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BLACK SEMINOLE INDIANS

BLACK SEMINOLE INDIANS. Black Seminole Indians, sometimes known as Indian blacks, black Muscogulges, or Seminole freedmen, emerged as a distinct ethnic group in seventeenth-century Florida. During the early part of that century, the Spanish crown, which controlled Florida, gave land to a group of Lower Creeks hoping to form a buffer zone between themselves and the English settlers in Georgia and the Carolinas. Over time the Creeks were joined by other bands such as the Mikasukis and the Apalachicolas. By 1822 this confederation had adopted the name Seminole and numbered close to 5,000 members. Throughout the history of Spanish Florida the crown had also offered asylum to runaway slaves, i.e., maroons, from the English colonies. Entire free communities of blacks existed under Spanish rule in Florida and other parts of the empire. When the Spanish surrendered Florida to Britain in 1763, the policy of legal manumission ended, but the area's reputation as a sanctuary persisted. Runaways turned to the Seminoles for protection and asylum from slave hunters. During and after the American Revolution, the Seminoles added to the number of maroons through capture and purchase. Although considered slaves by the Seminoles, blacks found life a great deal more tolerable under their new masters, who adopted many of the practices of the lenient Spanish slave system. Seminoles in Florida often refused to sell their slaves or to turn them over to slavehunters or other Indians without being coerced.

Typically, maroons lived in separate communities next to the Seminoles, with their own leaders and political systems. They were allowed to own weapons and had control over their labor. Their culture largely reflected a mixture of Seminole, African, and white customs. The most formal obligation that existed between the two groups was the payment of an annual tribute, usually a percentage of the slave's crop. Seminoles barred the majority of blacks from becoming full members in their clans, but in certain cases they did extend membership or special status to such individual black leaders as John Kibbetts and Juan Caballo.qqv Intermarriage between the two ethnic groups occurred, but on a limited basis. Studies also suggest that, unlike the Seminoles, the majority of Black Seminoles practiced monogamy. Although they did not have tribal membership, Black Seminoles played key roles in both political and military matters. The Seminoles began to rely on the maroons, with their knowledge of English, as interpreters and intermediaries in negotiations with whites. When negotiations broke down, Black Seminoles proved to be especially fierce warriors, since they fought not only for the Seminoles' freedom but for their own. During the Seminole Wars of the early nineteenth century, maroons and Seminoles, in separate units, fought the United States Army in an attempt to resist relocation to the West. Both contemporaries and historians attribute much of the persistence of the struggle to the maroons' contributions as fighters, guides, and spies. Despite the efforts of both groups, the end of the wars meant the loss of their homeland and for many blacks, captured during the hostilities, a return to slavery in the United States. For Black Seminoles, removal also meant the beginning of the dispersal of their people to Oklahoma, Mexico, and Texas.

A major consequence of the Second Seminole War was the deterioration of relations between Seminoles and Black Seminoles. During the conflict, the United States Army initiated a policy, devised by Gen. Thomas S. Jesup, to divide the two races by offering the maroons their freedom if they surrendered. When maroon leaders entered into negotiations with the army, many Seminoles felt not only betrayed but cheated out of their legal property. Due to Seminole protest, the army was unable to fulfill its promises to the Black Seminoles, and when both groups reached Indian Territory problems arose as to the status of the maroons. The confusion surrounding the blacks' independence was further complicated by the subjugation of the Seminoles to Creek rule in Indian Territory, a stipulation of removal treaties that did not sit well with a majority of either Seminoles or Black Seminoles. After the Seminoles agreed to Creek rule in 1845, maroons found themselves subjected to the Creek slave codes, which prohibited them from owning weapons and property and threatened the existence of their independent communities. Black Seminoles found their former allies, the Seminoles, increasingly unwilling to support them in their efforts to resist the oppressive Creek codes. Seminoles believed that the maroons had betrayed them in the removal process. Fearing the loss of their autonomy, the maroons rejected Seminole authority and turned to the army for protection. But the army refused to support the maroons' claims of freedom and insisted that they return to Seminole rule, which often meant being sold to Creek or white slaveowners. Led by Juan Caballo, a substantial number of Black Seminoles went to Mexico in 1849.

