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BIPOC HISTORY 101:The Rise of John Horse

The Seminole War Hero who was Chosen by Osceola to free both Natives and Africans in America. The Destruction of Fort Negro, the Rise of A Chief

The Seminole Wars (also known as the Florida Wars) were three related military conflicts in Florida between the United States Continental Army that eventually became the Union Army and the Seminole, citizens of a Native American nation that included a large number of people of African descent which formed in the region during the early 1700s. Hostilities commenced about 1816 because slave holders feared the rise of a combined red and black nation that would end the prosperity they had gained from enslaving blacks. The hostilities continued through 1858, with two periods of uneasy truce between active conflict. The Seminole Wars were the longest and most expensive, in both human and financial cost to the United States, of the American Indian Wars. From 1873 to 1881, the black Seminoles served as Buffalo Soldiers called that by the Comanche because of their fierceness in battle and as scouts for the Army without a single man killed in 25 actions. The Seminoles had become seasoned mercenary soldiers and thus inspired fear in the US Army.

To understand why we must first look at how these people came to be and who their leaders were. Author Christopher D. Kimball writes “ In the late 18th century, Florida was Spanish territory. The kidnapped blacks from plantations in the Southeast escaped to Florida because it was closer than Canada. Once there, the formerly enslaved were adopted by the Seminole Indians, who were compassionate because they themselves had escaped from slavery and political unrest among the Creek Indians. The former slaves organized towns and fully adopted the Creek-Seminole customs and languages, and soon many blacks were born as free men. The blacks had a voice in the head Seminole councils. They made political decisions and participated in battles and raiding parties. The plantation owners could not tolerate the fact that their former slaves were escaping to Florida in huge numbers and they grew fearful that they would one day be able to come back as an army and free their friends and families.

. Since the plantation owners controlled the government in the south through their wealth and made political decisions, the federal government became involved. From 1780 to 1818, border raids were constant between all sides. Plantation owners in Georgia at that time (Alabama was part of Georgia) and Mississippi territories wanted the Florida land and accused the Seminoles of stealing their stolen Africans aka slaves. The Seminoles accused the slave owners of raiding them and taking their black Seminoles. On top of that, the Creek Indians declared that ALL the Seminoles were under their authority and demanded them back as slaves!

The United States wanted Florida and thought it should be part of their America. Therefore the Spanish government did not do anything to control the Indians raiding southern Georgia, and the United States did not do anything to control the plantation owners from raiding the Indians. The worst incident in the border skirmishes happened July 27, 1816. A group of black Seminoles had moved into a fort that the British had abandoned on the Appalachicola River in Florida, which became known as Fort Negro. Built on a militarily significant site overlooking the Apalachicola River, it was the largest structure between St. Augustine and Pensacola. It also provided safety for the many runaway or freed black formerly enslaved from the brutal plantations of the American South, these free people used their experience of farming and animal husbandry to set up farms stretching for miles along the river. When withdrawing in 1815, at the end of the war, the British commander Edward Nicolls, insured that "the fort was left intact for the use of the natives. Americans were enraged when it came into the possession of Seminoles who embraced black people as their brothers and shared the fort to defend themselves against the greedy plantation owners.

The strategic importance of this Fort Negro for the cause of liberty is usually not mentioned the impression one gets from most history books is that the people in Negro Fort fired upon a cargo ship for no earthly reason that happened to have troops and ammunition aboard strong enough to get through the fortifications and blow up the forts magazine. They fail to mention Fort Negro had served as the premier refuge for freed men and women, as well as those fleeing slavery in the South . Their version of the story is a supply ship traveling up river to Fort Scott, Ga., just happened to come upon the fort that was filled with renegade negroes who started firing at the innocent ship. and somehow a lucky shot from the ship penetrated the fort and hit the fort's powder magazine and blew the fort sky-high killing almost everyone in the Fort.

Most of the black Seminoles who were inside the fort were killed instantly. In 1818, Gen. Andrew Jackson took a force of 3500 Creek Indians, regular army troops and Tennessee volunteers, and attacked and destroyed several black Seminole towns in northern Florida. The black Seminoles put up the hardest resistance and held back Jackson's army while the villagers in northern Florida were evacuated. When the blacks retreated, they left only empty villages for Jackson, who burned and looted them. When the Spanish asked Jackson to explain why he attacked Spanish Florida, he said, "to chastise a savage foe, who, combined with a lawless band of Negro brigands, have for some time past been carrying on a cruel and unprovoked war against the citizens of the United States, and has compelled the president to direct me to march my army into Florida."

