- Historic Sites
Osceola Fights to Save the Seminole
In Florida during the 1830s a young Indian warrior led a bold and bloody campaign against the government's plan to relocate his people west of the Mississippi River
Summer 2012 | Volume 62, Issue 2
The story of Osceola and the Great Seminole War in Florida seems so fantastic at times that it is hard to believe it is all true. One warrior with courage, cunning, and audacity unsurpassed by any Native American leader masterminded battle tactics that frustrated and embarrassed a succession of U.S. Army generals.
Osceola initiated and orchestrated the longest, most expensive, and deadliest war ever fought by Native Americans. He embarked on this quixotic struggle not for glory or out of hatred for the white man, but simply because he believed his people were being treated unjustly. Osceola had not always been a member of the Seminole tribe, nor had he always lived in Florida. He was born Billy Powell around 1804 in the Creek town of Tallassee, near present-day Tuskegee, Alabama. Like many Creeks of his generation he was of mixed parentage—a Scottish-English father and a Creek mother.
Between 1812 and 1814, the Creeks living along the Tallapoosa River, which included the Powell family, rose to defend their land against encroaching white settlers. The U.S. government, already involved in the War of 1812, mustered a militia under the command of Gen. Andrew Jackson to come to the aid of the settlers. Jackson and his men laid waste to the territory, attacking and destroying Creek towns.
The Powell family and their neighbors were forced to flee. Impoverished and desperate, they drifted south, living off the land. In time, these Creek refugees arrived in Spanish Florida and settled near present-day Tallahassee. The area was inhabited by the Seminoles, whose culture resembled their own in most respects.
The Seminole Nation was not a distinct tribe with a long heritage but instead had been formed from various Native American tribes that had migrated down from the north and banded together. They also invited runaway slaves to join them.
The Creek newcomers felt heartily welcomed and enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity. The tribe owned herds of livestock, the luxuriant Florida climate produced an abundance of food, and goods from British and Spanish traders were readily available.
For years, however, the Seminoles had been raiding white American settlements along the Georgia and Alabama borders. Once again the government called on Andrew Jackson, who led a large force into Florida and eventually marched on the village where Billy Powell and his mother lived and burned it to the ground.
Billy, now 14 years old, got a firsthand taste of U.S. military power when he was captured and held briefly before being released unharmed. Jackson’s invasion ended the prosperity of these Seminoles, and Billy and his mother uprooted once more and moved to the Tampa Bay area.
There, Billy officially passed into manhood at the Seminoles’ Green Corn Dance, a ceremony of purification, forgiveness, and thanksgiving held every summer. During the event, men consumed an herbal tea known as the black drink. Billy shed his childhood name and took the name of the wordless song that accompanied the serving of this drink. He became Asi Yaholo—Osceola—“Black Drink Singer.”
In 1819 Spain turned Florida over to the United States. Native Americans who had fled south were once again living in U.S. territory. The government began openly discussing a plan to move the Seminoles from Florida to an area west of the Mississippi River. The threat of relocation caused Chief Micanopy to seek a compromise. In 1823 the Seminoles grudgingly agreed to the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, under which they would remain in Florida but give up 28 million acres of traditional homeland in return for about 4 million acres in the marshy Florida interior, land difficult to farm and short of animals to hunt.
By this time Osceola was a highly respected tustenugge, or policeman, of his band. He had established a cordial relationship with white authorities with whom he came in contact. In 1826 the 22-year-old became enamored of a young woman named Che-cho-ter, or Morning Dew. Accounts suggest that she was at least part black, either a former slave or a descendant of a runaway. The couple, alas, was not to live happily ever after.
In 1828 Andrew Jackson was elected president. He viewed the Seminoles as an obstruction to progress and pushed his Indian Removal Bill through Congress to relocate Eastern tribes west of the Mississippi River once and for all. The government met with a delegation of Seminoles at Payne’s Landing on the Ocklawaha River to negotiate a treaty for the removal. Details of the meeting are sketchy, but the Seminole tribe apparently agreed to move from Florida.
Up to that point Osceola had shown little interest in the politics that had affected his nation, but what transpired at Payne’s Landing in 1832 deeply affected him. When Seminole chiefs acquiesced to the removal, the young tustenugge began rallying his fellow Seminoles to the cause of resistance. He believed the treaty would lead to the annihilation of their nation. With Morning Dew no doubt in mind, he stressed a provision in the treaty that black Seminoles would be seized and returned to slavery. The chiefs finally agreed with Osceola and vowed to fight rather than allow the people to be removed from their homeland.
At the same time, Indian agent Wiley Thompson, the government’s chief representative, summoned Seminole leaders, including Osceola, to Fort King to sign a contract reaffirming their acceptance of the Payne’s Landing treaty. To Osceola’s consternation, 16 chiefs, ignoring their pledge to him to fight, signed the contract, agreeing to deliver their people to Tampa Bay for removal. Outraged, Osceola rose to his feet and strode forward, thrusting his knife into the treaty paper. He loudly vowed, “This is the only treaty I will make with the whites!”