Thursday, October 13, 2011

Osceola The War Chief


As a fire that has smoldered long flames up in many places at once, so the war broke out with several actions in quick succession. The tidings of the slaughter at Fort King had not become generally known and the Indians had not slept after Dade's massacre, before preparations were afoot for another assault.
Scarcely had the victors wearied of shouting and dancing when an Indian, exhausted, not with revelry, but with swift running through forest and swamp, came into the camp, bringing important news. A council of chiefs was called. The bowl of honey water was passed around and when all had drunk from the deep ladle, the messenger rose to give his message. He told the chiefs that General Clinch had left Fort Drane with two hundred regulars and four hundred Florida volunteers, and was already far advanced into the[Pg 220] Indian country. Indeed he was even now approaching the Withlacoochee River.
Micanopy, with his usual caution, advised the Indians to keep out of the way of such a large force. But his hearers were in no mood to listen to his faint-hearted advice; they had been emboldened by their recent victories and responded to the fearless daring of Osceola. One hundred and fifty Indians and fifty negroes volunteered to go with Osceola and Alligator to intercept General Clinch and his six hundred soldiers.
With one accord the warriors bounded off towards the ford of the Withlacoochee. There the water was only two feet deep, and as it was the only place where the river could be crossed without boats, there could be little doubt that the white general would lead his forces to this point before attempting to cross the river.
For a day and a night the Indians waited to give their enemy a deadly welcome. In the neighborhood of the ford there was no sound to interrupt the music of the river, no sight to disturb the peace of the dense forest. But on the morning of the following day, scouts came skulking through the trees, and in a few minutes the apparently unpeopled place was alive with red men.
The scouts brought word that General Clinch and two hundred of his men had already crossed the river. They had made the passage slowly and laboriously in an old canoe that carried only eight at a time. But they were now advancing on this side of the river. Many a warrior's heart failed him when he heard this. But Osceola's[Pg 221] dauntless spirit rose to the emergency. He cheered his men with words of such good courage that they were soon following him with new enthusiasm to a hill, where he posted them in a hammock to await the enemy.
On the morning of the last day of the year, General Clinch advanced towards the hammock. He was aware of the presence of hostile Indians, but not knowing of the outrages they had already committed, he felt reluctant to attack them. He sent messages to Osceola telling him that it was useless for the Indians to struggle against the white man and advising him not to enter upon a war that could end only with the destruction of his race.
To this humane counsel Osceola replied with haughty independence: "You have guns, and so have we; you have powder and lead, and so have we; you have men, and so have we; your men will fight, and so will ours until the last drop of the Seminoles' blood has moistened the dust of his hunting grounds." He added, what then seemed to the whites an idle boast, that after a few weeks' further preparation the Seminoles would be ready to enter upon a five years' struggle for the hunting grounds of Florida.
At about noon General Clinch charged up the hill. He was greeted with a lively fire, but his men were tried fighters and were not checked. On they came calmly returning the fire of the enemy. The Indians and negroes offered a determined resistance. If they wavered, the shrill and terrible "Yo-ho-e-hee" of their leader gave them new courage. Everywhere his white plumes waved[Pg 222] in the thick of the fight. The fire of his warriors broke upon the enemy always at the most unexpected point, and had it not been for the bravery of General Clinch, the Indians would have driven the soldiers back to the river, on the other side of which four hundred volunteers were watching the battle. But they held their ground, and at last Osceola was so seriously wounded that he ordered a retreat.
For an hour and twenty minutes the battle had raged. The loss of the Indians was slight. When at Osceola's signal the wild yells ceased and the Indians disappeared in the forest, they bore with them only three dead and five wounded. General Clinch had suffered much heavier loss. Eight of his men had been killed and forty wounded.
