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spacer Overview > Why learn their story?

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The Black Seminoles deserve a more prominent place in American history, but regardless of what they deserve, their story is fascinating in its own right. This site seeks to narrate their story in all its drama and historical relevance, while making some original contributions to recent scholarship.

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Seminole Indian King Phillip and his black ally John Caesar instigated the rebellion. Learn more:

On the trail narrative (which has info on this image)

In an essay

Through a map of American slave uprisings.

Forgotten legends

The Black Seminoles were the most successful black freedom fighters in America prior to the Civil War. In Florida, they led the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history, during the Second Seminole War (1835-42). Even more impressively, they won their portion of the uprising -- or at the very least, they won a partial victory in their struggle for freedom.

Had a community of white pioneers under a white leader engaged in half the exploits of John Horse and the Black Seminoles, they would have easily entered the mainstream of American consciousness, and would probably now figure in most textbooks of American history.

The Black Seminoles, however, were largely forgotten. Though well known to prominent people of their day, the group ultimately fell to the margins.

The leaders of failed slave revolts, like Nat Turner and the white abolitionist John Brown, at least became minor figures in the history books. The Black Seminoles did not even achieve this status.

A number of factors combined to suppress their story. In the 1830s and 1840s, government censorship, political tension, and southern fears of slave rebellion contributed to a tendency to downplay their existence. Additionally, over the next century, some historians (though not all) continued to describe the two wars in which they took part as Indian wars, not Indian/black conflicts.

Over subsequent generations, a handful of historians kept the Black Seminole legacy alive, but prevailing ideologies prevented them from entering the mainstream. The southern tradition could not embrace the Black Seminoles, probably because they had been too successful. The liberal tradition could not remember them, perhaps because they had resisted oppression too successfully and were never clear-cut victims.

With the advent of recent books, archeological digs, and research, the history of the group is finally coming into its own. With this new awareness, history is not being revised, since the story has been with us all along. Rather, history is finally being heard -- accurately and, in some cases, for the first time.

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A great American story

While the story of the Black Seminoles deserves a wider audience, it is worth reading in its own right, both for its dramatic appeal and its relevance to the American experience.

The community's quest for freedom relays an epic drama set against the backdrop of core events in early American history. The American Revolution, the rise of Jacksonian democracy, the expansion of slavery, "Manifest Destiny," civil war, the taming of the western frontier -- the Black Seminoles played a role in all of these events. Seeking freedom in a slaveholding society, they often played a shadow role, one that revealed a darker side of the American tradition.

Despite the darkness, this is a moving, inspirational story, depicting a community that pursued freedom against all odds and ultimately won.

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Original contributions to the field

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Selected books, annotated

Image outline of the trail

Since 1993, several new histories have brought the experience of the Black Seminoles to greater attention. Rebellion builds on this research, and on a wealth of primary resources, while making its own original contributions to the field.

The site is the first source in print or online to substantiate the claim, first advanced by Larry Rivers and Canter Brown, that the Black Seminoles led the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history. The site seeks to establish a foundation for scholarship by offering a variety of resources on the topic:

In addition to these original contributions, the site takes a fresh and highly visual look at the largest Indian war in U.S. history, the Second Seminole War, and shows the key role that blacks played in the conflict; and the site traces the influence of the Black Seminoles on emancipation in the U.S., a topic that, like the Black Seminole slave rebellion, has been largely lost to history.

With over 350 archival images, Rebellion presents the most comprehensive array yet assembled of visual resources relating to Black Seminole history, weaving these images into a carefully structured historical narrative. The goal is to evoke history pictorially, while documenting the reality of events in the 19th century.

Finally, throughout the essays, highlights, and trail narrative, Rebellion seeks to fill a remaining gap from recent scholarship on the Black Seminoles by relating their experience to wider trends in American history. Much of the recent scholarship on the maroons has focused narrowly (though well) on the group's regional history in Florida, Oklahoma, Mexico, and Texas, without attempting to view their experience within the wider context of American political life. By relating the Black Seminole story to core topics from American history like manifest destiny, North-South sectionalism, and the pursuit of black liberty, Rebellion seeks to elevate a great American story to its proper place in our national annals.

