Note: When this essay was first published in June 2005, very
few online or scholarly reference guides to slave
rebellions cited the Black Seminole rebellion as a slave uprising
and none cited it as the country's largest. Since then, thanks in
part to this essay and website, more references correctly note the size of the Black
Seminole slave rebellion, though many still omit it.
Look at any standard reference to American slave revolts, and chances are, the Black Seminole rebellion of 1835-1838 does not even make the list. Below are some representative sites
that can be readily checked online:
The oversight is not unexpected given that the major scholars of
American slavery, on whose writings the reference works rely, have
missed or misinterpreted the Black Seminole slave rebellion.
According to John Hope Franklin, Eugene Genovese, Stanley Elkins,
Kenneth Stampp, Herbert Aptheker, and the many scholars who have
relied on these giants in the field, the Black Seminole maroons
joined Indians to fight the U.S. Army in 1835, and some of the
maroons may have been runaway slaves. But the scholars seem unaware
that nearly 400 plantation slaves, and possibly hundreds more,
joined the maroons and Indians in an uprising of slaves that had no
peer for size and longevity in American history.
A section on
Examples of scholarly oversight of the Black Seminole slave
rebellion offers citations from the top scholars. For further
confirmation of the oversight, one can also enter "slave rebellions" into any good
search engine, or in the search function of a general black
studies site like
in America. Or to be even more thorough, one can keyword search the
leading academic journals on African American and U.S. history at Journal
Storage online. Under "slave rebellions" or "slave revolts," many
interesting articles will appear, but not a single one about the largest
slave rebellion in American
The omission from mainstream history of both the Black
Seminoles and the slave rebellion that they led is a curious
phenomenon. The oversight is all the more interesting since the
rebellion was not some obscure event that took place in a rural
backwater, but rather a series of large-scale, disruptive escapes
that occurred in conjunction with the largest Indian war in U.S. history and
that resulted in a massive, well-documented destruction of personal property.
The info in the table below can also be seen in this
interactive map of major U.S. slave rebellions.
The reasons for the oversight are examined more thoroughly in the
accompanying essay, "The
buried history of the rebellion." This essay attempts to lay out the facts, making the case once and for all that the Black Seminole
rebellion was the largest in U.S. history.
Depending on how one classifies the rebellion, in fact, it was not just the largest
but may have been three or four times as large as its closest
competitor. This renders the omission even more remarkable, if not downright suspicious.
Comparison with other rebellions
Below are the major American slave rebellions listed in chronological order.
||End result for
||New York City conspiracy
||21 executed, 6
estimated suicides, 6 pardoned
50 killed & executed in suppression
||Gabriel Prosser's conspiracy
||35 executed, 4 escaped, 1
||66 killed in battle, 18 executed, 17 escaped or dead
||Denmark Vesey's conspiracy
||49 condemned: 12 pardoned, 37 hanged
||Nat Turner's rebellion
executed including Turner, 100 or more blacks killed in mass reprisals
maroon & slave
||500 emigrated west with
Indians, 90 or more caught & re-enslaved, hundreds more surrendered to
slavery, casualties unknown.
Seminole rebellion, plantation
||90 or more
caught & re-enslaved, hundreds surrendered and returned to
slavery, uncertain number emigrated west with Black Seminoles.
At least three of these are often mentioned as the largest or most significant in U.S. history:
Nat Turner's rebellion, Denmark Vesey's conspiracy, and the
Louisiana slave revolt of 1811.
Nat Turner's rebellion.
Scholars do not mention Turner's rebellion as the largest, but
they often cite it as the most significant. Politically and socially, it probably was. For several months in 1831, the uprising and subsequent manhunt for Turner riveted national attention. In the wake of Turner's capture, trial, and execution, legislators across the country enacted tougher laws, severely tightening slave codes and clamping down on the rights of free Negroes. Conversely, the revolt fired the ideals of American abolitionists, helping lead the country down the long road to civil war.
The number of participants in the uprising was moderate in comparison with the larger rebellions, but the white casualties were high, which attested to the campaign's organization and violence. To learn more about the uprising, you can visit the Web site
Death and Liberty, which covers Virginia's three major slave insurrections during the 19th century.
Denmark Vesey's conspiracy
Vesey's conspiracy earned a nod as the largest rebellion in the 1999 book by David Robertson,
Denmark Vesey: The Buried History Of America's Largest Slave
Rebellion. The title was catchy, but the facts were off.
