Florida's Forgotten Rebels
Rediscovering the most successful slave revolt in American history
John Horse's story feels like an answer to every Hollywood studio's wish list: a mix of Spartacus, Braveheart, Amistad, and Glory, with just a pinch of Dances With Wolves. A sweeping tale of a decades-long struggle against oppression, the movie would show how Horse and the Black Seminoles created the largest haven for runaway slaves in the American South, led the biggest slave revolt in U.S. history, won the only emancipation of rebellious North American slaves before the Civil War, and formed the largest mass exodus of slaves in U.S. history. In the 1830s Horse's people journeyed from the Florida Everglades to what is now Oklahoma and then across the border to Mexico, where they ultimately secured title to their own land.
What is perhaps most amazing about this story is how it has been overlooked so consistently, not just by filmmakers and popular audiences but by almost every historian of slavery. Now a nonprofessional historian–J.B. Bird, an administrator at the University of Texas–has written and produced an engrossing multimedia Web documentary, Rebellion: John Horse and the Black Seminoles, the First Black Rebels to Beat American Slavery. (To see it for yourself, go to johnhorse.com.) In the process, Bird has illustrated not just an important part of the American past but also one of the ways cyberspace is changing how history is studied and taught.
Bird's narrative begins in Spanish Florida in the early 18th century, when two groups fled from the colonial South: Seminoles migrating from Alabama and Georgia to escape white encroachment and blacks fleeing the bonds of slavery. Both were welcome in Florida. The escaped slaves, in fact, were offered their freedom if they would defend the Spanish crown. Both the Catholic Church and Spanish law treated slavery as an unnatural condition, and both recognized blacks and American Indians as human beings (if not equals). More practically, offering sanctuary to English slaves created a human buffer zone and a free fighting force against the British colonists.
The mixed society that emerged in Florida produced "maroons" or "Indian negroes"–today known as Black Seminoles, people of Seminole cultural traditions and full or partial African descent. Mose, north of St. Augustine, was soon established as "the first legally sanctioned free black town in North America."
By the start of the American Revolution, Great Britain controlled Florida. The Seminoles and blacks living there overwhelmingly sided with the British during the conflict, as they had no love for the colonists who had dispossessed and enslaved them. At the end of the war, the Treaty of Versailles returned Florida to Spanish rule in 1783.
The Southern states did not rest easily with free and armed blacks living nearby and welcoming runaway slaves–especially since those communities were allied with thousands of equally free and armed Indians. From George Washington onward, presidents tried to deal with the "problem." In 1818, during the Monroe administration, Gen. Andrew Jackson invaded Florida, ostensibly to pursue justice against those who had attacked Fort Scott in Georgia. In the process he seized the peninsula for the United States, executing those who opposed him and "cleaning out" many Seminole and Black Seminole villages to make Florida more suitable for annexation. The United States formally purchased the peninsula from Spain the following year.
When Jackson became president, he decided to drive the remaining communities out of Florida by force. The result was the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), the largest and most costly of the Indian Wars.
By this time, 45 percent of Florida's population was enslaved. Not surprisingly, given the close links between the territory's black and Indian populations, the Seminole struggle spawned a slave revolt. As Bird explains, "Maroon warriors and plantation slaves played integral roles in the uprising. By April of 1836, the Black Seminoles and their Indian allies had sparked the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history, as more than 385 plantation slaves fled their masters and joined in the wholesale destruction of Florida's sugar mills–at the time some of the most valuable plantations in all of North America." One Seminole leader at this time was the legendary chief Osceola, who drew much of his support from the Black Seminoles and was reputed to have a black wife. During the war, another leader emerged: the former slave John Horse, half black and half Indian, who was destined to lead the Black Seminoles on a long, complex exodus in pursuit of freedom.
In 1838 the Black Seminoles agreed to cease fighting and move to the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in exchange for legal recognition of their freedom. Once relocated, though, Horse and his people were threatened repeatedly with re-enslavement–by Indians as well as whites–with little or no protection from the law. In 1848 U.S. Attorney General John Y. Mason announced that the United States never had the power to free the Black Seminoles, and that they therefore were still legally slaves.
