Overview > Toolkit on the rebellion
Examples and analysis of oversight and misinterpretation of the
Black Seminole slave rebellion, from major scholarly works on U.S.
These examples are cited in reverse chronological order from date
of publication, to show the legacy of the oversight in the leading
20th-century sources. The works cited are
by several of the most eminent scholars writing on slave resistance
since 1950 and are among
the books most frequently cited in reference works on the topic. The passages are
not selected to call into question the overall arguments of the
authors, merely to show that scholars in general, including the
leaders in the field, have missed the facts on the Black Seminole
Below are links to relevant excerpts from these major figures in
the literature of slavery and slave resistance—all books cited are
seminal works in the field:
The results of the oversight can readily be seen in print
reference books, like The Encyclopedia of African-American
Heritage (edited by Susan Altman, New York: Facts on File,
1997), The African American Almanac (9th edition, edited by
J.Lehman, Gale Group: 2003), or the African American Almanac's
predecessor, The Negro Almanac, still available in many
public libraries. These print editions in turn become the
sources for popular references to slave rebellions on the Web, like
the sites listed below:
Franklin, John Hope. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the plantation.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Page 12, an example of the conventional wisdom that no American
slave revolts took place after Turner in 1831:
Several large-scale plots were uncovered before they could be implemented,
including Gabriel’s in 1800 and Sancho’s in 1802, both in Virginia,
and Denmark Vesey’s in South Carolina in 1822. Two slave revolts
actually took place, one in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana Territory,
in 1811, and the other, the famous Nat Turner revolt in 1831.
Page 87-88, a seminal example of the Black Seminole rebellion
oversight, where Franklin reveals a solid awareness of the
background of the Second Seminole War but not an awareness of its
plantation slave dynamics in 1835:
A similar situation [to the
1821 maroon tensions in North Carolina] existed in central Florida
at about the same time. In a fourteen-page memorial to the
Territorial Governor William P. Duval, the new Legislative Council
warned of the “existing evils” following the acquisition of the
region from Spain and of “great numbers of negroes belonging to
planters, availing themselves of existing disorders” and running
away only to take “refuge among the Indians.” They were beyond the
reach of their owners, and some of them were escaping to the island
of Cuba, “from when in all probability they will never be
recovered.” This memorial was presented about 1823, but for many
years, even during the Seminole Indian War (1835-42), groups of
runaway slaves remained at large, periodically raiding plantations
and farms. “I have ascertained beyond any doubt, not only that a
connection exists between a portion of the slave population and the
Seminoles,” an Army officer wrote in 1837, “but that there was,
before the war commenced, an understanding that a considerable force
should join on the first blow being struck.
This example from one of the country’s most
respected scholars more or less sums up the status and causes of the
academic oversight of the Black Seminole slave rebellion. Franklin
is right there, extremely close to the facts and yet missing them,
most likely because he has not received help from the secondary
sources available when he was writing and on which a generalist relies.
Franklin here presents the black portion
of the Second Seminole War as a maroon conflict. From his work with
the secondary sources, he does not appear aware that a major body of
plantation slaves, distinct from the maroons, rebelled in 1835.
Rather, he talks of “runaway slaves” from the pre-war period and
loosely conflates these established runaways with the plantation slaves who escaped during the war. It is not hard to see how the error was made. Many of the
historical sources on the Second Seminole War at Franklin's disposal, from Joshua Giddings (1858) on,
have tended to
conflate maroon rebels with the plantation slaves who escaped at the
war's outset. And yet, interestingly, the officer whom
Franklin quotes does not make the same error; rather, writing in 1837,
the officer, General Thomas Sydney Jesup, carefully delineated
plantation slaves from maroons when he noted "that a connection
exists between a portion of the slave population and the Seminoles."