The conspiracy organized by Vesey, a 60-year-old free black carpenter in Charleston, South Carolina, was
by all accounts both fascinating and politically significant. Aptheker gives an overview of the known facts in
American Negro Slave Revolts (267-75), and you can find summaries online at
Africans in America
The Atlantic Monthly issue from December 1999.
Vesey envisioned a massive uprising throughout Charleston and the surrounding areas, with rebel slaves receiving aid from St. Domingo.
Reviewing the record, one can see why a writer was tempted to describe
his rebellion as the largest in American history.
There's just one problem: Vesey's rebellion never materialized. The conspiracy unraveled when several slaves
became informers, exposing the plot before it took place. Vesey and 130 slaves were immediately arrested as conspirators.
Of these, 49 were ultimately convicted, with 37 being executed and 12 pardoned.
At the trials, witnesses testified that anywhere from 3,000 to 9,000 slaves were in on the
plan. This was high drama, but in reality, scholars today have no idea how many people
were involved in the conspiracy. The leaders allegedly recorded all of the names of their co-conspirators, but only a few such lists ever surfaced. Preparations must have been extensive, since the
would-be rebels stashed away 250 pike heads and 300 daggers in anticipation of
an uprising. No documentary evidence, however, points to the actual number of
Moreover, even if one accepts that thousands of slaves were in on the plot, none of these thousands ever rose in rebellion. Ultimately, only 49 were implicated
-- in a conspiracy. On this basis, it is simply not credible to claim that Vesey's plot was the largest slave rebellion in American history. It might have been the largest plan, but
even this can not be said with certainty.
Louisiana slave revolt.
This revolt is more often, and more credibly, described as the largest ever on U.S. territory. See, for example,
the recent book
American Uprising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave
Revolt, by David Drummond, or the timeline entriy at
The Slave Rebellion Website.
The known facts are minimal. On January 8, 1811, Charles Deslondes, a free mulatto from St. Domingo, led a body of slaves in a rebellion west of New
Orleans along Louisiana's "German Coast." The slaves fought with cane knives and clubs before securing a few firearms. By January 11, local militia and army regulars had crushed the poorly armed rebels.
Aptheker reports that 82 blacks were killed or executed in the suppression of the revolt, with seventeen others either escaping or being left for dead. As a warning to future troublemakers, executioners placed the severed heads of sixteen black rebels on posts along the road
leading to the plantation where the uprising started.
If more facts were known, the Louisiana revolt might rival the Black Seminole rebellion in size, though certainly not in scope. The event was short-lived, and while it sent shockwaves around New Orleans, it never gained national attention. The rebel force must have been considerable, given that authorities sanctioned killing 82 of them. Reports placed the number of rebels at somewhere between 180 and 500. Aptheker estimated four or five hundred on uncertain authority, while Genovese was inclined toward the lower
Unfortunately the only hard numbers associated with the revolt are the executed, dead, and missing, who totaled 99, far less than the documented participants in the Black Seminole rebellion.
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Classification of the Black Seminole rebellion:
Maroon war or slave rebellion?
Scholars who are not familiar with all the facts of the Florida
slave uprising may object to comparing the Black Seminole rebellion with the actions listed above, on the grounds that the Black Seminoles waged a maroon war, which is different from an uprising of plantation slaves.
Were maroons the only black participants in the Florida uprising,
this would be a valid point. Maroons were quasi-autonomous blacks, or "outliers," who lived on the fringes of slave society. Typically, maroons fought to retain the tenuous liberty that they already enjoyed, not to liberate themselves from oppressive masters.
Such was the case with a majority of the 500-800 Black Seminoles who rose in defiance against the United States in 1835. Though hundreds of these blacks were claimed by white citizens, most had long-standing ties to the Seminole Indians. Nominally, they were recognized as
either free, quasi-free in comparison to plantation slaves, or at the very least, as established
fugitives from white slavery. As such, the Black Seminoles technically waged a maroon war as opposed to a slave rebellion.
There are some interesting reasons to debate this classification, discussed at the end of this essay. The whole question, however, is irrelevant to the matter at hand. Regardless of whether the Black Seminoles were maroons or slaves, the facts show that they inspired the largest rebellion of slaves in U.S. history.
