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America First—100 Stories from Our History by  Lawton B. Evans

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OSCEOLA, THE SEMINOLE CHIEF

WHEN Florida was purchased by the United States from Spain, there remained on that territory the Seminole Indians, who had to be dealt with. Naturally, the white men wished the savages to be removed at once.

They said to the Indians, "We have bought all [287] this land from Spain. You have no right to occupy it, and we propose to take it away from you. We will pay you for it, but you must give it up and go West, where we will give you other land."

The Seminole Chief replied, "This is the land of my forefathers. We owned it before the Spaniards ever heard of it. They never bought it from us, and they cannot sell it to you. We do not recognize your right, and we shall not move."

The presence of the Seminoles was a menace in another direction. Escaped slaves often found their way into the Everglades, and became members of the tribe. The men slaves married Indian women, and the Seminole braves married slave women. Thus the swamps and Indian villages became places of refuge for slaves, who had run away from their owners, and who adopted the free and simple life of the savages.

One of the Chiefs of the Seminoles was Osceola. His wife was the daughter of an escaped slave. She was born in the Everglades, and, when she grew to be a young woman, the Chief married her with all the ceremony of his tribe.

Once, when Osceola and his young wife were visiting one of the United States forts, she was seized and claimed as a slave by her mother's [288] former master. The accepted rule was that the children of slaves belonged to the master of their parents. The half-Indian wife was, therefore, torn from the side of her husband and carried off.

Osceola stormed in his great wrath. He strove with those around him, and cried out in agony when he saw his wife thus being taken away. He was bound in irons, and kept a close prisoner, until she was safely gone. Then he was given his freedom, and told to be off!

When he reached the Everglades, he assembled his tribe, and described to them all his wrongs. Thereupon, he swore an undying vengeance against the whites.

The Seminoles met in council with the agents of the United States to discuss a treaty which provided for their removal elsewhere. Osceola was present, and listened in silence to the talk of both parties. When called upon to give his answer, he drew his knife, and struck it deep into the table before him. "With that knife, and with that alone, will I treat with the white man for the lands of my forefathers," he said, and walked from the room.

Thus, began a long war between the Seminoles and the white men of Florida. Many a bloody battle was fought. The Seminoles had their homes [289] along the edges of the swamp, and deep in the Everglades of Florida. These pathless and almost impenetrable regions furnished hiding-places for the savages, and it was almost impossible to track them to their retreats.

Word was sent by Osceola to all members of the tribe that any chief who signed a treaty with the whites, or who promised to go West should be put to death. He heard that one of his Chiefs was more peaceably inclined than the others. "Let him be slain for his treachery," ordered Osceola, and it was done the same night.

The white settlers of Florida now felt the full fury of the Seminoles. Bands of Indians and their negro followers roved over the state attacking mail-carriers, stage-coaches, and small settlements. Troops were sent against them, but what could they do against so wily a foe, that fought from ambush, and, whenever pursued, disappeared in the swamps?

A body of soldiers, about one hundred and forty in number, was met by the Indians in ambuscade. All were shot down but two; the wounded and dying were scalped and slain, as they lay helpless on the ground.

The very same day, Osceola and a few followers surprised General Wiley Thomson, sent by the [290] Government to urge the removal of the Seminoles. He and his friends were at dinner.

Bursting in upon them, with a loud yell, and brandishing his knife, Osceola seized General Thomson, and drove his knife into his heart. Then he scalped him, and in haste, the rest of the party escaped.

Thus did Osceola spread terror in Florida. The settlers became so alarmed, that whole towns in the interior were forsaken, the people hastening to the forts, or to the coast for protection. Hundreds of United States' soldiers were perishing from the fevers of the swamps and the bites of venomous reptiles.

Bands of Indians would emerge from the swamps, go on their way of murder and destruction, and then return to the dark cover of the Everglades. No white man felt safe; every log, or cypress tree, or hummock of tall grass held a lurking savage or half-breed, with murderous intent, and then the friendly swamps would swallow up the murderer in their dark shadows.

After the war had been going on for two years, Osceola came to General Jesup, Commander of troops in Florida, under a flag of truce. But no sooner did he enter the conference, with the rest of his followers, than General Jesup gave orders that [291] he be arrested. He claimed that this was the only way in which he could stop the lawlessness of this murderous Chief, who never felt himself bound by any obligation to the Government.

Osceola was sent to Charleston, and there confined in Fort Moultrie. For two years he lingered a prisoner, broken-hearted and ruined in health. At length, in 1839, he died of a fever, and was buried just outside the fort.

The war went on for about seven years, and did not end until all the Indians were hunted from their hiding-places, and sent to new homes in the West.


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