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Asseola (Osceola), Seminole Leader
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We have already, in our notices of Micanopy, and other Seminole, touched in a cursory manner upon the history of that people, and the causes of the war between them and the United States. We have shown that the Seminoles were chiefly renegades from the Creek and other nations within the United States, who, taking refuge in the wilds of Florida, while that province was a dependency of Spain, united in bands, and carried on a predatory war against the frontiers of the United States. During the war between this country and Great Britain, they joined our enemies, and after wards, in 1816, made war upon us. They not only, therefore, had no title to the lands of Florida, but their claims upon the generosity of our government were equally slender. In 1821, General Jackson, then Governor of Florida, urged upon the government at Washington the propriety of sending back to the Creek country all the refugees from that nation, as he foresaw the most disastrous consequences from their continuance in the territory. Colonel White, a representative in Congress from that territory, in a letter to the Secretary of War, written in 1822, pressed the same considerations upon the administration, and urged the removal of those intruders as the only efficient means of giving quiet to the country. Had those suggestions been adopted, the restless spirits who have since given animation to these ferocious bands would have been removed, and we should have been spared the pain and expense of a protracted war A contrary policy was unfortunately pursued; humanity dictated a temporizing course, which has proved eminently disastrous; the Seminoles were recognized as a separate people, and treaties were held with their chief men for the purchase of the wilds through which they roamed, and the removal of their people. By the treaty of Camp Moultrie, held on the 18th September, 1823, they were permitted to remain in the territory for twenty years, and were thus established in the country, and their claims acknowledged to lands to which they had not the shadow of a title.
The forbearance of the American government towards the Seminole was in accordance with the humane policy which has marked all its measures in regard to the aborigines. In no instance have the Indians been treated with cruelty or injustice by the deliberate action of the national Executive or legislature, whose whole course towards them has been beneficent and forbearing. When it has been found necessary to remove them from their hunting-grounds, the most ample remuneration has always been provided, and other lands assigned them, better suited to their condition. Their lands have never been taken from them, except by purchase; and so careful has the government been to avoid even the appearance of injustice, that, where several tribes have claimed the same lands, they have paid the full equivalent to each; and in cases where the tribes have refused to comply with the treaties made by their chiefs, the same lands have been purchased over and over from the same people, and as repeatedly paid for.
But while the government and people of the United States have been actuated by the most benevolent intentions, their views have been signally frustrated by the inefficiency of the system by which their intercourse with Indians has been attempted to be regulated, by the weakness or misconduct of their own agents, and by a variety of causes inseparable from transactions conducted in a wilderness far distant from the seat of government. The wrongs perpetrated against the Indians have been numerous and flagrant. The wide scheme, of peculation and pillage practiced by bands of expert knaves who infest the frontiers, has been shaped into a system, which has now become so complicated and enormous as almost to defy the hand of reform. The Indian Department is one of the most expensive branches of our government, consuming annually vast sums, liberally appropriated for the good of the red man, of which but a small portion ever reaches its destination; and they are constantly subject to abuse and insult of the most ignominious character. The desperate and dissolute men who fly to the frontier as a place of refuge, or seek it as a theater for intrigue or violence, find easy victims in the ignorant savage, who claims no protection from the law, and whose demand for protection or revenge cannot reach the ear of a distant government.
In no part of our country were the Indians worse used than in Florida, where the most scandalous outrages were perpetrated upon their persons and property, provoked often by their own ferocity and bad faith, but, nevertheless, wholly inexcusable. Under the pretense of reclaiming property, alleged to have been stolen by the Indians, their country was entered by lawless persons, whose sole object was plunder, their houses pillaged, their cattle driven away, and themselves cruelly maltreated. Frauds in pecuniary transactions, of gross criminality and enormous amount, were practiced both upon the government and the Indians. Complaints of these abuses, and evidence of their existence have reached the ears of the Executive, and of Congress, but no sustained effort has ever been made to investigate or correct them; no patriot has been found who would devote himself to a cause so worthy of the highest efforts of the Christian and the statesman; and thus has the political paradox been presented, of a people practically oppressed by a magnanimous nation, entertaining towards them the kindest sympathies, and annually expending millions for their defense, support, and welfare.
The celebrated individual of whom we are about to give a brief account, is known to the public under the various appellations of Powell, Osceola, Oceola, Asseola, Osiniola, and Assini Yahola; but his true name is that which we have placed at the head of this article. Powell is the surname of a white man who married the mother of Asseola, after the death of his father, and whose name was very naturally given to the youth who had thus become one of his family. Osceola signifies the “Rising Sun,” and has been erroneously adopted by many, as well on account of its similarity of sound to the true name, as from its supposed adaptation to the character and position of this daring leader. The true name is derived from Asse, “the black drink,” and Ola, “a waterfall.” We have, in another place, mentioned a peculiar custom of the Creeks, who, previous to entering into council, assemble in groups, and drink freely of the decoction of a certain herb of their country, which operates as an emetic, and whose effect, they imagine, is to purify arid invigorate both the mind and body, so as to prepare them for the business of thought and debate. This beverage, which is taken warm, and in large quantities, is called the ” Black drink,” from its color, and among the several names applied to it, to express its quality or effects, are those of asse, assiniola, and assini yahola. The name Asseola, when freely translated, signifies the plentiful drinker of the black drink, or, one who imbibes this fluid in torrents; and it may, or may not, be descriptive of a peculiarity of this individual, as Indian names are given in childhood, as with us, for the mere purpose of convenience, while they are after wards often superseded by others, descriptive of a prominent feature in the character of the person, or of some of his exploits We have not been able to ascertain whether Asseola bore this name in infancy, or acquired it by his devotion to the nauseating draught, by which the Creek statesman makes a clean breast, preparatory to the solemn duties of the council.