By "slaves," Jesup was referring to the plantation
rebels who joined the maroon and Indian Seminole allies when war
broke out in December 1834 and early 1835. Jesup made similar
observations in military reports and letters to southern officials
written when he was the commanding general in Florida. Analyzing the
conflict, he consistently differentiated plantation slaves, maroons
and Seminole Indians. On June 16, 1837, for example, Jesup wrote
Secretary of War Joel Poinsett that,
I have learned that the depredations committed on the
plantations east of the St. John’s were perpetrated by the plantation
Negroes, headed by an Indian negro, John Caesar, since killed, and
aided by some six or seven vagabond Indians, who had no character among
their people as warriors.*
In the same letter to Poinsett, Jesup went on to drive home the future dangers for neighboring states
that could result from the confluence of maroons and slaves among the Seminoles:
"Should the Indians remain in this Territory, the negroes among them will form
a rallying point for runaway negroes from the adjacent states." Jesup was the most
successful U.S. military leader during the war. Clearly, in analyzing
the conflict, he had a nuanced understanding of the distinctions between his
tri-partite enemy of maroons, Indians, and plantation slave rebels.
Further, he stressed in his official communications both the nature
of the rebellion that the maroons
and Indians had inspired among "plantation Negroes" and the danger that
axis could inflame rebellion among a wider swath of southern slaves.
It is impossible to believe that
Franklin, a scholar of meticulous accuracy, would fail to mention it
had he been aware that 300 or more plantation slaves (non-maroons) rebelled and
helped destroy their plantations at the onset of the Second Seminole
War. He has
relied on the best secondary sources, and they have let him down,
allowing the oversight to be repeated.
If a scholar of Franklin's insight devoted more time to the Black
Seminole slave rebellion, he would have found the facts. Jesup's
letter cited above was written at the same time that the commanding
general was composing a series of similar letters sent to southern governors seeking militia help.
The urgent insight Jesup shared in these letters was that slaves on
the plantations had conspired with the maroons/runaway slaves living
among the Seminole Indians. Jesup viewed the connections between the
Seminole maroons and the plantation slaves as extremely dangerous
because he knew that plantation rebels had led some of the attacks
on the white forces; he feared the connection could lead to a
wider servile war and general slave insurrection along the southern
borderlands. “[H]ow far that connexion [between the Seminole allies
and plantation slaves] extends,” Jesup wrote the governor of
Georgia, “is impossible to say, but I consider it of the utmost
importance to the slaveholding States that the war be promptly
brought to a close.”** In the months after he expressed these
thoughts, Jesup followed up with policies that brought the maroon
portion of the war to a close, in part by driving a wedge between
the maroons and the plantation slaves. The British had employed a
similar tactic during the
great Jamaican maroon wars, with which Jesup was familiar. As in the
Jamaican wars, in Florida, plantation slaves played a key role, both
as fighters and strategic pawns of the maroons. As
evidence of this fact, not a
single major battle of the Second Seminole “Indian” War took place
after the plantation slaves and Seminole maroons parted ways and surrendered in
Back to top
Genovese, Eugene. Roll,Jordan, Roll:
The world the slaves made. New York: Random House, 1974.
-------------------. From Rebellion to Revolution. Baton
Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
In From Rebellion, page 4, Genovese presents a run-down of U.S.
slave rebellions, which omits the Black Seminole slave rebellion:
1712 New York City
1741 New York City (viewed mainly as hysteria over a conspiracy)
1795 Point Coupee Louisiana (state's pre-U.S. period)
1800 Gabriel Prosser
1811 Southern Louisiana (the Deslondes revolt)
1822 Denmark Vesey
1831 Nat Turner
In Roll, Jordan, Roll, page 588, he presents the conventional
wisdom on U.S. slave revolts:
Notwithstanding the occurrence of
insurrections in the Old South that command attention, they did not
compare in size, frequency, intensity, or general historical
significance with those of the Caribbean or South America. The
largest slave revolt in the United States took place in Louisiana in
1811 and involved between 300 and 500 slaves; it alone was
comparable in size to those of the Caribbean—that is, comparable to
the modest ones.
