Skip to content First Seminole War (1817-1818)

Osceola on Wikipedia
Osceola on Wikipedia

The beginning and ending dates for the First Seminole War are not firmly established. The U.S. Army Infantry indicates that it lasted from 1814 until 1819. The U.S. Navy Naval Historical Centre gives dates of 1816-1818. Another Army site dates the war as 1817-1818. Finally, the unit history of the 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery describes the war as occurring solely in 1818.

i- Creek War and the Negro Fort
The next big event to affect the Seminoles of Florida was the Creek War of 1813-1814. Andrew Jackson became a national hero in 1814 after his victory over the Creek Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. After his victory, Jackson forced the Treaty of Fort Jackson on the Creeks, resulting in the loss of much Creek territory in southern Georgia and central and southern Alabama. As a result, many Creek left Alabama and Georgia and moved to Florida.

Also in 1814, Britain, at war with the United States, landed forces in Pensacola and other places in West Florida and began to recruit Indian allies. In May 1814, a British force entered the mouth of the Apalachicola River, handing out arms to Seminoles, Creeks and runaway slaves. The British moved upriver and began building a fort at Prospect Bluff. After the British and their Indian allies were beaten back from an attack on Mobile, a US force led by General Jackson drove the British out of Pensacola. Work on the Prospect Bluff fort continued, however.

When the war ended, the British forces left West Florida, except for Major Edward Nicholls of the Royal Marines. He directed the provisioning of the fort with cannon, muskets and ammunition, and told the Indians that the Treaty of Ghent guaranteed the return of all Indian lands lost during the war, including the Creek lands in Georgia and Alabama. The Seminoles were not interested in holding a fort, however, and returned to their villages. Before he left in the summer of 1815, Major Nicholls invited the runaway slaves in the area to take possession of the fort. Word spread about the fort. Soon whites in the southern US called it the “Negro Fort”, and they worried it was dangerous inspiration for their slaves to run away or revolt.

Andrew Jackson wanted to eliminate the Negro Fort, but it was in Spanish territory. In April 1816, he informed the governor of West Florida that if the Spanish did not eliminate the fort, he would. The governor replied that he did not have the means at his disposal to take the fort. Jackson assigned Brig. Gen. Edmund Pendleton Gaines to deal with the fort. Gaines directed Col. Duncan Lamont Clinch to build Fort Scott on the Flint River just north of the Florida border. Gaines then stated his intention to supply Fort Scott from New Orleans via the Apalachicola River, which would mean passing through Spanish territory and past the Negro Fort. Gaines told Jackson that using the Apalachicola to supply Fort Scott would allow the U.S. Army to keep an eye on the Seminoles and the Negro Fort. If the fort fired on the supply boats, it would give the Americans an excuse to destroy it.

A supply fleet for Fort Scott reached the Apalachicola in July 1816. Clinch marched down the Apalachicola with a force of more than 100 American soldiers and about 150 Creeks. The supply fleet met Clinch at the Negro Fort, and the two gunboats with the fleet took positions across the river from the fort. The blacks in the fort fired their cannon at the U.S. soldiers and their Creek allies, but had no training or experience in aiming the cannon. The Americans fired back, and the ninth shot fired by the gunboats, a “hot shot” (a cannon ball heated to a red glow), landed in the fort’s powder magazine. The resulting explosion, which was heard more than 100 miles away in Pensacola, levelled the fort. Of about 320 people who had been in the fort, more than 250 died instantly, and many more died from their injuries soon after. After the destruction of the fort, the U.S. Army withdrew from Florida. American squatters and outlaws carried out raids against the Seminoles, killing the Indians and stealing their cattle. Resentment over the killings and thefts spread among the Seminoles. They retaliated by stealing cattle back from the settlers. On February 24, 1817, the Seminoles murdered Mrs. Garrett, a woman living in Camden County, Georgia, and her two young children.

