by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner
Human slavery had only been a legally sanctioned institution in the North American colonies for 5 years, when the colony of Charles Towne was founded in 1670. By 1710, 20% of Charleston’s population was Native American slaves and 40% was African slaves. During this period most African slaves had only a minimal knowledge of English. In their isolation on the coastal rice plantations, they evolved a new language that is called Gullah today. It mixed the words of several African languages with words of the Creek Indians and English.
The African slaves were only able to orient themselves to this strange new land by listening to the words of their fellow Native American slaves,who remembered being marched from their mother town . . . often after seeing their parents and grand-parents being butchered. The Native Americans told of a land to the south called La Florida, where slavery was now illegal.
The boldest slaves of both races found ways to escape their bondage. Some Africans accompanied their Native American friends to native towns in the interior, but with that came the risk of being captured by English bounty hunters at any time. However, the powerful Southern Planter Class never forgave the Creeks for giving sanctuary to runaway slaves. It is the reason that in the 20th century the Creeks were “written out” of the state history books for the most part, while disproportionate attention was given to the Cherokees, who never lived in most of the region.
Until 1752, slavery was illegal in the Colony of Georgia. Before 1752, for Africans to obtain secure freedom, meant a dangerous walk in bare feet of at least 100 miles to the border of La Florida. Along the way were several large rivers plus dangerous swamps filled with several species of poisonous snakes and alligators. Most of these freedom-seekers were bare-footed and were only dressed in rags, plus carried little or no food with them. After 1752, escaping slaves also had to loop around the new plantations along the coast, where the owners would generally seize “free” slaves.
This was long before the days of the “Underground Railroad” in which sympathetic whites would provide food and shelter along the way. The only help they got was if they happened to cross paths with a group of Creek farmers, carrying produce or smoked venison to the coast to sell to the white colonists.
As early as 1687, African slaves fled from the South Carolina Low Country to Spanish Florida seeking freedom. Despite Spain’s despicable treatment of America’s indigenous peoples in the 1500’s, human slavery had now been banned. Under an edict from Philip V of Spain in 1693, the black fugitives received liberty in exchange for converting to Catholicism and defending the Spanish settlers at St. Augustine for four years.
After the Province of Georgia was colonized immediately north of La Florida in 1788, the Spanish organized the Africans into a militia led by a man named Francisco Menendez. He was a Mandingo from Africa, who had escaped a South Carolina plantation in 1724 and risen to the rank of an officer under the flag of Spain. The African militia unit was based at Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose (Royal Thanks of Saint Teresa of Moses.) It came to be known as Fort Mose. A formally planned settlement was founded around in 1738. It was the first legally sanctioned free black town in North America. Contemporary sketches of the fortress suggest that it strongly resembled a fortified Mandingo village, with the addition of Spanish bastions on the corners.
In 1740 Fort Mose was attacked by a English army from Georgia under General James Edward Oglethorpe. The occupants initially fled to Castillo de San Marcos, but the African militia returned in force to attack the English troops there, killing all but about 30 of them. The fort and settlement was rebuilt in 1752, but abandoned in 1763, when Spain and France lost the Seven Years War, and Great Britain gained ownership of Florida.
The Black Seminoles
Something very interesting was occurring within the interior of Florida, throughout the 1700’s and early 1800’s. Villages of Creek Indian farmers drifted into uninhabited parts of Florida during this period. They had little contact with the Spanish authorities in St. Augustine. The Spanish didn’t dare try to evict the Creeks because of their past unpleasant experiences in combating them. The last time the Spanish tried to invade the Creek Nation in 1702, they left behind around 600 bodies lying on the battlefield.
The Creeks did not adopt Spanish traditions or religion. These Creeks in Florida eventually became known as Seminoles, because they did not have strong political connections with the Creek provinces to the north. However, even as late as 1776, the Seminoles were merely considered a division of the Creek Confederacy, not a separate tribe. This is how botanist William Bartram described his contacts with the Seminoles in 1776.
Simultaneously, Africans continued to escape from plantations in the southern colonies and sought refuge in Florida. It was much easier for the African slaves to escape farms and plantations along the interior frontier, because there was virtually no law enforcement officers in these regions. Of course, the Creeks had a long history of sedentary living and well-planned towns, but the Africans had been often been treated as little more than livestock by planters. One of the many delusions held by white planters was that Africans were incapable of surviving without the management of white people.