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Plantation slaves in rebellion,
This rebellion took place over 1835-38 and it involved plantation slaves in a classic uprising. The rebellion reached its peak in the first months of 1836, when hundreds of Florida slaves fled their plantations to join the Seminoles. White owners said that their slaves had been "captured" by Indians, but this was merely a gloss on circumstances that horrified the slaveholders. Indians did not capture the slaves.
The slaves escaped.
Planning for the mass defections had been underway for over a year.
According to Kenneth Wiggins Porter, Black Seminole leaders made frequent visits to Florida's
plantations throughout 1835, cementing ties to the field hands. When war erupted, hundreds of
blacks fled to the
Seminoles in an action that General Thomas Sydney Jesup described as
a pre-arranged conspiracy:
"I have ascertained beyond any doubt, not only that a connection exists between a portion of the slave population and the
Seminoles, but that there was, before the war commenced, an understanding that a considerable force should join on the first blow being struck."
Field slaves fought prominently in several early engagements. Many
defectors painted their faces to signal their new allegiance. Urban
and house slaves did their part as well, joining with free blacks from St. Augustine
to help the Seminoles obtain critical supplies like powder and
In the general uprising, blacks and Indians specifically targeted the sugar plantations along the St. Johns River, west of St. Augustine. At the time these were some of the most developed plantations in all U.S. territory. Their destruction was swift and devastating. By February
of 1836, less than two months into the war, the Seminole allies had destroyed 21 plantations. Where slavery and sugar mills once flourished, soldiers found smoking ruins and an industry laid waste.
Before the uprising ran its course, at least 385 field slaves defected to the Seminoles. This number, derived from the escapes reported
at the time in official military correspondence, newspaper reports,
and claims on the government for damaged property, is conservative and probably low.
Two scholars who are among the foremost experts on slavery in the
antebellum Florida, Canter Brown and Larry Rivers, speculate that there may have been as many as 750-1000 plantation rebels. My own guess is that the numbers were higher than
385 but still close to
this documented total.
The conservative number alone accounts for the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history. Regardless of whether or not the Black Seminoles are counted as participants -- and regardless of academic conventions -- the facts show that
they inspired an uprising that easily eclipsed all other American slave rebellions.
Curiously, this overlooked rebellion enjoys yet another distinction -- it was not a complete failure.
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Was the rebellion a success?
The answer to this question hinges on the combined fates of the plantation slaves and the Black Seminoles themselves.
The fate of the plantation slaves
What happened to the 385-plus plantation slaves who joined the Seminoles? Unfortunately, we know of their fate only in general details. According to Porter, after a year or more of life in the swamps, a majority of the defectors surrendered and returned to chattel slavery. As they came in, some spoke of ill treatment at the hands of the
Seminoles, though witnesses at the time thought that these
complaints were mainly efforts to win back the sympathy of white masters.
Not all of the plantation slaves surrendered. The Army captured at least 93 who were known to be the property of white citizens. These captured slaves were reportedly returned to their owners.
Another small segment of plantation rebels subsumed themselves within the ranks of the Black Seminoles. Field slaves at the outset of the war, these courageous blacks ultimately won their liberty when General Jesup agreed to let them emigrate west with the established "Indian Negroes" (the Black Seminoles) in 1837 and 1838. At least five such field slaves surrendered under Jesup's promise of freedom at the close of 1837. Quite likely dozens more availed themselves of this option, but there are no hard numbers to go by.
Some plantation slaves may also have succeeded in feigning status as established "Indian Negroes." By the close of 1837, the Army was anxious to move the most militant blacks west, regardless of whether they were Indian maroons or the property of white citizens. Lt. Sprague defended
this policy on pragmatic grounds:
"The negroes ... have, for their numbers, been the most formidable foe, more bloodthirsty, active, and revengeful, than the Indians .... The negro, returned to his original owner, might have remained a few days, when he again would have fled to the swamps, more vindictive than ever.... Ten resolute negroes, with a knowledge of the country, are sufficient to desolate the frontier, from one extent to the
In this frequently quoted passage, Sprague was defending a policy that was controversial among
slaveholders. From the start, Florida slaveholders had demanded the return of all
blacks who were claimed by white owners. In 1837, the Army's decision to yield on this policy seemed to confirm that a portion of the plantation rebels had succeeded in winning their freedom.
Even after the Army's policy reversal, some blacks remained in the wilderness, fighting alongside Coacoochee and other Seminole Indian chiefs from
1838-42. Quite likely, these final holdouts were plantation rebels, since most of the Black Seminole militants
had surrendered with or before John Horse in 1838.