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Why is this story relevant today?

Does the past matter? Does slavery have a legacy? Was America once a nation of higher ideals than today, or has the country always been an experiment that has yet to fulfill its full potential? The answers to all of these questions speak to the relevance of this story.

In overlooking the story, the United States has unwittingly robbed generations of a true portrait of our slaveholding past. As a nation, we have dimly remembered the failed black militants of prior centuries but have completely forgotten our most successful black freedom fighters. We celebrate the founding fathers for taking up arms against the oppressor, yet nowhere in American history books will students find an example of a community of armed black rebels who successfully fought the tyranny of slavery. And yet the Black Seminoles offer just such an example. They may not have cloaked their actions in revolutionary ideals, but their goals were every bit as threatening to the powers that ruled their world.

Failed rebellions

By accepting the absence of the Black Seminoles from mainstream history books, our culture has robbed millions of children, especially African American children, of potential heroes. At the same time, the history books have unconsciously shaped our sense of African Americans as victims of slavery, while avoiding all mention of the most successful black freedom fighters in our antebellum history.

When American children read about slavery, who can they look to as successful rebels? There are educated fugitives, like Frederick Douglass, the former slave who spoke out eloquently against the institution. There are creative rebels like Harriet Tubman, who risked her life to help conduct the underground railroad. Then there are the prominent white abolitionists, like William Lloyd Garrison, who marshaled popular opinion.

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  Learn more through the map of major U.S. slave rebellions

Where are the successful militants? Were there any leaders who, in the spirit of America's founding fathers, took up arms against the oppressor in the name of liberty?

The history books trot out the usual examples -- Nat Turner and the white insurrectionist John Brown. The most informed books possibly mention the conspirators Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, or the leaders of the little known revolt in Louisiana in 1822, which is sometimes called the largest slave uprising in American history.

There are just two small problems: every one of these plots failed, and not one of them was the largest in U.S. history.

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Stolen heroes

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The largest slave rebellion in U.S. history An original essay spacer
Phenomenally, the history books leave out the largest rebellion, which was the only one that enjoyed any success.

From 1835-38, the Black Seminoles waged a maroon war against the United States, in what constituted the black portion of the Second Seminole War, a joint rebellion of Indians and blacks. Both slaves and free blacks joined in leading the maroon war; in the course of their struggle, the maroons inspired mass escapes from Florida's plantations in what became the largest, most violent, and by far the most enduring slave uprising in American history.

Especially at the heights of the insurrection, in early 1836, Southern fears of the uprising led to concerted efforts to play down the black element of the war. Additional cultural and political factors led to a national tendency -- at the time and over the ensuing decades -- to bury the history of the black uprising, minimizing its scope, obliterating any popular understanding of its existence.

The effects of these tendencies can be felt to this day. Their consequences are readily observable in any children's textbook. Americans remembered the failed slave rebellions, but forgot the largest one, forgot the success.

What message does this send about the African American legacy of our country?

Fortunately, we do not have to rewrite history, we merely have to remember it accurately.

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A truer sense of the American past

For many readers, an understanding of the Black Seminole experience will complicate and enrich their sense of the American past.

Commentators like to assert that the American past was a simpler time. In the conservative version of this sermon, the past was a period of stronger values and greater moral clarity than today. In some liberal versions, the past was a time when racists ruled the land, wantonly dispossessing Indians and blacks of all property and basic human rights.

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  Jump to a trail segment from Part 3 describing U.S. Army-Black Seminole cooperation.

The history of the Black Seminoles reveals a more interesting world than either of these views, one that was not simpler than today, but just as complex and morally ambiguous. It was a world where Americans expressed wildly divergent opinions on the treatment of Native Americans, where U.S. Army officers found themselves in sympathy with the rebellious blacks whom they were ordered to fight, and where African Americans engaged in moral compromises that were the equal of their white adversaries in the pragmatic pursuit of enlightened self interest.

Readers seeking a politically correct indictment of American history may be disappointed in Rebellion, but so will those who are uncomfortable learning the darker sides of the American tradition.

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Why learn their story?
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Picture tour

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