In From Rebellion, page 20, another extension of the conventional
By the turn of the [18th] century [in the United
States], slave revolts, difficult to
mount under the best of conditions, attracted only an occasional
zealot, for the oppressors stood united and in full command of
growing military power.
Comment: Awareness of the Black Seminole slave rebellion
would not have radically altered Genovese’s analysis as to why U.S.
slave revolts were small in comparison to the larger Caribbean
rebellions. The military success of blacks during the Second
Seminole War was the exception, not the rule, in nineteenth-century
America. But the passages show Genovese did not factor the slave
uprising in Florida into his analysis. Note: In his later work,
Genovese downgraded his estimate of the size of the 1811 Louisiana
revolt to a total closer to 180. Source material on the revolt
remains very sketchy.
In Roll, Jordan, Roll, page 591, Genovese describes the
relationship between maroon conflicts and slave revolts in the New
The revolts in Jamaica, Surinam, Saint-Domingue, Brazil,
and elsewhere accompanied and followed large-scale maroon wars. In a
number of cases the maroons prevailed and forced the regimes to sign
peace treaties and recognize their autonomy. The relationship
between maroons and slaves was complex and by no means always
friendly. The peace treaties between the maroons and white regimes
usually provided for black autonomy in return for military support
against slave revolts and for the return of new runaways. But the
existence of militarily respected maroon colonies destroyed in a
single stroke the more extravagant racist pretensions of the whites
and provided a beacon to spirited slaves.
In Rebellion, page 33, Genovese offers another comment on maroon conflicts
and slave revolts:
The most impressive slave revolts in the
hemisphere proceeded in alliance with maroons or took place in
periods in which maroon activity was directly undermining the slave
regime or inspiring the slaves by example.
Comment: The maroon-slave revolt dynamic that Genovese
describes played out very similarly in Florida during the first
phase of the Second Seminole War; General Jesup, in fact, based his
compromises with the Black Seminole maroons partly on the history of
the Jamaican maroon wars. The passage shows that the plantation
slave uprising in Florida was a classic slave revolt in the
definition established by Genovese and applied by scholars
throughout the New World, where slave revolts often coincided with
maroon wars. The passage is included because some academics have
tried to argue that the Black Seminole slave rebellion does not
qualify as a slave rebellion. To the contrary, the plantation slave
revolt in Florida was similar to the large-scale slave rebellions
described and defined as revolts by Genovese, Herbert Aptheker, and
the leading sources for the conventionally accepted lists of New
World slave revolts.
In Rebellion, page 81, Genovese summarizes U.S. maroon
The maroons of the United States wrote heroic pages
and made a vital contribution to the black struggle against slavery,
but under the circumstances their impact had to remain modest. By
the end of the eighteenth century the danger that large-scale maroon
activity would trigger significant slave revolts had passed,
although neither maroon activity itself nor white fears ever did.
In Roll, Jordan, Roll, page 591, Genovese refers to the
In the South, slaves also ran away in groups, tried
to organize colonies, and struggled for autonomy …. and in the 1830s
some blacks even merged with the Seminoles to make a heroic stand
against white power in Florida. But the rapid development of the
southern back country confronted slaves with a formidable white
power and reduced possibilities for sustained guerilla warfare to a
minimum. Thus, the slave might know of small groups of desperate
holdouts here and there, but he had no example of an autonomous
black movement to guide him.
Comment: In these passages Genovese appeared unaware that a
major slave rebellion had coincided with the uprising of the maroons
who had “merged with” the Seminoles in Florida. He was also
incorrect in stating that by the end of the eighteenth century there
was no longer “the danger that large-scale maroon activity would
trigger significant slave revolts,” as events in Florida made plain.
Back to top
Elkins, Stanley M. Slavery.
Introduction by Nathan Glazer. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1963.