So, what can we conclude about the success of the rebellion?
As far as the plantation slaves were concerned, the Florida rebellion was a failure, since a majority of the rebels returned to chattel slavery. The uprising was not, however, a total disaster -- at least not in comparison with
the other major U.S. rebellions, which all ended in violent repression. In Florida, history leaves no record of mass reprisals against the rebels. There were no heads
placed on pikes, as occurred in Louisiana, and no mass trials and executions, as
took place after the failed conspiracies of Prosser and Vesey. Rather, white Floridians seem to have gratefully accepted the return of their slaves.
In the wake of the uprising, the territorial legislature did pass tougher slave codes and more draconian laws aimed at free blacks. Yet even these laws were deceptive. As Brown reveals in his essay on territorial race relations, Florida's slave laws tended to set strict standards that individual whites largely ignored, choosing instead to negotiate more lenient relations with their bondsmen.
Though most of the 385-plus plantation rebels failed to win freedom, a small minority succeeded. Unfortunately, without further research the number in this category cannot be known -- and will probably never be known with anything close to certainty.
What about the fate of the Black Seminoles?
If the plantation rebels largely failed, the Black Seminoles enjoyed a converse fate. As a community, they won a limited but substantial victory when General Jesup reversed U.S. policy, promising freedom to all black warriors who surrendered over the winter and spring of 1837-38.
Only later, in the Indian Territory, would the limitations of Jesup's promise become apparent, leading to dire problems for many Black Seminoles. In 1838, however, Jesup's promise appeared valid. By his own admission, the general had offered "the most liberal terms." The leaders of the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history appeared to have won a conditional victory.
True, they were not allowed to remain in Florida, which had been the Seminoles' stated objective all along. For the black warriors, however, liberty had always been the true objective, wherever it was offered.
In the end, 500 blacks -- mainly Black Seminoles, with some plantation rebels mixed in -- emigrated west to the Indian Territory. The blacks emigrated under a tangled web of legal and social arrangements. Roughly speaking, half of them went west under Army promises of freedom, and half emigrated under traditional, private arrangements with Seminole Indian masters.
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Contrary perspectives: It was not a rebellion
Among contemporary academics, oversight of the Black
Seminole-led slave rebellion has resulted largely from a lack of
awareness of the details of the rebellion, as can be seen in the
examples of scholarly oversight. From Aptheker (1943) to Franklin
(1999), the seminal writers on American slave resistance have been
aware of the Black Seminole maroon uprising but unclear or entirely
unaware of the mass participation of plantation slaves that took
place in conjunction with the maroon and Indian conflict.
While this lack of awareness accounts for the persistence of the
oversight, some academics have, or will, argue that the events in
Florida were not, in fact, a slave rebellion. Academic convention is
very strong. No doubt some academics, finding it inconceivable that
they have not already read about the Florida slave rebellion, will
seek out reasons to declare it was not a true
slave rebellion, based on a variety of definitions.
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Contrary perspective No. 1: It was a wartime alliance
Andrew Frank, an historian at California State University, Los
Angeles, made an argument along these lines in his review of Larry
Rivers' Slavery in Florida (Gainesville: University Press of
Florida, 2000). Rivers, along with Canter Brown, is one of only two
scholars to suggest that the Second Seminole War "probably
constituted the largest slave uprising in the annals of North
American history" (Rivers, 219). In
a review published online by H-Net Reviews in May 2002, Frank takes
issue with Rivers for being too liberal in defining his terms:
Rivers effectively demonstrates the participation of hundreds of
fugitive slaves and black Seminoles, who he states were still
maroons, in the war. Rivers chooses not to challenge the
conventional definition of slave rebellion, however, in this
discussion. Instead, he stresses that the historian's neglect to
understand the war as a slave rebellion is compounded by its
relatively large number of enslaved participants. This needs further
explanation. Any definition of "slave uprising" that includes the
Second Seminole War would also include, at the very least, the
American Revolution, War of 1812, and American Civil War.
Frank raises an important point: a slave rebellion is defined as
an armed uprising of slaves, but is it a rebellion if it takes place
within the context of an organized war? The answer to the question is especially thorny in
the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the U.S. Civil War.
