January 30, 1838
Death of the Chieftain Osceola
What follows tells part of the career of the great Seminole chieftain, Osceola, and his devastating war on the United States in the larger context of the story of the Trail of Tears. The text comes from our high school textbook, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America. For ordering information on Lands of Hope and Promise and our other books, please click here.
White settlers had long been encroaching on Cherokee lands. In 1828, gold was discovered in Cherokee country, and white encroachments on tribal lands increased until, by 1830, about 3,000 white settlers were occupying Cherokee lands. The legislature of Georgia for its part ignored a 1791 federal treaty that had acknowledged the Cherokee as an independent nation; instead, the state encouraged the dispossession of the Cherokee.
|1830 Map of Cherokee Nation within Georgia|
In 1832, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Marshall ruled that Georgia had no authority over the Cherokee, because they constituted a sovereign nation; but the state legislature denounced the court and ignored the ruling. In this case, President Jackson did not back federal authority with threats of force, or anything else; he took Georgia’s side. “John Marshall has made his decision,” Old Hickory said. “Now let him enforce it.”
|John Ross, |
a Cherokee chieftain
When Georgia held a lottery to dispose of Cherokee lands to whites, a delegation under Chief John Ross went to Washington in 1835 to plead the Indians’ case. Ross, whose Indian name was Coowes Coowe, was the son of a Scottish Loyalist and a mother who was one-fourth Cherokee. The Cherokee returned with a treaty of removal that they submitted to a tribal council that met at Red Clay, Tennessee. Ross and others opposed the treaty, and the entire council rejected it. But Ross was not able to return to Washington; Georgia officials had him imprisoned, and to hide this breach of justice, suppressed the publication of the Cherokee Phoenix.
A period of terror followed. Whites, including justices of the peace, crossed into Cherokee territory; they destroyed property, assaulted and flogged Cherokee men and women with cowhide, hickory sticks, and clubs. But though the Cherokee suffered abuse and murder, the majority under John Ross held fast — they would not leave their lands. Finally, in order to avoid intervening in state affairs and so risk another secession movement — and to save the Cherokee from extermination — the federal government decided to break its treaty with the Cherokee and force them to move west.
Blockhouse at Fort Marr, near Benton,
Tennessee. A remnant of one of the forts
where the government interned the
Cherokee following their expulsion
from their lands.
In May 1838, General Winfield Scott, commanding U.S. forces, began the forced ex-patriation of the Cherokee to Indian Territory. According to an eyewitness, soldiers “were sent to search out with rifle and bayonet every small cabin hidden away in the coves or by the sides of mountain streams.” Indian men “were seized in their fields or going along the road, women were taken from their [spinning] wheels and children from their play.” Roughly 15,000 Cherokee were forced to follow their own “trail of tears”; and a sorrowful trail it was. By the time the Cherokee reached Indian Territory, about 4,000 of them had died. But the loss of their ancestral lands was as bitter as death to them. “My poor and unhappy countrymen,” lamented one Cherokee, “[were] driven by brutal power from all they loved and cherished in the land of their fathers to gratify the cravings of avarice.”
Farther south, in Florida, the Seminole had also signed a treaty of removal with the U.S. government. The treaty however presented a major stumbling block to the Seminole — it stipulated that all blacks living among them would be sold into slavery. Many escaped slaves had found refuge among the Seminole and had married Indian women, and their chief, Osceola, refused to abide by the treaty. Jackson, not one to back down, especially to “savages,” told the Seminole that they must go willingly, or in chains.
|Seminole chieftain, Sam Jones|
The Seminole would not go willingly or in chains. The war that followed was bloody. Poorly armed, the Indians fought guerrilla-style in the swamps and thick forests against a vastly superior American force. Still, Osceola was able to destroy Fort King, killing its commander, Wiley Thompson, who had taken Osceola’s half-black wife prisoner. Then began raids on plantations, so effective that the civilian population fled to the cities and area forts. In the spring of 1837, U.S. general Thomas Jessup met the Seminole at a peace conference at Fort Dade. Assured that they and their black tribesmen could leave Florida peacefully, the tribe signed a treaty of removal. But when white slave owners appeared at the fort, the Seminole, smelling treachery, repudiated the peace and again took to the warpath.
Finally, the army adopted a more devious measure. In the fall of 1837, General Jessup met with Osceola under a flag of truce. While Jessup spoke with the chief, his men quietly surrounded the Seminole camp. Osceola and his men were taken prisoner and sent to Fort Moultrie in South Carolina.
The capture of Osceola, however did not end the Seminole resistance. The war would last another five years until the United States, in desperation, simply gave up the struggle. The war had cost the United States government $20 million and the lives of 1,500 soldiers, not to mention untold num-bers of civilian dead. Some of the Seminole finally did remove to Indian Territory, though a large number remained in Florida, dwelling in the depths of the Everglades swamps. No peace treaty had been signed, so these Seminole remained officially at war with the United States well into the 20th century.
|Map of Main Indian Removal Routes from James W. Clay, Paul D. Escott, |
Land of the South (Birmingham, AL: Oxmoor House, 1989).
Osceola, himself, died only a few months after arriving at Fort Moultrie. He had been treated with every respect, been allowed to use the officers’ quarters, and had free rein of the fort. He had become something of a celebrity, sitting to have his portrait painted by the famous artist George Catlin and mixing with the finest of Charleston society. Yet, despite all the dinners, the plays, and the attention received from prominent whites, Osceola remained a stranger, a tragic figure. One woman named Mary Boykin, who had seen Osceola at the theatre in early January 1838, painted with her pen this portrait of the chieftain:
His was the saddest face I ever saw. Under that red skin it seems there was a heart to be broken … For the poor savage — there is no friend. It seemed to me that my country had not dealt magnanimously with these aborigines of the soil. And I found the dignified Osceola a sad spectacle.
|Osceola, by George Catlin|