With no security in the Indian Territory, Horse and his Seminole ally Coacoochee promptly led their people to Mexico, where slavery had been outlawed for two decades. There Horse became a famed colonel in the Mexican army. When slavecatchers from the Republic of Texas attempted to capture the Black Seminoles in Mexico, they met resistance from Mexicans as well as Black Seminoles. In the 1850s, Horse and his people finally gained a legally recognized Mexican homeland in Nacimiento.
Although Bird is careful not to assign too much nobility or heroism to Horse or any other actors in the story–he acknowledges, for example, Horse's duties as "professional Indian killer" while guarding the border of Mexico–he is not above celebrating the tale he has recovered and preserved. "As a nation," he writes, "we have dimly remembered the failed black militants of prior centuries but have completely forgotten our most successful black freedom fighters. We celebrate the founding fathers for taking up arms against the oppressor, yet nowhere in American history books will students find an example of a community of armed black rebels who successfully fought the tyranny of slavery."
Bird argues that several factors combined to "bury" the tale of John Horse and his people. One is the inherent difficulty in separating the intertwined threads of the Native American conflict, "maroon war," and slave rebellion that made up the Second Seminole War. Many scholars simply did not attempt to extricate one story from another. But Bird believes there is also an ideological reason most schoolchildren do not know the name John Horse.
Citing the Marxist historian Eugene Genovese's work as an example, Bird notes how the distinguished scholar concluded "broadly, that after Nat Turner's uprising in 1831, southern Americans effectively co-opted their slave-proletariat by improving living conditions and offering them the feeble hope of emancipation through peaceful means, a naive dream that was easier for slaves to accept than the brutal consequences of leading a failed rebellion." Such an interpretation is hard to maintain when the largest slave uprising took place after Nat Turner's rebellion–and was at least partly successful. But when the giants in the field hold such positions, Bird suggests, it poisons the well, since many others tend to draw on these giants' work. (More recently, Genovese and his scholarship have turned from Marxism toward conservatism. But Bird's point still stands.) By bringing together the lesser-known insights of revisionists and adding his own significant original research, Bird seeks to repair oversights such as Genovese's.
With its cross-referenced sources and attention to detail, Rebellion offers a compelling case for Web documentaries as a significant new medium for the writing, dissemination, and revision of history. Bird originally conceived of his project as a film, and he still is pursuing that goal, but the Rebellion site is an impressive accomplishment in itself. The site's interactive structure and varied contents are useful to scholars and educators as well as interested laypeople. From the interactive map of John Horse's life, for example, visitors may click on any location for images of and additional information about that place. Or they can leap directly to the specific page among the 370 multimedia panels that explores the relevance of that place to the website's larger narrative.
Bird also sets a good example by clearly distinguishing his verifiable facts from his personal musings: It would be difficult, for instance, to confuse the "Why does any of this matter?" section of his Frequently Asked Questions (where he notes that "America never was the lily white nation of Pat Buchanan's dreams") with the heavily documented academic journal articles located in the "Essays and Articles" page. He also takes special care to document his research, while presenting information in a variety of formats appropriate for different skill sets and interests, from the introductory to the scholarly, the brief to the in-depth, all labeled in a clear, user-friendly manner.
Does it matter that Bird is not a professional, credentialed historian? Not really. He knows the difference between primary and secondary sources, and his citations open the door for additional research by interested parties of all backgrounds. In some ways, it may be a blessing that Bird is not a professional. His website manages to be both comprehensible and comprehensive, neither lost in the self-serving jargon of too many monographs nor myopic and overspecialized to the point of irrelevance. Bird communicates his message clearly and never loses sight of why it is important to the "bigger picture." In so doing he offers a welcome and edifying example to many in the field.
That said, his greatest accomplishment lies in what he has done, not how he did it. In Bird's own words, "Readers seeking a politically correct indictment of American history may be disappointed in Rebellion, but so will those who are uncomfortable learning the darker sides of the American tradition." He has told a thrilling and disturbing tale, forgotten for far too long, about people who were committed to seeking freedom and ultimately successful in finding it.
Amy H. Sturgis (amyhsturgis.com) teaches Native American studies at Belmont University and is a member of the Scholarly Board of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. Her newest book is The Trail of Tears and Indian Removal (Greenwood Press).