Some scholars have described elements of the
black role in these conflicts as slave rebellion, but given the role
played by organized state powers, it is problematic to claim that
the participation of all slaves in the conflicts constituted open
revolt. During the Second Seminole War, however, the acts of mass
slave resistance were far more autonomous and self-determined than
the black resistance in the other three conflicts and in fact
corresponded almost perfectly to the scholarly definition
of the New World slave revolt. A review of the role of slaves in
each conflict highlights the distinction.
In the case of the American Revolution and the War of 1812, slaves
sought freedom based on promises of safe haven from a foreign
government. The British used such promises to lure more than 10,000
slaves from the American colonies during the Revolution. They
deployed the tactic again in the War of 1812, attracting several
thousand American slaves who sought refuge in the British lines.
both conflicts the British made good on their
promises of safe haven. Following the Revolution, many black loyalists
were settled in Canada. After the War of 1812, the
British settled black refugees in Canada, Trinidad, and other parts of the
Caribbean. British support for rebel slaves during the War of 1812 was so steadfast, in
fact, that it created a bitter dispute with the U.S. after the war. The Treaty of Ghent
included a clause
demanding return of American slaves who had defected. The British
refused to comply with the provision, and the matter was only resolved
in 1824 when Americans agreed to accept financial compensation for
their human property.
The war between the states featured a similar dynamic, with the
difference that the slaves themselves played the lead role, in far
greater numbers, in the defection to the "foreign power" (here the
North) that took place.
More than 90,000 southern slaves sought safe haven in the northern
lines during the U.S. Civil War. Initially, their actions precipitated
intense debates among northerners as to how to deal with this living
property of the enemy, called "contrabands" of war. While generals
like John C. Fremont clamored to arm the rebels and declare them
free, President Abraham Lincoln was initially reluctant. Lincoln had publicly
stated that the country was waging war
to restore the union, not to end slavery, and he hesitated to
appropriate the slave property of the South, for fear it would
change the nature of the conflict. Ultimately, with the Emancipation
Proclamation of 1863, Lincoln bowed to
the arguments of his generals and offered freedom to the southern contrabands and all
slaves in confederate areas. The reasoning behind this change of
policy was based in part
on the precedent of the Black Seminoles, as
Rebellion documents, who had furnished an example of the federal government's right to liberate
rebellious slaves during wartime.
The slave resistance in Florida from 1835-1838 was distinct from the slave defections in these other three wars. First and foremost, no foreign power offered
safe haven to the slaves who rebelled in Florida in 1835. There is no record
that the small Seminole Nation made such an offer, and the
nation—fighting for its very existence and homeland—was not in a
position to fulfill any such promises had they been offered. The
British in 1776 and 1812 offered full liberty, land,
and citizenship rights in promises backed by one of the
world's foremost powers; and the British made good on their
promises. The example of the Civil War is a bit more complicated,
because slaves themselves initiated much of the policy debate by
defecting in droves to the North; nonetheless, the safe haven that
defecting slaves ultimately found under the auspices of the Union
Army was categorically distinct from the self-determination-amid-chaos that rebel slaves pursued in Florida.
The role of the slaves in planning resistance and their motives for
resistance were two more distinguishing factors of the Black
Seminole slave rebellion. In the Revolution and the War of 1812, the
British planned the wars. Their offers of freedom to slaves were strategic tactics to disrupt the enemy. In Florida in 1835,
in contrast, U.S. military
officials determined that slaves had themselves conspired with the Black
Seminole maroons to plan the mass uprising and wholesale destruction
of sugar plantations at the outset of the war. The slaves were not
motivated by a tactical offer of freedom from a foreign power.
Rather, they fought with the idea, according to military leaders, of
winning transport to freedom in Cuba. In other words, the Florida slaves of their own accord
helped plan the conflict, then helped overthrow their masters and
destroy their property while joining a mass uprising with the hope of winning freedom by force of
arms. This is distinct from the defections to a major state power
that took place during the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and
even the U.S. Civil War.
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Contrary perspective No. 2: It was collusion with maroons
In accepting that the Florida uprising was a slave rebellion, some
academics might raise another consideration as grounds for
exclusion: the fact that the slaves colluded with maroons. Doesn't
this collusion exclude the uprising from the realm of a slave
rebellion? The slaves may not have had the protection of a foreign
power, this line of reasoning would say, but they benefited from the
promised protection of their maroon and even Indian co-conspirators,
and this protection rendered their actions more akin to a military
alliance than a slave revolt.