Page 220, in his version of the conventional wisdom on U.S. slave
revolts, Elkins offers his analysis that southern fears of revolts
were often irrational:
Such imaginings took even more fantastic
form in the popular mind. Despite the fact that after 1831 no more
slave insurrections were seen in the South, it was precisely then
that the South became most victimized by its own fears, being
‘racked at intervals,’ as Clement Eaton writes, ‘by dark rumors and
imagined plots.’ These periodic upheavals over suspected
revolts—characterized by furious vigilante hunts and wild confusion,
all based on mirage—constitute one of the more bizarre chapters in
Southern history. Indeed, the very absence of slave uprisings all
during this period, and thus their very imaginary character, may
have been the real key to the frightfulness.
Comment: Elkins clearly was not aware of the 1835-1838 slave
rebellion in Florida, or at least not aware of its scope, when he
wrote his controversial and influential book Slavery. His lack of
awareness is particularly evident in a footnote on U.S. rebellions
on pages 136-137, where he bemoans the “rather desperate and futile”
quality of the three major substantiated U.S. rebellions—those of Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, and Nat Turner—in comparison to the revolts
of Brazil, which often involved maroon leaders and “large-scale
military operations.” Elkins’ analysis of southern fears of
insurrection was salient, drawing on the ideas of Clement Eaton.
William Freehling in The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay,
1776-1854 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990) has
since elaborated on the idea that southern rhetoric on slave
insurrections, far from being based on rational fears of actual
rebellions, operated more as a mechanism to solidify the internal
mind of the south by rallying citizens to the defense of the
institution against outside agitators and abolitionists.
Had Elkins, Eaton, or Freehling
been aware of the Black Seminole slave
rebellion, it would probably not have changed their arguments, and
knowledge today of the Florida rebellion does not contradict their lines of reasoning
on slave insurrection rhetoric.
And yet two points are worth noting: 1) southern fears of slave
insurrection after 1831 appear to have had a greater basis in
reality than Elkins et al. have conceded, given that the largest
slave rebellion in U.S. history took place after 1831; and 2) if
historians like Elkins were unaware of this rebellion, might they
not also have misread other bases in fact for the southern paranoia?
Consider, for example, that many of the southern fears of slave
insurrection that Elkins described as irrational were in fact realized during the U.S. Civil War, when
thousands upon thousands of slaves fled to the North and joined the
federal army to fight the confederacy.
Back to top
Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar
Institution. New York: Random House, 1956.
Page 120, reflecting conventional awareness of the Florida
conflict as a maroon-Indian affair:
While the North Star was
the fugitives’ traditional guide, some saw liberty beckoning from
other directions. They fled to the British during the American
Revolution and the War of 1812, and to the Spanish before the
purchases of Louisiana and Florida. At a later date Florida slaves
escaped to the Seminole Indians, aided them in their war against the
whites, and accompanied them when they moved to the West.
Page 138, an ambiguous reference to the participation of slaves
(or maroons?) in the Second Seminole War:
took odd forms. The Seminole War in Florida was in part a slave
revolt, for many fugitive Negroes fought alongside the Indian
Page 139, stating the conventional wisdom on U.S. slave revolts:
That there was no slave conspiracy comparable to Denmark Vesey’s, and no rebellion comparable to Nat Turner’s during the three
decades before the Civil War, has been explained in many ways.
Page 140, Stampp says that a primary explanation for the lack of revolts was
that news of the crushing failure of the Turner rebellion spread quickly among
slaves and surely dampened interest in rebellion, because of the brutally futile prospects:
In truth, no slave uprising ever had a chance of ultimate success, even though it might have cost the master class heavy casualties. The great majority of the disarmed and outnumbered slaves, knowing the futility of the rebellion, refused to join in any of the numerous plots. Most slaves had to express their desire for freedom in less dramatic ways. They rarely went beyond disorganized individual action—which, to be sure, caused the masters no little annoyance. The bondsmen themselves lacked the power to destroy the web of bondage. They would have to have
the aid of free men inside or outside the South.
