Black Seminoles were enslaved Africans and African Americans who, beginning in the late 17th century fled plantations in the southern American colonies and joined with the newly-formed Seminole tribe in Spanish-owned Florida.
From the late 1690s until Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821, thousands of Native Americans and runaway slaves fled what is now the southeastern United States, heading not to the north, but rather to the relatively open promise of the Florida peninsula.
Seminoles vs Black Seminoles
African people who escaped slavery were called Maroons in the American colonies, a word derived from the Spanish word “cimmaron” meaning runaway or wild one. The Maroons who arrived in Florida and settled with the Seminoles were called a variety of things, including Black Seminoles or Seminole Maroons or Seminole Freedmen. The Seminoles gave them the tribal name of Estelusti, a Muskogee word for black.
The word Seminole is also a corruption of the Spanish word cimmaron. The Spanish themselves used cimmaron to refer to aboriginal refugees in Florida who were deliberately avoiding Spanish contact. Seminoles in Florida were a new tribe, made up mostly of Muskogee or Creek people fleeing the decimation of their own groups by European-brought violence and disease.
In Florida, the Seminoles could live beyond the boundaries of established political control (although they maintained ties with the Creek confederacy) and free from political alliances with the Spanish or British.
In 1693, a royal Spanish decree promised freedom and sanctuary to all enslaved persons who reached Florida, if they were willing to adopt the Catholic religion. Enslaved Africans fleeing Carolina and Georgia flooded in. The Spanish granted plots of land to the refugees north of St. Augustine, where the Maroons established the first legally sanctioned free black community in North America, called Fort Mose or Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose.
The Spanish embraced fleeing slaves because they needed them for both their defensive efforts against American invasions, and for their expertise in tropical environments. During the 18th century, a large number of the Maroons in Florida had been born and raised in the tropical regions of Kongo-Angola in Africa. Many of the incoming slaves did not trust the Spanish, and so they allied with the Seminoles.
Seminole and Black Alliance
The Seminoles were an aggregate of linguistically and culturally diverse Native American nations, and they included a large contingent of the former members of the Muscogee Polity also known as the Creek Confederacy.
These were refugees from Alabama and Georgia who had separated from the Muscogee in part as a result of internal disputes. They moved to Florida where they absorbed members of other groups already there, and the new collective named themselves Seminole.
In some respects, incorporating African refugees into the Seminole band would have been simply adding in another tribe. The new Estelusti tribe had many useful attributes: many of the Africans had guerilla warfare experience, were able to speak several European languages, and knew about tropical agricultures.
That mutual interest—Seminole fighting to keep a purchase in Florida and Africans fighting to keep their freedom—created a new identity for the Africans as Black Seminoles. The biggest push for Africans to join the Seminoles came after the two decades when Britain owned Florida.
The Spanish lost Florida between 1763 and 1783, and during that time, the British established the same harsh slave policies as in the rest of European North America. When Spain regained Florida under the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the Spanish encouraged their earlier black allies to go to Seminole villages.
The sociopolitical relations between the Black Seminole and Native American Seminole groups were multi-faceted, shaped by economics, procreation, desire, and combat. Some Black Seminoles were fully brought into the tribe by marriage or adoption.
Seminole marriage rules said that a child’s ethnicity was based on that of the mother: if the mother was Seminole, so were her children. Other Black Seminole groups formed independent communities and acted as allies who paid tribute to participate in mutual protection. Still others were re-enslaved by the Seminole: some reports say that for ex-slaves, bondage to the Seminole was far less harsh than that of slavery under the Europeans.
Black Seminoles may have been referred to as “slaves” by the other Seminoles, but their bondage was closer to tenant farming. They were required to pay a portion of their harvests to the Seminole leaders but enjoyed a substantial autonomy in their own separate communities.
By the 1820’s, an estimated 400 Africans were associated with the Seminoles and appeared to be wholly independent “slaves in name only,” and holding roles such as war leaders, negotiators, and interpreters.
However, the amount of freedom of the Black Seminoles is somewhat debated. Further, the U.S. military sought the support of Native American groups to “claim” the land in Florida and help them “reclaim” the human “property” of southern slave owners, and they some albeit limited success.
The Removal Period
The opportunity for Seminoles, Black or otherwise, to stay in Florida disappeared after the U.S. took possession of the peninsula in 1821. A series of clashes between the Seminoles and the U.S. government and known as the Seminole wars took place in Florida beginning in 1817. This was an explicit attempt to force Seminoles and their black allies out of the state and clear it for white colonization.
