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A People's History of Florida 1513-1876

Book Excerpts
People's History

Chapter 6 Excerpt

Time and time again, military officials had expressed the belief that the black Seminoles were a threat to “domestic security” because they could potentially “incite” a slave uprising. It was questionable whether any of these reports should really be taken seriously or not. That is, until the outbreak of the Second Seminole War. Slaveholders constantly exaggerated that free black citizens, black Seminoles, abolitionists, etc. were in the business of inciting slave insurrection. None of these paranoid claims are easy to take serious at face value. They were more preventive apprehensions of a possibility. Yet Florida’s whites could not even predict what was about to happen in East Florida. They had partially considered, but strongly underestimated, the black Seminoles, free blacks, and plantation slaves as a serious factor of Seminole resistance. In turn, the East Florida slave revolt became a largely ignored or forgotten aspect of the Second Seminole War. There are multiple reasons why: 1) The orthodox belief that no notable slave revolts occurred after 1831 2) After the Nat Turner rebellion, open discussion of slave insurrection in the South became limited 3) Historians have failed to distinguish the plantation slaves from the black Seminole maroons 4) The “gag rule” prohibited Congressional discussion of abolitionism or any topic regarding slavery. 5) Most press reports claim that the Seminoles “captured” the slaves, even though East Floridians were painfully aware that the slaves had joined them on their own free will. Yet slaveholders wanted to make it appear as if their slaves were “attached to their owners from motives of gratitude and affection.” 1 The East Florida slave revolt has long been buried underneath traditional Seminole war history. Historians have failed to recognize the large number of slaves who absconded from their plantations at the outbreak of the war. Those that have certainly failed to put in the context of a slave uprising. However, more than four hundred plantation slaves participated in the rebellion and joined the black Seminoles. Some estimates reach higher. Renowned Florida historian Canter Brown claims that “When open warfare commenced in December 1835 and January 1836, hundreds-if not 1,000 or more-bondsmen cooperated by deserting to Indian and black settlements.” 2 The Second Seminole War appeared to be an all-out race war between whites and people of color. U.S. politicians who debated the Seminole war at the time surely believed so. Expansionist Thomas H. Benton spoke to the Senate of the desolation of 41,000 square miles in Florida “made so by the ravages of colored races upon the white!” 3 Blacks in Florida at the time were divided into three categories: 1) Black slaves mostly on the Middle and East Florida plantations 2) Free blacks in the vicinity of St. Augustine who achieved their freedom under Spanish rule 3) The black Seminoles who lived in close proximity to the Seminoles as military and economic allies. All three would become involved in war. The revolt essentially handicapped the powerful sugar economy of East Florida, inflicting the worst devastation of the entire war. It could be called the largest slave revolt in U.S. history. No other slave insurrection would come close to its quantity, intensity, endurance, or devastation. The slaves that absconded from the plantations, taking up arms in correspondence with the black Seminoles, far outweighed all of the substantial slave rebellions in U.S. history.

            From the summer to the winter of 1835, the black Seminole and Seminole leaders worked to recruit slaves in the St. Augustine plantations and build up arms on the Florida coast for the eventual conflict. Covert recruitment melded ties between field slaves and the black Seminoles. Yaha Hajo, a Seminole war chief affiliated with head chief Micanopy’s black advisor Abraham, and black Seminole leader John Ceasar, second hand to King Phillip, were mostly responsible for the recruitment. 4 Ceasar was a very influential and intelligent black Seminole sub-chief. He was commissioned by the chiefs to the plantations on the St. John’s region to “hold out inducements to the negroes to join them.” Obviously these “inducements” were promises of freedom and autonomy if the plantation slaves joined the resistance. As the black Seminole leaders secretly moved amongst the slaves, they “endeavored to seduce them from their allegiance to their owners, with promises of liberty and plunder.” 5 A military officer reported the presence of black Seminoles “tampering with the negroes” on the sugar plantations of Cruger and Depeyster. 6 Obviously this “tampering” was preparing their slave allies to rise up against the owners once the conflict broke out in the region. It was understood that the first Seminole and free black assault would coincide with a general uprising of slaves in the region. Frank Berry, a former slave from Jacksonville, believed that the Seminoles could be credited for “inciting many uprisings and wholesale escapes among the slaves.” 7 General Jesup would later describe not only the close connection between the plantation slaves and black Seminoles but the “understanding that a considerable force should join on the first blow being struck.” 8 General Clinch foresaw the collusion between plantation slaves and black Seminoles, fearing that: “The whole frontier may be laid waste by a combination of the Indians, the Indian negroes, and the negroes on the plantations.” In October 1835, Clinch reported the slaveholder fears of a “secret and improper communication between the refractory Indians, Indian negroes, and plantation negroes.” Again in December, “All the information I receive in relation to the movements of the Indians, represent them as being in considerable force, and manifesting a determination to engage in War, murder, and plunder. It appears also that they are joined by the negroes, and if they are not promptly put down, this spirit may extend to the plantations.” 9