ii- Fowltown and the Scott Massacre
Fowltown was a Mikasuki village in southwestern Georgia, about 15 miles east of Fort Scott. Chief Neamathla of Fowltown got into a dispute with the commander of Fort Scott over the use of land on the eastern side of the Flint River, essentially claiming Mikasuki sovereignty over the area. The land in southern Georgia had been ceded by the Creeks in the Treaty of Fort Jackson, but the Mikasukis did not consider themselves Creek, did not feel bound by the treaty, and did not accept that the Creeks had any right to cede Mikasuki land. In November 1817, General Gaines sent a force of 250 men to seize Neamathla. The first attempt was beaten off by the Mikasukis. The next day, November 22, 1817, the Mikasukis were driven from their village. Some historians date the start of the war to this attack on Fowltown. David Brydie Mitchell, former governor of Georgia and Creek Indian agent at the time, stated in a report to Congress that the attack on Fowltown was the start of the First Seminole War.

A week later a boat carrying supplies for Fort Scott, under the command of Lt. R. W. Scott, was attacked on the Apalachicola River. There were forty to fifty people on the boat, including twenty sick soldiers, seven wives of soldiers, and possibly some children. (While there are reports of four children being killed by the Seminoles, they were not mentioned in early reports of the massacre, and their presence has not been confirmed.) Most of the boat’s passengers were killed by the Indians. One woman was taken prisoner, and six survivors made it to the fort.

General Gaines had been under orders not to invade Florida, later amended to allow short intrusions into Florida. When news of the Scott Massacre on the Apalachicola reached Washington, D.C., Gaines was ordered to invade Florida and pursue the Indians but not to attack any Spanish installations. However, Gaines had left for East Florida to deal with pirates who had occupied Fernandina. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun then ordered Andrew Jackson to lead the invasion of Florida.

iii- Jackson Invades Florida
Jackson gathered his forces at Fort Scott in March 1818, including 800 U.S. Army regulars, 1,000 Tennessee volunteers, 1,000 Georgia militia,[22] and about 1,400 friendly Lower Creek warriors. On March 15, Jackson’s army entered Florida, marching down the Apalachicola River. When they reached the site of the Negro Fort, Jackson had his men construct a new fort, Fort Gadsden. The army then set out for the Mikasuki villages around Lake Miccosukee. The Indian town of Tallahassee was burned on March 31, and the town of Miccosukee was taken the next day. More than 300 Indian homes were destroyed. Jackson then turned south, reaching St. Marks on April 6.

At St. Marks Jackson seized the Spanish fort. There he found Alexander George Arbuthnot, a Scottish trader working out of the Bahamas. He traded with the Indians in Florida and had written letters to British and American officials on behalf of the Indians. He was rumoured to be selling guns to the Indians and to be preparing them for war. He probably was selling guns, since the main trade item of the Indians was deer skins, and they needed guns to hunt the deer. Two Indian leaders, Josiah Francis, a Red Stick Creek, also known as the “Prophet” (not to be confused with Tenskwatawa), and Homathlemico, had been captured when they had gone out to an American ship flying the British Union Flag that had anchored off of St. Marks. As soon as Jackson arrived at St. Marks, the two Indians were brought ashore and hanged.

Jackson left St. Marks to attack villages along the Suwannee River, which were occupied primarily by fugitive slaves. On April 12, the army found a Red Stick village on the Econfina River. Close to 40 Red Sticks were killed, and about 100 women and children were captured. In the village, they found Elizabeth Stewart, the woman who had been captured in the attack on the supply boat on the Apalachicola River the previous November. Harassed by Black Seminoles along the route, the army found the villages on the Suwannee empty. About this time, Robert Ambrister, a former Royal Marine and self-appointed British “agent”, was captured by Jackson’s army. Having destroyed the major Seminole and black villages, Jackson declared victory and sent the Georgia Militia and the Lower Creeks home. The remaining army then returned to St. Marks.

At St. Marks a military tribunal was convened, and Ambrister and Arbuthnot were charged with aiding the Seminoles and the Spaniards, inciting them to war and leading them against the United States. Ambrister threw himself on the mercy of the court, while Arbuthnot maintained his innocence, saying that he had only been engaged in legal trade. The tribunal sentenced both men to death but then relented and changed Ambrister’s sentence to fifty lashes and a year at hard labour. Jackson, however, reinstated Ambrister’s death penalty. Ambrister was executed by a firing squad on April 29, 1818. Arbuthnot was hanged from the yardarm of his own ship.

Jackson left a garrison at St. Marks and returned to Ft. Gadsden. Jackson had first reported that all was peaceful and that he would be returning to Nashville, Tennessee. He later reported that Indians were gathering and being supplied by the Spanish, and he left Fort Gadsden with 1,000 men on May 7, headed for Pensacola. The governor of West Florida protested that most of the Indians at Pensacola were women and children and that the men were unarmed, but Jackson did not stop. When Jackson reached Pensacola on May 23, the governor and the 175-man Spanish garrison retreated to Fort Barrancas, leaving the city of Pensacola to Jackson. The two sides exchanged cannon fire for a couple of days, and then the Spanish surrendered Fort Barrancas on May 28. Jackson left Col. William King as military governor of West Florida and went home.

iv- Consequences
There were international repercussions to Jackson’s actions. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams had just started negotiations with Spain for the purchase of Florida. Spain protested the invasion and seizure of West Florida and suspended the negotiations. Spain did not have the means to retaliate against the United States or regain West Florida by force, so Adams let the Spanish protest, then issued a letter (with 72 supporting documents) blaming the war on the British, Spanish, and Indians. In the letter he also apologized for the seizure of West Florida, said that it had not been American policy to seize Spanish territory, and offered to give St. Marks and Pensacola back to Spain. Spain accepted and eventually resumed negotiations for the sale of Florida. Defending Jackson’s actions as necessary, and sensing that they strengthened his diplomatic standing, Adams demanded Spain either control the inhabitants of East Florida or cede it to the United States. An agreement was then reached whereby Spain ceded East Florida to the United States and renounced all claim to West.

Britain protested the execution of two of its subjects who had never entered United States territory. There was talk in Britain of demanding reparations and taking reprisals. Americans worried about another war with Britain. In the end Britain, realizing how important the United States was to its economy, opted for maintaining good relations.

There were also repercussions in America. Congressional committees held hearings into the irregularities of the Ambrister and Arbuthnot trials. While most Americans supported Jackson, some worried that Jackson could become a “man on horseback”, a Napoleon. When Congress reconvened in December 1818, resolutions were introduced condemning Jackson’s actions. Jackson was too popular, and the resolutions failed, but the Ambrister and Arbuthnot executions left a stain on his reputation for the rest of his life, even if it was not enough to keep him from becoming president.

v- First Interbellum
Spain did cede Florida, and the United States took possession in 1821. Effective government was slow in coming to Florida. General Andrew Jackson was appointed military governor of Florida in March 1821, but he did not arrive in Pensacola until July 1821. He resigned the post in September 1821 and returned home in October, having spent just three months in Florida. His successor, William P. DuVal, was not appointed until April 1822, and he left for an extended visit to his home in Kentucky before the end of the year. Other official positions in the territory had similar turn-over and absences.

The Seminoles were still a problem for the new government. In early 1822, Capt. John R. Bell, provisional secretary of the Florida territory and temporary agent to the Seminoles, prepared an estimate of the number of Indians in Florida. He reported about 22,000 Indians, and 5,000 slaves held by Indians. He estimated that two-thirds of them were refugees from the Creek War, with no valid claim (in the U.S. view) to Florida. Indian settlements were located in the areas around the Apalachicola River, along the Suwannee River, from there south-eastwards to the Alachua Prairie, and then south-westward to a little north of Tampa Bay.

