of Florida and the Caribbean"
Seminole Chief Osceola
The year was 1804. It was an era of extreme volatility in the United States of America. One peculiar result of this turmoil was the assimilation of Africans, British, French and Americans into Native American communities. White men who, according to the government, preferred to "live the savage life," married Native American women and raised families. Many runaway slaves found asylum in Native American communities and intermarried. The people in the town of Tallassee, where Billy Powell, (later named Osceola) was born, were mixed-blood Native American/English/Irish/Scottish, and some were black. Billy was all of these. Non-Indians at first called them Seminolies. The word is thought to be derived from the Spanish word cimarrón, meaning "wild or runaway," and probably was used because of the maroons or runaway slaves who were living nearby and friendly with the Indians. Cimarrón became simalóni in the Creek language, which does not recognize the r sound. By 1765, they were referred to as "Seminole" in British documents.
Billy Powells chosen name, Osceola, was derived from the Indian term "Asiyahola," the cry given by those taking the ceremonial black drink that was supposed to cleanse the body and spirit. About 1813 Osceolas father, an Englishman, separated from his mother and moved west. Osceola and his mother settled in several different Creek communities, first in northern, and later in central Florida. From this time through the 1830s, relations between Native Americans and Whites in Florida were rapidly deteriorating. White settlers illegally encroached on Native American lands. Native Americans in search of food, ammunition and liquor staged raids on whites. Escalating violence resulted in increasing support for the permanent removal of all Native Americans from Florida. Osceola, vehemently determined to remain in Florida, became the leader of the resistance. By the winter of 1835, reports concluded that he was leading a guerilla style army composed of about 250 followers.
Osceola maneuvered confidently between the White and Indigenous cultures. A persuasive orator, he was able to command authority within the Native American community and gain widespread notoriety throughout the United States. His statements were quoted and his movements narrated by an eager press. He used Native American culture as a lure to increase his following. In the ancient tradition, he staged ceremonial ballgames to promote cultural cohesion, and consolidate his leadership role. At the same time he secured ammunition and supplies from the games white military hosts.
History would surely have taken a different course had Osceola and the United States government not reached an irrevocable stalemate. During the battles of 1836-37 both sides used strategies that involved trickery and treachery, with the result that neither side could trust the other. Waving the white flag was rendered meaningless. The United States concluded that there was no alternative solution than to remove the Native Americans, either peaceably or by force. The Seminoles remained fiercely determined to remain in Florida.
As the fighting wore on through the summer of 1837 Osceola grew physically weak. He suffered from the effects of malaria contracted in 1836. By autumn soldiers destroyed most of the Native Americans towns and crops. Many of Osceolas followers deserted and most of the allied Chiefs were killed, imprisoned or surrendered. On October 17, Osceola sent word to the United States government that he was ready to parley. He was arrested on October 27 under a white flag of truce and imprisoned at Fort Marion, St. Augustine.
On December 31, Osceola and his family were transferred to Fort Moultrie, South Carolina. Osceola would live only one more month, dying at the Fort. During that time he seems to have enjoyed the attentions of a curious public. Carolinians came to view him. Journalists chronicled his last days. Famous illustrators memorialized his image. "A great man of them greater doubtless because his blood was half white, though his habits were all Indian, has fallen among them" (from the "Death of Osceola" New York Star, February 1838).
Osceolas family would soon depart westward on a journey that ended with the resettlement of the Seminole people in western Oklahoma. Unlike the "Trail of Tears" that took place in a single, dreadful moment, in 1838, in which several thousand Cherokee people were sent on a death march to the West, the removals of the Seminole people from Florida began earlier and lasted 20 years longer. Just like that other event, however, the toll in human suffering was profound and the stain on the honor of a great nation, the United States, can never be erased. The Seminole people - men, women, and children, were hunted with bloodhounds, rounded up like cattle, and forced onto ships that carried them to New Orleans and up the Mississippi. Together with several hundred of the African ex-slaves who had fought with them, they were then sent overland to Fort Gibson (Arkansas), and on to strange and inhospitable new lands where they were attacked by other tribes, in a fierce competition for the scarce resources that they all needed to survive.
The Seminoles of Florida call themselves the "Unconquered People," descendants of just 300 Native Americans who managed to elude capture by the U.S. army in the 19th century. Today, more than 2,000 live on six reservations in the state located in Hollywood, Big Cypress, Brighton, Immokalee, Ft. Pierce, and Tampa.