In desperate need of people to patrol the Texas-Coahuila border for Comanches and Apaches, the Mexican government offered the maroons and a splinter band of Seminoles, led by Seminole warrior Wild Cat, a joint grant of land at the juncture of Río San Rodrigo and Río San Antonio. The maroons, now referred to as Mascogos, established an independent settlement at El Moral. As was the case in Florida, the maroon communities in Mexico continued to be havens for runaway slaves and freed blacks of mixed blood. Resettlement in Mexico, however, did not mean that the maroons escaped the continual efforts of slave hunters or the antiabolition sentiment that dominated Southern culture. Slaveowners and slave proponents in the United States besieged the Mexican government with requests that blacks within their boundaries be returned to slavery. As raids and hostilities increased, fearing a breach of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Mexican government decided to move both the maroons and the Seminoles to a tract of land at the Hacienda de Nacimiento, located in the interior on the Río San Juan Sabinas. Once they were in Nacimiento, the weak alliance that had been formed by the maroons and Wild Cat's Seminoles essentially ended. The maroons proved to be better than their Seminole counterparts at settling the land, while the Seminoles preferred to conduct campaigns against other Indians rather than farm. When Wild Cat's Seminoles returned to Indian Territory in 1861, the Mascogos remained in Mexico.

External and internal pressures throughout the 1860s divided the Mascogos into three groups in Mexico–at Parras, Nacimiento, and Matamoros–and a band, led by Elijah Daniels, across the border in Texas. In 1870 the United States Army entered into negotiations with John Kibbetts, the leader of the group at Nacimiento, to employ Black Seminoles as Indian scouts and fighters in West Texas. Kibbetts agreed to move his people to Texas and to work for the army in exchange for the government's promise to support his people until they were moved to the Seminole Nation in Indian Territory. At Fort Duncan on August 16, 1870, Kibbetts was commissioned a sergeant and ten of his followers enlisted as privates .

The families of the men along with other members of Kibbetts's band established a camp on Elm Creek near the fort. In 1871 Daniels's band and the Matamoros faction arrived at Fort Duncan, increasing the number of Black Seminole Scouts by eighteen. By late 1875 Juan Caballo had brought his group to the fort as well. Although he refused to enlist as a scout himself, members of his band joined, and Caballo acted as an independent interpreter and negotiator. Other Black Seminoles established villages on military reservations to wait for their relocation to Indian Territory. Though they made some improvements to the land and contributions to construction projects at the forts, the groups were heavily dependent on army rations for their subsistence. After the 1870s the scouts' numbers were also strengthened by American freedmen, Mexican blacks, and blacks from the regular army. Eventually, black scouts were stationed at Fort Duncan and Fort Clark. They served primarily under the command of Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie and Lt. John L. Bullis.qqv The scouts' knowledge of English, Spanish, and various Indian dialects proved valuable to the army, as did their years of experience fighting the Indians in Mexico. The scouts distinguished themselves in the Indian wars; four of them–John Ward, Isaac Payne, Pompey Factor,qqv and Adam Payne–were awarded the Medal of Honor.

Despite the scouts' service to the United States, the government proved reluctant to fulfill its contract with the maroons concerning land. Originally, the army classified the maroons as Indians and believed that the group could be settled on Indian land. Questions arose from Indian agents, however, about the ethnicity of the group. Despite some mixing between the two groups, the Black Seminoles had maintained their identity as a separate people. What ensued was a battle among the army, the Indian Bureau, and the Department of the Interior over who would assume financial responsibility for the refugees. In the meantime, the material conditions of the group worsened as rations were periodically suspended and the maroons were unable to raise sufficient crops on the military reservations. In 1876 the military ordered all of the Black Seminoles to leave Fort Duncan for Fort Clark. Some of the maroons believed that their move to Indian Territory was in sight, but the army disappointed them as government bureaucrats continued to debate the questions of ethnicity and responsibility.

For their part, the Black Seminoles on military lands were split over moving to the Seminole Nation or returning to Nacimiento in Mexico. In the end some squatters returned to Nacimiento; others found refuge with Seminole freedman communities in the Seminole Nation, while still others remained at Fort Clark. When the United States disbanded the scouts in 1912, the maroons at Fort Clark, who numbered between 200 and 300, moved to nearby Brackettville, where the Seminole Indian Scout Cemetery is located. In the 1990s, communities of Black Seminoles still existed in Brackettville, Oklahoma, and Nacimiento. Reunions and cultural celebrations are held on a regular basis by Black Seminoles from all three communities. Despite the groups' modern differences, Black Seminoles in Texas, Oklahoma, and Mexico take great pride in their common heritage.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Grant Foreman, The Five Civilized Tribes (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1934). Kevin Mulroy, Freedom on the Border: The Seminole Maroons in Florida, the Indian Territory, Coahuila and Texas (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1993). Kenneth Wiggins Porter, The Negro on the American Frontier (New York: Arno Press, 1971). Kenneth Wiggins Porter, "The Seminole Negro-Indian Scouts, 1870–1881," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 55 (January 1952). Richard Price, Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979).

Tracé Etienne-Gray

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Tracé Etienne-Gray, "BLACK SEMINOLE INDIANS," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/bmb18), accessed September 01, 2014. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.