Rebellion Facts on the rebellion     
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Time & Place: 1835-1838, Florida, at onset of the Second Seminole War, peaking late December 1835-January 1836 on plantations of St. Johns County south of St. Augustine.

Participants: 385-465 plantation slaves, 500-800 Black Seminole maroons (free blacks, fugitive slaves and their descendants).

Outcome: Partial success for the maroons, half of whom moved west under promises of freedom. Partial success for a small, indeterminate number of slaves who blended with maroons; at least 300, however, were returned to masters.

Who knew then that a slave rebellion coincided with the Florida war?

  • Florida slaveholders who petitioned the federal government for relief.
  • Military leaders, including the Secretary of War and commanding officers.
  • Members of the antislavery political coalition, especially after 1839.
  • Early historians of the war, including two who served in Florida.
  • Newspaper readers who could decipher unclear references in reports.

Was the Florida war a maroon war, slave revolt, or Indian war? All three.

  • Maroon war in that maroons fought attempts to reenslave them.
  • Slave rebellion in that field slaves conspired to plan the uprising, then fled and destroyed plantations; military officials thought the slaves were fighting to obtain passage to freedom in Cuba.
  • Indian war in that Seminole Indians were the principal enemy of the U.S.

How did knowledge of the slave rebellion elude national attention at the time? It did not, entirely. Newspapers reported slaves in Florida who escaped or were "captured" by Indians. But the rebellion escaped wider notice because of

  • A climate of censorship on incendiary slavery issues: After the Nat Turner revolt of 1831, southerners warned against open discussion of slave rebellions. They passed gag rules prohibiting discussion of slavery in the U.S. Congress. They allowed censorship of the mails when antislavery tracts were sent south. The Florida rebellion took place at the height of this period. "Incendiary publication," a South Carolinian explained three months after the Florida uprising, would encourage slaves "to escape" and slaveholders to fear "open rebellion and secret poision." [1]
  • Tendency to ignore status of the slave participants: Many descriptions of the war did not distinguish Indian negroes (maroons) from slave rebels. Only the best military reports made the distinction.
  • Tendency to say rebellious slaves were "captured" by the Indians. Rather than admit slaves had rebelled, southerners said Indians "captured" the slaves, which preserved a notion the slaves were loyal.
  • Tendency to say Indians conducted all attacks. Indians led many attacks, but curiously, accounts by whites tended to say "Indians attacked" even when it was known blacks were the leaders and main fighters.

How did knowledge continue to elude historians through the 20th century?

  • Legacy of the factors outlined above.
  • Confusion over the "slaves" who took part in the uprisings: Most historians aware of the black role in Florida assumed the "slaves" involved were maroons and did not realize plantation slaves rebelled en masse.
  • Problems with three key sources on the Florida war:
    • Joshua Reed Giddings: His influential 1858 antislavery history conflated the "exiles" (Black Seminole maroons) with the plantation slaves, muddying later understanding that the groups were distinct.
    • Kenneth Wiggins Porter: The great historian of the Black Seminoles distinguished slaves from maroons but did not place the slaves' actions in context; facts were there on close read but not analysis, and scholars who relied on Porter missed the forest for the trees.
    • John Mahon: His history of the Second Seminole War (1968) remains the definitive account, yet he failed to note that mass numbers of plantation slaves, let alone 385 of them, rebelled during the war.
  • Conventional wisdom: For decades, the received wisdom among scholars has been that no major slave rebellions took place in the U.S. after 1831. No doubt some will cling to this idea tenaciously, using semantics to deny that the Black Seminole slave rebellion was a "slave rebellion" rather than explore the more interesting question: How did scholars miss the largest, and most successful, slave revolt in U.S. history, and what does this reveal?

Is the oversight by historians just a matter of definition? No, it stems from a lack of awareness. In references to the Seminole war, major historians from Genovese to Elkins to Franklin are unclear on the actors (slaves vs. maroons), the action (rebellion vs. "capture"), and the scope (385 slaves) of the Florida rebellion. The oversight is not just a matter of the definition of a slave revolt. The actions in Florida resembled many of the major slave revolts in the Caribbean and South America, which also proceeded in conjunction with maroon conflicts.

Is all this true? How can it be verified? Check out this site. The toolkit and the essays are good places for skeptics to start, as is the fully sourced tally of plantation slaves who took part in the Black Seminole slave rebellion.

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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.