The most serious and effective was known as the Second Seminole War, between 1835 and 1842, although some Seminoles remain in Florida today.
By the 1830s, treaties were brokered by the U.S. government to move the Seminoles westward to Oklahoma, a journey that took place along the infamous Trail of Tears. Those treaties, like most of those made by the United States government to Native American groups in the 19th century, were broken.
One Drop Rule
The Black Seminoles had an uncertain status in the greater Seminole tribe, in part because they had been slaves, and in part because of their mixed ethnic status. Black Seminoles defied the racial categories set up by the European governments to establish a white supremacy.
The white European contingent in the Americas found it convenient to maintain a white superiority by keeping non-whites in artificially constructed racial boxes, a “One Drop Rule” that said that if you had any African blood at all you were African and thus less entitled to rights and freedom in the new United States.
Eighteenth century African, Native American, and Spanish communities did not use the same “one drop role” to identify blacks. In the early days of the European settlement of the Americas, neither Africans nor Native Americans fostered such ideological beliefs or created regulatory practices about social and sexual interactions.
As the United States grew and prospered, a string of public policies and even scientific study worked to erase the Black Seminoles from the national consciousness and official histories.
Today in Florida and elsewhere, it has become more and more difficult for the U.S. government to differentiate between African and Native American affiliations among the Seminole by any standards.
The Black Seminoles were given an official tribal name: the Estelusti. It could be said that the Seminoles established separate villages for the Estelusti to discourage whites from trying to re-enslave the Maroons.
Resettled in Oklahoma, however, the Seminoles took several steps to separate themselves from their previous black allies. The Seminoles adopted a more Eurocentric view of blacks and began to practice chattel slavery.
Many Seminoles fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War, in fact the last Confederate general killed in the Civil War was a Seminole, Stan Watie. At the end of that war, the U.S. government had to force the southern faction of the Seminoles in Oklahoma to give up their slaves. But, in 1866, Black Seminoles were finally accepted as full members of the Seminole Nation.
The Dawes Roll
In 1893, the U.S. sponsored Dawes Commission was designed to create a membership roster of who was and was not Seminole based on whether an individual had African heritage. Two rosters were assembled: one for Seminoles, called the Blood Roll, and one for Black Seminoles called the Freedman Roll.
The Dawes Rolls as the document came to be known said that if your mother was a Seminole, you were on the blood roll; if she was African you were on the Freedmen roll. If you were demonstrably half Seminole and half African you would be enrolled in the Freedmen roll; if you were three-quarters Seminole you’d be on the blood roll.
The status of the Black Seminoles became a keenly felt issue when compensation for their lost lands in Florida was finally offered in 1976. The total U.S. compensation to the Seminole nation for their lands in Florida came to US $56 million.
That deal, written by the U.S. government and signed by the Seminole nation, was written explicitly to exclude the Black Seminoles, as it was to be paid to the “Seminole nation as it existed in 1823.” In 1823, the Black Seminoles were not (yet) official members of the Seminole nation, in fact they could not be property owners because the U.S. government classed them as “property.”
Seventy-five percent of the total judgment went to relocated Seminoles in Oklahoma, 25 percent went to those who remained in Florida, and none went to the Black Seminoles.
Court Cases and Settling the Dispute
In 1990, the U.S. Congress finally passed the Distribution Act detailing the use of the judgment fund, and the next year, the usage plan passed by the Seminole nation excluded the Black Seminoles from participation. In 2000, the Seminoles expelled the Black Seminoles from their group.
A court case was opened (Davis v. U.S. Government) by Seminoles who were either Black Seminole or of mixed black and Seminole heritage. They argued that their exclusion from the judgment constituted racial discrimination.
That suit was brought against the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs: the Seminole Nation as a sovereign nation could not be joined as a defendant. The case failed in U.S. District Court, because the Seminole nation was not part of the case.
In 2003, the Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a memorandum welcoming Black Seminoles back into the larger group. Attempts to patch the broken bonds that had existed between Black Seminoles and the main group of Seminoles for generations have met with varied success.
In the Bahamas and Elsewhere
Not every Black Seminole stayed in Florida or migrated to Oklahoma: a small band eventually established themselves in the Bahamas. There are several Black Seminole communities on North Andros and South Andros island, established after a struggle against hurricanes and British interference.
Today there are Black Seminole communities in Oklahoma, Texas, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Black Seminole groups along the border of Texas/Mexico are still struggling for recognition as full citizens of the United States.
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