I have for years felt misled by my junior high school and high school history teachers in Florida. The focus of our state history lessons was typically the five flags that flew over Florida: Spain, France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Confederacy. We heard about early explorers and about the early struggles between the Spanish and the French for control of the territory. But we weren’t told the whole story.
Two old books, The Exiles of Florida written in 1858 by Joshua R. Giddings and The Origin, Progress, and Conclusion of the Florida War written by John T. Sprague in 1848 (both of which are available in reprint form on Amazon) tell the rest of the story through the viewpoints of authors who were there. These books were either unknown to our junior high and high school history teachers or the subject matter wasn’t allowed in the course curricula.
Giddings, a lawyer who served in Congress during the three Seminole wars saw much of the documentation first hand and quotes liberally from it in his book. Sprague served in the army in Florida at the time of the Indian removals and offers a his first-hand accounts, many of which were mentioned by Giddings.
In school in Florida, we were taught, of course, that General Jackson–who would later become the architect of the Trail of Tears–brought troops into Spanish Florida to take care of “the Indian problem.” We were never told the real reason behind Jackson’s war against Creeks, Seminoles, and other tribes. It was slavery.
Soon after the revolutionary war, slave-holding colonies petitioned the Federal government for indemnification for slaves that were lost either by escape into Florida or capture by the British. This carried forward into complaints that slaves were continuing to escape into Florida after the revolution where they were sheltered by the Seminoles and assisted (and sometimes enslaved) by the Creeks. Later they would ask to be reimbursed for the slaves who would have been sired by owners and other slaves on the plantations had they not fled to Florida.
The three wars (1816-19, 1835-42, 1855-58) were carried out for the express purpose of re-capturing Negroes who had fled into Florida for sanctuary under Spanish laws. Immigrant Negroes from the Caribbean were also captured. The federal government’s solution was primarily to capture and return the slaves (or Negroes who were claimed often without proof to have been slaves) to their owners and to remove the Indians to Oklahoma. The public, for the most part, was unaware of slavery part of the campaign. In the process, the government hid the truth from the voters and lied to the Seminoles, the Creeks, and the Exiles (or Maroons, as they were often called). Many of those Negroes had never been enslaved and others had intermarried with the Seminole tribe, but the law of the land pre-supposed that every Negro was owned by somebody.
Spain could not defend its colony from repeated incursions by U.S. federal troops, militias from adjoining states, or ad hock bands of slave trackers, so it ceded Florida by treaty in 1819 in exchange for the United States paying some $5 million worth of Spanish debt. At this time, most of the panhandle was already controlled by U.S. forces.
The Federal government fought the Seminole wars on behalf of the slave holders in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas while keeping very quiet about the war as much as possible, and about the controversial practice of paying for slave reimbursements from the treasury of a country composed of norther residents who would not approve. The loss of life, the expense, and the tearing a part of slave and slave/Indian families was based goals that a large number of the U.S. residents didn’t subscribe to. It was a slavery war before the Civil War.