The paternal grandfather of Asseola was a Scotsman, who married a Creek woman; his lather, therefore, was a half-breed, bat his mother was a Creek of the pure blood. He was born on the Tallapoosa river, in the Creek nation, somewhere between the years 1800 and 1806, and must have been between thirty and thirty-five years of age at the time of his death. His European descent is said to have been distinctly indicated in his complexion and eyes, which were lighter than those of his people, as well as in the features and expression of his countenance. The following spirited description of him is from a work entitled “Notices of Florida and the Campaigns,” by M. M. Cohen.
|“When conversing on topics agreeable to him, his countenance manifests more the disposition of the white than of the red man There is great vivacity in the play of his features, and when excited, his face is lighted up as by a thousand fires of passion, animation, and energy. His nose is Grecian at the base, and would be perfectly Phidean, but that it becomes slightly arched. There are indomitable firmness and withering scorn in the expression of his mouth though the lips are tremulous from intense emotions, which seem ever boiling up within him. About his brow T , care, and thought, and toil have traced their channels, anticipating on a youthful face the work of time.”To those who have known Oceola long, his fame does not appear like a sun-burst, but as the ripening fruit of early promised blossoms. For years past he has enjoyed the reputation of being the best ball-player and hunter, and the most expert at running, wrest ling, and all active exercises. At such times his figure, whence all the superfluous flesh is worn down, exhibits the most beautiful development of muscle and power. He is said to be inexhaustible from the ball play, an exercise so violent, that the struggle for mastery has been known to cause the death of one of the combatants. When this occurs in a fair contest, the survivor is not punished for murder, as in all other cases of taking life. On one occasion Oceola acted as guide to a party of horsemen, and finding, at starting, that they proceeded slowly, inquired the cause. On being told that it, was on his account, with one of those smiles he alone can give, he bade them proceed more rapidly. They put spurs to their steeds, and he, afoot, kept up with them during the entire route, nor did he exhibit the slightest symptoms of fatigue at the close of day, but arrived at the point proposed as early as the mounted body.”|
Another writer, the author of the ” War in Florida,” a late staff officer, speaks of this individual in the following terms:
|“It will be seen that the standing of Asseola, prior to the war, was much inferior to that of a number of the other chiefs, and although his influence was seemingly great, it was still less than that of Micanopy, Jumper, Holata Mico, Coa Hajo, Arpiucki, Abraham, and several others; but he was with the mass of the warriors who were the anti-removal party, and themselves possessing as much influence as their chiefs; so that the marvelous reports of him, and the influence which, it is supposed, he exerts over the Indians, are very exaggerated, and have their origin only in the bold, desperate, and reckless murders which have been perpetrated by the band of Micosukee, of which he is sub-chief. Holata Mico is the chief leader of that band, and decidedly superior to Asseola in every point of view. The latter is a Redstick, not a Micosukee, by descent, and prior to the breaking out of hostilities, was leader of but seven warriors. His talents are not above mediocrity, and he was never known, by those who were most intimate with him, to possess any of the nobler qualities which adorn the Indian character; all his dealings have been characterized by a low, sordid, and contracted spirit, which often produced difficulties with those with whom he had intercourse. Perverse and obstinate in his disposition, he would frequently oppose measures which it was the interest of his people that he should advocate. The principal chiefs were favorable to the project of emigration, but the mass of warriors were opposed to it; and as Holata Mico and his band, with Asseola, were the first to be removed by the provisions of the treaty, and these warriors having been averse to the treaty from the first, they sowed discord among the others by threatening to murder all who should advocate the measure; and it was doubtless through fear that Asseola joined the hostile party, after the pledge he had made to leave the country. This description of Asseola may, perhaps, serve to disabuse the public mind as to the noble character,’ ‘lofty bearing,’ ‘high soul,’ ‘amazing powers,’ and ‘magnanimity’ of the ‘Micosukee chief.”|
It will be seen that there is some discrepancy in the views of the character of Asseola given by these writers, both of whom were witnesses of his conduct; we apprehend that both are correct in the main, Differing chiefly in the coloring given to their pictures. Referring occasionally to these and some other authorities, we shall, in the remainder of this sketch, depend principally upon a manuscript statement in our possession, prepared with much care by an intelligent officer of the United States army, serving in the Indian Department throughout the whole of the Florida war.
