A Thanksgiving Ode to John Horse and the Black Seminoles

An engraving of John Horse, leader of the Black Seminoles. (Image: N. Orr)An engraving of John Horse, leader of the Black Seminoles. (Image: N. Orr) The two races, the Negro and the Indian, are rapidly approximating; they are identified in interests and feelings….Should the Indians remain in this territory, the Negroes among them will form a rallying point for runaway Negroes from the adjacent states; and should they remove, the fastnesses of the country would be immediately occupied by negroes. — US General Thomas S. Jesup

Most people don’t know who John Horse is. This is not because he deserves to be overlooked, but because United States history has a way of conveniently forgetting some people, places, things and occurrences. But John Horse, a man of many names (Juan Caballo, Juan Cavallo, John Cowaya and Gopher John, all spelled various ways), is an extremely important person to remember, especially right now. More importantly, he wasn’t just one man — he represented a movement that stretched far across the Americas. Today, that movement, John Horse’s story and the people who empowered him represent one of the greatest rebellions this country has ever known. We would do well to deliver them the remembrance that is their proper inheritance.

The Black Seminoles formed what was one of many rebel communities across South, Central, and North America. Rebel communities made up of escaped slaves, often known as maroons, represented a particular threat to white development during earlier times of conquest, colonization and chattel slavery. These communities were often made up of both Black and Indigenous populations that built allegiances, families and relationships that endangered the stability of white dominance. Therefore, they were of the utmost importance to destroy.

The Black Seminoles’ relationship with the Seminole tribe itself was complicated to say the least, and still is to this day. The official Seminole Tribe of Florida website still reflects this tension: It includes a nonchalant “definition” of a Black Seminole that states, “This is a misnomer — a term that sometimes confuses more than it explains.” That definition is quickly followed by an extremely condensed version of an expansive history — just two short paragraphs.

Around the time of the Revolutionary War, escaped slaves and Seminoles formed strategic alliances to fight against the colonists, though they weren’t necessarily strangers to each other beforehand. In the early 1800s, some Seminoles were taking refuge-seeking Africans as their own slaves and, though these Africans had some freedoms they wouldn’t have had under white enslavement, they were nevertheless still denied true freedom. A feudalistic model of sorts allowed Black people enslaved by the Seminoles to possess land, property and some relative autonomy in return for whatever those enslaved had to offer the tribe. Even now, Black Seminole descendants are treated as outsiders and have been excluded from tribal recognition and the benefits that come with it.

John Horse was not necessarily the most important leader of the Black Seminoles, but his lengthy list of achievements and his daring story have given him a special place in Black Seminole history. A website dedicated to the Black Seminoles and, in particular, John Horse, states:

Over a long life he defeated leading US generals, met two Presidents, served as an adviser to Seminole chiefs, a Scout for the US Army, and a decorated officer in the Mexican military. He defended free black settlements on three frontiers, and was said to love children, whiskey, and his noble white horse, “American.” In 1882, he fulfilled his quest for a free homeland with the final act of his life, securing a land grant in Northern Mexico. His descendants live on the land grant to this day.

When John Horse was born, the US was in turmoil, fighting the British for the second time in the War of 1812. Andrew Jackson was a national “hero” during this war, before he ever knew he would be president or cross paths with the likes of John Horse.

Horse’s mother was a Black woman who may or may not have been owned by his father Charles Cavallo, who was Seminole. John Horse and his mother would ultimately have to flee the advance of Andrew Jackson and his troops during the First Seminole War. Keep in mind the US was working to seize Florida from Spain, recapture escaped slaves and brutalize the Native populations there. Later, when then-President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act calling for the displacement of all Native peoples to lands West of the Mississippi, many Seminoles decided to resist. The John Horse website states:

For the Black Seminoles, Jackson’s inauguration was a nightmare. The man who had ordered the destruction of the Negro Fort, burned their settlements on the Suwannee, and brought southern-style slavery to Florida was now at the peak of national power. As he had done since 1815, Jackson would try to break up the Seminole maroon settlements and force the blacks into southern-style bondage.

In 1835, Black and Seminole forces who had grown tired of tensions with US forces launched the Second Seminole War. Under the leadership of the Black warrior John Caesar and the Seminole King Philip, they burnt several plantations, homes and mills while recruiting more of the enslaved to join them. Seminole leaders Osceola, King Phillip and Wild Cat had refused to quietly give up their land and John Horse was among them in this respect.

