 to 1819 to just 1818 depending on how the source views its own history and involvement in the many events occurring in this area that involved native peoples. But basically the major events occurred after the War of 1812 was over but most flow from events that occurred during the War of 1812. In 1814, while Britain and the U.S. were still at war, the British had built a fort at Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River and armed the Creek and Seminole Indians and many runaway slaves who were living with the Indians. A company of Royal Marines under the command of Lt. Colonel Edward Nicolls arrived and was invited to relocate to Pensacola. It is these British marines that Andrew Jackson and his men drove out of Pensacola on their way to New Orleans. The marines returned to the river fort and remained after the war was over.

Nicolls provisioned the fort and turned it over to the Seminoles and fugitive slaves. Word of this fort made the settlers in Georgia and Alabama anxious and for good reason. The conflicts between natives and settlers were almost continuous along the U.S. and Spanish border.  In addition, the runaway slaves were certain to be a bad example for the slaves in south Georgia and Alabama, according to the meme of the time. This fort came to be known as Negro Fort since most of the people who stayed were runaway slaves and not the Seminoles who had no interest in the fort. It did not take long for Andrew Jackson to address the problem in his usual way.

In April of 1816, Jackson notified the Spanish Governor that if the Spanish did not remove the fort, the Americans would. The Governor’s response was that he didn’t have the troops to accomplish that so Jackson assigned Brig. General Edmund Pendleton Gaines to take the fort. Gaines had Fort Scott built on the Flint River just above the Florida border. Gaines intended to supply the fort via New Orleans and the Apalachicola River. This would serve two purposes: 1) the Americans could keep an eye on the Fort even though in Spanish territory, and 2) if they fired on the Americans that would be excuse enough to destroy the Fort.

In July, the supply ships reached the Apalachicola River and Clinch, who had been assigned to build Fort Scott, met the fleet at the Negro Fort with about 100 American soldiers and 150 Lower Creek Indians. Clinch’s two gunboats took positions across from the Fort and waited. The men in the fort fired but without experience in using cannon the threat didn’t amount to much. The Americans fired back and the ninth shot hit the powder magazine, leveling the fort and killing more than 250 men, women and children. The Americans withdrew back to Fort Scott.

But the conflicts continued. In February 1817, after raiding and stealing parties had gone back and forth for months, a Mrs. Garrett and her two children were killed by a Seminole raiding party in Camden Co, GA. This set off the final chain of events that would lead to the 1st Seminole War and the transfer of Florida from Spain to the United States.

The First Seminole War Begins (200th anniversary this year)

In November 1817, a conflict developed between the Miccosukee in southwestern Georgia and the commander of Fort Scott. Chief Neamathla of Fowltown challenged the use of the land on the eastern side of Flint River. The commander insisted that the land had been ceded to the U.S. by the Creeks. Neamathla insisted that the Miccosukee were not Creeks (Muskogee) and Creeks had no right to cede Miccosukee land. The Miccosukee were driven out of the village. A week later a supply boat carrying supplies for Fort Scott was attacked on the Apalachicola, killing about 40 to 50 people, including seven wives and possibly some children. Six survivors made it to the Fort. General Gaines was ordered to invade Florida and pursue the Indians but he had left for East Florida to deal with pirates.  Andrew Jackson was ordered to lead the invasion.

In March 1818, Jackson entered Florida with 800 U.S. Army Regulars, 1000 Tennessee volunteers, 1000 Georgia militia and about 1400 Lower Creek under the command of Brig. General William McIntosh, a Creek chief. They marched down the Apalachicola River to the Negro Fort where they built Fort Gadsden. They then set out for the Miccosukee villages of Tallahassee and Miccosukee and both villages were burned. From these two locations they marched to Fort St. Marks.

Here Jackson seized the Spanish fort and imprisoned Alexander Asbuthnot, a Scottish trader living in the Bahamas. Asbuthnot traded with the Florida Indians and had written letters for them to both British and American officials. It was believed he was selling guns to the Indians and preparing them for war. Two Indian leaders were also captured and summarily hanged without trial. The troops left St. Marks and attacked and destroyed some villages along the Suwanee River. Here he declared victory and sent the Georgia militia and Lower Creeks home. The remaining troops marched back to St. Marks.

Around this time the Army captured Robert Ambrister, a former Royal Marine, and a self-described British agent. A military tribunal was called and both Ambrister and Asbuthnot were charged with aiding and inciting the Seminoles to war with the U.S. Both were found guilty and sentenced to death but the tribunal changed the sentence for Ambrister to fifty lashes and a year at hard labor. Jackson would have none of it and had both hanged.

Andrew Jackson's Route in West Florida, 1818

Jackson’s Route Across the Panhandle in 1818

General Jackson reported later that he heard a report that the Indians were being supplied by the Spanish at Pensacola so he left Fort Gadsden and marched to Pensacola with about 1000 men (see map above.  Route near the northern end of the panhandle.  Note towns named from this 1829 effort to document the route). The Spanish governor protested, which did not slow Jackson down. He arrived in Pensacola and the Spanish withdrew to Fort Barrancas. Jackson and his men took Pensacola and the two sides exchanged fire for a couple of days and then the Spanish surrendered.

Negotiations had already begun between the U.S. and Spain for the purchase of Florida. For a time the Spanish protested Jackson’s actions by ending the talks. John Quincy Adams, who was then Secretary of State and handling the negotiations, wrote a letter apologizing for the seizure and indicated that it was not the policy of the U.S. to seize any Spanish territory. Spain resumed negotiations. Adams demanded that Spain either control the inhabitants of East Florida or cede it to the U.S. Spain ceded East Florida and renounced all claims to West Florida. The U.S. took possession of Florida in 1821. As I’ve covered in an earlier blog, immigration of Americans into West Florida in significant numbers began between the treaty signed in 1819 and the official transfer in 1821.

Florida 1822

Florida 1822

In 1823, the U.S. tried to settle the Seminoles on a reservation in the central part of the peninsula. The Seminoles did move onto the reservation but clashes continued sporadically. The white settlers wanted removal and the call for removal never ceased. The Seminoles were not interested in moving. The blacks living with the Seminoles continued to create misunderstandings and hostility between the white settlers and the Indians by just living with Seminoles and discouraging the Seminoles from moving. In 1828, the U.S. closed the fort they had built close to the reservation and the Indians looking for food wandered off the reservation. Also in 1828, Andrew Jackson was elected as President. Two years later Congress passed the Indian Removal Act which required Indians to move west of the Mississippi. In 1832, a treaty was negotiated for the Seminoles to move west if the land was found suitable. The Chiefs that went to Indian Territory to inspect the land on the Creek Reservation and signed a document indicating the land was acceptable, but took their signing back when they got home. The villages along the Apalachicola moved west. Those in the central part of the peninsula did not. In June 1835, an incident occurred between some white settlers and a group of Indians that touched off the next conflict with the Seminoles.

War came in December 1835. Next time we will visit the 2nd and 3rd Seminole Wars and look at some militia records for troops from the panhandle.

Until next time.

Resources

  • Florida Memory.  A great resource for early Florida photographs and maps.  The route of Jackson’s march and the two scenes from the war are from Florida Memory.
  • Florida’s Seminole Wars: 1817-1858 by Joe Knetsch
  • Battle For the Southern Frontier: The Creek War and the War of 1812 by Mike Bunn and Clay Williams
  • Tohopeka: Rethinking the Creek War & the War of 1812 edited by Kathryn E. Holland Braund

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