The death of his father probably threw Asseola, at a very early age, upon his own guidance, and some of the strong points of his character, especially its vices, may be referred to this cause, the fruitful source of evil in the formation of ardent minds. While yet a boy, of not more than from twelve to fifteen years of age, he joined the Redsticks, or hostile Creeks, and fought against the Tennessee troops, commanded by Generals Jackson and Floyd. When peace was established, he was one of the many unruly spirits who emigrated to Florida, where the Redsticks became known as a party hostile to the United States. In 1817, when the repeated depredations of the Florida Indians caused the invasion of that country by General Jackson, he was in arms, and being driven across the Suwanee, retreated with a small party of his companions down into the peninsula, and settled upon Peas’ creek. Here he remained un known to fame, and probably engaged in no other pursuit than hunting, and occasionally participating in those athletic games in which he was so expert, until a few years ago, when he removed to the Big Swamp, in the neighborhood of Fort King, and united himself with the Micosukees, with whom he has since lived.
It was at that time, probably about 1832, that Asseola, who was then somewhat more than twenty-five years of age, became known to the American officers. He had neither rank nor property, nor any followers, except two Indians, who had accompanied him from his late residence; but his deportment and appearance were such as to point him out as a person likely to become important. He was of light frame, a little above the common stature, and finely formed, his complexion light, and the expression of his countenance cheerful and agreeable. His habits were active and enterprising, evincing an entire freedom from that indolence of mind which de grades the great mass of this race into merely sensual beings, who are only roused into action to indulge the appetites of hunger or revenge, and sink into apathy when those passions have been satiated. The mind of Asseola was active rather than strong, and his conduct that of a cunning and ambitious man, who was determined to rise by his own exertions.
The frontier was at that time in a state of great excitement, and our intercourse with the Seminoles becoming daily more complicated and uncertain. There was no war existing nor expected, but there was neither peace nor safety. The Indians had been advised of the determination of the government to remove them from Florida, and were holding a temporizing course with our agents, while divided among themselves as to the policy to be pursued. The most intelligent of their chiefs, and a minority of the braves, respectable in number and character, were decidedly in favor of emigration, not merely as an unavoidable alternative, but as a measure positively advantageous in itself. Experience had demonstrated the impossibility of living in contact with the whites. The superiority of the civilized over the savage man, however reluctantly admitted, was practically felt and acknowledged. The pressure of the white population was recognized as a continual and accumulating force, operating to the destruction of the Indian race, almost imperceptibly, yet with the swiftness and certainty of the laws of nature. They saw that the decree had gone out which compelled the weak to give place, and allowed the strong to possess. Those who had marked the signs of the times, and had reflected calmly upon the traditions of their ancestors, discerned but too clearly the gigantic growth of the white man’s power, and saw its shadow ex tending over the land of the Indian, with a progress as irresistible as that of the shades of night. Wherever that shadow fell, the Indian felt its chilling influence, which thickened around him until he sunk under its blighting effect. They saw all this, and deter mined to seek safety in flight. Nor was this all: they were offered, not merely safety from present danger, but decided advantages a better climate, a more abundant country, a wider range of hunting-ground, and a permanent separation from the white man peace, and the protection of a powerful nation, instead of inevitable and hopeless war. In addition to these advantages, they were to be paid for the improvements they abandoned, to be supported for one year after their arrival in the new country, to receive an annuity of three thousand dollars for fifteen years, and their cattle and other property were to be sold for their benefit by the United States.
The mass of the Seminoles, however, w r ere opposed to emigration. To many, the prospect of war was, in itself, a sufficient inducement to remain. The savage is habitually improvident, and seldom looks beyond the present. War gives him employment, excitement, and above all, plunder that fatal lure is not without its attraction, even among the armies and councils of the most refined nations, but to the savage mind, it is the first, the best, and the most irresistible of arguments. The love of war, the ardent lust for carnage, were not the least of the incitements operating on a people swift to shed blood. The passion of revenge, too, had its influence; not only the national and general hatred against the whites, but the personal resentment rankling in the bosoms of individuals, for actual wrongs, for which they were eager to seek redress. Then there was ambition, the small ambition of the sub-chiefs, the captains of ten, and captains of twenty, who desired to increase their own importance, and to swell the numbers of their followers. Besides all which, the country they occupied suited them; its peninsular conformation, its wild and tangled forests interspersed with swamps and hammocks impenetrable to the foot of the white man, and which to seemed bid eternal defiance to the approach of civilization, rendered this region the fit and favorite abode of savage men.
