With President Martin Van Buren in the White House came increasing extermination of the Native Americans. While many will recall the Trail of Tears leading to thousands of Native American deaths, the Second Florida War would be the “longest and most costly of all the army’s Indian Wars,” as it stretched from 1835 to 1842. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 516.
The Seminoles of Florida had been known to harbor runaway slaves. While slaveholders had believed the Seminoles held the slaves for their own benefit, in fact, the Seminoles would allow African Americans to live in separate villages “with their own farms and animals as tenants, paying a portion of their crop to the local Seminole chief.” Id. Those African Americans who could translate between English, Spanish, and Muskogee would achieve a greater degree of autonomy, sometimes enjoying a position of high influence. See id. citing George Klos, “Blacks and the Seminole Removal Debate,” Florida Historical Quarterly 68 (1989): 55-78.
While the government had ordered the removal of the Seminoles, the Seminoles had refused, knowing that their inhospitable lands would impede any sort of removal efforts by Americans. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 516. This led to the Second Florida War, which General Thomas Jesup would describe as “a negro and not an Indian war.” Thomas Jesup to Roger Jones, March 6, 1837, quoted in Kevin Mulroy, Freedom on the Border: The Seminole Maroons (Lubbock, Tex., 1993), 29.
When the war first broke out, the Seminoles would raid plantations, recruiting slaves. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 516. Soon thereafter, however, the Seminoles would wage a defensive war, using guerrilla tactics. See id. The American soldiers’ “morale became a major problem, not only because of disease, insects, and the dangerous sawgrass,” but also because many agreed that the treaty being forced on the Seminoles was quite clearly a fraud, as they never signed it and simply wished to remain in their homes. Id. citing Journal entry for Nov. 4, 1840, in Ethan Allen Hitchcock, Fifty Years in Camp and Field, ed. W.A. Croffut (New York, 1909), 122.
Ultimately, the Americans would capture Osceola, the leader of “a combined Indian and black band and an irreconcilable opponent of Removal.” Only five years later, in 1842, would the federal government stop the war, agreeing with most Seminoles that they would be removed to Oklahoma, while some 600 Seminoles “remained at large with no peace treaty.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 517 citing John K. Mahon, History of the Second Seminole War (Gainesville, Fla., 1991), 214-18, 237. Black Seminoles were not so lucky on the whole. They agreed with the government that they would be removed to Oklahoma and remain free, however, of the 900 who registered for removal, only about 500 successfully made it to Oklahoma, leaving about 400 to be enslaved once again. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 517 citing Jill Watts, “Seminole Black Perceptions and the Second Seminole War,” UCLA Historical Journal 7 (1986): 23.
President Van Buren was enforcing a strategy of extermination and removal of the Native Americans, even those who posed little threat like the Seminoles. The slaveholders of the South had spread a fiction that the Seminoles were harboring slaves. Whether the motive for that fiction was to spread fear of the abolition of slavery or to displace the Seminoles and use their land, it almost becomes irrelevant. The Seminoles were removed from their land in the Florida Territory, just as the northern tribes had been and were being removed from their respective lands.
While President Van Buren was hardly the only American, or Democrat for that matter, to fiercely fight for the removal of Native Americans, he was continuing the abusive, fraudulent policies that had destroyed the Native Americans’ lives. Tribes like the Seminoles would never be able to recreate a semblance of the lives they enjoyed prior to their removal.