[News] Christmas Eve Freedom Fighters

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Dec 24 11:06:47 EST 2009


December 24, 2009

The Battle of Lake Okeechobee

Christmas Eve Freedom Fighters


This Christmas Eve marks the 172nd anniversary of a battle for 
liberty in 1837 on the banks of Lake Okeechobee, Florida, that helped 
shape the United States of America. An estimated 380 to 480 
freedom-fighting African and Indian members of the Seminole nation 
threw back an advance of more than a thousand US Army and other 
troops led by Colonel Zachary Taylor, a future President of the United States.

The Seminoles so badly mauled the invaders that Taylor ordered his 
soldiers to fall back, bury their dead, tend to their wounded and 
ponder the largest single US defeat in decades of Indian warfare. The 
battle of Lake Okeechobee is not a story you will find in school or 
college textbooks so it has slipped from the public consciousness. 
But in a country that cherishes its freedom-fighting heritage, Black 
and Red Seminoles of Florida sent everyone a message that deserves to 
be remembered and honored.

Around 1776 the Seminole nation had reconstituted itself as a 
multicultural nation by aligning itself with escaped Africans who had 
long lived in the peninsula. Beginning in the early 18th century 
hundreds of African Americans had fled bondage in Georgia and the 
Carolinas to find refuge and a productive life in Florida. Though 
Spain claimed Florida, it was an ungoverned land in which Native 
Americans roamed freely as did slave runaways, pirates and whites who 
rejected the limitation established by European invaders.

Generations of slave runaways established plantations in Florida, 
raised cattle and horses, brought up their children and took care of 
their elderly. For fifty miles along the Appalachacola river, African 
people ran plantations, and pursued a healthy, happy family life. 
When the Seminoles, a break-away segment of the Creek Nation, arrived 
in the penninsula around the time of the American Revolution, 
Africans were on hand to instruct them in methods of rice cultivation 
they had learned in Senegambia and Sierra Leone. Based on this 
cooperation, two peoples of color hammered out an agricultural and 
military alliance against US slaveholder posses that periodically 
raided their communities.

In 1816 General Andrew Jackson, hero of New Orleans and commander of 
US Armies in Florida, determined to terminate this resistance on the 
southern flank of the US border. To Jackson and slaveholders who 
dominated the federal government, Florida's free Seminole people of 
color constituted a clear and present danger to the US slave system. 
They saw these free communities as holding a beacon light that could 
entice thousands of runaways to bolt Georgia, the Carolinas and 
Louisiana. Even more, the Seminoles offered escapees a safe haven. 
Perhaps most important, since Africans played a leadership role in 
the newly-integrated Seminole Nation, their villages stood as a 
successful, alternative societies, and refuted white claims that 
Africans were meant to be slaves.

Prodded by slaveholders, Washington officials connived at destroying 
the Seminole alliance, and re-enslavement of the African members. 
Beginning in 1811 President James Madison, Virginia slaveholder and 
father of the U.S. Constitution, provided covert US support to this 
military effort. Finally, in 1819, the United States purchased 
Florida from Spain, and prepared to settle scores with the Seminoles. 
The Seminole nation, however, refused to capitulate, and rejected any 
surrender its African brothers and sisters members.

The result was three Seminoles wars that lasted from 1816 to 1858, at 
times tied up half of the US Army, cost the Congress $40,000,000 and 
took 1500 US military deaths. This also represented the single 
largest and longest explosion of slave resistance in the United States.

Throughout Africans played key roles. In 1837, when US troops were 
engaged in the second Seminole wars U.S. General Sidney Thomas Jesup, 
the best informed US officer in the field, wrote "This, you may be 
assured, is a negro and not an Indian war." He continued:

Throughout my operations I have found the negroes the most active and 
determined warriors; and during the conferences with the Indian 
chiefs I ascertained they exercised an almost controlling influence over them.

Because Seminoles fought in a jungle area they knew better than the 
white invaders, their armies ran circles around their numerically and 
technologically superior foe. Though they had the added burden of 
moving their families out of harm's way, Seminoles soldiers were able 
to baffle, surprise and humiliate the US army, navy and marines. In 
its desperation to quell resistance, the US officers ordered the 
taking of women and children as hostages and the violation other 
codes of warfare. These tactics did not achieve victory or split the 
red-black alliance but they indicate that the Seminole war can be 
viewed as early versions of US intervention and disaster in Vietnam.

