How Black Seminoles Found Freedom From Enslavement in Florida

Black Seminole Reenactors at Dade Battlefield State Historic Park

walterpro/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Black Seminoles were enslaved Africans and Black Americans who, beginning in the late 17th century, fled plantations in the Southern American colonies and joined with the newly-formed Seminole tribe in Spanish-owned Florida. From the late 1690s until Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821, thousands of Indigenous peoples and freedom seekers fled areas of what is now the southeastern United States to the relatively open promise of the Florida peninsula.

Seminoles and Black Seminoles

African people who escaped enslavement were called Maroons in the American colonies, a word derived from the Spanish word "cimarrón" meaning runaway or wild one. The Maroons who arrived in Florida and settled with the Seminoles were called a variety of names, including Black Seminoles, Seminole Maroons, and Seminole Freedmen. The Seminoles gave them the tribal name of Estelusti, a Muskogee word for black.

The word Seminole is also a corruption of the Spanish word cimarrón. The Spanish themselves used cimarrón to refer to Indigenous refugees in Florida who were deliberately avoiding Spanish contact. Seminoles in Florida were a new tribe, made up mostly of Muskogee or Creek people fleeing the decimation of their own groups by European-brought violence and disease. In Florida, the Seminoles could live beyond the boundaries of established political control (although they maintained ties with the Creek Confederacy) and free from political alliances with the Spanish or British.

The Attractions of Florida

In 1693, a royal Spanish decree promised freedom and sanctuary to all enslaved persons who reached Florida, if they were willing to adopt the Catholic religion. Enslaved Africans fleeing Carolina and Georgia flooded in. The Spanish granted plots of land to the refugees north of St. Augustine, where the Maroons established the first legally sanctioned free Black community in North America, called Fort Mose or Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose.

The Spanish embraced freedom seekers because they needed them for both their defensive efforts against American invasions, and for their expertise in tropical environments. During the 18th century, a large number of the Maroons in Florida had been born and raised in the tropical regions of Kongo-Angola in Africa. Many of the incoming enslaved Africans did not trust the Spanish, and so they allied with the Seminoles.

Black Alliance

The Seminoles were an aggregate of linguistically and culturally diverse Indigenous nations, and they included a large contingent of the former members of the Muscogee Polity also known as the Creek Confederacy. These were refugees from Alabama and Georgia who had separated from the Muscogee, in part, as a result of internal disputes. They moved to Florida where they absorbed members of other groups already there, and the new collective named themselves Seminole.

In some respects, incorporating African refugees into the Seminole band would have been simply adding in another tribe. The new Estelusti tribe had many useful attributes: many of the Africans had guerilla warfare experience, were able to speak several European languages, and knew about tropical agricultures.

That mutual interest—Seminole fighting to keep a purchase in Florida and Africans fighting to keep their freedom—created a new identity for the Africans as Black Seminoles. The biggest push for Africans to join the Seminoles came after the two decades when Britain owned Florida. The Spanish lost Florida between 1763 and 1783, and during that time, the British established the same harsh enslavement policies as in the rest of European North America. When Spain regained Florida under the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the Spanish encouraged their earlier Black allies to go to Seminole villages.

Being Seminole

The sociopolitical relations between the Black Seminole and Indigenous Seminole groups were multi-faceted, shaped by economics, procreation, desire, and combat. Some Black Seminoles were fully brought into the tribe by marriage or adoption. Seminole marriage rules said that a child's ethnicity was based on that of the mother: if the mother was Seminole, so were her children. Other Black Seminole groups formed independent communities and acted as allies who paid tribute to participate in mutual protection. Still, others were re-enslaved by the Seminole: some reports say that for formerly enslaved people, bondage to the Seminole was far less harsh than that of enslavement under the Europeans.

Black Seminoles may have been referred to as "slaves" by the other Seminoles, but their bondage was closer to tenant farming. They were required to pay a portion of their harvests to the Seminole leaders but enjoyed substantial autonomy in their own separate communities. By the 1820s, an estimated 400 Africans were associated with the Seminoles and appeared to be wholly independent "slaves in name only," and holding roles such as war leaders, negotiators, and interpreters.

However, the amount of freedom that Black Seminoles experienced is somewhat debated. Further, the U.S. military sought the support of Indigenous groups to "claim" the land in Florida and help them "reclaim" the human "property" of Southern enslavers. This effort ultimately had limited success but is historically significant nonetheless.

Removal Period

The opportunity for Seminoles, Black or otherwise, to stay in Florida disappeared after the U.S. took possession of the peninsula in 1821. A series of clashes between the Seminoles and the U.S. government, known as the Seminole wars, took place in Florida beginning in 1817. This was an explicit attempt to force Seminoles and their Black allies out of the state and clear it for white colonization. The most serious and effective effort was known as the Second Seminole War, between 1835 and 1842. Despite this tragic history, approximately 3,000 Seminoles live in Florida today.