There was also an objection to the removal, which was felt by all the Seminoles, and gave so much plausibility to the arguments of those opposed to emigration, that it is surprising the government should not have promptly removed it. By the treaty of Payne’s Landing, it was provided that the Seminoles should remove west of the Mississippi, and there become a constituent portion of the Creek nation. They were to settle near the Creeks, and be placed under the charge of the same agent. To this arrangement they expressed a decided repugnance. A large number of those who had separated from the Creeks had private reasons for not desiring a reunion; some were debtors, and some held property of which the ownership might be brought in question. They were refugees, who had out standing accounts and quarrels with those from whom they had fled. They asked, therefore, to have a separate territory, and especially, an agent of their own. Holata Amathla, in one of the councils, said, “If our father, the President, will give us our own agent, our own blacksmith, and our ploughs, we will go to this new country; but if he does not, we shall be unwilling to remove: we should be among strangers; they may be friendly, or they may be hostile to us, and we want our own agent whom we know, who will be our friend, take care of us, do us justice, and see justice done us by others. We have been unfortunate in the agents sent us by our father. General Thompson our present agent, is the friend of the Seminoles. We thought at first that he would be like the others, but now we know better. He has but one talk, and what he tells us is the truth; we want him to go with us. He told us he could not go, but he at last agreed to do so, if our great father would permit him; we know our father loves his red children, and will riot let them suffer for want of a good agent.” General Clinch, the gallant and able commander of the troops then in Florida, in presenting this subject to the government, said, “It is a law of nature for the weak to be suspicious of the strong. They say the Creeks are much more numerous and powerful than they are; that there is a question of property, involving the right to a great many Negroes, to be settled between them and the Creeks, and they are afraid that justice will not be done them, unless they have a separate agent to watch over and protect their interests. The manly and straightforward course pursued towards them by General Thompson appears to have gained their confidence, and they have again petitioned the President to make him their agent, and have requested me to forward their petition, with such remarks as my long acquaintance with their views and interests would authorize me to make. The experiment they are about to make is one of deep interest to them. They are leaving the birthplace of their wives and children, and many of them the graves of those they hold most dear; and is it not natural they should feel, and feel deeply, on such a trying occasion, and wish to have some one that they have previously known, whom they could lean upon, and look up to for protection ?” To this rational appeal the government replied by a cold negative; the preparations for the removal were going forward, the friendly chiefs were using their influence to urge on that desirable measure, while the disaffected stood aloof, or gave manifestations of their dissatisfaction in sudden and secret acts of violence, in pillaging by night, or murdering the solitary traveler in the wilderness.
Such was the state of things when Asseola began to take an active part as a Tustennugge, or sub-chief, of the Micosukees, of which tribe Holato Micco, or the Blue King, was chief. The term sub-chief, which we use, is not descriptive of any actual office or formal appointment, but merely designates those individuals, who, by their talents or popular qualities, obtain followers, and become leaders or persons of influence. Those who are expert in war or hunting, are followed by the young braves, who desire to learn under them, at first, perhaps, only by their own relatives who depend on them; but as their reputation increases, the train swells in number; and there are, therefore, leaders of every grade, from those who head a few men, up to him who controls his hundred warriors, vies with the chief in influence and authority, and at last supplants him, or supersedes him in every particular except in name. Thus we have seen Powell, a young man with two followers, beginning to mingle in public affairs. He had carefully noted the path to popular favor, and pursued it with sagacity and boldness. His first step was to gain the confidence of the American officers, and by making himself useful, to gain employment, which would render him important in the eyes of his own people. He visited the fort frequently, and his services were always at the command of the officers, to suppress the depredations of those lawless Indians who would clandestinely cross the frontier to plunder, and arrest the offenders, as well as to apprehend deserters from the army. On these occasions, he would call on the neighboring chiefs for men, and having formed a party, placed himself at their head, and recommended himself, as well to his employers as to his own people, by his diligence and efficiency. He soon pushed himself into notice, and was continually engaged in some active service: he became a favorite with the military officers, and in consequence of the estimation in which he was held by them, rose rapidly in the eyes of his adopted tribe. He now gained adherents; for the Indians are a fickle people, and there are always many among them who are ready to surround the banner of a rising leader; until at length, without apparently holding any positive rank, he became a leading man among the Micosukees. He continued for some time to cultivate with assiduity the good will of the whites, was quiet and unassuming in his deportment, submissive even to humility towards the officers, and pacific in his sentiments, while he insinuated himself into the affections of his own people, by his courtesy and his martial qualities.
But there was another source of popularity which he failed not to improve to the utmost, as it was that on which he chiefly depended for promotion. The chiefs and more intelligent of the braves, were, as we have said, in favor of emigration, while the majority of the people, comprising all the ignorant and lawless portions, were opposed to the removal. The conjuncture was one which offered a tempting opportunity to an aspiring demagogue. Asseola took the side of the majority, and while, at first, he did not venture openly to oppose the chiefs, he artfully fomented the discontents of the people, and encouraged them in their obstinate refusal to leave the country. He was always opposed to the treaty of Payne’s Landing; but at first, his tone with regard to it was quiet and unobtrusive, and it might have been inferred, that while his feelings revolted against the proposed arrangements, he was ready to sacrifice his own wishes to preserve peace and secure the welfare of his countrymen. With consummate art he continued to pay court to the chiefs, and the American officers and agents, and to affect a sympathy for the people, until he found himself sufficiently strong in the affections of the latter, to throw aside the mask. He grew into favor with the factious multitude, who* needed only an unscrupulous leader, who would play out the game of revolt, regardless of consequences; and when he felt that he was the leader and dictator of a party, he began to avow the principles he had long secretly cherished. His conduct now became as conspicuous for boldness and insolence, as it had been for the opposite qualities; he was loud, querulous, and bitter in his opposition; his language was coarse and inflammatory; and his whole course was that of one who had resolved to bring on a crisis, which should draw a broad line of separation between the respective parties, oblige the neutral to take sides, and force on an issue of the contest. In his interviews with General Thompson, the agent for the removal of the Seminoles, he now openly avowed his opposition, declared that he never would be carried from the country alive, that rather than submit to such injustice, the Indians would fight, that he could kill two or three white men himself before he could be slain; and finally, he denounced, in the most vehement manner, the friendly chiefs, declaring they should not go peaceably to another country, that the first who took a step towards emigration should be put to death, and that, if required, he would himself become the executioner.
