The Seminole Indians, as a distinct group, are of fairly recent origin. In the southeastern United States, almost every Indian who was not a Cherokee, Choctaw, or Chickasaw was considered a Creek. This classification consisted of a large number of tribes. When the Spanish and English struggled for control of the southeast during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the English encouraged the Creeks to make war on the tribes in Spanish-occupied territories. The Creeks nearly exterminated many of the Florida tribes, leaving a void into which many of the Creeks moved. These Indian frontiersmen became known as Seminoles, a Creek word meaning "wild," or "people who live at a distance." During the 1700s, the Seminoles kept their ties with the Creeks and attended their councils. However, as English and later Americans attempted to deal with the Creek Confederacy, they excluded the Seminoles from their negotiations, because the latter lived in Spanish territory and were beyond their control. Thus, the Seminoles came to be regarded as a separate people.
The Seminoles, like their Creek relatives, absorbed remnants of the Florida tribes into their own. The Oconees were the first "Seminoles," followed by the Yuchis, Alabamas, Choctaws, and Shawnees, each of which, once they moved into Florida, became known as Seminoles. A substantial portion of the Seminoles were of African heritage. Approximately 500 persons of African descent joined the Seminoles when they were removed from Florida between 1838 and 1843 (see BLACK SEMINOLE INDIANS). Some of these Africans were slaves but others were not. Those enslaved by the Seminoles were not subjected to the harsh institution practiced by Americans in the United Staes. They dressed as Seminoles, often lived in towns among free Blacks, paid shares of crops to their Seminole masters, and enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. Other Blacks were runaways, or maroons, escaping their British or American masters to live in the wilds of Florida. The maroons easily intermixed within these communities without interference from the Seminoles. The presence of runaway slaves, combined with the lax treatment of slaves by the Seminoles, created tensions between the Indians and their White, slaveholding neighbors, which, over time, increased the demand for removal. Seminole resistance to White encroachment led to a series of conflicts with the United States Army including the First Seminole War (1816–18), the Second Seminole War (1835–42), and the final skirmishes of 1857–58.
The Seminoles, like the Creeks, were a loose confederation of associated towns with a great deal of local autonomy and diversity. Each town had a mico, the town's principal executive officer or chief. Below the mico were a group of lesser chiefs and a second man, or heniha, who organized most of the dances and rituals and saw to the upkeep of the public buildings and communal fields. The communal fields were worked by all members of the tribe, but each family had its own designated plot and kept all of its produce, except for a small portion that was donated to public storage. The public storage was used to help destitute families and to feed visitors. In addition to the communal plots, each family typically planted a small private garden in a yard. In addition to their agricultural pursuits, the Seminoles also hunted, fished, and, after the introduction of cattle, raised livestock. Each family generally lived in a dwelling consisting of two wooden frame buildings. One of the buildings was divided into two rooms, one for cooking and one for sleeping. The other building was usually a two-story structure. The lower floor was used for storing potatoes, while grain and other foodstuffs were stored on the upper floor. The second level also usually had an open, covered balcony on which the head of the household would greet guests, or simply rest in the cool shade on hot days. Seminole dress was a combination of Native American and European fashion. They wore traditional moccasins, but their leggings were often woolen rather than deerskin. Most other accoutrements, such as shirts, jackets, belts, and pouches, were imported from Europeans or Americans. The Seminoles also enjoyed wearing beads, copper and later silver earbobs, gorgets, and armbands.
As noted earlier, the Seminoles' treatment of their slaves and the congregation of runaways in or near their villages caused excitement, fear, and anger among their White neighbors and increased agitation for their removal. As removal became a reality, several groups decided to move to Mexican Texas rather than to Indian Territory. Several hundred, led by Chief John Blount, settled on the Trinity River in 1834. Those Seminoles who moved to Indian Territory resented the Creeks' attempts to claim authority over them and the Seminole Blacks who accompanied them. Many began to search for a new home, looking first to Texas. When Texans revolted in 1836, and then nine years later joined the United States, the Seminoles turned their attention to the Mexican state of Coahuila.
Wild Cat (Coacoochee), a Seminole chief, took on the task of finding a better home for his followers. He met several times with southern plains tribes in an attempt to promote an Indian colony in Mexico. In November 1850 Wild Cat and approximately 200 American Indian and Black followers left Indian Territory for Mexico. The group stopped along the Llano River for the summer, where the Blacks planted crops and Wild Cat visited with nearby Indian bands to promote his colony. Wild Cat's activities created excitement and terror among many Texans in the area. His meetings with hostile plains tribes and the presence of the Blacks, many of them apparently runaway slaves, caused many Texans to look suspiciously at his activities. Reports that Wild Cat had gathered 700 to 800 Seminoles, Lipans, Wacos, and Tonkawas under his command filtered into San Antonio. In actuality, the Seminole chief convinced only 100 Kickapoos to join his venture. Wild Cat proceeded alone to negotiate with Mexican officials and received a favorable land grant. He then returned to his followers. Packing hastily and leaving their crops in the field because of rumored slaver activities in the area, the group fled toward Mexico. In July 1851 the group, 309 Seminoles, Blacks, and Kickapoos entered Mexico near Eagle Pass and set up three villages: the Seminoles at San Fernando de Rosas (now Zaragoza); the maroons at El Moral; and the Kickapoos at Tuillo.
The Seminoles remained unsatisfied with their new home, however, and in 1858 they learned that an independent Seminole Nation had been created in a treaty in 1856 between the Creeks and the United States. When Wild Cat died in 1856, and tensions increased between the Seminoles and the increasingly independent maroons, most Seminoles decided to return to Oklahoma. By 1861 all of the Mexican Seminoles had returned to Indian Territory, but many of the maroons and the Kickapoos stayed behind. The Seminole Blacks who remained in Mexico eventually divided into four groups, one of them migrating to Texas in 1870. One of the groups settled near Fort Duncan, and some of them enlisted as scouts for the army. Other groups soon followed suit, and a few moved to Fort Clark where several served as scouts. The Black Seminole scouts served with distinction throughout the Indian wars of the 1870s and 1880s, fighting, at times, Apaches, Cheyennes, Comanches, and Kiowas. The employment of these scouts had originally been seen as a stepping stone toward removing the maroons to the Indian Territory, however, their usefulness in the army and the refusal of the Seminoles in Oklahoma to welcome them caused problems.
Eventually most of the Seminole Blacks moved to West Texas or back to Mexico. When the Oklahoma statehood movement began, many Seminoles attempted to reclaim Wild Cat's old Mexican land grant. Attempts in the early 1900s proved fruitless. In 1920–21 interest was renewed when a Mexican Kickapoo chief visited the Oklahoma Seminoles and encouraged them to move to their Mexican lands. The Seminole delegates to Mexico discovered, upon their arrival, that their old Mexican grant was inhabited by descendants of the Seminole maroons left behind in 1861. The maroons shunned the Seminoles, much as the Seminoles had shunned their Black ancestors in the 1880s. As late as the 1970s the Seminoles were still meeting with Mexican officials in an attempt to recover their lands or receive a new grant.
In the early 1800s the aboriginal Seminole population probably reached a peak of 5,000, including Blacks. A census in 1845, after removal, showed approximately 3,100 Seminoles in Indian Territory, with several hundred more scattered in Florida, Texas, and Mexico. In 1901 the population of the Seminole Nation was slightly more than 3,000, including almost 1,000 Blacks. Almost all Seminole Indians currently reside in Oklahoma, although many Black Seminoles continue to reside on Wild Cat's old claim in Mexico. Some 100 to 150 Seminole Blacks, calling themselves Seminoles, currently live in West Texas.