Officials in Florida were concerned from the beginning about the situation with the Seminoles. Until a treaty was signed establishing a reservation, the Indians were not sure of where they could plant crops and expect to be able to harvest them, and they had to contend with white squatters moving into land they occupied. There was no system for licensing traders, and unlicensed traders were supplying the Seminoles with liquor. However, because of the part-time presence and frequent turnover of territorial officials, meetings with the Seminoles are cancelled, postponed, or sometimes held merely to set a time and place for a new meeting.

vi- Treaty of Moultrie Creek
In 1823, the government finally decided to settle the Seminoles on a reservation in the central part of the territory. A meeting to negotiate a treaty was scheduled for early September 1823 at Moultrie Creek, south of St. Augustine. About 425 Seminoles attended the meeting, choosing Neamathla to be their chief representative. Under the terms of the treaty negotiated there, the Seminoles were forced to place themselves under the protection of the United States and to give up all claim to lands in Florida, in exchange for a reservation of about four million acres (16,000 km²). The reservation would run down the middle of the Florida peninsula from just north of present-day Ocala to a line even with the southern end of Tampa Bay. The boundaries were well inland from both coasts, to prevent contact with traders from Cuba and the Bahamas. Neamathla and five other chiefs, however, were allowed to keep their villages along the Apalachicola River.

Under the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, the United States government was obligated to protect the Seminoles as long as they remained peaceful and law-abiding. The government was supposed to distribute farm implements, cattle and hogs to the Seminoles, compensate them for travel and losses involved in relocating to the reservation, and provide rations for a year, until the Seminoles could plant and harvest new crops. The government was also supposed to pay the tribe US$5,000 per year for twenty years and provide an interpreter, a school and a blacksmith for twenty years. In turn, the Seminoles had to allow roads to be built across the reservation and had to apprehend any runaway slaves or other fugitives and return them to United States jurisdiction.

Implementation of the treaty stalled. Fort Brooke, with four companies of infantry, was established on the site of present-day Tampa in early 1824, to show the Seminoles that the government was serious about moving them onto the reservation. However, by June James Gadsden, who was the principal author of the treaty and charged with implementing it, was reporting that the Seminoles were unhappy with the treaty and were hoping to renegotiate it. Fear of a new war crept in. In July, Governor DuVal mobilized the militia and ordered the Tallahassee and Mikasukee chiefs to meet him in St. Marks. At that meeting he ordered the Seminoles to move to the reservation by October 1, 1824.

The Seminoles still had not started moving to the reservation in October. Governor DuVal began paying the Seminoles compensation for the improvements they were having to leave as an incentive to move. He also had the rations that had been promised sent to Fort Brooke on Tampa Bay for distribution. The Seminoles finally began moving onto the reservation, but within a year some of them were moving back to their former homes between the Suwannee and Apalachicola rivers. Although most of the Seminoles were on the reservation by 1826, they were not doing well. They had to clear and plant new fields, and even the fields that had been planted were hit by a drought. Some of the Seminoles were reported to have starved to death. Both Col. George M. Brooke, commander of Fort Brooke, and Governor DuVal wrote to Washington seeking help for the starving Seminoles, but the requests got caught up in a debate over whether the Seminoles should be moved to west of the Mississippi River. As a result, nothing was done for five months about providing relief for the Seminoles.

The Seminoles slowly settled into the reservation, although there were isolated clashes with whites. Fort King was built near the reservation agency, at the site of present-day Ocala, and by early 1827 the Army could report that the Seminoles were on the reservation and Florida was peaceful. This peace lasted for five years, during which time there were repeated calls for the Seminoles to be sent west of the Mississippi. The Seminoles were opposed to any such move, and especially to the suggestion that they join their Creek relations. Most whites regarded the Seminoles as simply Creeks who had recently moved to Florida, while the Seminoles claimed Florida as their home and denied that they had any connection with the Creeks.

The status of runaway slaves was a continuing irritation between Seminoles and whites. Seminoles and slave catchers argued over the ownership of slaves. New plantations in Florida increased the pool of slaves who could run away to the Seminoles. Worried about the possibility of an Indian uprising and/or a slave rebellion, Governor DuVal requested additional Federal troops for Florida. Instead, Fort King was closed in 1828. The Seminoles, short of food and finding the hunting becoming poorer on the reservation, were wandering off of it more often. Also in 1828, Andrew Jackson, the old enemy of the Seminoles, was elected President of the United States. In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. All problems with the Seminoles were to be solved by moving them west of the Mississippi.