            General Jesup confirmed the secret arrangement between black Seminoles and slaves to join together in arms at the outbreak of war:

Having been apprised, by prisoners taken in the preceding campaign, of an arrangement entered into previous to the war, through the Seminole negroes, between the Indians and their slaves, that so soon as hostilities should commence, the latter were to join them and take up arms, I informed the Indians that all their negroes must be separated from them, and sent out of the country.” 11

            In anticipation of a possible slave uprising, General Hernandez wrote Governor Eaton, requesting “that a part of the militia should be held in readiness to protect the Inhabitants from any danger”:

Much apprehension is already manifested by the community at large on this subject. And particularly as there are a large number of Negroes amongst the Indians, who may be under the influence of Abolitionists of the North, whose machinations, are now endangering our safety.” 10

            The slaves hid the black Seminoles about the place in preparation for the attack. On December 26, 1835, the Seminoles, free blacks, and black slaves initiated the most coordinated uprising of indigenous people and blacks in the history of the United States. Chief Emathla, or King Phillip, and black Seminole John Caesar, with an estimated force of 100 to 120 free blacks and Seminoles, raided and burned down five plantations on the St. John’s River in two days. 12 On December 31, the Jacksonville Courier reported that Mr. Levy’s plantation was burned several days before “but we are confident it was the act of negroes.” 13 Hundreds of local slaves fled to the Seminoles, under arms and covered in war paint to symbolize their new allegiance. East Florida settler Earl C. Tanner reported: “The general plan of the Indians has been to lurk about the plantations until they can kill the few whites to found and then by force and persuasion carry off the negroes who are immediately painted and armed. In this way near 400 have been already lost in E. Florida and there is not now in all the country east of the River St. Johns a person attending to his usual avocations.” 14 Free blacks and urban slaves in St. Augustine assisted the revolt with powder and lead. The freed slaves joined the Seminoles in full-scale war against the plantations around the St. John’s River Valley. 15 In a scourge of vengeance and retaliation, the newly freed slaves burned down the sugar plantations of East Florida. Families were massacred and brutally butchered at the hands of their “property.” It was as if the wrath of God fell back upon the people that had oppressed them for so many years. It was the Nat Turner revolt times ten. The planter elite that once advocated for the enslavement of free blacks suddenly became starving refugees at the hands of their very slaves. After Florida’s acquisition, St. Augustine slaveholders were some of the first petitioners for runaway slaves in the Seminole territory. Plantation families who could live in idle luxury as their coffers were filled with wealth generated from black slave labor, were now forced to survive on subsidized rations from refugee camps. 16 As the world was falling apart around them, the planters were aware of who they had to fear. They assembled several three hundred of their slaves within St. Augustine to prevent them from joining arms with the Seminoles and blacks: “It was feared…that their sympathies would be with the Indians, and that they would aid in concert with them.” 17 Most of these slaves had “lived on the frontiers in the neighbourhood of the Indians, spoke their language, and many of the men had wives among the Indian negroes, and the Indian negroes had wives among them.” 18 As the slaves crowded within St. Augustine, the planters felt “strong apprehensions…that they would fire the town, and that, during the confusion resulting therefrom, the Indians might rush in.” 19

            The slaves were evacuated from the St. Joseph’s plantations of Bulow, Williams, Dupont, and Hernandez. They would have undoubtedly disaffected with their counterparts had they not been constrained in the city. The refugees within the city formed a militia patrol. But when they attempted to stock up on arms and ammunition, they found that only thirty or forty rusty muskets, rifles, and shotguns were left in the city, not ten of which could fire. Furthermore, all the powder had been bought up by a party of Seminoles before hostilities broke out. The free blacks of the city were assumed to have helped the Seminoles loot the munitions stores prior to the assault. In apprehension, the planters took their slaves to Anastasia Island. Shortly after, the Seminoles destroyed the St. Joseph’s area. 20 Plantation after plantation was laid to waste. On the large plantations, slaves absconded in unbelievable numbers. At Spring Garden on the St. John’s River, more than three hundred slaves were reported to have been “carried away” by the Seminoles. Woodburne Potter reported the horror: “The scene of destruction of the east side of the river, and along the St. Johns River, is truly heart-rending.” 21 The “principle ravages” occurred on the east side of the St. John’s River, from St. Augustine to the south. Near the Halifax River, the Seminoles destroyed the plantations of Depeyster and ran off with about sixty slaves. His “negroes, with but one or two exceptions,” were “captured and taken off.” They devastated Major Heriot’s plantation and moved off with eighty of his slaves. 22 It became necessary to report that the slaves were “captured.” White masters consistently gave the illusion that their slaves were content with their bondage. To say that a slave was “captured” may have also been a euphemism for running away, as they were sometimes used interchangeably. The planters of East Florida were certainly aware of the truth behind the revolt, acknowledging that their slaves had hidden the black Seminoles about the area in anticipation of the uprising. Potter reported a number of East Florida slaves flocking to the ranks of the Seminoles:

