What about John Horse? Was it heroic of John Horse to help lead the
exodus of 100 maroons from the Indian Territory to Mexico in 1849-1850?
Hollywood would depict it that way. But the case for beatification is harder to
make when one considers the profession that John Horse was riding toward in
Mexico—defender of the frontier, border guard, professional Indian killer. The
maroons under John Horse appear to have scouted Mexican Indians less
enthusiastically than their Seminole Indian counterparts did, and yet history leaves
no doubt that these were hard men who brokered with the powerful interests of
their day to ensure their own survival.
On the positive side, John Horse, even more than Abraham, surely
undertook actions that can be depicted as heroic. His career suggests strong
instances of daring action that benefited an extended community of followers.
And unlike Abraham, he appeared to enjoy the respect of his community, even of
his enemies, throughout a long and fabled career. The historical record is thin,
which needs to be acknowledged by anyone handing out accolades, but in the life
of John Horse, history certainly leaves the impression of someone who was able
to pursue his enlightened self-interest, often against great odds, while
changing the world around him for the benefit of others. In terms of
self-sacrifice, noble virtue, and being a "person for others," John Horse indeed
In the end, whether one believes that John Horse and Abraham were individual heroes,
it's still possible to
assess the heroism of their community's collective actions. From their earliest roots,
Black Seminoles created a safe haven for individuals fleeing American slavery. From
the time before the Treaty of New York (1790), to the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, they affected
American policy at the highest levels as it related to slavery. During the critical period leading up to the
U.S. Civil War, their example inspired firebrands and statesmen, from Joshua Reed Giddings to Frederick Douglass to Abraham Lincoln. And they were among the greatest American pioneers.
From Florida to Texas, they broke new ground as farmers, hunters, warriors,
soldiers, interpreters and diplomats. And as they pursued their communal interests,
they didn't just advance a geographic frontier, they also advanced the frontiers
of freedom—tangibly, by contributing a legal precedent for emancipation, and,
less tangibly but no less significantly, by furnishing American history with a
stirring example of blacks taking up arms to defeat the slave power.
For these contributions, America’s most successful black freedom fighters deserve a spot in every
general textbook of American history. Hopefully they will one day soon appear
there. I hope they are depicted with historical accuracy—not as sanctified heroes
or emblems of a multicultural society that some people feel we are destined to become, but as complex men and women who faced the challenges of their day with creativity and perseverance, and who remind us vividly of the frontier-seeking, freedom-loving, multicultural society that America has always been.
—J.B. Bird, Austin, Texas