Comment: On Florida, Stampp was close, in that he recognized that the
Florida conflict was in part a slave revolt. He did not appear
aware, however, of the distinction between the maroons who inspired
the slave revolt and the plantation slaves who enacted it. A more
careful reading of his source—a 1943 article by Kenneth Wiggins
Porter on “Florida’s Slaves and Free Negroes in the Seminole War,
1835-1842,” (Journal of Negro History 28 (1943): 390-421) might
have led him to further exploration. In Stampp's defense, Porter did not make
exploration easy, since he enmeshed his articles in rich details but
did not relate events to wider trends in American
slavery. As it was, Stampp held to the conventional reasoning that
no major rebellions took place after 1831 and perpetuated the
oversight of the Black Seminole slave rebellion. This is
particularly ironic since the
oversight was part of the legacy of proslavery historical writing
that Stampp worked so effectively to overcome.
Back to top
Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave
Revolts. New York: International Publishers, 1978 (first
published by Columbia University Press, 1943).
Page 327, on the phenomenon (noted by other scholars as well) of
panic over potential slave rebellions that afflicted the South in
Before the year was ended acute alarm had been
experienced in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia,
Maryland, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas.
Comment: Even today, 60-plus years after its publication,
American Negro Slave Revolts remains perhaps the
single most cited study of U.S. slave rebellions. Its complete
omission of the Black Seminole slave rebellion—from the section on
slave revolts from 1835-1849, and indeed from the whole
book—contributed enormously to the oversight of the rebellion.
Scholars have accused Aptheker of exaggerating the incidence of
slave revolts because he cited so many rumors and unsubstantiated
newspaper reports in his vast catalog of mainly small rebellions.
Given his largesse, his oversight is all the more
surprising, and all the more reason that many who followed Aptheker
have persisted in overlooking the true nature of the events in
Aptheker was aware of the Black Seminoles and wrote about them in
a 1939 article, "Maroons Within the Present Limits of the United
States" (Journal of Negro History, 24.2 (April 1939):
167-184). He wrote only about the Black Seminoles as maroons,
however, and was not aware of the widespread slave rebellions that
accompanied the maroon war.
It's fascinating, nonetheless, to read Aptheker's description of the
general panic of slave insurrections that spread through the South
Other scholars have noted jittery fears of slave
insurrection that gripped the South during the second half of 1835.
The summer saw a spike in insurrection panics, emanating from
Mississippi but spreading to Eastern Tennessee, notes Stampp (137).
In "American Slave Insurrections Before 1861," Harvey Wish
cited the report on October 15 of a serious minor insurrection near the Georgia coast
that mentioned "about 100" black participants. "It is supposed that many of them will be executed,"
the report ended ominously. In
"The Mississippi Slave Insurrection Scare of 1835," Edwin A. Miles
connected southern insurrection fears with the American Anti-Slavery
Society's massive mail campaign sending abolitionist tracts to the
South, launched in July of 1835. The mailings led to vitriolic
sessions in many southern legislatures, with lawmakers expressing
fears of abolitionist-inspired insurrection (48-56). According to Stampp, lingering fears in Tennessee were especially
focused on Christmas Eve.***
Perhaps the panic-stricken slaveowners were not as irrational as
Elkins, Genovese, and others have believed. After all, the largest
slave rebellion in the country's history did, in fact, take place at
Aptheker makes an important comment in the "Author's Preface
to the 1969 edition" of American Negro Slave Revolts, when he
writes on page 4 that "the only people to free themselves [in all of
the New World] through rebellion from chattel slavery were the black
people of Haiti ...."
The plantation slaves whom General Jesup sent west with the Black
Seminoles, under a promise of freedom from the U.S. Army, can be
added to that list, along with those Black Seminoles who themselves
fought to resist enslavement. Together these freedom fighters were
the first, and until the U.S. Civil War, the only black rebels to
beat American slavery. Their exclusion from the history books, even
from the works of dedicated and eminent scholars, reveals the depth
of slavery's legacy and the insidious strength of the institution's
grip on American consciousness through the nineteenth century and
Back to top