The Seminoles were highly elated by the success of the first engagements of the war. They regarded the battle on the Withlacoochee as a great victory, and Osceola's praises were on every lip. The old and timid Micanopy, head chief of the Seminoles by birth, kept that title of honor. But Osceola who, before the war opened, was not so much as a sub-chief and had but two constant followers, had been the real power in planning the hostile acts that opened the second Seminole war. All knew this and they now made him head war chief of the nation. He was only thirty-two years old, but he had the respect of all. With his own hand he had taken vengeance on the great white man who had wronged him; with his own hand he had punished the traitor chief,[Pg 223] Charley A. Mathla. He had planned the massacre of Dade's troops. With a small band of Indians and negroes he had engaged the forces of General Clinch for more than an hour, inflicting heavy loss. His words had kindled the spirit of war throughout Florida.
On the border, lawless young men were spreading terror and desolation; in the month of January sixteen well stocked plantations were laid waste by the Indians. In the distant swamp, Indian women were moulding bullets for the warriors. Through all the forest paths war parties were hurrying towards the camp of Osceola. The leader of each carried a bundle of sticks, each stick representing a warrior under his command. These were given to Osceola—but how many sticks there were only the Seminoles knew.


The hostile actions of the Seminoles at the close of the year 1835 convinced the War Department of the United States that the Seminole Indians would not submit to be driven from one section of the country to another like sheep. Though the combined force of Indian and negro warriors was not supposed to be greater than twelve hundred, their treacherous nature and the wildness of the country, made the task of subduing them so difficult as to require many times that number of soldiers. General Clinch was already in the field quar[Pg 224]tered at Fort Drane, not far from the village of Micanopy. There were several forts in the Indian country, but they were meagerly garrisoned. General Scott was made commanding general of the army in Florida, with authority to call on the governors of South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama for assistance. He went to work at once to raise a force for an Indian war.
Meanwhile Major General Gaines, who was commander of the Western Military Department, started to Florida with a force of more than a thousand men. He ventured into the Seminoles' country with the hope of meeting them and fighting a decisive battle. He passed the scene of the Dade massacre and saw the work the savages had done, and after burying the dead he continued his march to Fort King. But in the whole of his march he saw not a single Indian. He had expected to find supplies for his army at Fort King, but being disappointed in this, he was obliged to return to Tampa with all speed.
While looking for the ford across the Withlacoochee River he ran into an Indian ambush and was so harassed by the savages that he had to give up his plan of crossing the river and go into camp. He had ordered General Clinch to meet him in this neighborhood, and he sent out expresses to see what prospect there was of his arrival. The Indians were gathering in large numbers, and he believed that if General Clinch arrived in time their combined forces could surround them and crush them. But his supply of food was so reduced[Pg 225] that he was obliged to have his horses killed to provide the men with meat. All the while the Indians were lying in wait and assailing all who ventured beyond the fortifications of the camp.
On the fifth of February a negro who spoke good English came to the camp and asked to see General Gaines. The latter supposed he was a messenger from General Clinch, and ordered that the negro be sent at once to his tent. To the general's surprise the negro announced that he was Cæsar, the slave of the Seminole chief Micanopy, and that he had been sent by the Indians to say that they were tired of fighting and wished to make a treaty of peace. General Gaines told Cæsar that he had no power to make treaties, but that if the chiefs would pay him a visit the next day, he would grant them a truce and notify the President of the United States that his red children wanted to be at peace.
Cæsar had acted without consulting any one; he had been a favorite and had his own way with Micanopy until he thought himself greater than his master. He had grown tired of the hardships of war and decided to[Pg 226] put a stop to it. When he returned and gave a report of his visit, the Indians were so angry that they were ready to kill him. The negroes, however, defended him, and Osceola, fearing trouble between the allies, used his influence to save him. Osceola's interference in Cæsar's behalf displeased some of the chiefs so much that they deserted without ceremony.
As Osceola was ready enough to visit the camp of General Gaines to see his force, he went with other chiefs on the following day, as Cæsar had promised, to hold an interview with General Gaines. Scarcely had the interview begun when General Clinch arrived and seeing a crowd of Indians at the entrance of the camp fired on them. This action broke up all parley; the Indians thought they had been dealt with treacherously and fled.
Since the Indian forces had been weakened and the strength of the enemy greatly increased, Osceola decided that it would be best for his warriors to withdraw and gave directions for them to disperse. The next day the two generals found their enemy gone. Their supplies were too low to justify an attempt to pursue them, and General Gaines returned to Tampa and General Clinch to Fort Drane without accomplishing anything.
