On August 16, 1870, Maj. Zenas R. Bliss enlisted a special detachment of thirteen Black Seminole scouts from a group of approximately 100 who had recently arrived at Fort Duncan, Texas, from three main camps in northern Mexico. These people represented part of the mixed-blood Seminole and black population that had migrated to northeastern Mexico during 1849 and 1850 to escape American slave hunters. Originally, they had been well treated by the Mexican government, which employed them as militiamen against Comanche and Lipan Apache raiders, but they had subsequently been neglected by federal officials. In direct response to Capt. Frank W. Perry's offers of scouting jobs and protection, the Black Seminoles under subchief John Kibbetts resettled at Fort Duncan. During the following three years other kinsmen who had lived at Matamoros, Tamaulipas, and Laguna de Parras, Coahuila, also crossed the border into Texas and raised the total Black Seminole population to approximately 180. The first complement of scouts carried out their tracking duties so well that Bliss raised the number of enlistees to thirty-one by the end of 1871. He also elevated them to permanent military status by supplying them with arms, ammunition, and rations, as well as paying them the standard salary of privates in the regular army. Kibbetts served as company sergeant and received slightly higher pay. Successful operations along the Rio Grande attracted the attention of other officers, and in July 1872 Lt. Col. Wesley Merritt prevailed upon Bliss to transfer some of the scouts and their families north to Fort Clark.
At Fort Clark the scouts finally gained a permanent officer to command their unique group. Lt. John Lapham Bullis eagerly accepted the assignment in 1873, and despite his inexperience in dealing with Indians, the thirty-two-year-old officer quickly proved his mastery of the situation. Bullis succeeded because he gained the respect of his men by undergoing privations in the field with them and looking out for the needs of their families. Within a few months after Bullis took command of the scouts, they were playing a key role in Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie's May raid against a hostile Kickapoo camp near El Remolino, Coahuila. Because this village lay forty miles inside Mexico, the expedition relied heavily on the Black Seminoles and other scouts to prevent contact with Mexican soldiers and to assure a speedy withdrawal once the mission was accomplished. In performing this duty the scouts gained Mackenzie's respect, and he employed them a year later in his campaign against Comanche and Kiowa camps in Palo Duro Canyon. As trackers, couriers, and combatants, they demonstrated their value even beyond the familiar terrain of South Texas and northeastern Mexico. After these events of the Red River War, Indian threats to West Texas were greatly reduced, but small raiding parties still occasionally left the reservation near Fort Sill, Indian Territory, or crossed the border from their mountain refuges in Mexico. Between 1875 and 1881 the Black Seminole scouts spent much time on the trail of these small raiding parties. One fight at Eagle's Nest Crossing (see EAGLE NEST CREEK) on the Pecos River earned the Medal of Honor for scouts John Ward, Isaac Payne, and Pompey Factor. The same award had previously gone to Pvt. Adam Payne for his gallantry in the Red River War. Despite their celebrated service record, the scouts suffered several major setbacks during this six-year period. Confrontations with members of John King Fisher's gang around Brackettville, Texas, resulted in some later killings of scouts. Furthermore, White citizens around Brackettville and Fort Clark began to agitate for the scouts' removal so that the land upon which their families were settled could be opened to public sale. The 1882 transfer of Bullis to Indian Territory likewise weakened the position of the black Indians by causing a large reduction in the complement of fifty scouts and a slashing of the ration issues to their families. Indirect congressional lobbying efforts by Bullis, Mackenzie, Col. Edward Hatch, and even Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, commander of the Military Division of the Missouri, failed to secure what the Black Seminoles needed most-title to their land near Fort Clark. In August 1912 the last sixteen Black Seminole scouts were mustered out of service, but by this time many of their destitute families had already moved to Del Rio, Eagle Pass, and other border towns to seek employment as ranchhands, laborers, and domestic servants. Their long years of service went virtually unnoticed by the progressive population of the new West.
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Robert G. Carter, On the Border with Mackenzie, or Winning West Texas from the Comanches (Washington: Eynon Printing, 1935). John Allen Johnson, "The Medal of Honor and Sergeant John Ward and Private Pompey Factor," Arkansas Historical Quarterly 29 (Winter 1970). Kenneth Wiggins Porter, "The Seminole Negro-Indian Scouts, 1870–1881," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 55 (January 1952). Frost Woodhull, "The Seminole Indian Scouts on the Border," Frontier Times, December 1937.
Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Michael L. Tate,
“Black Seminole Scouts,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 23, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
August 1, 1995
Most Recent Revision Date:
September 30, 2020
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: