The underground railroad was a pathway used by runaway slaves to escape the shackles of slavery and pursue a life of freedom. Traditionally, the railroad headed North toward freedom but a small portion of runaways instead turned South toward Florida.
In 1693, the Spanish had abolished slavery in Florida, establishing a safe haven for runaway slaves. But life for the runaway slaves in Florida was not utopic either. The Seminoles were Native Americans that took their name from the Creek word meaning “runaway” or “separatist.” It would seem that the escaped slaves were not the only “runaways” in Florida.
Prior to the Seminole Wars, the Seminoles were spread out across the entire state and even spoke different variations of Muskogean. It wasn’t until the wars started that the disparate groups began to align themselves. The runaway slaves formed their own tribes adjacent to, and sometimes with, the Seminoles.
Though some tribes treated escaped slaves as slaves, they were not as brutal and merciless as the white slave-owners. The Seminoles generally allowed the ex-slaves to live freely as long as they shared their crops at the end of the season. They were called black Seminoles, black Indians, and Seminole freedmen. The black Seminoles adopted Seminole traditions and lifestyles. They eventually married into the tribes and their children were accepted by the tribes. With the help of the Seminoles, the former slaves learned how to live as free men and were quite prosperous.
But this did not sit well with white slave owners. They conspired with the government and convinced them it was time to rid the state of the natives that lived there, in hopes of getting their slaves back. This caused three separate wars waged between the two nations, referred to as the Seminole Indian Wars. They were exclusively fought in Florida. During these wars, the black Seminoles were considered to be the fiercest and courageous fighters the US government had ever fought.
In the First Seminole War, whole divisions of black Seminoles fought off the invading US soldiers, who were being led by General Andrew Jackson. Following the First Seminole War and the ceding of Florida to the United States by Spain, the Seminoles were banished from Northern Florida according to the Treaty of Moultrie Creek. The U.S. began building forts and other settlements in the North of Florida.
The Second Seminole War began in the 1830’s as a response to President Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. The United States government aimed to banish the Seminoles from Florida entirely. The Seminole’s made use of guerilla warfare tactics. But U.S. General Thomas Jesup changed the course of the war through the treacherous capture of Seminole leaders while using signs of truce.
By the end of the Second Seminole War, most of the Seminole population had died in battle or undergone relocation. What Seminoles were left were further brutalized in the Third Seminole War, which left merely five hundred Seminoles in Florida. Most of the Seminoles had been relocated to Oklahoma.
Following relocation to Oklahoma, Seminoles were forced to live under Creek law. While the Seminoles were treated somewhat respectfully, the Black Seminoles were treated with disdain. Black Seminoles were often excluded from representation and reparations. The Seminole Nation restricted membership to those with ancestors on the Dawes Rolls, a restriction that excluded over a thousand freedmen. Some black Seminoles fled to Mexico where they formed a new tribe and were given the name Mascogos. In recent memory, the government finally acknowledged the claims of Black Seminoles and started awarding the much overdue benefits to those who descended from the tribes.
While the Black Seminoles may not be as well known as their counterparts, their role in the history of Florida can still be felt to this day.