Seminole Wars

Osceola, Seminole leader, detail from an 1838 lithograph

The Seminole Wars were three wars or conflicts in Florida between the Seminole Native American tribe and the United States. The First Seminole War was from 1817 to 1818; the Second Seminole War from 1835 to 1842; and the Third Seminole War from 1855 to 1858. The second clash is often referred to as the Seminole War.


The Seminole are a Floridian Native American tribe. The tribe was founded in the early 1700s when groups of Lower Creek migrated into the area from Georgia and Alabama. The region was nominally claimed by Spain, who allowed the Seminole to establish themselves to form a buffer between the Spanish and the British territories. From the 1770s, the name Seminole came to be attached to the tribes, meaning "runaway." Florida came British control, but reverted to Spain after the American Revolutionary War.

First Seminole War

The First Seminole War was started with the invasion of eastern Florida by U.S. Army forces under the command of General Andrew Jackson. White settlers had previously attacked the Seminole and the Seminole had retaliated. The acceptance of runaway slaves by the Seminole was another sore point. The Seminole fort at Apalachicola, the so-called Negro Fort, had been razed in July 1816, but the war is usually dated from the arrival of Jackson in December, 1817. Jackson's forces captured St. Mark's on April 7 and Pensacola on May 24, 1818. The campaign secured American control of eastern Florida, still nominally claimed by Spain.

In 1818, James Monroe's Secretary of State John Quincy Adams defined the American position on this issue. Adams accused Spain of breaking the Pinckney treaty by failing to control the Seminoles, and refused to apologize for Jackson's actions.

Second Seminole War

The U.S. gained formal control of Florida in 1821 through the Adams-Onis Treaty, which had taken weeks for Luis de Onis (Spain's representative in Washington) and Adams to work out. The American government immediately started efforts to displace the Seminoles, encouraging them to join other tribes in the Indian Territories (around modern Oklahoma). Following the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, some of the tribespeople signed the Treaty of Payne's Landing in May 1832 and began the move, but others retreated into the Everglades. The treaty required all Seminole to move out of Florida by May of 1835, and the U.S. Army arrived in the territory in early 1835 to enforce the treaty.

The Second Seminole War was fought by the Seminole as guerillas. There were perhaps 3,000-4,000 Seminole warriors commanded by head chief Micanopy, but led and inspired by Osceola. The U.S. Army eventually committed 200,000 soldiers to the conflict. The U.S. government became increasingly frustrated and correspondingly treacherous -- Osceola was captured at peace negotiations during a truce, and died in prison at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina in 1838. The American forces began to successfully combat the Seminole tactics under William J. Worth from 1841. Seminole villages were destroyed and their crops burned. Threatened with starvation, the conflict came to an untidy end on August 14, 1842, although no peace treaty was ever signed. Around 1,500 U.S. soldiers had been killed.

The US government is estimated to have spent about $20,000,000 on the war, at the time an astronomical sum. Many Indians were forcibly exiled to Creek lands west of the Mississippi; others retreated into the Everglades. In the end, the US government gave up trying to subjugate the Seminole in their Everglades redoubts and left the remaining Seminole in peace.

Third Semionle War

The Third Seminole War was the final clash over land between the Seminole and white settlers. The main Seminole leader was Billy Bowlegs. By the time the conflict was declared finished on May 8, 1858 there were fewer than 200 Seminole in Florida -- and when Bowlegs surrendered, he had only forty warriors with him.

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