History of Florida/Antebellum Florida: Territory to Statehood, 1821-1861
Slavery in Florida, 1821-1861
The Beginning of a Slave-Based Economy
Under Spanish rule, slavery played a minimal role in Florida’s economy and culture. Much of the free Black population in Florida resided in St. Augustine at this time, where it was not uncommon to find black people who owned both rural land and slaves of their own. When Florida was eventually ceded to the British, the dwindling free black population remained in St. Augustine. The role of slavery drastically changed under British rule, and Florida saw a dramatic increase in institutionalized slavery. The Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 signified the sale of Florida to the United States, and in 1821 the flag was officially handed over to Andrew Jackson and his men, thus making him the first military governor of Florida. Though Florida was now in American hands, British rule had left a lasting impact on slavery within the state. With abundant frontier now available, Americans began to take note of the economic potential that lay to the South. The slave trade in Florida was mainly concentrated in the heart of the “Cotton Belt,” which included cities such as Tallahassee, Jackson and Jefferson. In 1821, only a small percentage of wealthy white planters, a few free blacks in Eastern Florida and holdovers from the Spanish era owned slaves. When the transatlantic slave trade was abolished, Florida saw a rise in the domestic slave trade. The average number of slaves owned by a single planter had almost doubled now, as people began to fully exploit the growing fiscal worth of slaves. Slavery was a highly profitable business, and was therefore an important aspect of Florida’s economy. The necessity of slavery as a part of the economy was due to the fact that they were viewed as property, could be used as collateral for loans, act as extensions of credit and even be lent out to earn supplementary income for their owners. It was not uncommon for slaves to be hired out to perform jobs such as construction, roadwork and domestic work. During the 1830’s, Florida’s economy had almost completely shifted to farms and plantations based solely on slave labour. Florida’s expansion in its territorial era was chiefly rooted in a slavery-based farming and plantation economy, which drew political and social elites from prominent slave-owning planter families of the old South to Florida. Florida further prospered through trading along its expansive coastline, which allowed for easy export of cotton to many European destinations. By 1845, slavery had become a firmly established component of Florida’s culture and economy.
Solidifying the Institution of Slavery
The institution of slavery played such a pivotal role in the economy that many government policies were being instituted specifically to solidify its place in the state. One way this was achieved was by separating slaves and free black people into their own distinct legal category as a way to keep the laws that govern white and black people separate. In 1827 provisions to the statutory law restricted implementation of the emancipation of slaves, and included the denial of free black people into the state in order to promote the expansion of slavery in Florida. By 1842 free blacks already in Florida were required to concede themselves to a white guardian or face persecution. Laws that prohibited the restriction of slave importation into the state were also included within these articles. The growing fear of abolitionism prompted the extreme oppression of black people through the further stringency of slave legislation. This also resulted in laws controlling the interactions between white and black people. Assisting a slave in escaping or being found guilty of stealing another man’s slave were considered crimes punishable by death. A Spanish plantation owner by the name of Zephaniah Kingsley, disagreed with the American attempt to segregate and reduce the free black population from the rest of Florida. He believed that Slavery would function best under the control of white elites along with the support of free blacks as the two groups would be able to better control a larger amount of slaves and eventually create a more prosperous system of slavery. Many other Spanish planters who had remained in Florida after 1821 agreed with his idea of a more humane brand of slavery, however their voices were muzzled by the rest of Florida's white population.
The full equality of citizen’s delegitimized Florida’s slave based economy, and as a result legislations known as the Slave Codes were implemented. The Slave Codes maintained the subordination of slaves and implemented control over the race as a whole. The Slave Codes were also a way to preserve the economy, political hegemony and the status of white people within Florida . The intent of this oppressive legislation was to restrict freedoms such as the ability to communicate by prohibiting all slaves from learning to read or write. The codes also outlined that no slave could congregate without the supervision of a white man, nor could they possess weapons or property. They also sanctioned barbaric punishments such as branding, mutilation and corporal punishment if a slave were to disobey their owner. The preferred form of punishment by slave owners was the use of a whip, as it was able to inflict pain without leaving lasting scars, which would decrease the worth of one’s slave. These laws also acted as a way to protect the white population from insurrection, which was a growing fear due to the increase of Northern abolitionism. These codes provided the state the ability to clarify the status of a slave in society while stabilizing the hierarchy that existed in Florida during this time.
