The Seminole Wars, also known as the Florida Wars, were three conflicts in Florida between various groups of Native Americans, collectively known as Seminoles, and the United States. The First Seminole War was from 1817 to 1818; the Second Seminole War from 1835 to 1842; and the Third Seminole War from 1855 to 1858. The Second Seminole War, often referred to as "The Seminole War", lasted longer than any other war involving the United States between the American Revolution and the Vietnam War.
The indigenous people of Florida declined significantly in number after the arrival of Europeans in the region. The Native Americans had little resistance to diseases newly introduced from Europe. Spanish suppression of native revolts further reduced the population in northern Florida. By the early 18th century, colonial soldiers from the Province of Carolina and their Indian allies had killed or carried off almost all the remaining native inhabitants. They had conducted a series of raids extending the full length of the peninsula. When Spain surrendered Florida to Great Britain in 1763, the Spanish took the few surviving Florida Indians to Cuba.
Bands from various Native American tribes from the southeastern United States began moving into the unoccupied lands of Florida. In 1715, Yamasees moved into Florida as allies of the Spanish after conflicts with the English colonies. Creek people, at first primarily Lower Creeks but later including Upper Creeks, also started moving into Florida from the area of Georgia. The Mikasuki, Hitchiti-speakers, settled around what is now Lake Miccosukee near Tallahassee. (Descendants of this group have maintained its separate tribal identity as today's Miccosukee.)
Another group of Hitchiti-speakers led by Cowkeeper settled in what is now Alachua County, an area where the Spanish had maintained cattle ranches in the 17th century. One of the best-known ranches was Rancho de la Chua. The region became known as the "Alachua Prairie". The Spanish in St. Augustine began calling the Alachua Creeks Cimarrones, which roughly meant "wild ones" or "runaways". This was the probable origin of the term "Seminole". This name was eventually applied to the other groups in Florida, although the Indians still regarded themselves as members of different tribes. Other Native American groups in Florida during the Seminole Wars included Yuchis or "Spanish Indians", so called because it was believed that they were descended from Calusas; and "rancho Indians", who lived at Spanish/Cuban fishing camps on the Florida coast.
Escaped African and African-American slaves who could reach Spanish Florida were essentially free. The Spanish authorities welcomed them and allowed them to settle in their own town, called Fort Mose, in close proximity to St. Augustine. The Spanish recruited the blacks in a militia to help defend the city. Other escaped slaves joined various "Seminole" bands as free members of the tribe.
While most of the former slaves at Fort Mose went to Cuba when the Spanish left Florida in 1763, others lived with or near various bands of Indians. Slaves continued to escape from the Carolinas and Georgia and make their way to Florida. The blacks who stayed with or later joined the Seminoles became integrated into the tribes, learning the languages, adopting the dress, and inter-marrying. Some of these Black Seminoles became important tribal leaders.
During the American Revolution, the British—who controlled Florida—recruited Seminoles to raid frontier settlements in Georgia. The confusion of war allowed more slaves to escape to Florida. The British promised slaves freedom for fighting with them. These events made the Seminoles enemies of the new United States. In 1783, as part of the treaty ending the Revolutionary War, Florida was returned to Spain. Spain's grip on Florida was light, as it maintained only small garrisons at St. Augustine, St. Marks and Pensacola. They did not control the border between Florida and the United States. Mikasukis and other Seminole groups still occupied towns on the United States side of the border, while American squatters moved into Spanish Florida.
The British had divided Florida into East Florida and West Florida in 1763, a division retained by the Spanish when they regained Florida in 1783. West Florida extended from the Apalachicola River to the Mississippi River. Together with their possession of Louisiana, the Spanish controlled the lower reaches of all of the rivers draining the United States west of the Appalachian Mountains. It prohibited the US from transport and trade on the lower Mississippi. In addition to its desire to expand west of the mountains, the United States wanted to acquire Florida. It wanted to gain free commerce on western rivers, and to prevent Florida from being used a base for possible invasion of the U.S. by a European country.
The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 put the mouth of the Mississippi River in US hands. But, much of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee were drained by rivers that passed through East or West Florida to reach the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. claimed that the Louisiana Purchase had included West Florida west of the Perdido River, while Spain claimed that West Florida extended to the Mississippi River.
In 1810, residents of Baton Rouge formed a new government, seized the local Spanish fort and requested protection by the United States. President James Madison authorized William C.C. Claiborne, governor of the Territory of Orleans, to seize West Florida from the Mississippi River to as far east as the Perdido River. Claiborne only occupied the area west of the Pearl River (the current eastern boundary of Louisiana). Madison sent George Mathews to deal with Florida. When an offer to turn the remainder of West Florida over to the U.S. was rescinded by the governor of West Florida, Mathews travelled to East Florida to incite a rebellion similar to that in Baton Rouge.
The residents of East Florida were happy with the status quo, so the US raised a force of volunteers in Georgia with a promise of free land. In March 1812, this force of "Patriots", with the aid of some United States Navy gunboats, seized Fernandina. The seizure of Fernandina was authorized by President James Madison, but he later disavowed it. The Patriots were unable to take the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine. The increasing tensions and approach of war with Great Britain led to an end of the US incursion into East Florida. In 1813 an American force did succeed in seizing Mobile, Alabama from the Spanish.
Before the Patriot army withdrew from Florida, Seminoles, as allies of the Spanish, began to attack them.