Forgotten Rebellion: Black Seminoles and the Largest Slave Revolt in U.S. History
Historian Amy Sturgis recounts history that seems made for the movies but hasn’t made it to the big screen. It’s a decades-long story of oppression and freedom fighting. Why hasn’t there been more attention paid to John Horse and the Black Seminoles?
Prof. Sturgis argues that John Horse and the Black Seminoles deserve to be remembered for a number of reasons:
- They created the largest haven in the U.S. South for runaway slaves.
- They led the largest slave revolt in U.S. history.
- They secured the only emancipation of rebellious slaves prior to the U.S. Civil War.
- The formed the largest mass exodus of slaves across the United States and, ultimately, to Mexico.
Learn more about this remarkable story that has been overlooked by film makers, popular culture, and, importantly, historians of slavery. This story has fallen through the cracks, in part because it blends the history of Native Americans and of slaves and in part because it represents a blemish in U.S. history. But this group of freedom fighters—who ultimately found peace, liberty, and prosperity—is worth remembering.
It’s hard to imagine that Hollywood hasn’t jumped all over this, you would think it would be box office gold because it’s part Spartacus and part Braveheart and part Amistad and part Glory with a little bit of Dances with Wolves thrown in. A story, decades long, of oppression and freedom fighting, I don’t understand why there hasn’t been more attention to John Horse and the Black Seminoles, but hopefully we can correct this.
John Horse and the Black Seminoles deserve to be remembered for a number of reasons. They created the largest haven in the U.S. South for runaway slaves. They led the largest slave revolt in U.S. history. They secured the only emancipation of rebellious slaves prior to the U.S. Civil War, and they formed the largest mass exodus of slaves across the United States, moving from the Florida Everglades through Indian Territory—what would become Oklahoma—eventually locating in Mexico where they secured title to their own land. It’s a remarkable story.
It’s overlooked not just by film makers; it’s not well known in popular culture, and in fact it’s been overlooked by historians of slavery, if you can believe it. In the early 18th Century, two groups in particular fled the colonial South into Spanish Florida, into the Everglades. One of these groups were Seminoles who were migrating from the various colonies, just trying to avoid white encroachment basically, trying to move some place that white colonists weren’t.
And the other group was runaway slaves, people who were fleeing and trying to create a free life for themselves. Both were welcome in Florida and in fact the Spanish crown offered runaway slaves their freedom if they would defend the land for the crown, for the Spanish. So a mixed society emerged in the Everglades of intermarriage, family intermingling between these runaway slaves and the Seminoles. And in fact the first legally sanctioned black free town in the North American continent was in the Spanish Florida Everglades.
After the American Revolution, people living in the Southern States didn’t really like living that close to a large armed population of former slaves, particularly when they were in league with the local Native American nation, the large, armed group of free Seminoles. And they knew that their own slaves felt free to run away and be harbored by this group. They knew that they were welcomed. And so from George Washington’s administration on there was questions of what do we do about the problem of the Florida Everglades.
In 1818, this was James Monroe’s administration, General Andrew Jackson actually moved into Florida, invaded it. Not authorized to do so, he was actually pursuing justice against those who’d attacked Fort Scott in Georgia, but he did it anyway. He went into Florida and claimed it for the United States. When he seized the peninsula he took the opportunity to execute some of the people who opposed him and also to clean out some of the areas of former slaves and Seminoles because he felt this would make it better for annexation.
The United States then soon actually bought Florida from the Spanish. When Jackson became president he decided to make sure that the Black Seminole communities were moved out by force. So he pursued this in his policy, his larger policy of Indian removal. This led to the Second Seminole War, which was 1835–1842, and became the largest and costliest of the so called, Indian wars.
Because the two communities were tied together—that is the former slaves and the Seminoles—when the Seminoles were attacked in the Seminole War, this led to an uprising of the former slaves. In April of 1836, Black Seminoles and their Indian allies moved together to create what was the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history. This wasn’t just a matter of runaway slaves. More than 385 plantation slaves ran away from their masters and joined the Black Seminoles, essentially in laying waste to the Florida sugar mills, which were some of the most valuable areas, plantations, in the whole continent.
One Seminole leader at the time was the leader Osceola, who is justly remembered by history. Another leader who rose up at this time was John Horse, who was ethnically a Black Seminole and who would ultimately lead his people on a long and trying exodus for freedom. In 1838, John Horse and the Black Seminoles agreed to stop fighting the U.S. government in exchange for moving to what was then considered to be Indian Territory, which is now today the State of Oklahoma and for legal recognition of their freedom. So despite the fact that many of them were runaway slaves, they would have the opportunity to start over again as free individuals.
Once they moved from the Everglades to Indian Territory, however, they found that their freedom was under attack both by whites and by other Native Americans. In 1848, a decade after they had made the agreement with the U.S. government, the U.S. attorney general announced that the government never had the authority, the power, to recognize their freedom, and in fact they were still, those who had been slaves, still enslaved.
This was like opening season on them, basically declaring that they were there for the picking. And so they did the only thing that they could do, they fled once again. Without security in Indian Territory, Horse and his Seminole ally Coacoochee promptly went to Mexico where slavery was already illegal and had been for a couple of decades. There Horse became famous as a general in the Mexican army and his people found a way to make a life.
Once they relocated to Mexico, things changed. When slave catchers from the Republic of Texas went over the border to try to find the runaway slaves, now free men, they met resistance not only from the Black Seminoles but also from the Mexicans and the Mexican Army itself. Eventually the Black Seminoles, led by Horse, gained legally recognized Mexican land, Nacimiento.
Why isn’t this recognized today? Well for one thing, historians tend to be historians of Native American history or historians of slavery, but there’s not many that move among these subjects. And it’s a bit confusing because you have both the issue of runaway slaves and the issue of Native Americans kind of blended together so it seems to fall through the cracks.
Tradition is that Nat Turner’s rebellion is the big turning point in the history of slavery and slave revolt. That happened before the rebellion of the Black Seminoles, so it doesn’t really fit the traditional trajectory. And perhaps most importantly, it really represents a blemish on U.S. history. Not only because of the poor treatment of Native America as represented by the Seminole War, not only the poor treatment of African Americans through the device of slavery, but also because this group really did manage to negotiate a separate peace with the U.S. government and 10 years later the government turned their backs on them.
So it’s, in multiple ways, a difficult story for people of the United States to tell, but it’s worth remembering that a community of freedom fighters trekked from Florida to Oklahoma to Mexico and found, ultimately, peace and freedom and prosperity in lives that they could direct as their own. I recommend highly the website www.johnhorse.com for more information.