America's Original Special Forces: Black Seminole Scouts in the American West

The Trail of Tears. PBS

The Trail of Tears and Life in the West

On May 28, 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law. This piece of legislation foreshadowed the forcible relocation of the “Five Civilized Tribes,” from their hereditary homelands in the Southeastern United States to federally-designated reservations west of the Mississippi River. The U.S. Government marched droves of Native Americans countless miles, over harsh terrain, for the next twenty years. Aptly dubbed the “Trail of Tears,” it’s estimated between 2,000 and 8,000 Amerindians died on their way to Indian Territory. Most succumbed to disease, starvation, or exhaustion over the course of their arduous journey out west.

Native Florida Seminoles and Black Seminoles, along with a few other tribes, initially resisted relocation. The Seminole Wars were predicated upon the Federal Government’s opposition to Native land rights and were marked by many gruesome conflicts. The Dade Massacre occurred when the U.S. Army attempted to forcibly relocate hundreds of Seminole Indians from present-day Ocala, Florida to Indian Territory. Almost 200 warriors ambushed two U.S. Army companies, led by Major Francis L. Dade, on December 28, 1835. Seminole guerrillas decimated the detachment, killing all but three men. The Second Seminole War was lost by the early 1840s, however, with most of the tribe leaving Florida shortly thereafter.

One hundred dissidents remained behind in the Florida Everglades, but approximately 3,000 Seminoles and 800 Black Seminoles relocated to Indian Territory during the 1830s. Geographically isolated from the Florida Seminoles, descendants of this group adapted to their new surroundings, eventually founding the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. Over 13,000 Oklahoma Seminoles currently reside in Wewoka, Oklahoma, on approximately 600 square miles of federally-allotted land, but their journey was far from easy. They faced intense persecution in the years leading up to the American Civil War and, prior to Emancipation, accepted many escaped slaves and freedmen into Black Seminole society.

U.S. Soldiers viewing the aftermath of the Dade Massacre. Wikipedia

Facing continued pressure from slavers, raiders, and the U.S. Government, many Black Seminoles looked to settle elsewhere. In 1849, a tribal war chief called Wildcat led a group of disenfranchised Seminoles, Creeks, and Black Seminoles from their reservations in Indian Territory to Mexico. Mexican officials welcomed them with open arms and provided the group with a new home in Coahuila, along the Rio Grande River. The men joined the ranks of the Mexican Army, who regularly and decisively defeated Comanches, Apaches, and Texans during the 1850s. Some Seminoles missed their families in Indian Territory, however, and peaceably returned north just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Black Seminoles, facing continued persecution in the United States, remained in Mexico after the conclusion of the Civil War. The roles of black soldiers changed significantly, however, during the post-war period. Understaffed, ill-equipped, and facing the seemingly insurmountable task of pacifying the expansive frontier, U.S. Army officials looked to exploit any possible opportunity that would work to their strategic advantage. Thus, in the summer of 1870, American policy-makers extended an invitation to the Black Seminoles, who proved themselves indispensable while fighting for Mexico. Offered land and pay, in exchange for fighting recalcitrant Apaches and Comanches, they agreed to return north and don the army blue.