Was it slavery?
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Scholars have questioned whether the Seminole system qualified as slavery or was merely a form of vassalage. This issue may be of academic interest today, but it was far from academic for the Black Seminoles of the nineteenth century, and its complications had a significant bearing on their story.
The right of the maroons to bear arms in particular called into question the nature of the Seminole system. Could it really be called "slavery" when armed blacks lived in independent towns? A class of observers always persisted in describing the maroons as slaves, but the language of these observers cannot be taken entirely at face value. White men like Governor William DuVal and Indian Agent Gad Humphreys developed a vested economic interest in defining the Black Seminoles as slaves, since this definition created the opportunity for speculating in them as stolen property. The cronies and Creek Indian allies of Andrew Jackson certainly fell into this category as well. From the Treaty of New York (1790) through the eve of the Civil War, Creek slavers had economic incentives to consider the Black Seminoles as human chattel, regardless of their true status. Thus, Creek slaveholders were among the loudest in proclaiming the status of the maroons as slaves.
Kenneth Wiggins Porter described the African-Seminole relationship as "primitive democratic feudalism." The more astute observers on the scene in the 1820s and 30s used similar descriptions, summarized by General Gaines when he referred to the blacks as "vassals and allies" of the Indians. The complaint of Agent Humphreys in 1838 is especially revealing. Seeking to recover blacks whom he thought he had lost to the Seminoles, Humphreys protested, in his words, "against allowing the Indians to convert the slave of the white man into the servant and feudatory of the savage" who would live in "quasi independence … under Indian dominance." Here, clearly, was one white slave owner who considered the Seminole system distinct from slavery as he knew it.
Despite evidence that the Seminole system was distinct, scholars have to reckon with the confounding fact that the Seminole Indians themselves held mixed views of their system. Some Indians viewed blacks as traditional allies, but others viewed them as property, and this viewpoint seemed to gain credence over time. The fact is that no one, not even the Indians, held a consistent view of Seminole slavery. This ambiguity would prove very troublesome in years to come. In 1812, however, the traditional African-Seminole alliance still appeared strong.
Rivers 190, Covington Seminoles 3-27, ASPMA 6: 454, Porter Black 3-8, Humphreys cited in Littlefield Seminoles 37, Mulroy 8.
Part 1, Early Years: l