Though General Clinch had not attempted to follow the Indians, Osceola and his warriors lost no time in finding his stronghold. They succeeded in making his fine plantation at Fort Drane so uncomfortable that in July when his crops were at their best he was obliged to leave it. Osceola immediately took possession of the[Pg 227] place, and occupied it with grim pleasure until he was driven out a month later by Major Pearce.
During the spring and summer several skirmishes between the Indians and United States soldiers occurred, in which the Indians and their black allies fought with remarkable pluck, perseverance, and success.
The want of troops trained for Indian fighting, the unwholesome climate, ignorance of the country, the absence of roads and bridges, and the difficulty of getting supplies had made it almost impossible to invade Florida without large sacrifice of life and treasure. The people of the United States, not appreciating the difficulties, complained so much of the delay that General Scott was removed from the command and General Jesup was promoted to the command in Florida.
In November, before General Jesup assumed control, an engagement took place which for a time threatened to close the war. On the eighteenth of November a force of five hundred soldiers attacked a company of Indians. After a fierce battle the Indians fled, leaving twenty-five dead on the field. This was counted by them their first defeat, for so long as they carried away their dead they did not admit themselves to be defeated. Three days later they rallied to meet General Call, who was advancing upon Wahoo swamp with over a thousand men. This was the stronghold of the Indians. Here their provisions, their cattle, their wives and children were hidden. The Indians had much at stake and made a strong defense. At last, however, they were compelled[Pg 228] to retreat across the river. But they took their stand on the opposite bank behind a sand ridge, prepared to fight to the death.
The commander knew that if he could penetrate the Wahoo swamp successfully he would bring the Seminole War to an end; but before him rolled the swift dark waters of the Withlacoochee, and beyond waited the Indians like tigers at bay. He decided not to make the attempt.


On the eighth of December 1836, under most favorable circumstances, General Jesup took command of the Florida War and entered upon an energetic campaign. He had under his command about eight thousand men. Among these were several hundred Creek Indians hired to fight the Seminoles with the promise of "the pay and emoluments, and equipments of soldiers in the army of the United States and such plunder as they may take from the Seminoles."
It will be remembered that Osceola had told the Indians that the war was not against women and children. General Jesup took a different view of the matter. His first step was to make a series of sudden raids upon the villages on the Withlacoochee in which he seized unprotected women and children. By his frequent sorties he drove the Indians south or divided them. On the twelfth of January he reported that he had sent mounted men in[Pg 229] pursuit of Osceola, who was hiding with only three followers and his family.
The capture of women and children broke the spirit of the Indians. They felt that if their wives and children must be sent to Arkansas perhaps they would be happier there with them than in Florida without them. Accordingly many listened with favor to General Jesup's invitation to come to Fort Dade and hold a council to decide on terms of capitulation.
On the sixth of March, 1837, five chiefs and a large number of sub-chiefs met General Jesup at Fort Dade. They agreed to emigrate according to the terms of the treaty of Payne's Landing, but insisted that their negroes should be allowed to accompany them. This point was at last conceded them, and the fifth article of the terms of capitulation contained these words: "The Seminoles and their allies who come in and emigrate to the west shall be secure in their lives and property; their negroes, their bona fide property, shall accompany them west."
Large numbers of Indians expressed their willingness to sign these terms and assembled at a point near Fort Brooke on Tampa Bay, where twenty-eight vessels waited in the harbor to transport them. Even Osceola is said to have sent word that he and his family would emigrate with the rest. The camp at Fort Brooke grew larger every day.
General Jesup was well satisfied. He reported that the Florida war was ended. And indeed it might have been had the terms of the agreement been adhered to.[Pg 230] But slave claims were pushed; unprincipled men went into the Indians' territory and seized negroes; there was bitter complaint against the fifth article of the compact. At last General Jesup was induced to change that article so that it should contain a promise by the Indians to deliver up all negroes, belonging to white men who had been taken during the war.