vii- Treaty of Payne’s Landing
In the spring of 1832, the Seminoles on the reservation were called to a meeting at Payne’s Landing on the Oklawaha River. The treaty negotiated there called for the Seminoles to move west, if the land were found to be suitable. They were to settle on the Creek reservation and become part of the Creek tribe. The delegation of seven chiefs who were to inspect the new reservation did not leave Florida until October 1832. After touring the area for several months and conferring with the Creeks who had already been settled there, the seven chiefs signed a statement on March 28, 1833, that the new land was acceptable. Upon their return to Florida, however, most of the chiefs renounced the statement, claiming that they had not signed it, or that they had been forced to sign it, and in any case, that they did not have the power to decide for all the tribes and bands that resided on the reservation. The villages in the area of the Apalachicola River were more easily persuaded, however, and went west in 1834.

Osceola, Seminole Leader
The United States Senate finally ratified the Treaty of Payne’s Landing in April 1834. The treaty had given the Seminoles three years to move west of the Mississippi. The government interpreted the three years as starting 1832 and expected the Seminoles to move in 1835. Fort King was reopened in 1834. A new Seminole agent, Wiley Thompson, had been appointed in 1834, and the task of persuading the Seminoles to move fell to him. He called the chiefs together at Fort King in October 1834 to talk to them about the removal to the west. The Seminoles informed Thompson that they had no intention of moving and that they did not feel bound by the Treaty of Payne’s Landing. Thompson then requested reinforcements for Fort King and Fort Brooke, reporting that, “the Indians after they had received the Annuity, purchased an unusually large quantity of Powder & Lead.” General Clinch also warned Washington that the Seminoles did not intend to move and that more troops would be needed to force them to move. In March 1835, Thompson called the chiefs together to read a letter from Andrew Jackson to them. In his letter, Jackson said, “Should you … refuse to move, I have then directed the Commanding officer to remove you by force.” The chiefs asked for thirty days to respond. A month later, the Seminole chiefs told Thompson that they would not move west. Thompson and the chiefs began arguing, and General Clinch had to intervene to prevent bloodshed. Eventually, eight of the chiefs agreed to move west but asked to delay the move until the end of the year, and Thompson and Clinch agreed.

Five of the most important of the Seminole chiefs, including Micanopy of the Alachua Seminoles, had not agreed to the move. In retaliation, Thompson declared that those chiefs were removed from their positions. As relations with the Seminoles deteriorated, Thompson forbid the sale of guns and ammunition to the Seminoles. Osceola, a young warrior beginning to be noticed by the whites, was particularly upset by the ban, feeling that it equated Seminoles with slaves and said, “The white man shall not make me black. I will make the white man red with blood; and then blacken him in the sun and rain … and the buzzard live upon his flesh.” In spite of this, Thompson considered Osceola to be a friend and gave him a rifle. Later, though, when Osceola was causing trouble, Thompson had him locked up at Fort King for a night. The next day, in order to secure his release, Osceola agreed to abide by the Treaty of Payne’s Landing and to bring his followers in.

The situation grew worse. On June 19, 1835, a group of whites searching for lost cattle found a group of Indians sitting around a campfire cooking the remains of what they claimed was one of their herd. The whites disarmed and proceeded to whip the Indians, when two more arrived and opened fire on the whites. Three whites were wounded and one Indian was killed and one wounded, at what became known as the skirmish at Hickory Sink. After complaining to Indian Agent Thompson and not receiving a satisfactory response, the Seminoles became further convinced that they would not receive fair compensations for their complaints of hostile treatment by the settlers. Believed to be in response for the incident at Hickory Sink, in August 1835, Private Kinsley Dalton (for whom Dalton, Georgia, is named) was killed by Seminoles as he was carrying the mail from Fort Brooke to Fort King.

In November 1835 Chief Charley Emathla, wanting no part of a war, agreed to removal and sold his cattle at Fort King in preparation for moving his people to Fort Brooke to emigrate to the west. This act was considered a betrayal by other Seminoles who months earlier declared in council that any Seminole chief who sold his cattle would be sentenced to death. Osceola met Charley Emathla on the trail back to his village and killed him, scattering the money from the cattle purchase across his body.

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