There can be little doubt as to the decision which history will re cord as to the conduct of Asseola. The line of distinction is clear and definite between the patriot who calmly and firmly places himself in the breach between his country and her oppressors, exposing him self to procure safety, or even a temporary advantage for her, and the demagogue, who, seizing for his own aggrandizement an occasion of popular excitement, fans into a blaze the embers of discord, and affecting to administer that public will which he has secretly created, becomes the agitator and the soul of a bad cause. The one controls and gives a proper direction to the judgment of his people, while the other stimulates their worst passions, and leads them blindfold to their own destruction. The former course gives employment to talents and virtues of the highest grade, the latter may be successfully pursued by an instinct of no greater capacity than that of the fox or the wolf. There could scarcely be a difference of opinion as to the true interest of the Seminoles. Setting aside the question of the right of occupation, as between civilized and savage man, as having no direct bearing here, we must view the Seminoles as themselves intruders in a land previously occupied by the Europeans, from whom the American government derived title by purchase. They seized on this wilderness, while it was protected, as they supposed, by a foreign flag, as a strong-hold, from which they could with impunity annoy the American citizen. The United States having the right, as well as the power, to remove them, resistance could only lead to a war, wholly unjustifiable because hopeless. Under these circumstances it is scarcely probable that this aspiring leader was impelled by any higher motive than that of taking the side opposed to the chiefs, whom he desired to sup plant, and favored by the multitude, through whom he hoped to rule a course of which history affords but too many examples, and which the experience of every day shows to be the natural path of reckless ambition.
Throwing aside entirely the mask he had worn, Asseola became more and more insolent, until at last he ceased to observe the common forms of courtesy. He either absented himself from the councils which were now frequently held, or disturbed the deliberations by inflammatory speeches. He boldly threatened the chiefs with the vengeance of the people, and in his interviews with General Thompson, the agent, was so rude, and so undisguised in his threats of personal violence to that officer, that the latter was obliged, on one occasion, to order him to leave his presence, and his friends earnestly advised the arrest of the refractory partisan, as a measure due to his own safety. It is only to be regretted that this salutary step was not sooner adopted, and more effectually carried into execution. Asseola was not a chief, but a self-constituted leader, misdirecting the ignorant to their ruin, disturbing the peace, arid defeating the benign intentions of the government. He was accordingly arrested, by the orders of Colonel Fanning, at the request of the agent, and placed in close confinement. As he was dragged to the guard-house, he was heard, by one who understood the Creek tongue, to exclaim, “The sun,” pointing to its position, “is so high; I shall remember the hour! the agent has his day I will have mine!”
The conduct of Powell while in confinement, threw a new light upon his character, evincing the coolness and deliberation of his designs, and showing how completely he was master of the arts of dissimulation. At first sullen, and apparently alarmed, he seemed to abandon all hope. A new light seemed gradually to gleam upon him; and then, as if convinced of his error, he requested to see the friendly chiefs, who were accordingly permitted to visit him. To them he figured a humility and contrition which completely deceived them. He spoke of his past conduct in terms of regret and pointed self-condemnation; depicted in glowing language the hopes he had entertained of uniting the several factions of the nation, so that by organizing a firm opposition, they might be permitted to occupy a little longer their present homes; and admitted the fallacy of these expectations. He spoke of himself as a martyr, whose vain efforts to unite the people for their common good, had brought upon him the vengeance of their oppressors, and bitterly deplored the weakness and ingratitude of those who, he said, had deserted him in his hour of trouble; but avowed a sincere determination to yield to what now appeared an unavoidable destiny, and remove peaceably to a new country. The chiefs, whom he had violently denounced and opposed, were so completely deceived by his ostensible con version, that a full reconciliation took place; and Asseola, professing a conviction that his former course, though intended for the best, had been fatally erroneous, promised to become as active in promoting the cause of emigration, as he had been zealous in retarding it-Satisfied of the sincerity of the change which they supposed had taken place, the chiefs interceded for him, pledged themselves for his faith, and Powell was set at liberty. This act of mistaken humanity was the cause of much evil; for, had Asseola been kept a prisoner, the removal might have gone on, and the cruel war which succeeded, would never have taken place.
For a while Asseola seemed to act in full accordance with his promises. He not only signed the articles agreeing to emigrate himself, but brought over sixty or seventy Micosukees to do the same, assumed a conspicuous stand in the ranks of the party friendly to removal, was consulted on all measures leading to that object, and was always treated with the consideration due to an influential chief. Such was his position for some time; but, as the season for emigration approached, his visits to the agent became less frequent, and various plausible reasons were assigned for his absence, until the friendly chiefs began to suspect, and then to declare openly, that Powell “had one talk for the white man and another for the red,” that many of the Indians were bent on war, and that the removal must be effected by force.
In the autumn of 1835, the negotiations with the Seminoles were brought to a crisis. The friendly party prepared to remove, and the hostile to resist, and the excitement on the border was increased. The following incident, recited in the “War in Florida, by a Staff Officer,” will serve to illustrate the temper of the times.