Native Relations in Antebellum Florida
A Strained Relationship
Americans quickly made preparations to subvert the resident Native population, the Seminoles, following the ceding of Florida to the United States in 1821. Animosity pervaded relations on both sides, stemming from the First Seminole War in 1817 and an increasing American presence near Indian lands. The Seminoles who were once a vast network of independent tribes, had already withered in the face of American expansion. In the years leading up to the Second Seminole War, they endeavoured to protect what land they still possessed.
The Treaty of Moultrie Creek (1823)
Officials in Washington had long deliberated the issue posed by the Native population occupying their new territory. In 1821, Secretory of War John C. Calhoun proposed that the Seminoles either be concentrated into a single area within Florida, or removed from the territory completely. It quickly became clear which of these the American settlers favoured, and a plan was soon drafted to remove the Seminoles to a Creek reservation out of state. However, this idea was rejected wholly by the Seminoles due to difficult relations between the two Native groups. The government ultimately decided to collect and settle them within Florida, and called a gathering in September of 1823 at Moultrie Creek. The four hundred Seminoles who attended were represented by a Mikasuki-band chief, Neamathla. Commissioner James Gadsden led the representatives of the United States. The resulting Treaty of Moultrie Creek stated that all Seminoles would move to a four million acre reservation in the centre of Florida. They were to renounce all claims to their former territory, and would receive payments, including a monetary payment of five thousand dollars per year for twenty years.
Native Conditions Deteriorate (1823-1830)
It took two years for the Seminoles to relocate to their new territory. Meanwhile, settlers continued their aggressive push inwards towards more fertile lands, which increasingly brought them into contact with the Natives and their new reservation. The situation deteriorated through the decade, as each side complained of theft and trespassing by the other. Settlers would cross onto the reservation to capture escaped slaves who had come to reside there. In 1825, a drought resulting in poor crop yields near the end of the decade left a large portion of the Seminole community impoverished and starving. Famished, many resorted to foraging and theft across reservation lines. These episodes often ended in injury or death, as was the case in an incident in 1829 which ended in the deaths of two natives and the theft of their equipment. Meanwhile, pressures continued to expand as Florida residents across the land advanced their petitions for total Indian removal from America's new territory.
The Indian Removal Act (1830)
The fate of the Seminoles would not be a matter of debate for much longer. Andrew Jackson, a former governor who had long advocated for Indian relocation, was elected President in 1830. Soon after his election, he pushed for Seminole removal from Florida. On May 28, 1830, congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which allowed for the president to negotiate with the Seminoles for their removal to lands west of the Mississippi River. James Gadsden, who had negotiated the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, was again sent to negotiate on behalf of the government.
The Bad and the Ugly: The Treaties of Payne’s Landing (1832) and Fort Gibson (1833)
Starvation and hardship continued to plague the Seminoles through the early 1830’s. They were in a desperately poor position to negotiate when James Gadsden arrived in early 1832. Fifteen chiefs assembled with Gadsden and signed the Treaty of Payne’s Landing in 1832, which stated that they were to move to land set aside for them west of the Mississippi. This was conditional upon a favourable inspection by a party of their own representatives. Unfortunately, a detailed record of the meeting was not made, leading to speculation about the treaty's legitimacy. Nevertheless, a delegation of seven natives was sent to inspect the land in October of 1832. Upon completion, they signed the Treaty of Fort Gibson on March 28, 1833, which signified their approval of the land. Both of these treaties were called into question soon after being signed. The chiefs who had signed the documents either denied that they had done so, or protested of coercion. Further, Natives back in Florida claimed not to be bound by these treaties. The government, meanwhile, quickly ratified these documents and set a three year deadline for Indian removal. It was becoming increasingly clear that the Seminoles would not move out of Florida willingly. An outbreak of war soon seemed inevitable.
The Second Seminole War (1835-1842)
The Seminole Wars were a series of conflicts fought between the United States military and the Seminoles; a Native American tribe originally from Florida. The conflict consisted of three distinct wars which were all fought largely over land disputes between the federal government and the Seminoles living in Florida. The Second Seminole war (1835-1842) is regarded by historians as the most brutal and costly war waged between the federal government and Native Americans. The second Seminole war was a result of the Dade massacre.
