African-American slaves lived with Seminole Indians in communities or family groups both within territorial boundaries and outside of them, in a relationship characterized as benevolent servitude. Under the Seminoles, blacks served in varying capacities – as advisors, interpreters, warriors, hunters, and field hands. Many intermarried with the Indians. Most blacks living among the Seminoles considered it an improvement over the American chattel system of slavery.
Seminoles were more patrons than masters to their slaves. In the Indian society, blacks were tenant farmers, living in their own villages near Indian villages and paying only a harvest tribute from their yields to the chief. They owned their own horses, cattle, and hogs. Out of some 400 blacks reported living with the Seminoles in the 1820s, only about 80 were identified as fugitive slaves.
The trader Horatio Dexter noted that they “could speak English as well as Indian, and feel satisfied with their situation."
"They have the easy unconstrained manner of the Indian but more vivacity, and from their understanding of both languages possess considerable influence with their masters.”
Seminole society had blacks of every status – free born, slave, and fugitive. Some were more equal in this society than others. Bilingual blacks participated in council meetings and interpreted for Indian leaders at treaty negotiations.
Groups of blacks and Indians not only lived together in and apart from Seminole society, but left the country together. Many runaways slaves went to the Bahamas and Cuba. Seminoles living in south Florida traded with Cuban fishermen, relaying slaves to Havana, sometimes for freedom, sometimes for sale.
The spread of American settlement into Indian territory began a national policy of Indian displacement. In the campaign to remove Indians from Florida, however, land was not the overriding concern. Thousands of acres of public land not claimed by the Seminoles could be easily acquired. A more heated debate centered initially around the ownership of black slaves by Native Americans and later around the threat that their potential alliance posed to national security.
Disputes between whites and Indians over runaway slaves were ongoing. They were complicated by the fact that many federal Indian agents engaged in the slave trade themselves and had a personal interest in the issue. The Indians valued blacks not only as slaves, but as important and much needed cultural go-betweens since they were familiar with the language and customs of the whites.
When Florida became United States territory, the government expected the Seminoles to give up any slaves voluntarily. At the signing of the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, the Indians were to list all their towns and inhabitants and specify how many blacks were included. In addition to reservation land, the Seminoles were to receive $5,000 per year for 20 years, were bound to prevent runaway slaves from passing through Indian territory and turn them over to the federal agent.
Planters migrating into the peninsula from other parts of the country brought slaves with them to perform the heavy labor needed to establish cotton, sugar, or tobacco plantations and farms. Many planters moved into Florida in the 1820s and 30s from the Tidewater and Piedmont regions of the Carolinas. In 1828 the territorial legislature requested that public land be reduced in price to encourage more settlement in the interests of national security. The 1830 census listed 34,730 Floridians, 15,501 of whom were slaves and 844 “free colored” (Colburn and Landers, 130).
White slave interests were supported by the government. The acting governor of Florida in 1827 asked the Legislative Council to strengthen the militia to prepare for hostilities from both the Indians and blacks. He wanted to remove the Indians from the territory altogether, without moving their slaves. An 1826 Florida law to regulate Indian trade called for the death penalty for anyone stealing slaves or hiring someone else to do so. Another law later prohibited “Indian Negroes” from leaving Indian territory.
When the Seminole leaders met with government, officials at Payne’s Landing in Alachua to negotiate the move to the western territory, the Seminoles chose Abraham, “a faithful domestic of Micanope, the Head Chief." In addition, the interpreter of the agent, Cudjo, was present. One prominent politician and historian, John Lee Williams, stated that Abraham had “as much influence in the nation as any other man.” Abraham accompanied seven Seminole leaders to inspect the proposed new Seminole land in Oklahoma in 1832. Although three of the leaders were said to have signed the agreement, Chief Micanope declined the offer on behalf of the Seminole nation.
The majority of the Indians opposed emigration on any terms, even though some leaders felt that resistance would be futile in the face of U.S. power. Osceola emerged as leader of the resistance; he later killed one of the leaders who had counseled for removal against the wishes of his people. The Indians were advised that their situation would be much worse if they remained in Florida without federal protection, but Micanope held firm that the Moultrie Creek Treaty, which had a term of 20 years, allowed them to live in Florida for nine more years. Other Indian leaders protested that the Paynes Landing Treaty had not been explained to them well and that the western land had been evaluated as no good.
Abraham, who had interpreted for the removal treaties, now counseled for resistance. At a meeting arranged in April, 1835 the Seminole Council was told that if they did not voluntarily emigrate, they would be removed by force. Advisors warned the adjutant general of the army that the Florida frontier might be destroyed “by a combination of the Indians, Indian Negroes, and the Negroes on the plantations.”
In December, 1835 reinforcements arrived and the Army prepared to move on the Seminole country to round up and emigrate the Indians by force after New Year’s Day. When the Indians attacked the plantations along the East Coast, they were aided by black allies, and were joined by approximately 300 slaves. The leaders of the raids included John Caesar and John Philip, black Seminoles who had family members on the plantations.
Blacks were sympathetic to the cause of Indian resistance throughout the war, and had a significant influence on the events leading to it. This can be seen in the fact that one of the guarantees emerging from the resolution of the war was that blacks would be permitted to go to the West with the Seminoles, rather than being sold into slavery.