Fort Mose National Historic Landmark
November is Native American Heritage Month. This month the Examiner is also saluting our nation’s veterans. The amazing story of the Black Seminoles belongs in both of these series.
Human slavery had only been a legally sanctioned institution in the North American colonies for 24 years, when the colony of Charles Towne was founded in 1674. 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 little 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 the Native American slaves. The Indians told of a land to the south, where slavery was now illegal.
The boldest slaves of both races found ways to escape their bondage. Some Africans accompanied their Indian friends to native towns in the interior, but with that came the risk of being captured by English bounty hunters at any time. For Africans to obtain secure freedom, meant a dangerous walk in bare feet of over 100 miles to the border of La Florida. Along the way were dangerous swamps filled with several species of poisonous snakes and alligators. Spanish bayonet palmettos and sand spurs cut at their feet. Most of these freedom-seekers were only dressed in rags and carried little or no food with them. Many probably never survived the desperate journey.
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 in1693, the black fugitives received liberty in exchange for converting to Catholicism and defending the Spanish settlers at St. Augustine for four years.
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 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 1700s and early 1800s. 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 Creeks did not adopt Spanish traditions or religion. These Creeks in Florida became known as Seminoles, because they no longer were politically connected with the Creek provinces to the north.
Simultaneously, Africans continued to escape from coastal plantations and sought refuge in Florida. 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.
Almost immediately after gaining their freedom, the Africans began establishing orderly, clean villages and planting crops. 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. 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 generally operated as cavalry units or “mounted rifles,” while the Creeks were infantry. The U.S. government feared that they would turn into a widespread slave rebellion. The 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 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, the U.S. government 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.