Did Seminole slaves have a "controlling influence" over their Indian masters?
to main trail
Did blacks have a "controlling influence" over the Seminole Indians?
White men tended to repeat this idea whenever they met the Black Seminoles, saying that, "The negroes rule the Indians," "The negroes control their masters,"
or that they "exercised a controlling influence over the Seminoles." Of course, the very idea was a contradiction: the blacks could hardly have been "slaves" if they controlled their masters.
And yet the contradiction itself was revealing.
In part, the notion probably sprang from the fact that many of the observers were
themselves slaveholders. As such, they were constantly in the habit of evaluating each
other at the mutual occupation of managing slave labor. To
white men struggling to make their fortunes in a new territory, the Black Seminoles were a potentially valuable source of
income. With this in mind, one can hear the vexation in their descriptions of the
Indians' lax management of workers. Consider
the comments of Governor William Duval in this 1826 letter warning that the blacks must be separated from the Indians:
"The Indians exercise no controle over their slaves, and they derive no advantage from their labor One chief who has 70 slaves has not raised corn to feed his own family."
When speaking of a lax master, Southerners would often say that he did not
control his slaves, his slaves controlled him. The laxity of Seminole "slavery" surely inspired this observation among critical-minded whites.
The rhetoric had another dimension, since it allowed white observers to gloss over the possibility that Seminole slavery was not slavery at all, in the
southern style. Rather than entertain this possibility, whites stuck to the less dangerous idea that the Indians just weren't very good at managing the peculiar institution. This rhetorical feat served
at least two psychological functions -- it denied the blacks their due agency as military allies of the Indians, and it implied that the Indians were less competent than whites as masters. White observers generally overlooked the simpler explanation of Seminole race-relations
-- that the blacks and Indians had formed a mutually beneficial partnership that thrived specifically under resistance to American slavery.
Notably William Simmons, who visited the Seminole allies prior to writing his
1822 travelogue and who was one of the early outsiders
showing the most insight and
understanding of them, described African-Seminole relations without trying to decide who controlled whom. Of the Seminoles' treatment of their slaves, he merely
wrote that the Indians exercised remarkable kindness and "indulgence," and would not part with their negroes for any amount of money.
Some examples of "slaves-ruling-the-Indians" comments: ASPMA 6: 454, 458, 534, 7: 825-28, 835, ASPIA 2: 411, Williams 239-40, Sprague Origin 100, Motte 210-11, Cohen 45-6. See also Simmons 50, 76.
Part 2, War: l