In 1837 Chief Osceola and other Seminole leaders were seized coming 
with a white flag to a conference called by U.S. authorities. 
Osceola's personal bodyguard of 55 at the time included 52 men of 
African descent. US forces imprisoned the Seminoles in a cell in 
Castillo de San Marcos, later renamed Fort Marion, in St. Augustine. 
Osceola, ill and depressed, sat slumped on the floor, his life ebbing 
away. Army officials also captured another Seminole peace delegation 
that included two fire-brands of the resistance, Wild Cat or 
Coacoochee, 25, and his Black sub-chief, John Horse, also 25.

Bilingual, tall, powerfully built and a commanding presence, Horse 
draped himself in silver amulets, rich sashes and elaborate, bright 
plumed head shawls. Widely respected for his knowledge of the foe, 
and a crack shot, Horse occupied a strategic position among the 
Seminoles. Revered for his often-tested diplomatic talent, calm 
self-assurance and courage in battle, he also was brother-in-law of 
Holatoochee, a leading Seminole who had the ear of Miconopy, the 
nation's ruler. Chiefs such as Jumper and Holatoochee repeatedly 
asked Horse to negotiate with US authorities.

 From their 18 foot by 33 foot cell at Fort Marion where they were 
held with two dozen Seminole prisoners, Coacoochee and Horse devised 
a plan. "We resolved to make our escape or die in the attempt," Wild 
Cat later wrote. They took weeks to loosen the iron bar in the jail's 
18 foot roof and create a hole eight inches wide. The heavier 
prisoners agreed to diet in order to slip through, and some 20 
prisoners, including two women, escaped through the opening. For over 
five days the band made its way southward gathering allies and guns 
and living "on roots and berries"

U.S. Colonel Zachary Taylor raced after them accompanied by 70 
Delaware Indian mercenaries, l80 Missouri riflemen and 800 U.S. 
regular army soldiers from the Sixth Infantry, the Fourth Infantry 
and Taylor's First Infantry Regiment. The day before Christmas US 
forces located the Seminoles, who had carefully positioned themselves 
at the northeast corner of Lake Okeechobee. Seminole marksmen were 
perched in the tall grass or in trees, the sprawling Lake a few 
hundred yards behind them.

Taylor's forces advanced through a swampy area and its five foot high 
razor-edged sawgrass. Movement was impassable for horses, and 
extremely difficult for humans as soldiers sank up to their thighs in 
the mud and water beneath them.

At 12:30 in the afternoon of Christmas eve Seminole snipers prepared 
for battle. The first shot had yet to be fired when the Delawares, 
sensing disaster, deserted and left. The Missouri riflemen charged 
toward the Seminoles but a withering fire brought down their 
commander, many commissioned officers and some of non-commissioned 
officers. The Tennesseans fled.

Colonel Taylor then ordered his regular army troops forward but they 
encountered deadly rifle fire. He later reported their earliest 
barrages brought down "every officer, with one exception, as well as 
most of the non-commissioned officers" and left "but four . . . 
untouched." After a two and a half hour battle in which they had been 
outnumbered, Semnole forces fell back their canoes and made their escape.

As Christmas Day dawned Colonel Taylor forces counted 26 U.S. dead 
and 112 wounded, seven dead for each dead Seminole fighter, and the 
US had taken no prisoners. US troops rounded up 100 Seminole ponies 
and 600 cattle.

Lake Okeechobee was the US military's most decisive defeat in more 
than four decades of warfare in Florida. Four days after his army 
limped back to Fort Gardner, however, Colonel Taylor claimed victory. 
He said: "the Indians were driven in every direction." The US Army 
accepted his report, and promoted him.

 From that point, however, US officers had to recognize the unity and 
strength of the African-Seminole alliance. Said General Thomas Sidney 
Jesup, "The negroes rule the Indians, and it is important that they 
should feel themselves secure; if they should become alarmed and hold 
out, the war will be resumed."

Based on his reputation as an "Indian fighter," Zachary Taylor was 
elected the 12th President of the United States. Historians continue 
to distort the battle of Lake Okeechobee. In The Almanac of American 
History (1983), Arthur Schlesinger Jr. summarized the battle in one 
inaccurate sentence, "Fighting in the Second Seminole War, General 
Zachary Taylor defeats a group of Seminoles at Okeechobee Swamp, Florida."

This is the nation of Patrick Henry and "Give me Liberty or give me 
death!" The United States was born in struggle against British 
colonial rule. It proudly declared people had natural rights and 
dedicated itself to self-determination. The heroic, freedom fighting 
struggle of the Seminole nation stands as a milestone in the American 
battle for liberty.

William Loren Katz is the author of 
Indians: A Hidden Heritage. His new, revised edition of 
Black West [Harlem Moon/Random House, 2005] also includes information 
on the Philippine occupation, and can now be found in bookstores. He 
can be reached through his website: 

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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