The Initiation of the War
The second Seminole war was initially prompted when President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 which mandated all Native American tribes residing Florida be moved inland to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, permitting the use of military force if necessary. Initially most of the tribes moved with little resistance, however the Seminoles resisted this forced migration. Among the Seminole leaders resisting the Americans was a young, brave warrior by the name of Osceola. When non-violent protest against native relocation failed in 1835, over 5,000 Seminoles retreated into the swamps of the Florida everglades. By autumn of 1835, violence had broken out across Florida. Disillusioned and embittered by weak leadership, younger and bolder leaders emerged among the Natives. The Seminoles were a distinguished and feared guerrilla fighting force, one that Andrew Jackson had already fought against when he attempted to drive them out of the Floridian peninsula in 1817.
Allied with the Seminoles were many free African Americans, those whom had fled captivity and brutality at the hands of American settlers. Seeking a new life, many had been welcomed and integrated into Seminole community, a deed which further provoked the Americans. Two subsequent treaties did little to alleviate the situation and instead gave an outlet for hostilities to begin. In December, a Seminole force killed several high ranking officials on the outskirts of Fort King. On the same day, Major Dade and two companies of soldiers were ambushed in Sumter County, and all but three were massacred. The war had begun.
The Dade Massacre
In December of 1835 a number of Seminole ambushes resulted in heavy American casualties. The Dade massacre was one such incident of devious Seminole tactics. Major Francis L. Dade was traveling with a company of roughly 110 men from Fort Brooke to Fort King to provide military support against the Seminole threat. Dade and his men were ambushed by a group of Seminoles, killing all but a handful of American Soldiers. Days later on New Year’s Eve Osceola and a band of 250 Seminole warriors defeated a company of 700 soldiers under the command of General Duncan Clinch on the banks of the Withlacoochee River. Despite suffering few casualties, Clinch was forced to retreat and was soon replaced by General Winfield Scott. General Scott was regarded highly for his military prowess as well as his heroics in the war of 1812. However, Scott’s expertise was in conventional “gentlemanly” warfare; he was horribly unprepared for the guerilla warfare tactics employed by the Seminoles. The Second Seminole war lasted a gruelling 7 years and was in general regarded as a tremendous failure on the part of the United States military. American author Michael Grunwald regarded the Seminole war as “America’s first Vietnam – A guerilla war of attrition, fought on unfamiliar, unforgiving terrain, against an underestimated, highly motivated enemy who often retreated but never quit.” Public opinion surrounding the war was negative, congress wanted the war to be over, but feared forfeiting would make the federal government look weak and result in a domino effect of backlash from other tribes.
Concluding the War
In January of 1836, President Jackson appointed a new commander and sent fourteen companies to join the forces already within the territory. Vastly out-numbered, the Natives employed guerilla-style tactics to great effect. Skirmishes broiled across Florida through the next six years, as the United States drove out the Seminoles. Finally, Colonel Worth declared an end to the war on August 14, 1842. The seven years of conflict resulted in death or expulsion for a majority of the five thousand Seminoles who had once resided within Florida. A small force remaining was allowed to occupy a temporary reserve at the mouth of the Peace River. In contrast, at the peak of the conflict in 1837 a force of 8866 troops had been deployed by the United States, and 1466 had lost their lives. Estimates place the cost of the war as high as forty million dollars, solidifying the Second Seminole War as the costliest war of Native removal in American History. The settlers were left with a ravaged frontier, destroyed homes, and a depression. Yet, they had triumphed and claimed their new land, leaving the Seminoles broken and defeated.
The conditions on the battlefield were atrocious to say the least. The everglades proved to be treacherous to navigate by foot and impossible to navigate from horseback. Soldiers had to carry supplies through dense swamps and mangrove forests, meanwhile keeping an eye out for Alligators, Snakes and ambushes from the Seminoles. Mosquitoes also posed a massive problem for American soldiers. Unbeknownst to the Americans at the time, mosquitoes were not just a buzzing nuisance, but also vectors for diseases such as Dengue fever and malaria which caused more casualties than fighting with the Seminoles did.