“The Long Swamp and Big Swamp Indians, principally the Micosukee tribe, were, from the causes heretofore stated, again reduced to the greatest distress for the want of provisions, and their depredations upon the neighboring settlements became daily more extensive. On one of these occasions three of the Long Swamp Indians were surprised, and two of them secured by the owner of the land, who tied them by the hands and feet with a rope, and carried them to his barn, where they were confined without sustenance for three days, unable to extricate themselves, and obliged to remain in one position. Not returning to their homes, their friends became alarmed for their safety, and the chief of the town where they resided, went forward and demanded them. Being refused, he returned to his town, and taking several of his people with him, again demanded the release of the prisoners, and was again refused, with a threat by the white fellows, that if the chief dared to effect their release, complaint should be entered against him. Upon this the whole party rushed to the barn, whence they heard the moaning of their friends, and where they beheld a most pitiable sight. The rope with which these poor fellows were tied, had worn through into the flesh they had temporarily lost the use of their limbs, being unable to stand or walk they had bled profusely, and had received no food during their confinement so it may be readily imagined that they presented a horrible picture of suffering. The owner of the barn in which they were confined, then fired upon the Indians, and slightly wounded one of the party, when their exasperation attained to such a height that, in retaliation for this brutal outrage, they set fire to the barn, and would not permit the owner to remove any thing there from, nor did they leave the spot until the whole was consumed.”
“These outrages continued to increase with each succeeding week, and the Indians, discovering the hopelessness of their situation, at once concluded to oppose the efforts of the government, and call for a general assemblage of the nation. This course was rendered the more imperative, at this particular period, in consequence of a demand having been made upon the Seminoles for a surrender of their cattle, ponies, hogs, &c., which were to be collected at some convenient depot, appraised and sold by the agent, and the Indians reimbursed there for, on their arrival in their new country. Six of the principal chiefs, viz: Charley Amathla, Holata Amathla, Foke Luste Hajo, Otulkee Amathla, Conhatkee Micco, and Fushutchee Micco, having returned their cattle, ponies, and hogs, the agent publicly announced that a sale would take place on the first of the ensuing month, December, 1835; but, in consequence of the interference of the anti-removal party, the delivery of the others was prevented, and the sale necessarily postponed to an indefinite period. In the mean time, the great meeting of the nation at the Big Swamp resolved on retaining possession of their country, and condemned all who should oppose their views to instant death. This, therefore, was the signal for an immediate abandonment of the friendly towns, and no time was lost by those who had gone too far to retract, in seeking the protection of the forts. Accordingly,
Holata Amathla, Otulkee Amathla, Foke Luste Hajo, Conhatkee Micco, and Fushutchee Micco, with about four hundred and fifty of their people, fled to Fort Brooke on the 9th of November, and encamped on the opposite side of the river.”
The war was commenced by a tragedy of deep and affecting interest. Charley Amathla, a noble, intelligent, and honest chief, was preparing to retreat to Fort Brooke, on the 26th of November, when his house was surrounded by four hundred warriors, led by Holata Micco, Abraham, and Asseola, who demanded of him a promise that he and his people would oppose the removal. He replied, that, having pledged his word to their great father, he would adhere to it even at the risk of his life. He said he had lived to see his people degraded, and on the verge of ruin, and their only hope of being saved from utter destruction depended on their removing to the West; he had made arrangements for his people to go, and had now no excuse for not complying with his engagements. He was told that he must join the opposition or suffer death, and that two hours would be allowed him to consult his people, and make his choice. He replied, that his mind was unalterable, and that his people could not make him break his word; but if he must die, he desired time to make some arrangements, which were required for the welfare of his people. At this moment, Asseola raised his rifle, pointed it at the bosom of the unresisting chief, and would have-fired, had not Abraham arrested his arm, and called off the party to a council. They shortly after retired, having probably decided to defer, if not to retract, their murderous purpose; and the chief proceeded to the agency to complete his preparations. He appeared cheerful, but said to some of his friends, that perhaps they might never see him again, as persons had been appointed to kill him. He left the agency, accompanied by his two daughters, and preceded by a negro, on horseback, and had traveled homewards a few miles, when Asseola, with twelve other Indians, rose from an ambush, gave the war-whoop, and fired upon him. The noble chief, comprehending instantly his situation, rose in his stirrups, sent back a whoop of defiance, charged into the midst of his assassins, and fell like a hero, perforated by eleven bullets. Thus died the chief of the Witamky band, a gallant, high-minded leader, and a man of sterling integrity, by the hands of Asseola, whom he had delivered from prison but a few months before, and for whose good conduct he stood pledged. The ingratitude and bad faith of Asseola greatly aggravate the heinousness of his participation in this cold-blooded murder, and stamp his character with a viciousness wholly incompatible with a great mind.
