Rebellion 1835-1838     
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spacer Overview > Introduction to the Black Seminole slave rebellion
Massacre of the Whites by Indians and Blacks in Florida, 1836 engraving

Time & Place: 1835-1838, Central Florida.

Participants: 385-465 slaves, 500-800 Black Seminole maroons.

Outcome: In 1838, the U.S. Army allowed 500 blacks to move west with Seminole Indians. Half received promises of freedom, the only emancipation of rebellious blacks in the U.S. before the Civil War.

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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 won.

There is no need to imagine such a scenario, because the scenario is true.

Slave Uprising: Six story panels on the uprising's peak in 1836.

The rebellion

From 1835-1838 in Florida, the Black Seminoles, the African allies of Seminole Indians, led the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history.[1] 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.[2]

spacer 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.[3]

The omission fits a general pattern in American history. In a trend dating back to 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.[4]

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 American studies.

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."

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Also see:
Picture tour

Picture tour: a summary of the story in 32 images.

Toolkit on the rebellion: Quick facts for skeptics and resources to learn more about the Black Seminole slave rebellion—list of historical sources, tally of plantation slaves in revolt, select quotations from the period, images and more.

The largest slave rebellion in U.S. history: Essay documenting the size and scope of the rebellion inspired and led by the Black Seminoles, and comparing it to other major U.S. slave revolts.

The buried history of the rebellion: Essay exploring some of the reasons how and why scholars overlooked the largest slave revolt in U.S. history.