This change was made with the knowledge and consent of only one chief, Alligator. When the Indians in general became aware that the terms of capitulation had been tampered with they were highly indignant.
General Jesup appointed a day on which all negroes taken during the war were to be brought in, but no attention was paid to his order. He then sent Osceola the following message: "I intend to send exploring parties into every part of the country during the summer, and I shall send out all the negroes who belong to the white people, and you must not allow the Indians or their negroes to mix with them. I am sending for bloodhounds to trail them, and I intend to hang every one of them who does not come in."
When Osceola received this message and learned that ninety negroes had already been seized by General Jesup as belonging to the whites he declared that the agreement had been violated and that the signers were therefore no longer bound by it. He instructed those encamped at Tampa to disperse. The old chief, Micanopy, refused to do so or to give the command to his people. One night early in June, Osceola entered the camp and visited[Pg 231] the tent of the sleeping Micanopy. As he had always done before, the old man yielded to the wonderful personal influence of Osceola and did his bidding like a child.
On the morning of the fifth of June, General Jesup was awakened by an officer who came hurrying to tell him that the Indians had gone. Surely enough the great camp had vanished in the night. The captives had fled. Already they were safe in their marshy fastnesses. Families were reunited; all had had rest and food and clothes. The coming sickly season would make it impossible to pursue them till their growing crops were harvested. The Seminole war with all its difficulties was reopened.
Osceola, who a few months before had been a hunted fugitive with only three followers, without hope for himself or his people, was again a powerful war chief. With a brighter outlook his natural cheerfulness of disposition returned, and he hoped and planned great things for the coming autumn.
Early in September he learned that his good friend "King Philip" had been captured with eleven followers by General Joseph Hernandez. King Philip's son, Wild Cat, came to him, saying he had been to St. Augustine to see his father, that the palefaces had treated him well and had allowed him to carry his father's messages to his friends. The old chief wanted Osceola to come to St. Augustine to arrange for his liberation.
Osceola, always generous and ready to serve a friend,[Pg 232] sent back to General Hernandez a finely wrought bead pipe and a white plume to indicate that the path between them was now white and safe and to inquire whether it would be safe for his return.
Wild Cat soon returned to Osceola with presents and friendly messages from the general. With the hope of gaining the release of King Philip, Osceola started for St. Augustine with a large attendance of warriors. Wild Cat went in advance to announce his coming. With a great show of regard General Hernandez went out to meet Osceola with a store of supplies. He met his advance guard, and learning that Osceola would not arrive till evening, left word that Osceola should choose a camping ground near Fort Peyton, and went back to communicate with General Jesup.
The next morning General Hernandez rode out dressed in full uniform and escorted by his own staff and many of the officers of General Jesup's staff. He found Osceola and Chief Alligator with seventy-one picked warriors assembled under the white flag for council. The warriors had brought with them the women of King Philip's family, and about one hundred negroes to be given up in exchange for the prisoner.
After the usual greetings and ceremonies General Hernandez took out a paper and said that General Jesup wanted to know the Indians' answer to these questions: "What is your object in coming? What do you expect? Are you prepared to deliver up at once the slaves taken from the citizens? Why have you not sur[Pg 233]rendered them already as promised by Alligator at Fort King? Have the chiefs of the nation held a council in relation to the subjects of the talk at Fort King? What chiefs attended that council and what was their determination? Have the chiefs sent a messenger with the decision of the council? Have the principal chiefs, Micanopy, Jumper, Cloud, and Alligator, sent a messenger, and if so, what is their message? Why have not those chiefs come in themselves?"
When Osceola heard these questions he struggled to answer. He began a sentence but could not finish it. Turning to Alligator he said in a low husky voice: "I feel choked. You must speak for me." Perhaps his suspicions were aroused by the questions; perhaps he saw afar the lines of soldiers closing round his camp—at any rate he was deeply troubled.
Finding the answers given by Alligator unsatisfactory, General Hernandez, following the orders of General Jesup, gave the signal and the troops surrounding the camp closed in upon the dismayed Indians and marched them off to the fort.
In this way was the man that the generals in Florida pronounced the war spirit of the Seminoles conquered.