By late 1855, there were more than 700 Army troops stationed on the Florida peninsula. Around that time the Seminoles decided that they would strike back at the increasing pressure being put on them and attack when an opportunity presented itself. Sam Jones may have been the instigator of this decision; Chipco was said to have been against it. On December 7, 1855, First Lieutenant George Hartsuff, who had led previous patrols into the reservation, left Fort Myers with ten men and two wagons. They found no Seminoles but did pass corn fields and three deserted villages, including Billy Bowlegs‘ village. On the evening of December 19, Hartsuff told his men that they would be returning to Fort Myers the next day. As the men were loading the wagons and saddling their horses the next morning (December 20, 1855), forty Seminoles led by Billy Bowlegs attacked the camp. Several soldiers were shot, including Lieutenant Hartsuff, who managed to hide himself. The Seminoles killed and scalped four men in the camp, killed the wagon mules, looted and burned the wagons and took several horses. Seven men, four of them wounded, made it back to Fort Myers.
When the news of the attack reached Tampa, the men of the city elected militia officers and organized companies. The newly-formed militia marched to the Peace River valley, recruited more men, and manned some forts along the river. Governor James Broome started organizing as many volunteer companies as he could. Because the state had limited funds, he tried to have the Army accept the volunteers. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis accepted two infantry companies and three mounted companies, about 260 men. Governor Broome kept another 400 men mobilized under state control. The state troops, both those accepted by the Army and those remaining under state control, had been partly armed and supplied by private donations. General Jesse Carter was appointed by Governor Broome as “special agent … without military rank” to lead the state troops. Carter set half of the state troops to growing crops, and so only 200 of his men were available for patrols. A Tampa newspaper noted that the mounted patrols preferred to patrol in open country, which was easier for the horses, but it allowed the Seminoles to see them coming.
On January 6, 1856, two men gathering coontie south of the Miami River were killed. The settlers in the area promptly fled to Fort Dallas and Key Biscayne. A party of some twenty Seminoles under Ocsen Tustenuggee attacked a wood-cutting patrol outside of Fort Denaud, killing five of the six men. Despite the positioning of militia units to defend the area, the Seminoles also raided along the coast south of Tampa Bay. They killed one man and burned a house in what is now Sarasota, and on March 31, 1856, they tried to attack the “Braden Castle”, the plantation home of Dr. Joseph Braden, in what is now Bradenton. The “Castle” was too strong for them, but they led away seven slaves and three mules. Burdened with prisoners and loot, the Seminoles did not move fast. While they were stopped at Big Charley Apopka Creek eating barbecued beef from a cow they had found and slaughtered, the militia caught up with them. The militiamen killed two of the Seminoles and recaptured the slaves and mules taken from Dr. Braden’s plantation. The scalp of one of the dead Seminoles was displayed in Tampa, the other in Manatee.
During April, regular Army and militiamen patrolled around and into the reservation but made little contact with the Seminoles. One six-hour battle was fought near Bowlegs Town in April, with four regulars killed and three wounded before the Seminoles withdrew. The Seminoles continued to carry out small raids around the state. On May 14, 1856, fifteen Seminoles attacked the farm house of Captain Robert Bradley north of Tampa, killing two of his young children. One Seminole was killed by Bradley. Bradley may have been targeted because he had killed Tiger Tail’s brother during the Second Seminole War. On May 17, Seminoles attacked a wagon train in central Florida, killing three men. Mail and stagecoach service in and out of Tampa was suspended until the military could provide protection.
On June 14, 1856, Seminoles attacked a farm two miles (3 km) from Fort Meade. All of the household made it safely into the house, and they were able to hold the Seminoles at bay. The gunfire was heard at Fort Meade, and seven mounted militiamen responded. Three of the militiamen were killed and two others wounded. More militiamen pursued the Seminoles but had to retreat when a sudden rain wet their powder. On June 16, twenty militiamen from Fort Fraser surprised a group of Seminoles along the Peace River, killing some of the Seminoles. The militiamen withdrew after losing two dead and three wounded. They claimed to have killed as many as twenty Seminoles, but the Indians admitted to only four dead and two wounded. However, one of the dead was Ocsen Tustenuggee, who seems to have been the only chief who would actively lead attacks against settlements.