Spain realized that it couldn't keep Florida. Florida had become a burden to Spain, which could not afford to send settlers or garrisons to defend the territory and the US was eager to expand slavery into the Florida territory, so the Spanish government decided to cede the territory to the United States in exchange for settling the boundary dispute along the Sabine River in Spanish Texas and also sold it to the United States for $5 million. As soon as Florida became United States territory, James Gadsden was authorized by Congress to negotiate a treaty with the Seminoles. He took the view that the whites in Florida were not safe as long as the Indians remained and as long as slaves could run and join the Seminoles. The Treaty of Moultrie Creek was signed in 1823, and one of the provisions was that escaped slaves be returned by the Seminoles to their former masters. By 1825, it was obvious that the Seminoles would not freely give up their black allies to the whites. Governor DuVal tried to persuade them, saying the blacks were no help to them were only fit as slaves and would only caused trouble his goal was to divide their unity by any means possible.

Seminole Chief John Horse, whose Mother and wife had been African and Muscogee, responded that whites had not treated them well since the Treaty of Moultrie Creek. After the Indian Removal Act of 1830, all the Seminoles and their allies were told to leave Florida by Jan. 1, 1836. By December 1835, it was clear that the Seminoles didn't intend to leave. It was decided to send two infantry companies, totaling 110 men under the command of Maj. Francis Dade from Fort Brooke at Tampa Bay, to the Indian agency at Fort King 100 miles away. Two-thirds of the way there, Dec. 28, 1835, the command was ambushed and completely destroyed by the Seminoles. Now is the time of the Warrior John Horse who had been by Osceola’s side when he was seized while under a flag of truce negotiating with Jesup's emissary. Horse was imprisoned with Osceola and others at Fort Marion (Castillo de San Marcos), the Spanish fort in St. Augustine, Florida. This Fort turned prison was the Alcatraz of its time! It was thought to be inescapable.

The fort is built of coquina (a shell rock of natural formation, found only on the eastern coast of Florida), which was obtained from quarries two miles below the present lighthouse, The blocks of cut stone were carried on cross-bars, resting on the shoulders of slaves, over a long causeway to a landing on Quarry Creek. Here they were loaded on barges and transported down the creek and across the bay to the Castle, where they were again carried and placed in their present position. Notwithstanding the fact that most of the work was done by slaves, we are told that upwards of thirty million dollars were expended on the work, and the King of Spain, on learning this, exclaimed, "Its curtains and bastions must be made of solid silver."

The fort has nearly equal bastions ( triangular-shaped corners), known as St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Augustine and St. Charles, and four connecting walls called curtains. On three of the bastions are sentry towers, while on that to the northeast stands a high watch tower, commanding a view of both land and water. The walls are about 12 feet thick at the base, 9 feet at the top, and about 25 feet high. The plaza, or inner court, is 100 feet square, and the casemates, with one or two exceptions, open into it. There are 26 casemates, five dungeons and one magazine. The only entrance is through the sally port in the middle of the south curtain


The covering over the space between the inner and outer walls is called the terreplein, and is about 40 feet wide. Upon it the guns were mounted. Around the outer edge of the terreplein is a wall 3 feet thick and 6 feet high, known as the parapet. This was pierced for 64 guns. On the waterfront the parapet was lower. The ascent to the terreplein is up an incline plane known as the ramp, recently converted into steps. The upper part of the ramp is supported by a peculiar shaped arch, remarkable for the fact that it was constructed without a keystone.

Around the fort is a moat 40 feet wide, which was filled in to the depth of about 8 feet. Protecting the entrance is the barbican, which the water of the moat formed into an island, access being gained to the barbican and thence to the fort by means of drawbridges. Inside the drawbridge was the portcullis, which ran in a groove still to be seen. Directly above the portcullis may still be seen a hole, some five or six inches in diameter, through which melted lead could be poured upon the heads of invaders, should they succeed in crossing the drawbridge, which, however, they never did. Outside the moat on three sides is the covered way, a narrow level space for the massing of troops, which widen in spots, called places of arms. Outside of all, except on the waterfront, is the glacis, and earthen embankment leading up to the fort and so constructed that the guns on the walls could sweep every foot of it.

The hot shot oven and water battery were constructed by the United States Government in 1835–42, the object being to head shot white hot in the oven and fire them from the mortars at the vessels of an approaching enemy. The present sea wall was constructed at this time at an expense of one hundred thousand dollars. In the walls of the fort, both front and back of the hot shot oven, can be seen the bullet holes where prisoners were executed. This is the Prison from which John Horse planned and executed an escape!


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