Politics makes strange bedfellows, we are told, with the implication that those brought together by the vagaries of politics would be best kept apart. But sometimes this is not true at all. In the case of the Black Seminoles, politics brought slaves and Seminole Indians politics brought together two groups of people who would - had the history of the South been written just a little bit differently - would never have had much in common. But slaves fleeing their masters and Seminoles trying to lay claim to what was left of their traditional lands and ways found each other to be natural allies in Florida and in time in other places as well. This paper examines the origin of this particular American population, describing how the Black Seminoles changed over time and how their culture reflected both African and Seminole elements.
The Black Seminoles began in the early 1800s in the most remote and swamp-like parts of Florida, places in the state where runaway black slaves believed that they might be safe from those who were looking to reclaim them as their property. While some blacks did try to escape to the North, this was an especially difficult task for slaves beginning in Florida: The Mason-Dixon line was a very long way off from Florida and many slaves believed that they would be recaptured or killed if they tried to make it all the way to the North. Thus they fled south, into the swamps where the Seminole Indians often took them in.
Those escaped black slaves were lucky in seeking asylum with the Seminole rather than with other native groups, many of which were far less accepting of outsiders. But the Seminole were not so much a tribe as this word is usually applied to the native peoples of the Americas but rather a confederation that was already culturally diverse. The Seminole both married people from other groups and adopted them into their confederation, so when escaped slaves came to them there was already a tradition of welcoming outsiders into the group.
The slaves had another reason to retreat South into Florida: Since the 17th century slaves had been seeking refuge in Florida during those historical periods when it was Spanish Territory and so not subject to British or, later, American law.
Although the Seminoles were racially, culturally, and linguistically mixed, they did not lack for a sense of identity. In fact, of all of the Eastern American Indian tribes, the Seminole were some of the fiercest in fighting for their rights as an independent people and in seeking to limit the power of white Americans over their territory and their customs (Mulroy, 1993, p. 7).
Another link between the Seminole and many of the slaves who sought refuge with them was that, like the Seminole the slaves themselves were of mixed blood. These slaves, whom today we would call black or African-American, were in the antebellum called maroons and were recognized as a distinct demographic group that-based many of its traditions directly on African precedents. The maroons who became Black Seminoles - who had integrated both African and American elements into their lives - also integrated Seminole customs, taking on the traditional Seminole costumes of brightly colored applique, moccasins, and turbans (Thybony, 1991, p. 92).
The Black Seminoles had their own language, a creole (which is a recent combination of two or more languages that often develops when different kinds of people are thrown together as the former slaves and the Seminoles were). This language, called Gullah, is a variety of English, although the grammatical and lexical influences of African languages, Spanish, and Muskhogean Indian would make it difficult for anyone speaking "standard" English to understand.
This brief introduction should suggest the ways in which escaped slaves were inclined to feel at home among the Seminoles while the Seminoles were also culturally inclined to welcome the slaves into their settlements. But while the two groups can be seen in many ways to have been natural allies, their alliance was not always a smooth one because of a variety of pressures brought against them by a variety of outside forces.
The political life of Florida is a complex one, for the territory was used as a bargaining chip on a number of different occasions by the colonial powers with interests in the continental United States - Britain, France, and Spain - as well as by the United States. Whenever the territory of Florida changed hands, the rights of the Black Seminoles also changed, as the next section discusses.
There was also always the question of race: What made a person black or Indian?
Not Black, but Not-Black
White slaveowners were, of course, aware of the fact that slaves were taking refuge with the Seminoles. After 1763, when the Spanish ceded the territory of Florida to Britain, maroons from far Southern states such as Georgia as well as Florida itself continued to enter into partnerships with Seminole villages (Mulroy, 1993, pp. 10-11). Ironically, during the early 18th century (the exact time is not known), the Seminoles themselves began to keep the maroons as slaves - although the relationship was never as brutal as white ownership of blacks.
Slavery among the Seminoles was not new. They captured other Indians in battle, "adopted" them into their tribe to replace members who had been killed and treated them amicably. Some Black slaves were purchased, others were given as "gifts" to chiefs by the British who had acquired Florida from the Spanish in 1763. Many of these Blacks lived independently in villages separate from their Indian "owners." This independent living was the foundation of a new social group. They were efficient and productive farmers, owned livestock, and armed themselves against intruders. In deference to the Indian chief, they paid an annual tax, usually corn or some other foodstuff to be used for the common good. In return for their allegiance they were given the protection of the larger Seminole Indian community. An American general aptly described the relationship between the two groups as "vassals and allies." (http://www.ccny.cuny.edu/library/News/seminoles2.html).
Mulroy (1993, p. 11) argues that it was more feudal in nature, with obligations owed on both sides. The maroons tended to live in separate villages and to marry among themselves. They owned their own property and were free in many ways, but they paid some form of tax or tribute to the Seminoles and went on raids with the Seminoles, who seem to have had the right to call on maroons to go into battle with them (Porter, 1971, pp. 302-303).
The Seminoles were far less concerned about racial categories than wer whites. And they recognized the humanity of the maroons in a way that whites never did.
The experience of the Black Seminoles was similar to other maroon societies which proliferated throughout the Americas before slavery was abolished. Because they were in constant fear of being recaptured, they defended their freedom by developing extraordinary skills in guerilla warfare. They were proactive in finding ways to survive economically in new environments and they were savvy in their interaction with Native Americans. Leaders emerged from their communities who were skilled at understanding and negotiating with whites. Most important, all of these maroon communities, borrowed and blended elements of their experiences and integrated them into their own African heritage.
Historically the central question for those who came in contact with the Black Seminoles was whether they were African or American Indian. This issue of classification hounded them throughout their search for freedom. Individuals, agencies and institutions labeled them for their own purposes, more often than not determined by their own vested interests (http://www.ccny.cuny.edu/library/News/seminoles2.html).
We might think that someone's race is a fixed category, but in fact it is determined far more by cultural than by biological factors. The Black Seminole communities were constantly under threat by slavehunters who defined black in the broadest possible sense - the definition that would net the largest number of slaves to bring back - while the former slaves and Seminoles defined race in ways that benefited them.
Race is in fact of the most bedeviling of all cultural or social characteristics. Race has about it a sense of the objective, a categorizing of humans that is conducted from the outside. We may believe that we can tell someone's race by looking at them (and without knowing anything about them). This is in fact not true, and is reflected today in a shift to the term ethnicity - a category that is much more often applied by people to themselves and it usually involves knowledge of national or family origin, often of religious belief. We are much less confident that we can guess at someone's ethnicity simply by observing them. We must get to know them to determine their ethnicity. But slave-hunters labored under no such niceties. Dark skin was dark skin to them.
Racial categories are in most probability so widespread because they are one of the simplest mechanisms by which…