Almost immediately after gaining their freedom, the Africans began establishing orderly, clean villages and planting crops in northern Florida. They developed local governments, modeled after those of the Creeks. However, the absorption of Native American culture went far beyond politics. The Africans switched to wearing Creek clothing. They learned to speak the Creek language instead of either English or African.
What is more surprising is that the Black Seminoles adopted the Creek’s ancient monotheistic religion, which was similar to that of the Hebrews before the building of Solomon’s Temple and also, the Samaritan sect today. Unlike some other monotheistic religions, Creek & Black Seminole women were equal to the men in all ways. In fact, the women owned most of the real estate! It is said that the Black Seminoles particularly relished the Creek custom of daily ritual bathing, because as slaves they were intentionally kept filthy as a symbol of degradation. Cleanliness was seen as a sign of being free humans.
Since the two ethnic groups were political allies and trading partners, there was some intermarriage. Creek tradition and laws forbade marriage to close kin, so both Seminoles and Black Seminoles looked for spouses with different physical features than themselves. This is a primary reason why Eastern Creeks and Black Seminoles do not have the severe problems with inherited diseases such as alcoholism, diabetes or sickle cell anemia.
Dr. Andrew Frank, a history professor at Florida State University has studied the available archives. He has determined that in general, however, the Creek Seminoles and the Black Seminoles lived in separate communities and maintained separate political organizations. The Creek Seminoles treated the Black Seminoles as if they were merely another division of the diverse Creek Confederacy. Some Creek Seminoles “owned” African slaves, but these slaves could do as they pleased as long as they provided annual tributes (goods) to their owners. It was a different concept of slavery than in the U.S.
Under the conditions of liberty in Florida, the Black Seminoles flourished. U.S. Army Lieutenant George McCall recorded his impressions of a Black Seminole community in 1826:
“We found these negroes in possession of large fields of the finest land, producing large crops of corn, beans, melons, pumpkins, and other esculent vegetables. I saw, while riding along the borders of the ponds, fine rice growing; and in the village large corn-cribs were filled, while the houses were larger and more comfortable than those of the Indians themselves.”
The Seminoles and Black Seminoles were military allies throughout the bloody Seminole Wars. These wars also drew the support of slaves in Alabama and Georgia. The Black Seminoles and Spanish-speaking mixed-blood Creeks from the North Georgia Mountains generally operated as cavalry units or “mounted rifles,” while the Muskogee-Creeks were infantry.
The U.S. government feared that the Free Black and Creek cavalrymen would turn the Seminole War into a widespread slave rebellion. That alliance ended in 1838 when the United States offered to recognize the freedom of the Black Seminoles and pay them money, if they would lay down their arms and agree to move to the Indian Territory. Over 500 Black Seminoles took up the offer.
Once in the west, many Black Seminoles adapted to the lifestyle of the plains. Most were already expert horsemen. Some became cowboys. Many Black Seminoles accepted an offer from Mexico to form a border patrol to combat Comanche and Apache raiders. At the end of the Civil War the Black Seminoles were invited to return to the United States to serve in a “special ops” unit to combat hostile tribes and enforce martial law in the South during Reconstruction. Those that accepted, were promised land and retirement pensions at the end of their service.
This forerunner of the Green Berets or Navy SEALs quickly developed the reputation as the finest military unit in the West. It was soon expanded into being the Seminole-Negro scout troop of the new 10th Calvary Regiment. Although the Black Seminoles became known as the best scouts in the best cavalry regiment in the West AND won four Medals of Honor, very few ever received land or a pension. When it came time for them to retire, U.S. government officials said that it had lost the original treaty and had no record of them serving in the U.S. Army. Even Medal of Honor winners did not get pensions!
Black Seminole descendants still live in Florida, rural communities in Oklahoma and Texas, in the Bahamas and Northern Mexico. In the 19th century the Florida “Black Seminoles” were called “Seminole Negroes” by their white American enemies and Este-lusti, or “Black People,” by their Creek Indian allies. Modern Black Seminoles are known as “Seminole Freedmen” in Oklahoma, “Seminole Scouts” in Texas, “Black Indians” in the Bahamas, and “Mascogos” in Mexico.
Well . . . but here in Dixie, we Eastern Creeks just call them . . . heroes.