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Second Seminole War: 1835-1842

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Second Seminole War: 1835-1842

US Marines during the Second Seminole War

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Second Seminole War - Background:

Having ratified the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1821, the United States officially purchased Florida from Spain. Taking control, American officials concluded the Treaty of Moultrie Creek two years later which established a large reservation in central Florida for the Seminoles. By 1827, the majority of the Seminoles had moved to the reservation and Fort King (Ocala) was constructed nearby under the guidance of Colonel Duncan L. Clinch. Though the next five years were largely peaceful, some began to call for the Seminoles to be relocated west of the Mississippi River. This was partially driven by issues revolving around the Seminoles providing sanctuary for escaped slaves. In addition, the Seminoles were increasingly leaving the reservation as hunting on their lands was poor.

Second Seminole War - Seeds of Conflict:

In an effort to eliminate the Seminole problem, Washington passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 which called for their relocation west. Meeting at Payne's Landing, FL in 1832, officials discussed relocation with the leading Seminole chiefs. Coming to an agreement, the Treaty of Payne's Landing stated that the Seminoles would move if a council of chiefs agreed that the lands in the west were suitable. Touring the lands near the Creek Reservation, the council agreed and signed a document stating that the lands were acceptable. Returning to Florida, they quickly renounced their previous statement and claimed they had been forced to sign the document. Despite this, the treaty was ratified by the US Senate and the Seminoles were given three years complete their move.

Second Seminole War - The Seminoles Attack:

In October 1834, the Seminole chiefs informed the agent at Fort King, Wiley Thompson, that they had no intention of moving. While Thompson began receiving reports that the Seminoles were gathering weapons, Clinch alerted Washington that force may be required to compel the Seminoles to relocate. After further discussions in 1835, some of the Seminole chiefs agreed to move, however the most powerful refused. With the situation deteriorating, Thompson cut off the sale of weapons to the Seminoles. As the year progressed, minor attacks began occurring around Florida. As these began to intensify, the territory began preparing for war. In December, in an effort to reinforce Fort King, the US Army directed Major Francis Dade to take two companies north from Fort Brooke (Tampa). As they marched, they were shadowed by the Seminoles. On December 28, the Seminoles attacked, killing all but two of Dade's 110 men. That same day, a party led by the warrior Osceola ambushed and killed Thompson.

Second Seminole War - Gaines' Response:

In response, Clinch moved south and fought an inconclusive battle with the Seminoles on December 31 near their base in the Cove of the Withlacoochee River. As the war quickly escalated, Major General Winfield Scott was charged with eliminating the Seminole threat. His first action was to direct Brigadier General Edmund P. Gaines to attack with a force of around 1,100 regulars and volunteers. Arriving at Fort Brooke from New Orleans, Gaines' troops began moving towards Fort King. Along the way, they buried the bodies of Dade's command. Arriving at Fort King, they found it short on supplies. After conferring with Clinch, who was based at Fort Drane to the north, Gaines elected to return to Fort Brooke via the Cove of the Withlacoochee River. Moving along the river in February, he engaged the Seminoles in mid-February. Unable to advance and knowing there were no supplies at Fort King, he elected to fortify his position. Hemmed in, Gaines was rescued in early March by Clinch's men who had come down from Fort Drane (Map).

Second Seminole War - Scott in the Field:

With Gaines' failure, Scott elected to take command of operations in person. A hero of the War of 1812, he planned a large-scale campaign against the Cove which called for 5,000 men in three columns to strike the area in concert. Though all three columns were supposed to be in place on March 25, delays ensued and they were not ready until March 30. Traveling with a column led by Clinch, Scott entered the Cove but found that the Seminole villages had been abandoned. Short on supplies, Scott withdrew to Fort Brooke. As the spring progressed, Seminole attacks and the incidence of disease increased compelling the US Army to withdraw from key posts such as Forts King and Drane. Seeking to turn the tide, Governor Richard K. Call took the field with a force of volunteers in September. While an initial campaign up the Withlacoochee failed, a second in November saw him engage the Seminoles in the Battle of Wahoo Swamp. Unable to advance during the fighting, Call fell back to Volusia, FL.

Second Seminole War - Jesup in Command:

On December 9, 1836, Major General Thomas Jesup relieved Call. Victorious in the Creek War of 1836, Jesup sought to grind down the Seminoles and his forces ultimately increased to around 9,000 men. Working in conjunction with the US Navy and Marine Corps, Jesup began to turn American fortunes. On January 26, 1837, American forces won a victory at Hatchee-Lustee. Shortly thereafter, the Seminole chiefs approached Jesup regarding a truce. Meeting in March, an agreement was reached which would allow the Seminoles to move west with "their negroes, [and] their 'bona fide' property." As the Seminoles came into camps, they were accosted by slave catchers and debt collectors. With relations again worsening, two Seminole leaders, Osceola and Sam Jones, arrived and led away around 700 Seminoles. Angered by this, Jesup resumed operations and began sending raiding parties into Seminole territory. In the course of these, his men captured the leaders King Philip and Uchee Billy.

