The slave rebellion the country tried to forget
Imagine that the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history had gone unrecognized for more than a century and a half, even by the country's leading scholars. Imagine further that
the rebellion was not some obscure event in a rural
backwater, but a series of mass escapes that took place in conjunction with the largest Indian war in U.S. history
and that resulted in a massive, well-documented destruction of personal
property. How could scholars forget such an event? And what would
such an oversight say about the country? A country that had robbed generations of the story of its most successful black freedom
fighters. A country that had taught its children a lie, that over the first American century, only white men fought for freedom and
There is no need to imagine such a scenario, because the scenario is true.
From 1835-1838 in Florida, the Black Seminoles, the African allies of Seminole Indians, led the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history. The uprising peaked in 1836 when hundreds of slaves fled their plantations to join the rebel forces in the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). At the heights of the revolt, at least
385 slaves fought alongside the black and Indian Seminole allies, helping them destroy more than twenty-one sugar plantations in central Florida, at the time one of the most highly developed agricultural regions in North America.
||Three enemies, one war
During the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), the U.S. fought rebels from three distinct communities:
Seminole Indians: The largest enemy force and the only one
the South preferred to acknowledge.
Black Seminoles: Black allies
with established ties to the Indians, known as maroons or Seminole Negroes.
Plantation slaves: Recent recruits who fled plantations at the outset of the war.
Amazingly, one would hardly know any of this from the country's textbooks. For over 150 years,
American scholars have failed to recognize the true size and scope of the 1835-1838 rebellion. Historians have focused on the Indian warriors of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), with some attention to the maroon
fighters (the Black Seminoles) but almost none to the plantation-slaves.
The omission fits a general pattern in American history. In a trend dating
the country's earliest national histories, scholars have tended to downplay
all incidence of slave resistance.
Contemporary scholars may believe that they have overcome this legacy, and yet their failure to identify the country's largest slave revolt speaks to the contrary.
Why did America forget this rebellion?
The Black Seminole slave rebellion was not only the largest
in U.S. history, it was also the only one that was even partially successful. During the Second Seminole War the U.S. Army could never conclusively defeat the black
rebels in Florida. After three years of fighting, the army chose to grant freedom
to the holdouts in exchange for surrender -- the only emancipation
of rebellious African Americans prior to the U.S. Civil War.
It might not matter much that the country forgot a slave rebellion, but why the largest? And why the only one that was partially successful?
Certainly in the 1800s, it was never in the political interests
of the white South to admit defeat at the hands of black rebels. But
how did the censorship of the nineteenth-century become the amnesia
of the twentieth? It remains something of a mystery how the
country's largest slave rebellion has remained unrecognized for so
many years even by the country's leading scholars of African
For more on the mystery, and for facts on the rebellion, check out
the two original essays on this site, "The Largest Slave Rebellion in U.S.
history" and its follow-up, "The
Buried History of the Rebellion."
More on the rebellion:
Where to go next on the site:
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