But the principle ravages had been along the east side, from St. Augustine to the south, wherever a settlement could be found. Near the Halifax River they destroyed the buildings of Mr. Depeyster, with whose negroes they formed a league, and being supplied by them with a boat, crossed the river, and fired the establishment of Mr. Dummett; but a faithful servant who had concealed himself when he found the Indians approaching, succeeded in extinguishing the flames before they attained much headway. Major Heriot’s plantation was laid waste – his houses were consumed, and eighty of his negroes moved off with the Indians.” 23

            Some of the plantations burned down were the wealthiest in the United States. They were the main vestibules of the sugar industry in northeastern Florida. The uprising eradicated sixteen plantations throughout the month of January alone. 24 The East Florida planters were in absolute terror at their imminent destruction. A St. Augustine refugee explained why the white residents had good reason to fear:

Now just conceive their position-eight hundred or one thousand warriors, animated by sentiments of hatred and revenge, and well aware what is to be there fate by losing their superiority-with them three or four hundred negroes of their own, better disciplined and more intelligent than themselves, to whom there is a daily succession of runaway negroes from the plantations, supplied with arms and ammunition from the deceased whites. Conceive these people living upon roots, if necessary, for weeks entire, flying before regular charges of disciplined troops, or avoiding fortresses or stockades; but from ambushes and retreats cutting off the most valuable lives of individuals, or attacking and destroying valuable properties.” 25

            In April 1836, East Florida marshal Samuel Blair suggested that “the present condition of the Country is such as to require unusual vigilance in relation to its slave population, especially in St. Augustine, where the Indians have constantly been lurking.” Yet even with this vigilance, “some Negroes did escape and it is generally believed held communication with the Indians.” This was a drastic understatement but important because it conceded that the slaves had absconded on their own and communicated with the Seminoles in the East Florida uprising. English traveler John Benwell, finding himself embedded in Seminole war fighting while traveling through Florida, encountered a fugitive slave in the vicinity of East Florida: “He refused to tell me his master's name, but said there were hundreds of negroes fighting with the Indians, six from the same plantation as himself.” 26 In December 1836, General Thomas Jesup warned that the possible results of the slave revolt could be drastic if it spread, going so far as to declare the conflict “a negro war”: “This you may be assured, is a negro, not an Indian war; and if it be not speedily put down, the south will feel the effects of it on their slave population before the end of the next season.” 27 He wrote this almost a year too late. Earlier in the year, the East Florida settlements were already obliterated from the slave rebellion. The revolt destroyed 21 plantations and left the entire vast sugar industry of East Florida in smoldering ruins. 28 There were a combination of factors that led Jesup to refer to the Second Seminole War as a “negro war” and most of them have been well-cited in historical accounts. But the slave revolt is rarely ever mentioned, even though Jesup himself mentions it in the same paragraph. Intelligence reports made him aware that the “depredations committed on the plantations east of the St. John’s were perpetuated by the plantation negroes, headed by an Indian negro named John Caesar.” While this quote is sometimes cited in historical texts, if the cataclysmic destruction on the St. John’s River valley was indeed “perpetuated by the plantation negroes” than it could undoubtedly be called a slave revolt – what most historians fail to do. 29 Woodbine Potter estimated the great costs to the East Florida plantations: “The loss of these planters is incalculable – it cannot fall short of two millions of dollars in improvements alone, independent of the immense inconvenience which they must suffer in not being able to make their crops.” 30 Planter Jane Murray Sheldon’s letter makes it clear East Floridians were generally aware that the slaves hid the Seminoles about the area in preparation for the uprising: “We remained in St. Augustine two years, during which time I saw many Indian prisoners, who were brought in to be sent West. There were a good many negroes captured with them, and it came to light that the negroes were in sympathy and had aided them in the first outbreak. I saw a number of the Cruger and Depyste slaves and from them learned that they had secreted the Indians near there until the main body came up.” 31 The slave revolt would continue to play a central role throughout the first two years of the Seminole war, contributing to its successes and failures, climaxes and downturns. Many of the unique features of the Seminole war, for instance, its prolonged length, could be attributed to the momentum furnished by the defected slave population.


2009 Adam Wasserman

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