The term "Seminole" is a derivative of "cimarron" which means "wild men" in Spanish. The original Seminoles were given this name because they were Indians who had escaped from slavery in the British-controlled northern colonies. When they came to Florida, they were not called Seminoles as they were actually Creeks, Indians of Muskogee derivation. The Muskogean tribes comprised the Mississipian culture which were temple-mound builders. Among the Muskogean tribes were the Creeks, Hitichis and Yamasees of Georgia, the Apalachees of Florida, the Alabamas and Mobiles of Alabama, and the Choctaws, Chickasaws and Houmas of Mississippi.
The original Seminoles came to Florida because it was controlled by the Spanish, who had no interest in returning slaves to the British. They were mostly Lower Creeks who spoke the Mikasuki language, but other Indians, including Yuchis, Yamasees and Choctaws who had confronted Ponce de Leon and DeSoto, also joined the tribe in their trek to northern Florida from Georgia during the early 1700s.
By this time, many of the tribes in Florida, including the Tequestas, Calusas, Apalachees, Timucans and others, had been decimated by the Spanish presence, either in battles or by diseases such as smallpox. Out of an estimated 100,000 native Americans that occupied Florida during the 1500s, less than 50 survived.
In 1767, Upper Creeks from Alabama, who spoke the Muskogee language, settled in the Tampa area. Shortly after this, in 1771, the first recorded usage of the name "Seminole" to denote an actual tribe was recorded. In 1778, the Seminoles were joined by more Lower Creeks and a few Apalachees.
In the early days of its existence, the fledgling United States government carried out a policy of displacement and extermination against the American Indians in the eastern US, systematically removing them from the path of "white" settlement. Until 1821, Florida remained under the control of the government of Spain but the US Territories of Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana were its covetous next-door neighbors. It was clear that the US wanted the Spaniards out of Florida and was willing to consider any means, including warfare, to acquire the rich land.
As it turned out, Spain could no longer afford to support its vast colonial empire and from 1784 until 1821 (when Spain ceded Florida to the US), Florida became the setting for constant international intrigues as well as a target for greedy adventurers who wished to establish their own personal empires with Florida's vast resources.
When the Maskókî tribes in Alabama, whom English speakers erroneously called "Creeks," rose up against the white settlers in the Creek War of 1813-14, the brutal repression and disastrous treaty forced upon them by General Andrew Jackson sent thousands of the most determined warriors and their families migrating southward to take refuge in Spanish Florida. There, they joined the descendants of many other tribes whose members had lived all across the Florida forests for thousands of years. The Indians who constituted the nucleus of this Florida group thought of themselves as yat'siminoli or "free people," because for centuries their ancestors had resisted the attempts of the Spaniards to conquer and convert them, as well as the attempts of the English to take their lands and use them as military pawns. Soon, white Americans would begin to call all of the Indians in Florida by that name: "Seminoles."
But Spain could not afford enough soldiers to patrol the long frontiers of Florida. Its choice lands were openly coveted by white settlers who regularly moved across its borders. English war ships anchored off its Gulf coast and English agents encouraged the Seminoles, Creeks, and Mikisúkî to resist US settlement openly. US officials, angry that the Spaniards could not oust the English or control the Indians, were particularly incensed by the protection and shelter the Seminoles offered to African slaves. These freedom seekers had been finding refuge in Spanish Florida for over a century, but the new US government was determined to stop this practice. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, conflicts, skirmishes, and ambushes erupted and racial hatred flared into violence more and more frequently on the new frontier.
When the military and political opportunist, General Andrew Jackson, brazenly marched across Florida's international boundaries to settle the "Indian problem," he created an international furor. Over a period of several tumultuous years, he burned Indian towns, captured Africans, and hanged one Maskókî medicine man, Francis, as well as two Englishmen whom he suspected of inciting the Indians. This series of events, which took place between 1814 and 1818, is known as the First Seminole War.
And the conflicts did not end there; they only escalated. Through the Treaty of Moultrie Creek (1823), the Treaty of Payne's Landing (1832), and numerous "talks" and meetings, US Indian Agents sought to convince the Florida Indians to sell their cattle and pigs to the US government, return runaway slaves to their "rightful owners," leave their ancient homelands in Florida, and move west of the Mississippi River to Arkansas Territory. In 1830, soon after Jackson the Indian fighter became Andrew Jackson, the president of the United States, he pushed through Congress an Indian Removal Act. With this Act, the determination of the government to move Indians out of the Southeast and open the land for white settlement became the official policy of the US, and the willingness of the government to spend monies in support of military enforcement of this policy increased.
The clash that inevitably resulted from this policy finally began in 1835, and the seven years that it lasted frame the last, the greatest, and arguably the most tragic years in the history of US-Indian relations east of the Mississippi River. Known to history as the Second Seminole War, the US government committed almost $40,000,000 to the forced removal of slightly more than 3,000 Maskókî men, women, and children from Florida to Oklahoma. This was the only Indian war in US history in which not only the US Army but also the US Navy and Marine corps participated. Together with the desultory Third Seminole War, a series of skirmishes that took place between 1856 and 1858, the United States spent much of the first half of the 19th century in trying, unsuccessfully, to dislodge about 5,000 Seminoles from Florida.
Famous Seminole leader OsceolaUnlike 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.
In addition to "Old Hickory," as Jackson had come to be known, an impressive list of US military figures eventually joined the fight to remove the Seminoles from Florida. Edmund P. Gaines, Zachary Taylor, Oliver O. Howard ("the Christian General"), Richard Keith Call, and Thomas S. Jesup, among many others, would nearly ruin their reputations trying to fight the Seminoles in a place that was cold and wet in winter, and hot and wet in summer; where only the Seminoles, alligators, snakes, and mosquitoes knew how to survive; and where dysentery and malaria were the primary rewards for Herculean efforts. One white soldier wrote home that, "If the Devil owned both Hell and Florida, he would rent out Florida and live in Hell!"
William S. Harney, who would later tell western tribes "The Great White Father has sent me here to punish you!" learned his vicious Indian-fighting tactics in Florida. Winfield Scott, the only commander of US troops in Florida to emerge with his reputation intact, went on to reorganize the entire US military establishment on the "open field" tactics that evolved from the Seminole Wars. Today, students at US military academies still study the hit-and-run tactics of the Seminoles. This was the first time in its history that US soldiers fought a "guerrilla" war, one in which the old "linear" tactics of the European military system were almost useless against warriors who moved in flexible formations, attacked and disappeared, and used the very terrain as a weapon against their enemies. The US would not fight another such war until its troops entered the tiny southeast Asian nation of Vietnam, more than a century later.