This atrocious deed was succeeded by open hostilities, and on the 28th of December following, occurred the melancholy massacre of the detachment under Major Dade, which we have described in another place. On the same day, and while that melancholy scene of butchery was going forward in the hammock, General Thompson, the agent, was surprised and basely murdered. He had dined at the Agency Office, about one hundred yards from Fort King, and shortly afterwards was walking unguardedly near the woods, beyond the office, when a band of fifty or sixty Micosukees, led by Asseola, rushed upon him, and having slain himself, Lieutenant Smith, and several others, hastily retired. The body of General Thompson was perforated with fourteen bullets and a knife wound; all the killed were shockingly mangled, and the whole affair evinced the worst feelings on the part of the perpetrators. The functions of the agent were not military, but civil, and his relation to the Indians such as should have rendered his person sacred. He had been their friend and advocate; and, by their own evidence, had been kind and just in his dealings with them. Asseola especially, who had been employed by him, and whose intercourse with him had been intimate, was acquainted with the uprightness of his conduct, and was bound above all others to respect his character, and hold his person sacred from violence. But if such sentiments had ever made any impression on his vicious nature, that impression was eradicated by a single offense towards himself, which rankled in his bosom and instigated a brutal revenge.
The writer last quoted, thus continues the narrative of these events. “Marauding parties now commenced their operations almost simultaneously, in various sections of the country, pillaging and destroying every thing of value. Those who had inflicted in juries on the Indians were forthwith repaid, and many barely escaped with their lives. Conflagration succeeded conflagration, until the whole country from Fort Brooke to Fort King was laid waste; while those who lived in the interior, were compelled to abandon their crops, their stock, their implements of husbandry, and indeed every article of value, and seek protection within the forts, or concentrate themselves in the neighboring towns, around which pickets were erected for their better security.” The war soon assumed the most appalling character; whole families were butchered, and wherever the war-whoop was heard, the most shocking cruelties were perpetrated.
We cannot pretend to follow the narrative of this war throughout its details; the events are too numerous for the space to which we are confined, and are too similar to each other to be either interesting or instructive. We have already, in this and other articles, given sufficient specimens of the horrors of Indian warfare. It is enough to say, that the war in Florida was one of unmitigated ferocity. The Seminoles were not numerous, but they were scattered over a wilderness almost impenetrable, and surrounded by an atmosphere fatal to the white man. In their fastnesses they were secure from pursuit, while our troops could scarcely move without imminent danger, from ambuscades, from climate, from the impracticable nature of the country, and from the difficulty of trans porting supplies. The Seminoles kept up the war with unceasing activity and indomitable courage, acting continually on the offensive, and with the determination of men who were resolved to succeed or perish. Their system of tactics was the only one which the savage can practice with effect, and that which is most harassing to a regular army opposed to them. Divided into small parties, widely scattered, and constantly scouring the country striking by stealth, and chiefly at night surprising small parties, and cutting off supplies harassing the settlements and giving no quarter to prisoners, they made the most of their own small force, and wearied the strength of their opponents. Our gallant army was continually on service, perform ing labors and exploits which, on a more conspicuous theater, would have won for them unfading laurels. Many noble fellows perished miserably in this wretched service, and all who were engaged in it fought and suffered with a heroism which should entitle them to the lasting gratitude of their country.
Asseola engaged ardently in the war, of which he was one of the principal instigators, and was an influential and daring leader. How far his mind directed and controlled the movements of the Seminoles, is not fully known, but that he is entitled to a full share of whatever credit may be due to the leaders, there can be little doubt. He was present at most of the more important engagements, acting a conspicuous part, and was concerned in many of the out rages that were perpetrated by marauding parties. All who came in contact with this remarkable man, concede to him the possession of intellectual qualities superior to those of the people by whom he was surrounded; while the public voice, too prone to exaggeration, has gifted him with moral attributes of the highest order. We have some difficulty in reconciling the dignified and noble traits of character attributed to him, with the duplicity which unquestionably ran through the whole of his short but brilliant career. His martial qualities, his daring, his talent, and his commanding influence over the minds of his people, were as conspicuous as his double dealing towards both parties in producing hostilities, and his cruelty during their continuance.
After prosecuting the war with vigor and various fortune, until the summer of 1837, the Seminoles intimated a willingness to submit, and some negotiations took place, the result of which was, that a number of the chiefs declared their determination to emigrate, and requested a cessation of hostilities until they could collect and bring in their people. This was cheerfully granted; and Micanopy, with some others, were delivered up as hostages for the faithful performance of the stipulations. The prospect of peace proved delusive. The hostages remained but a few days, when they were forcibly rescued, and the war renewed with all its former virulence. In the autumn of the same year, a similar stratagem was attempted. General Hernandez, a citizen of Florida, serving at the head of a gallant band of volunteers, having captured an active partisan, called Philip, the occasion was seized by the Seminoles to open another negotiation, which resulted in the captivity of Micanopy, Asseola, and several other leaders.