For years Blacks, Seminoles and other Natives across Florida (and other places in the US) fought alongside one another against the United States military, successfully holding them off from achieving their goals of land seizure and further enslavement. In Florida, these forces struck fear into a US military that didn’t have nearly as much to lose as these Black Seminoles, whom white invaders labeled as just “negroes,” and sometimes “Indian-negroes” (they were still predominantly identified by their Blackness, even if they were mixed-race). Understanding this is important because it meant division in treatment at the hands of white forces. Black Seminoles were fighting against being returned to slavery or killed, while Seminoles were fighting against being displaced or killed.

The stature of John Horse and other Black Seminole leaders perplexed their white foes. Even though Horse and others were often technically “owned” by their Seminole counterparts, they were given respected status for the numerous skills and resources they brought to their respective tribal associations. Lieutenant John T. Sprague described it as “the slave becoming the master” when witnessing Black Seminoles like John Horse and other Black leaders of his ilk negotiate on behalf of the Seminoles.

Moreover, in discussing a perceived difference based on the gaze of white onlookers like himself, Sprague said: “The negroes, from the commencement of the Florida war, have, for their numbers, been the most formidable foe, more blood-thirsty, active, and revengeful, than the Indian…. They were a most cruel and malignant enemy. For them to surrender would be servitude to the whites; but to retain an open warfare, secured to them plunder, liberty, and importance.”

The US military had grown weary of fighting the Black Seminoles, and were especially scared of the Black Seminole rebellion spreading; they worried it would upend slavery. General Thomas Sydney Jesup hoped to separate the Black, Black Seminole and Seminole resistance that the US had absolutely failed to quell or effectively control. In 1836, Jesup stated, “This, you may be assured, is a negro, not an Indian war; and if it be not speedily put down, the south will feel the effects of it on their slave population before the end of the next season.” Then realizing that his enemy could not be defeated through war, he offered freedom instead. Jesup issued what would be the first emancipation proclamation, saying, “All Negroes the property of the Seminole … who … delivered themselves up to the Commanding Officer of the Troops should be free.” This pre-dated Lincoln’s “emancipation” by 25 years and marked a successful slave rebellion that was only ended with a concession on behalf of white enslavers. The Black Seminoles had won, to a large extent. Jesup was forced to confront slave owners with the harsh reality that these people could not be conquered, and their “property” was not the priority over peace.

The Black Seminoles resisted in Florida for many decades, and for at least some of that time, John Horse tried working within the system. After being captured in 1838 he agreed to relocate some of his people. The relocation, like many relocations of Native people during this time, was filled with deception and broken promises about the land, comfort and stability. And after working as a guide and negotiator for the US army and seeing nothing good coming of it for his people, he unsuccessfully petitioned the government for better treatment of the Black Seminoles, who were hungry and still under the threat of slave catchers. John Horse was free thanks to his service and by his father’s will, but his people did not hold the same privileges as him. After being asked to help return many of his people to their former “owners,” he began his resistance yet again. He and the Seminole leader Wild Cat (who had often advocated for Black Seminoles within the tribe) led a mass exodus to Mexico, effectively freeing many Black Seminoles and securing a land grant in return for John Horse’s allegiance to the Mexican military (which was fighting the Apache and Comanche).

Horse would spend the remainder of his life defending, advocating on behalf of and leading his people in Mexico and Texas. He traveled back and forth between Mexico and the United States for the rest of his life, visiting Mexico City and Washington, DC to lobby on behalf of his people until he died.

The Black Seminoles’ lengthy list of accomplishments changed the course of history, including setting the precedent for the emancipation proclamation. To this day, there are Black Seminole communities in Florida, Texas, Mexico (called Mascogos), the Bahamas and elsewhere.

In a time when allyship, sacrifice and resistance are all urgently necessary, the Black Seminoles offer key examples. They led the most successful slave rebellion in the US. White domination of historical narratives often excludes stories like this; now is the time to lift them up.

Moving forward into the coming years, it will be extremely important to recognize history like this. The sometimes complicated and contentious relationships between Black and Brown people should not be overlooked, nor should they be overly romanticized. What should be known is that here in the US South, there was a time when Blacks and Natives rode together, and brought an entire white establishment to its knees.