Rebellion 1812 - 1882     
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Detail, Massacre of the Whites by Indians and Blacks in Florida
Detail, Massacre of the Whites by Indians and Blacks in Florida. Engraving by D.F. Blanchard, 1836. Library of Congress.
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In closing, it is worth asking if the Black Seminoles were American heroes. The historical record may offer both too little and too much information to answer this question. On the one hand, there is not enough detail to weigh the merits of heroism in individual cases. On the other hand, gaps leave too much room to imagine virtues that may never have existed. And yet the question remains fascinating because of the heroic actions and gray areas that the record suggests.

Negro Abraham, engraving by N. Orr, 1858, as published in Joshua Reed Giddings' The Exiles of Florida (1858).

Consider, for example, the case of the maroon leader Abraham. During the Second Seminole War was Abraham a hero when he worked with General Jesup to convince black warriors to surrender? He might have seemed like a hero to his fellow maroons in 1837 and 1838 when they exchanged their arms for the liberty that Jesup promised. And yet that liberty ultimately proved elusive out west. Abraham can be excused for not accurately forecasting events for the western emigrants. He was decidedly not a hero, however, to those plantation slaves who surrendered in Florida in 1837 and 1838 only to be returned to chattel slavery. Many of these same plantation slaves, who were distinct from Abraham's immediate followers among the Black Seminoles, had responded positively just a year or two earlier to his calls for slave rebellion. As plantation slaves went back to their masters in Florida, while watching Black Seminoles emigrate west under a promise of freedom, one can excuse the plantation slaves for concluding that Abraham had sold them down the river.

In other ways, he was a complex figure. His legacy is associated with wily diplomacy and sage leadership, also with allegations of bribes and side deals that benefited himself over his community. In one of history’s final visions of him, Abraham claimed to lead “an uncertain and unhappy life” due to enmities that followed him out west. These enmities appear to have included lingering hostility from Seminole Indians who felt that he had contrived to get them into the war and then contrived to compel their surrender.

Hero or pragmatist? It is not hard to find writers who now call him a hero, perhaps because they are eager to find black role models from the slavery era. The historical Abraham might have appreciated this honor, but those closest to him and perhaps even the man himself probably viewed his career with more realism.

John Horse
Gopher John, Seminole Interpreter, engraving by N. Orr, 1858, originally published in Joshua Reed Giddings' The Exiles of Florida (1858).

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 appeared heroic.

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

Part 5, Legacy & Conclusion: Outline  l Images

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 Trail Narrative
 + Prologue
 + Background: 1693-1812
 + Early Years: 1812-1832
 + War: 1832-1838
 + Exile: 1838-1850
 - Freedom: 1850-1882
+ Cost of Freedom
+ Liberty Foretold
+ Liberty Found
+ Legacy & Conclusion

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