Time & Place: 1835-1838, Florida, at onset of the
Second Seminole War, peaking late December 1835-January 1836
on plantations of St. Johns County south of St. Augustine.
Participants: 385-465 plantation slaves, 500-800
Black Seminole maroons (free blacks, fugitive slaves and their
Outcome: Partial success for
the maroons, half of whom moved west under promises of freedom. Partial
success for a
small, indeterminate number of slaves who blended with maroons; at
least 300, however, were returned to masters.
Who knew then
that a slave rebellion coincided with the Florida war?
- Florida slaveholders who petitioned the federal government
- Military leaders, including the Secretary of War and commanding officers.
- Members of the antislavery political coalition, especially after 1839.
- Early historians of the war, including two who served in Florida.
- Newspaper readers who could decipher unclear references in reports.
Was the Florida war a maroon war, slave revolt, or Indian war?
- Maroon war in that maroons fought attempts to reenslave
- Slave rebellion in that field slaves conspired to
plan the uprising, then fled and destroyed plantations; military officials thought
the slaves were fighting to obtain passage to freedom in Cuba.
- Indian war in that Seminole Indians were the principal
enemy of the U.S.
How did knowledge of the slave rebellion elude national
attention at the time? It did not,
entirely. Newspapers reported slaves in
Florida who escaped or were "captured" by Indians. But the rebellion
escaped wider notice because of
- A climate of censorship on incendiary slavery issues:
After the Nat Turner revolt of 1831, southerners warned against
open discussion of slave rebellions. They passed gag rules prohibiting
discussion of slavery in the U.S. Congress. They allowed
censorship of the mails when antislavery
tracts were sent south. The Florida rebellion took place at the height of
this period. "Incendiary publication," a South Carolinian
explained three months after the Florida uprising, would
encourage slaves "to escape" and slaveholders to fear "open
rebellion and secret poision." 
- Tendency to ignore status of the slave participants:
Many descriptions of the war did not distinguish
Indian negroes (maroons) from slave rebels. Only the best
military reports made the distinction.
- Tendency to say rebellious slaves
were "captured" by the Indians. Rather than admit
slaves had rebelled, southerners said Indians "captured"
the slaves, which preserved a notion the slaves were loyal.
- Tendency to say Indians conducted all attacks. Indians
led many attacks, but curiously, accounts by whites
tended to say "Indians attacked" even when it was
known blacks were the leaders and main
How did knowledge continue to elude historians through the
- Legacy of the factors outlined above.
- Confusion over the "slaves" who took part in the
uprisings: Most historians aware of
the black role in Florida assumed the "slaves" involved were maroons
and did not realize plantation slaves
rebelled en masse.
- Problems with three key sources on the Florida war:
- Joshua Reed Giddings: His
influential 1858 antislavery history conflated the "exiles" (Black
Seminole maroons) with the plantation slaves, muddying later
understanding that the groups were distinct.
- Kenneth Wiggins Porter: The great
historian of the Black Seminoles distinguished slaves from
maroons but did not place
the slaves' actions in context; facts were there on close read but not analysis, and scholars who
relied on Porter missed the forest for the trees.
- John Mahon: His history of
the Second Seminole War (1968) remains the definitive account, yet he failed to
note that mass numbers of plantation slaves, let alone 385 of
them, rebelled during the war.
- Conventional wisdom: For decades, the received wisdom
among scholars has been that no major slave rebellions took
place in the U.S. after 1831. No doubt some will cling to this
idea tenaciously, using semantics to deny
that the Black Seminole slave rebellion was a "slave rebellion"
rather than explore the more
interesting question: How did scholars miss the largest, and
most successful, slave revolt in U.S. history, and what does
Is the oversight by historians just a matter of definition?
No, it stems from a lack of awareness. In references to the
Seminole war, major historians from Genovese to Elkins to Franklin are
unclear on the actors (slaves vs. maroons), the action (rebellion vs. "capture"),
and the scope (385 slaves) of the Florida rebellion.
The oversight is not just a matter of the definition of a slave
revolt. The actions in Florida resembled many of the major slave
revolts in the Caribbean and South America, which also proceeded in
conjunction with maroon conflicts.
Is all this true? How can it be verified? Check out this
site. The toolkit and the
essays are good
places for skeptics to start, as is the fully sourced
tally of plantation slaves
who took part in the Black Seminole slave rebellion.