This argument only works if scholars are ready to throw
out the entire
New World history—and accepted scholarly definition—of slave
rebellions. The leading scholars of New World slave resistance, from
Eugene Genovese to Orlando Patterson, have routinely pointed out the
central role of maroons in the region's major rebellions. "The
most impressive slave revolts in the hemisphere," wrote Genovese,
"proceeded in alliance with maroons or took place in periods in
which maroon activity was directly undermining the slave regime or
inspiring the slaves by example" (From Rebellion to Revolution
33). Maroon-slave alliances were rarely harmonious, however, since the interests of slaves and
The relationship between maroons and slaves was complex and by no
means always friendly. The peace treaties between the maroons and
white regimes usually provided for black autonomy in return for
military support against slave revolts and for the return of new
runaways. But the existence of militarily respected maroon colonies
destroyed in a single stroke the more extravagant racist pretensions
of the whites and provided a beacon to spirited slaves. (Genovese
From Rebellion to Revolution 591)
The rebellion in Florida
corresponded faithfully to the pattern of maroon-slave alliances
that Genovese described in Jamaica, Surinam, and Brazil. As in those
countries, in Florida the maroons (Black Seminoles)
initially sought a strategic alliance with rebellious slaves. Ultimately,
however, the maroons agreed to surrender in exchange for white recognition of
their autonomy. In Florida, the U.S. Army acknowledged maroon autonomy by offering promises of freedom
to 250 Black
Seminoles and giving secure passage to 500 of them, allowing them to
travel west under their traditional arrangements with the Seminole
Indians. At the same
time that the maroons were negotiating safe passage to the west, the majority
of Florida's plantation slave rebels were surrendering and being returned to their owners.
This coincidence did not exactly equal "military support against slave
revolts" on the part of the Black Seminoles, but it showed that
the Black Seminoles' communal interests were not synonymous with the freedom
of the plantation rebels.
Florida's plantation rebels did, however, fare more successfully than slaves in
other joint maroon-slave revolts. In fact they may have been the
most successful slave rebels in the New World outside of Haiti.
Admittedly, this is not a
high standard, given the dismal record of New World slave revolts.
Still, it was notable that as the rebellion in Florida wound
the Black Seminole maroons did not actively round up plantation rebels,
as occurred at the end of other maroon wars.
In Florida, slaves also were not executed in reprisal for the rebellion,
something which happened after all of the other major U.S. slave revolts and
conspiracies, from the New York City revolt of 1712 to Nat Turner's
rebellion in 1831 and even John Brown's raid in 1859. The comparative leniency
after the Black Seminole slave rebellion reflected several factors,
including Florida's more tolerant and complex
approach to slavery, inherited from the Spanish, and the extended,
wartime nature of the revolt. By 1838, slaveholders living on
Florida's sparsely populated frontier also desperately needed the
labor of their bondsmen, which was surely an inducement to clemency.
One fact above all else, however, demonstrates the comparative
success of Florida's plantation slave rebels: military records show that at least a small contingent of five to ten
plantation slaves were allowed to go west with the Black Seminole
maroons. The number of slaves who won freedom by this means may have
been much higher, but it is not likely that research will reveal the
true number, because during the emigration negotiations, the
military made no effort to carefully distinguish maroons from
slaves. The military did not want the number of
slaves sent west to become known, for fear of upsetting Florida slaveholders. In
the spring of 1837, slaveholders helped reignite the war on this very point.
The officer corps
deeply resented this citizen interference and sought to avoid its
With this in mind, it is instructive to read an
oft-cited passage from John T. Sprague's 1848 history of the war.
Writers typically use the passage, in which Sprague described the
black warriors as "the most formidable foe, more blood thirsty,
active, and revengeful, than the Indians," to demonstrate the key role
that the Black
Seminoles played during the Second Seminole War. Read at greater
length and in proper context, however, the passage reveals another
important point: members of the U.S. Army were defensive even in
1848 about having granted freedom to rebellious blacks—freedom not
just to maroons, who were already comparatively free, but also to plantation slaves,
who had taken up arms against the oppressor. Sprague couched the
incendiary fact in suitably euphemistic prose—it was plain to see for those
who understood the subject but opaque to those who did not. Sprague was
an authority on the war, having served in Florida intermittently from
1835 on under several commanding generals, including his father-in-law, General
William Worth. It was Worth who personally reaffirmed the freedom of the
Black Seminole maroon leader John Horse
and, more notoriously, allowed recent plantation rebels to emigrate
west with the Seminoles. The army policy of sending rebellious slaves
west was controversial with white and Creek Indian slaveholders. Worth
defended his actions by saying that he did not want the swamps of Florida to
become "the resort of runaways" (Worth cited in Porter Negro on
the American Frontier 257).