By the 1830s, treaties were brokered by the U.S. government to move the Seminoles westward to Oklahoma, a journey that took place along the infamous Trail of Tears. Those treaties, like most of those made by the United States government to Indigenous groups in the 19th century, were broken.

One Drop Rule

The Black Seminoles had an uncertain status in the greater Seminole tribe, in part because of their ethnicity and the fact that they had been enslaved people. Black Seminoles defied the racial categories set up by the European governments to establish white supremacy. The white European contingent in the Americas found it convenient to maintain a white superiority by keeping non-whites in artificially constructed racial boxes. The "One Drop Rule" stated that if one had any African blood at all, they were African and, therefore, less entitled to the same rights and freedoms as Whites in the new United States.

Eighteenth-century African, Indigenous, and Spanish communities did not use the same "One Drop Rule" to identify Black people. In the early days of the European settlement of the Americas, neither Africans nor Indigenous peoples fostered such ideological beliefs or created regulatory practices about social and sexual interactions.

As the United States grew and prospered, a string of public policies and even scientific studies worked to erase the Black Seminoles from the national consciousness and official histories. Today in Florida and elsewhere, it has become increasingly difficult for the U.S. government to differentiate between African and Indigenous affiliations among the Seminole by any standards.

Mixed Messages

The Seminole nation's views of the Black Seminoles were not consistent throughout time or across the different Seminole communities. Some viewed the Black Seminoles as enslaved people and nothing else. There were also coalitions and symbiotic relationships between the two groups in Florida—the Black Seminoles lived in independent villages as essentially tenant farmers to the larger Seminole group. The Black Seminoles were given an official tribal name: the Estelusti. It could be said that the Seminoles established separate villages for the Estelusti to discourage Whites from trying to re-enslave the Maroons.

Many Seminoles resettled in Oklahoma and took several steps to separate themselves from their previous Black allies. The Seminoles adopted a more Eurocentric view of Black people and began to practice enslavement. Many Seminoles fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War; the last Confederate general killed in the Civil War was a Cherokee leader, Stand Watie, whose command was mostly made up of Seminole, Cherokee, and Muskogee soldiers. At the end of that war, the U.S. government had to force the Southern faction of the Seminoles in Oklahoma to give up their enslaved people. It wasn't until 1866 that Black Seminoles were accepted as full members of the Seminole Nation.

The Dawes Rolls

In 1893, the U.S. sponsored Dawes Commission was designed to create a membership roster of Seminoles and non-Seminoles based on whether an individual had African heritage. Two rosters were assembled: the Blood Roll for Seminoles and the Freedman Roll for Black Seminoles. The Dawes Rolls, as the document came to be known, stated that if your mother was Seminole, you were on the blood roll. If she was African, you were placed on the Freedmen roll. Those who were demonstrably half-Seminole and half-African would be placed on the Freedmen roll. Those who were three-quarters Seminole were place on the blood roll.

The status of the Black Seminoles became a keenly felt issue when compensation for their lost lands in Florida was finally offered in 1976. The total U.S. compensation to the Seminole nation for their lands in Florida came to $56 million. That deal, written by the U.S. government and signed by the Seminole nation, was written explicitly to exclude the Black Seminoles, as it was to be paid to the "Seminole nation as it existed in 1823." In 1823, the Black Seminoles were not yet official members of the Seminole nation. In fact, they could not be property owners because the U.S. government classed them as "property." Seventy-five percent of the total judgment went to relocated Seminoles in Oklahoma, 25% went to those who remained in Florida, and none went to the Black Seminoles.

Court Cases and Settling the Dispute

In 1990, the U.S. Congress finally passed the Distribution Act detailing the use of the judgment fund. The next year, the usage plan passed by the Seminole nation excluded the Black Seminoles again from participation. In 2000, the Seminoles expelled the Black Seminoles from their group entirely. A court case was opened (Davis v. U.S. Government) by Seminoles who were either Black Seminole or of both African and Seminole heritage. They argued that their exclusion from the judgment constituted racial discrimination. That suit was brought against the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs: the Seminole Nation, as a sovereign nation, could not be joined as a defendant. The case failed in U.S. District Court because the Seminole nation was not part of the case.

In 2003, the Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a memorandum welcoming Black Seminoles back into the larger group. Attempts to patch the broken bonds that had existed between Black Seminoles and the rest of the Seminole population have seen varied success.

In the Bahamas and Elsewhere

Not every Black Seminole stayed in Florida or migrated to Oklahoma. A small band eventually established themselves in the Bahamas. There are several Black Seminole communities on North Andros and South Andros Island, established after a struggle against hurricanes and British interference.

Today there are Black Seminole communities in Oklahoma, Texas, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Black Seminole groups along the border of Texas/Mexico are still struggling for recognition as full citizens of the United States.


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hirst, K. Kris. "How Black Seminoles Found Freedom From Enslavement in Florida." ThoughtCo, Jun. 21, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, June 21). How Black Seminoles Found Freedom From Enslavement in Florida. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "How Black Seminoles Found Freedom From Enslavement in Florida." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).