Rebellion Facts on the rebellion     
spacerHomespacer spacerOverviewspacer spacerTrail Narrativespacer spacerHighlightsspacer spacerMapsspacer spacerResourcesspacer spacerImagesspacer spacer
spacer Overview > Toolkit on the rebellion > Oversight

Examples and analysis of oversight and misinterpretation of the Black Seminole slave rebellion, from major scholarly works on U.S. slavery

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 slave rebellion.

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.

Comment: 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 ("Indian negroes"), 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 this maroon-Indian 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 1838.

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
1739 Stono
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 wisdom:

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 World:

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 activity:

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 Seminole maroons:

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:

Sometimes rebellions took odd forms. The Seminole War in Florida was in part a slave revolt, for many fugitive Negroes fought alongside the Indian warriors.

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 1835:

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 Florida.

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 in 1835.

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 Christmas 1835.

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 beyond.

Back to top

Site intro
Slave rebellion intro
Toolkit on the rebellion
Story Synopsis
Why learn their story?
Purpose of this site
Project info
Sponsors & funding
Navigation help
Also see:

Slave Uprising: 6 story panels on the rebellion from the Trail Narrative.

The largest slave rebellion in U.S. history: Essay documenting size and scope of the rebellion and comparing it to other major U.S. slave revolts.

The buried history of the rebellion: Essay exploring how and why scholars overlooked the largest slave revolt in U.S. history.