With this in mind, Sprague's description of the "formidable"
black warriors takes on a new dimension. An astute
reader can hear that his description was not
just an explanation of recent history but was also
a spirited defense of his father-in-law's controversial army policy:
The Negroes from the commencement of the Florida
War, have, for their numbers, been the most formidable foe, more
blood thirsty, active, and revengeful, than the Indians….The lives
of citizens and their property, demanded that they should be sent
far beyond the country with which they are familiar…. The swamps and
hammocks of Florida could, for years, be made safe retreats from
bondage, where without labor or expense, they might defy the efforts
of armed men…. Ten resolute Negroes, with a knowledge of the
country, are sufficient to desolate the frontier, from one extent to
the other. To obviate all difficulty, the claimant of the Negro in
possession of the Indian, was, upon identifying and proving
property, paid a fair equivalent, determined by a board of officers.
(Sprague Origin, Progress, and Conclusion of the Florida War
The incendiary revelation was that "claimants of the Negro in possession of the Indian"
were paid for their property, provided they could show the validity
of their claim. This meant that the government was not just shipping
quasi-free maroons to the west but also slaves—that is, black rebels identified as property
of white claimants. In defending this policy, Sprague echoed the thoughts of Generals Worth,
Thomas Sydney Jesup, Edmund Pendleton Gaines and other leading
officers of the war who felt that rebellious slaves had to
be shipped west for the good of the country.
This policy contravened
the initial goals of President
Andrew Jackson and Secretary of War Lewis Cass, who in 1836 ordered
be prosecuted until every "living slave belonging to a white man" was
returned. Officers in the field, confronting the reality of an
intractable conflict, reversed this policy. In the end, the officers
concluded that distinguishing maroons from slaves was less important than
simply brokering peace with the most militant black elements.
While the total number of plantation rebels shipped west with the
Black Seminole maroons will likely never be known, the fact remains
that even if the army only allowed five or ten
plantation rebels to go west, the concession
stands as the sole example in U.S.
history of slaves succeeding in a rebellion from chattel slavery. It
may be one of the only examples in the history of the New World. Scholars,
for example, generally regard the Haitian
revolution of 1804 as the only example of a successful rebellion
against New World chattel slavery.
That a handful of slaves won their freedom through force of arms was a remarkable
accomplishment. Given its implications for the slaves of the
south, it comes as no surprise that slaveholders buried it deep. How historians
missed the accomplishment is another question.
Regardless of success or failure, a slave rebellion is defined by
the circumstances of its inception. At the outset of the uprising in
Florida in 1835, the largest body of rebel slaves in U.S. history
rose with the motive of winning freedom through
self-directed flight from American shores. It would seem petty to say
today that their actions were not a slave rebellion simply because news of it
comes as a
surprise to some scholars.
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Conclusion and final tally
To tally the final numbers of the Black Seminole rebellion, one has to decide how to classify the conflict. One can safely describe it as a maroon war (the only one in American history)
that inspired the country's largest slave rebellion. The numbers break down as follows:
Maroon rebels (Black Seminoles)
Plantation slaves in revolt
Total black rebels
This leads to a conservative tally of 385 slaves in rebellion. One can go further,
making a case that all of the blacks who resisted the U.S. in Florida were rebellious slaves. Certainly many white residents of Florida characterized the Black Seminoles as such during the 1830s. In 1848, the U.S. Attorney General added his voice to the debate when he ruled that legally the Seminole maroons in Florida had been slaves in revolt. This decision, motivated by
southern political interests, was devastating to the Black Seminoles. Within a year it led John Horse and his immediate followers to seek freedom in Mexico.
If the U.S. Attorney General believed that the Black Seminoles were
slaves in revolt, then historians can surely at least contemplate
according them like status, accepting that the maroons might not
just have inspired the largest slave rebellion in American history,
they may have participated in it as well. Such a conclusion brings
the total number of rebels to 935 or more. It would be somewhat ironic if academics today were to strip the Black Seminoles of their status as rebellious slaves, 150 years after American politicians tried to crucify them with the same distinction.
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