The citizens of Florida were becoming disenchanted with the militia. There were complaints that the militiamen would pretend to patrol for a day or two and then go home to work their fields, and that they were given to idleness, drunkenness, and thievery. The officers were reported to be unwilling to submit required paperwork. Most importantly, the militia had failed to prevent attacks against settlers.
i- New Strategy
In September 1856, Brigadier General William S. Harney returned to Florida as commander of the federal troops. Remembering the lessons he had learned in the Second Seminole War, he set up a system of forts in a line across Florida, and patrols moved deep into Seminole territory. He planned to confine the Seminoles to the Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades, because he believed they would be unable to live there during the wet season. He anticipated being able to catch the Indians when they left their flooded sanctuaries seeking dry land for raising their crops. Part of Harney’s plan involved using boats to reach islands and other dry spots in the swamps. He first made one more attempt to negotiate with the Seminoles but was unable to make contact with them. In early January 1857, he ordered his troops to actively pursue the Indians. Harney’s plan, however, had shown few results by the time he and the Fifth Infantry were transferred to Kansas to aid in the uprisings there in April.
Colonel Gustaus Loomis replaced General Harney as commander in Florida, but the withdrawal of the Fifth Infantry left him with only ten companies of the Fourth Artillery, which was later reduced to just four companies. Loomis organized volunteers into boat companies, which were given metal “alligator boats” that had been built earlier specifically for use in the Big Cypress Swamp and Everglades. Thirty feet (9 m) long, pointed at both ends, and drawing two to three feet (0.7 m) of water, the boats could carry up to sixteen men into the swamps. These boat companies were able to capture many Indians, primarily women and children. The regulars did not do as well. Some officers, including Captain Abner Doubleday, observed that the Seminoles easily avoided the Army patrols. Doubleday attributed this to the fact that most of the enlisted men were recent immigrants who had no skills in woodcraft.
In 1857, ten companies of Florida militia were taken into federal service, totalling almost 800 men by September. In November these troops capture eighteen women and children from Billy Bowlegs’ band. The troops also found and destroyed several towns and fields of crops. The troops moved into the Big Cypress Swamp starting on New Year’s Day 1858, again destroying the towns and cultivated fields they found. Another delegation from the Indian Territory arrived in Florida in January and attempted to contact Bowlegs. The troops stood down while the attempt was made, and Bowlegs was contacted. The previous year the Seminoles had finally been given their own reservation in Indian Territory separate from the Creeks. Cash payments of US$500 to each warrior (more to the chiefs) and $100 to each woman were promised. On March 15, Bowlegs’ and Assinwar’s bands accepted the offer and agreed to go west. On May 4, a total of 163 Seminoles (including some captured earlier) were shipped to New Orleans. On May 8, 1858, Colonel Loomis declared the war to be over.
When Colonel Loomis declared an end to the Third Seminole War, it was believed that there were only one hundred Seminoles left in Florida. In December 1858, the US made another attempt to move the remaining Indians west. Two bands totalling 75 Seminoles came in and were shipped west on February 15, 1859.
Seminoles remained in Florida, however. Sam Jones’ band was living in southeast Florida, inland from Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Chipco’s band was living north of Lake Okeechobee, although the Army and militia had failed to locate it. Individual families were scattered across the wetlands of southern Florida. Since the war was officially over and the remaining Seminoles were staying quiet, the militia were sent home and the regular Army troops were reassigned.
All of the forts built for the Seminole wars were decommissioned and soon stripped by settlers of any usable material. In 1862, the state contacted Sam Jones with promises of aid in an attempt to keep the Seminoles neutral in the Civil War. Although the state did not follow through on its promises, the Seminoles were not interested in fighting another war.
The 1868 Florida Constitution, developed by the Republican-dominated Reconstruction legislature, gave the Seminole one seat in the house and one seat in the senate of the state legislature. The Seminole never filled the positions. In 1885, after southern white Democrats had regained political power in the state, they passed a new constitution in 1885. It removed the seats for Seminole and established barriers to voter registration and electoral practices that essentially disfranchised most blacks and minorities.