General Jessup, the commanding general of the Florida army, in a letter dated Picolata, November 17, 1837, says:
|“Powell, Coacochee, the two Hickses, and several other sub-chiefs, organized the abduction of Micanopy and other hostages in June last. Coacochee, John Cavallo, (the latter one of the hostages,) with several others, carried the hostages off, and with them their people. I then resolved to take all who were concerned in the measure, whenever the opportunity might be found. The capture of Philip by General Hernandez, opened the way to effect my ob ject sooner than I had hoped. Coacochee carried off Micanopy by force, and if he had been a white man I would have executed him the moment he came into my hands. His father Philip, however, asked permission to send him out with messages to the chiefs and warriors. He returned with one of my hostages, John Cavallo, and with most of the sub-chiefs and warriors who were concerned in the abduction. I determined at once that they should be seized and held as hostages for the conduct of the chiefs and warriors out “|
The persons that thus accompanied John Cavallo to the neighborhood of Fort Peyton, with a purpose avowedly friendly, could not be prevailed upon to enter the fort, but halting at some distance, sent a message to General Hernandez, desiring him to meet them at their camp, without an escort, with the assurance that he would be perfectly safe with them without troops. Knowing the perfidious character of these people, and of John Cavallo especially, General Jessup was satisfied that some treachery was intended, probably to seize a sufficient number of his officers to exchange for Philip and the Euchee chiefs, and directed General Hernandez to go to the meeting with a strong escort. He was also furnished with the heads of a conversation to be held with them, the result of which was to be communicated to the commanding general before the termination of the interview. The suspicions entertained were justified by the event. The answers of the Indians to all the questions put to them were evasive and unsatisfactory; they stood warily on the defensive, evincing no frankness nor confidence, and obviously on the watch to gain advantages; and it became sufficiently apparent that they had sought this interview for some sinister purpose. It became the duty of General Jessup to protect his own force, and disarm that of a perfidious enemy. He accordingly gave orders to have the place of meeting surrounded by a squadron of dragoons, under Major Ashby, who executed the measure with such skill and celerity, that although the Indians stood on the alert, with rifles loaded and primed, ready for action, they were all taken before a gun could be fired.
The political excitement existing in the country, during the whole of the Florida war, has caused many of its events to be misrepresented, and in some instances has produced great injustice towards the gallant officers engaged in that arduous service. With regard to the transaction just related, we should suppose there could be but one opinion; yet the capture of Asseola and his associates has been denounced as a flagrant breach of confidence, and a gross violation of the laws of war. A very slight examination of the facts will show the fallacy of such denunciations.
The Indians were in arms to resist an attempt on the part of the government to remove them from a country in which it was alleged they were intruders; and if it was lawful to remove them, there could be no moral wrong in taking them wherever they could . be found. The military officer could not judge of the justice of the removal. He was to effect the object by lawful means; and the purpose was as well effected by taking them when they came to parley, as it would be by seizing them when in arms, or shooting them down in battle. To insist on the observance of all the etiquette of military law, in conducting such an operation, would be as absurd as to hold a police officer to a nice observance of the rules of politeness in his dealings with a fugitive from justice.
It is also to be recollected, that the Indians do not acknowledge any international law, or military usage, as existing during a state of war. They do not recognize the sanctity of a flag of truce they steal upon the defenseless in the hour of sleep waylay the unarmed murder without respect to age or sex and consider every stratagem fair by which an advantage is gained. With what propriety, then, can the protection of the laws of war be claimed for them? Those laws can only operate between parties who reciprocally acknowledge their obligation; and to claim the advantage of them for those who habitually set them at defiance, would be unreasonable.
But allowing that the Seminoles were entitled to the full benefit of the laws of war, as observed by civilized nations, there was no infraction of them on this occasion. The persons in question had violated those laws by rescuing hostages, and suffering themselves to be rescued w T hen held as hostages. The parties to the laws of war have no common tribunal to which to appeal; if an infraction is alleged, there is but one mode of retribution; the offending party is placed out of the pale of the protection of these laws by the other party, who, from the necessity of the case, becomes judge and executioner. And after all, there was no trust violated by General Jessup. These Indians were not under the protection of a flag of truce; they were not in the fort, nor under its guns. They halted at a distance from the fort, and, standing warily upon the defensive, requested that an officer be sent to them, and that he be sent without an escort. The only trust placed in the American commander, was in apprising him of the spot at which they awaited his decision. He took them, partly by stratagem, and partly by force; and the use of the one was as justifiable as that of the other. The purpose was humane. By securing the most active of the agitators, the duration of the war was abridged, and its horrors decreased. The act was not only justifiable, but meritorious; the national honor was not stained, nor did General Jessup tarnish the laurels he had gallantly won on nobler fields.
The prisoners were immediately transferred to Charleston, South. Carolina, where they were confined upon Sullivan’s Island, until arrangements were made for their removal to their new homes. While a prisoner there, Asseola was an object of much curiosity. His fame was widely extended; he was not only considered as the hero of the war, but had been extravagantly praised in the news papers for brilliant and noble qualities, which probably existed only in the imaginations of the writers. He was visited by many per sons, arid among others by several artists, who took likenesses of him, one of the finest of which is that taken for the War Department.
Asseola had two wives, both of whom were young and pretty, and one of them was particularly attractive in her personal appearance. They lived together in perfect harmony, having one table in common, to use our own phraseology, or, to speak more in accordance with the fact, sitting around the same kettle, but occupying separate lodges. They accompanied him in his confinement, and during his illness watched and nursed him with great solicitude and tenderness. He was attacked, in the spring of 1838, with an inflammation of the throat, which hurried him rapidly to the grave. He died with the dignity of a brave warrior, and his remains were respect fully interred by those against whom he had fought with a courage and skill worthy of a nobler field and a better fate.
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