In an effort to conclude the issue, Jesup began resorting to trickery to capture Seminole leaders. In October, he arrested King Philip's son, Coacoochee, after forcing his father to write a letter requesting a meeting. That same month, Jesup arranged for a meeting with Osceola and Coa Hadjo. Though the two Seminole leaders arrived under a flag of truce, they were quickly taken prisoner. While Osceola would die of malaria three months later, Coacoochee escaped from captivity. Later that fall, Jesup used a delegation of Cherokees to draw out additional Seminole leaders so that they could be arrested. At the same time, Jesup worked to build a large military force. Divided into three columns, he sought to force the remaining Seminoles south. One of these columns, led by Colonel Zachary Taylor encountered a strong Seminole force, led by Alligator, on Christmas Day. Attacking, Taylor won a bloody victory at the Battle of Lake Okeechobee.

As Jesup's forces united and continued their campaign, a combined Army-Navy force fought a bitter battle at Jupiter Inlet on January 12, 1838. Forced to fall back, their retreat was covered by Lieutenant Joseph E. Johnston. Twelve days later, Jesup's army won victory nearby at the Battle of Loxahatchee. The following month, leading Seminole chiefs approached Jesup and offered to stop fighting if given a reservation in southern Florida. While Jesup favored this approach, it was declined by the War Department and he was ordered to continue fighting. As a large number of Seminoles had gathered around his camp, he informed them of Washington's decision and quickly detained them. Tired of the conflict, Jesup asked to be relieved and was replaced by Taylor, who was promoted to brigadier general, in May.

Second Seminole War - Taylor Takes Charge:

Operating with reduced forces, Taylor sought to protect northern Florida so that settlers could return to their homes. In an effort to secure the region, the constructed a series of small forts connected by roads. While these protected American settlers, Taylor used larger formations to seek out the remaining Seminoles. This approach was largely successful and fighting quieted during the latter part of 1838. In an effort to conclude the war, President Martin Van Buren dispatched Major General Alexander Macomb to make peace. After a slow start, negotiations finally produced a peace treaty on May 19, 1839 which allowed for a reservation in southern Florida. The peace held for a little over two months and ended when Seminoles attacked Colonel William Harney's command at a trading post along the Caloosahatchee River on July 23. In the wake of this incident, attacks and ambushes of American troops and settlers resumed. In May 1840, Taylor was granted a transfer and replaced with Brigadier General Walker K. Armistead.

Second Seminole War - Increasing the Pressure:

Taking the offensive, Armistead campaigned in the summer despite the weather and threat of disease. Striking at Seminole crops and settlements, he sought to deprive them of supplies and sustenance. Turning over the defense of northern Florida to the militia, Armistead continued to pressure the Seminoles. Despite a Seminole raid on Indian Key in August, American forces continued the offensive and Harney conducted a successful attack into the Everglades in December. In addition to military activity, Armistead used a system of bribes and inducements to convince various Seminole leaders to take their bands west.

Turning over operations to Colonel William J. Worth in May 1841, Armistead left Florida. Continuing Armistead's system of raids during that summer, Worth cleared the Cove of the Withlacoochee and much of northern Florida. Capturing Coacoochee on June 4, he used the Seminole leader to bring in those who were resisting. This proved partially successful. In November, US troops attacked into the Big Cypress Swamp and burned several villages. With fighting winding down in early 1842, Worth recommended leaving the remaining Seminoles in place if they would remain on an informal reservation in southern Florida. In August, Worth met with the Seminole leaders and offered final inducements to relocate.

Believing that the last Seminoles would either move or shift to the reservation, Worth declared the war to be over on August 14, 1842. Taking leave, he turned command over to Colonel Josiah Vose. A short time later, attacks on settlers resumed and Vose was ordered to attack the bands that were still off the reservation. Concerned that such action would have a negative effect on those complying, he requested permission not to attack. This was granted, though when Worth returned in November he ordered key Seminole leaders, such as Otiarche and Tiger Tail, brought in and secured. Remaining in Florida, Worth reported in early 1843 that the situation was largely peaceful and that only 300 Seminoles, all on the reservation, remained in the territory.

Second Seminole War - Aftermath

During operations in Florida, the US Army suffered 1,466 killed with the majority dying of disease. Seminole losses are not known with any degree of certainty. The Second Seminole War proved to be the longest and costliest conflict with a Native American group fought by the United States. In the course of the fighting, numerous officers gained valuable experience which would serve them well in the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. Though Florida remained peaceful, authorities in the territory pressed for the full removal of the Seminoles. This pressure increased through the 1850s and ultimately led to the Third Seminole War (1855-1858).

Selected Sources

  • Florida Division of Historical Resources: The Seminole Wars
  • On War: Second Seminole War
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