The presence of a large maroon or Black Seminole settlement on the Suwannee River was one of the key causes of the First Seminole War. Native Americans, by the way, consider the war to have been merely the first phase of a continuing 41-year long conflict with the United States.
This article is part of a series that marks the 200th anniversary of the Seminole War. You can read the entire series by visiting Seminole War 200th.
The maroons of the southern frontier are often described as escaped slaves from the United States who found sanctuary among the Seminole, Miccosukee and Creek towns in Spanish Florida. Many of them did flee from the U.S., but most had actually lived in Florida before they escaped from slavery.
For hundreds of years of its history, Florida was a slave-free zone. The Kings of Spain prohibited slavery in East and West Florida from the 1500s until the colonies were surrendered to Great Britain at the end of the French & Indian War. Slaves from the 13 English colonies, in fact, could gain freedom in Spanish territory simply by accepting the Catholic faith and swearing allegiance to the King. Fort Mose, near St. Augustine, was settled by such new Catholics and played a critical role in the defense of the Oldest City.
Things changed when the British assumed control of the region in 1763. The new rulers welcomed settlement by planters from Georgia and the Carolinas. Prohibitions on slavery were lifted and large plantations soon developed on the Atlantic coast from Amelia Island down to below St. Augustine. A smaller but similar plantation zone grew around Pensacola in the western Panhandle
By the time Spain regained possession of Florida in 1783, slavery was a fact of life in the colony and there was little that the fading empire could do about it. The Spanish did station black troops in Florida and free blacks were not threatened with the loss of their freedom, but the institution of slavery continued and grew in the colony.slaves had long found homes among the Native Americans of Florida but their numbers increased dramatically during the Second Spanish Era (1783-1821). A large settlement grew in the Paynes Prairie area south of modern Gainesville and its inhabitants followed the Seminole chief Boleck (“Bowlegs”) to the Suwannee River when Tennessee Militia invaded Florida and devastated the prairie region in 1813.
The maroons, many of whom by now were true Seminoles, established a separate community just north of Boleck’s new town which stood in the vicinity of Old Town in today’s Dixie County. Many of them soon relocated to Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River to volunteer for service in the British Colonial Marines. Capt. George Woodbine and Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls arrived on the Apalachicola in 1814 with orders to arm, organize and train the Creeks and Seminoles while also organizing a battalion of black troops for service in the British military.
The families from the Suwannee were joined at Prospect Bluff by the inhabitants of a smaller maroon community that had been planted on the upper Apalachicola River by William Augustus Bowles 10 years earlier and by other former slaves from Pensacola and St. Augustine who came to join the British forces. Nicolls and Woodbine promised freedom papers to all who would serve.
The black community at Prospect Bluff grew to include as many as 300 fighting men and perhaps as many as 1,000-1,200 women and children. Many evacuated with the British after the end of the War of 1812 and were resettled in Trinidad where their descendants still live today, but others were still at the bluff when the “Negro Fort” there was destroyed by U.S. forces on July 27, 1816. American officers reported that 270 of the 320 men, women and children there were killed in the explosion of the former British post.
Many of the maroons had left the bluff before the U.S. attack. Some went down to Southwest Florida where they established the new community of Angola, but others went to the Suwannee where the population of the “Negro village” there grew dramatically in 1814-1816.
U.S. officials seem to have known little about Angola prior to the First Seminole War but they definitely were aware of the large maroon settlement on the Suwannee River. Convinced that much of the population there was made up of escaped slaves from the United States, they made repeated overtures about them to the Lower Creeks and Miccosukees.
The Miccosukees had no interest in becoming bounty hunters for the Americans, but the Cowetas under William McIntosh were more interested. Without the approval of Miccosukee and its allied towns for a march through their territory, however, McIntosh was unable to carry out the raid on the Suwannee towns that U.S. officials desired.
Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines tried to apply pressure on the Miccosukees during the summer of 1817, demanding that they “restore” the former slaves – most of whom were actually from Spanish Florida – to the United States, but the head chief Cappachimico replied that the British had placed the black people on the Suwannee so the United States should apply to the British about them.
Even after the first battles of the Seminole War took place in November 1817, Indian Agent David B. Mitchell made another attempt. He offered to negotiate a peaceful end to the conflict if the Lower Creeks, Miccosukees and Seminoles would go together to round up the maroons and turn them over to U.S. authorities. The Miccosukees and Seminoles had no interest in such an expedition because the black warriors from the Suwannee now made up part of the fighting force that they were assembling on the Apalachicola.
The Suwannee fighters were led by Nero, a former British Colonial Marine who had served under Nicolls and Woodbine at Prospect Bluff. Other well-known members included Abraham, who emerged as an important adviser and interpreter during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), and Polydore. Both had been part of Nicolls’ battalion.
Many of the men in Nero’s force probably still dressed more like British Marines than they did their Seminole allies. Nicolls had provided them with extensive supplies of clothing and shoes, as well as arms and ammunition. Those who had relocated to the Suwannee before the destruction of the fort at Prospect Bluff had carried large stocks of supplies with them and were still reasonably well equipped when the war erupted in 1817.
The fatigue uniform of the Colonial Marines had been white pants and shirts, along with leather shoes, belts and other accouterments. Many undoubtedly still wore these when they joined Nero for the march to the Apalachicola in late November 1817. Others had lived among the Seminoles much longer, had adapted their customs and lived and dressed like them.
All were willing to fight for their freedom and Nero’s men were particularly dangerous foes for the American troops because they were well-trained and had continued to drill after the departure of the British. At least some of them took part in the devastating attack on Scott’s party and 200-300 were now among the army of 800-1,200 warriors being assembled at Ocheesee Bluff on the Apalachicola.
They would go into action on December 13, 1817 – 200 years ago tomorrow.
To learn more about the maroon settlement at Prospect Bluff and its destruction by U.S. forces during the summer of 1816, please watch this free documentary from Two Egg TV: