By Dana Peck
When a U.S. military officer seized hundreds of Seminoles in 1838 near Jupiter, he reported to the U.S. Secretary of War that 513 of the prisoners were "Indians" and 165 were "negroes."
Gen. Thomas Jesup didn't make a mistake in his report referring to blacks as Seminoles.
Blacks were part of the Seminole villages almost as early as Creek Indians moved into Florida in the 18th century. They were first welcomed by the Indians as runaway slaves and were later embraced as kin and allies.
"These negroes appeared to me to be far more intelligent than those who are in absolute slavery, and have great influence over the Indians," Indian agent J. A. Peniere said in 1821.
Some said that the escaped slaves traded a white master for benevolent Seminole masters; others say the runaways worked alongside the Seminole Indians with equal status in the agrarian societies.
Whatever the distinction, historians agree that the Seminole Indians and blacks intermarried and fought together against whites, who were trying either to get Seminole land or capture escaped slaves.
Many black Seminoles fought alongside Osceola, the renowned Seminole leader, who died in prison after Jesup seized him under a flag of truce.
Jesup said he found the black Seminoles to be "the most active and determined warriors."
In as many as 15 Seminole villages, according to one historian, both Indians and blacks lived together during the 1800s. The blacks were of two groups. One, called Maroons by the Spanish settlers, were freed or escaped slaves, but had lived for so long among the Indians that they were part of the tribe. The other group, fresh runaway slaves, fled to Florida to be protected by Spanish law, and later by the Seminoles.
One of the most noted black Seminoles was Abraham, counselor to the Seminole chief Mickenopah. One U.S. Army captain described Abraham:
"The negro Abraham is obviously a great man; Abraham is of ordinary stature, rather thin, with a slight inclination forward like a Frenchman of the old school. His countenance is one of great cunning and penetration. He always smiles, and his words flow like oil. His conversation is soft and low, but very distinct, with a most genteel emphasis."
Jesup, one historian said, spoke of Abraham as "a good soldier and an intrepid leader. He is a chief, and the most cunning and intelligent negro we have here."
Eventually black Seminoles met the same fate as their Indian kindred; they were transported by the U.S. government to reservations in the West.
Others were returned to plantation owners.
And a few continued to resist U.S. military attacks and became part of a small group of Seminole survivors who outlasted the army in South Florida.
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