July 21, 2005
Escape Becomes Etched in History
By Ronald Williamson, Daytona Beach News Journal
[This news article, originally published in the Daytona Beach News Journal, is distributed without profit to those who have expressed interest in receiving the information for research and educational purposes, in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.]
Scuffling softly, silently, under a dark, moonless November sky, a handful of men and women roped down the steep, rough coquina wall of the gray fort, then faded into the shadows, and into Florida history.
Among the Seminole escapees were Coacoochee and John Horse, a red man and a black man, allies who slipped that night from the prison of their white enemies to continue to fight ferociously for their land, their families and homes.
The remarkable story of the only known escape from the 17th-century Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine is an integral part of the National Monument’s legacy. It’s told daily to visitors who step inside the darkened room, gaze up at the tiny opening and marvel at the determination of Seminoles who, 171 years ago tonight, wriggled free of Florida’s strongest prison.
“Coacoochee was undoubtedly one of the most accomplished Native Americans of the 19th century,” said J.B. Bird, a University of Texas communications director who has studied the two men’s history extensively. “His electrifying escape . . . staged with John Horse, re-energized allied Seminole resistance in the most successful (from the Native American point of view) Indian war in U.S. history.”
Allied resistance is a key, often overlooked concept of that war. Indians allied with hundreds of “black Seminoles,” slaves, former slaves and free men, born and raised in Florida — like John Horse.
The number of black Seminoles involved and their motivation make the war the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history. Captured Indians were merely shipped west, but for blacks, it often meant being sold into slavery.
John Horse was born in Alachua and was about 23 when the war began. Coacoochee, about 28, was a local Seminole who grew up in east Central Florida. His father, Emathla, was chief of the St. Johns River Seminoles who destroyed sugar mills along the Halifax River in December 1835, when the Second Seminole War began.
Coacoochee, called Wild Cat by the whites, was slight and quick, eloquent, brilliant and vigorous. John Horse was tall and powerfully built, cool, brave and cunning. Both were well-dressed, fond of plumes, sashes and silver jewelry.
“He was by far the most dangerous chieftain in the field,” Army Capt. John Sprague said of Coacoochee in his 1847 history. “War to him was a pastime. He became merry by the excitement.”
James Ormond III, a Volusia County pioneer, wrote in his memoirs that he knew Coacoochee as a boy and fought him as an adult. Ormond saw Coacoochee on a white or gray horse when Seminoles thrashed local militia in 1836 at the sugar mill in Port Orange.
Emathla’s son often visited John Bulow at his sugar mill before the war. Bill Ryan, a Palm Coast historian who has written books involving Seminoles, has learned Coacoochee often traveled the Old King’s Road, even to St. Augustine after his father’s capture near Spruce Creek.
The capture of Emathla led to the seizure of so many warriors and leaders, including Osceola, Coacoochee and John Horse, that military commanders felt the unpopular war was near an end.
John Horse and Coacoochee spoiled that notion on the night of Nov. 29, 1837.
The only account of the escape is Coacoochee’s, quoted in Sprague’s history. As he told it, 18 warriors and two women slipped through an 8- to- 9-inch-wide opening some 15 feet from the floor after fasting for five days awaiting a moonless night.
Using rope made from mattress bags, they slipped to the bottom of the muddy moat and moved south as rapidly as possible, Coacoochee gathering his band camped on the Tomoka River.
Coacoochee was probably the only Seminole with “the personal ability and prestige as a war leader to keep alive the spirit of resistance among his people,” wrote Edwin C. McReynolds, University of Oklahoma scholar and author of “The Seminoles.” The detention and escape of the “boldest and most resourceful war chief” was a major blunder of the war, which continued five more years.
Less than a month later, on Christmas Day, John Horse and Coacoochee were among the commanders when about 400 black and Indian warriors faced Col. Zachary Taylor, the future president, and 800 soldiers at Lake Okeechobee in the war’s largest battle. After three hours and 11 dead, the Indians fled as they were overwhelmed. Americans lost 26 and 112 were wounded.
The next year, John Horse was shipped out of Florida, but Coacoochee remained until 1841.
“I was in hopes I should be killed in battle, but a bullet never touched me,” he said after being captured. “I would rather be killed by a white man in Florida than die in Arkansas.” Aboard the ship that would take him west, he lamented the loss of Florida. “My body is made of its sands,” he said. “It was my home. I loved it. To leave it now is like burying my wife and child.”
In Indian Territory, Coacoochee and John Horse became allies again, forming a village of Indians and blacks, fighting Creeks and Texas slave hunters intent on kidnapping black people to sell. They even traveled to Washington, D.C. for their cause.
“(Coacoochee’s) diplomacy and guile out west kept slave raiders at bay,” Bird said, “until he and John Horse could lead one of the largest and most successful slave escapes on American soil, when 200 black and Indian allies fled the Oklahoma Indian Territory in 1849 and escaped to Mexico, where the blacks were legally free.”
But that’s another story.
Historian: There’s no clear answer about escape
Not everyone accepts Coacoochee’s version of his and John Horse’s escape from the Castillo de San Marcos (called Fort Marion by the Americans), but the lack of witnesses makes it difficult to challenge the Seminole’s story.
One theory is that the 20 captives walked out the fort’s door, open as a result of a bribe given to the guard or guards, or because one or more soldiers sympathized with the Seminoles’ plight. Another theory involves the smuggling into the captives’ room a file that was used to cut an iron bar in the tiny opening through which they squeezed.
Historian Kenneth Porter examined Coacoochee’s version, with its omissions and exaggerations, and compared it to alternative theories in the Florida Historical Quarterly in 1944. Porter found no reason to doubt the Seminole’s story and concluded that Coacoochee, “as was proper for a hero of a simple and barbarous society, was not only a great warrior, but also a great storyteller.”
— Ronald Williamson
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