First Seminole War

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The First Seminole War was a conflict between the United States of America and several bands of Indians living in Spanish Florida. It involved an invasion of Spanish territory by troops led by Andrew Jackson in which Indian and black towns were destroyed, two citizens of the United Kingdom were executed, and Spanish forts at San Marcos and Pensacola were captured by the Americans. The war helped push many of the Indians southeast into the upper Florida Peninsula, and may have hastened the American acquisition of Florida.

The beginning and ending dates for the First Seminole War are not firmly established. Most histories give the dates as 1817-1818. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps and some U.S. Army sources give dates of 1816-1818 (which would include the attack on the Negro Fort in 1816).[1][2]

Fowltown and the Scott Massacre

Fowltown was a Mikasuki village in southwestern Georgia, about 15 miles east of Fort Scott. Chief Neamathla of Fowltown got into a dispute with the commander of Fort Scott over the use of land on the eastern side of the Flint River, essentially claiming Mikasuki sovereignty over the area. The land in southern Georgia had been ceded by the Creeks in the Treaty of Fort Jackson, but the Mikasukis did not consider themselves Creek, did not feel bound by the treaty, and did not accept that the Creeks had any right to cede Mikasuki land. In November 1817 General Gaines sent a force of 250 men to seize Neamathla. The first attempt was beaten off by the Mikasukis. The next day, November 22, 1817, the Mikasukis were driven from their village. Some historians date the start of the war to this attack on Fowltown. David Brydie Mitchell, former governor of Georgia and Creek indian agent at the time, stated in a report to Congress that the attack on Fowltown was the start of the First Seminole War.[3]

A week later a boat carrying supplies for Fort Scott, under the command of Lt. R. W. Scott, was attacked on the Apalachicola River. There were forty to fifty people on the boat, including twenty sick soldiers, seven wives of soldiers, and possibly some children. (There was no mention of children in initial reports of the massacre, and their presence has not been confirmed.) Most of the boat's passengers were killed by the Indians. One woman was taken prisoner, and six survivors made it to the fort.[4]

General Gaines had been under orders not to invade Florida, later amended to allow short intrusions into Florida. When news of the Scott Massacre on the Apalachicola reached Washington, Gaines was ordered to invade Florida and pursue the Indians, but not to attack any Spanish installations. However, Gaines had left for East Florida to deal with pirates who had occupied Fernandina. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun then ordered Andrew Jackson to lead the invasion of Florida.[5]

Jackson invades Florida

Jackson gathered his forces at Fort Scott in March 1818, including 800 U.S. Army regulars, 1,000 Tennessee volunteers, 1,000 Georgia Militia[6], and about 1,400 Lower Creek warriors. On March 13 Jackson's army entered Florida, marching down the Apalachicola River. When they reached the site of the Negro Fort, Jackson had his men construct a new fort, Fort Gadsden. The army then set out for the Mikasuki villages around Lake Miccosukee. The Indian town of Tallahassee was burned on March 31, and the town of Miccosukee was taken the next day. More than 300 Indian homes were destroyed. Jackson then turned south, reaching St. Marks on April 6.[7]

At St. Marks Jackson seized the Spanish fort. There he found Alexander George Arbuthnot, a Scottish trader working out of the Bahamas. He traded with the Indians in Florida, and had written letters to British and American officials on behalf of the Indians. He was rumored to be selling guns to the Indians, and to be preparing them for war. He probably was selling guns, as the main trade item of the Indians was deer skins, and they needed guns to hunt the deer. Two Indian leaders, Josiah Francis, a Red Stick Creek, also known as the Prophet (not to be confused with Tenskwatawa), and Homathlemico, had been captured when they had gone out to an American ship flying the British Union Jack that had anchored off of St. Marks. As soon as Jackson arrived at St. Marks, the two Indians were brought ashore and hanged.[8]

Jackson left St. Marks to attack villages along the Suwannee River, which were occupied primarily by fugitive slaves. On April 12 the army found a Red Stick village on Econfina Creek. Close to 40 warriors were killed, and about 100 women and children were captured. In the village, they found Elizabeth Stewart, the woman who had been captured in the attack on the supply boat on the Apalachicola River the previous November. Harassed by Black Seminoles along the route, the army found the villages on the Suwannee empty. About this time, Robert Ambrister, a former Royal Marine and self-appointed British 'agent', was captured by Jackson's army. Having destroyed the major Seminole and black villages, Jackson declared victory and sent the Georgia Militia and the Lower Creeks home. The remaining army then returned to St. Marks.[9]

At St. Marks a military tribunal was convened, and Ambrister and Arbuthnot were charged with aiding the Seminoles, inciting them to war and leading them against the United States. Ambrister threw himself on the mercy of the court, while Arbuthnot maintained his innocence, saying that he had only been engaged in legal trade. The tribunal sentenced both men to death, but then relented and changed Ambrister's sentence to fifty lashes and a year at hard labor. Jackson, however, reinstated Ambrister's death penalty. Ambrister was executed by a firing squad on April 29, 1818. Arbuthnot was hanged from the yardarm of his own ship.[10]

Jackson left a garrison at St. Marks and returned to Ft. Gadsden. Jackson had first reported that all was peaceful and that he would be returning to Nashville. He later reported that Indians were gathering and being supplied by the Spanish, and he left Fort Gadsden with 1,000 men on May 7, headed for Pensacola. The governor of West Florida protested that most of the Indians at Pensacola were women and children, and that the men were unarmed, but Jackson did not stop. When Jackson reached Pensacola on May 23, the governor and the 175-man Spanish garrison retreated to Fort Barrancas, leaving the city of Pensacola to Jackson. The two sides exchanged cannon fire for a couple of days, and then the Spanish surrendered Fort Barrancas on May 28. Jackson left Col. William King as military governor of West Florida, and went home.[11]


There were international repercussions to Jackson's actions. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams had just started negotiations with Spain for the purchase of Florida. Spain protested the invasion and seizure of West Florida, and suspended the negotiations. Spain did not have the means to retaliate against the United States, or regain West Florida by force, so Adams let the Spanish protest, then issued a letter (with 72 supporting documents) blaming the war in the British, Spanish and Indians. In the letter he also apologized for the seizure of West Florida, said that it had not been American policy to seize Spanish territory, and offered to give St. Marks and Pensacola back to Spain. Spain accepted the inevitable, and eventually resumed negotiations for the sale of Florida.[12]

Britain protested the execution of two of its subjects who had never even entered United States territory. There was talk in Britain of demanding reparations and taking reprisals. Americans worried about another war with Britain. In the end Britain, realizing how important the United States was to its economy, opted for maintaining good relations.[13]

There were also repercussions in America. Congressional committees held hearings into the irregularites of the Ambrister and Arbuthnot trials. While most Americans supported Jackson, some worried that Jackson could become a 'man on horseback', a Napolean. When Congress reconvened in December 1818 resolutions were introduced condemning Jackson's actions. Jackson was too popular, and the resoluitions failed, but the Ambrister and Arbuthnot executions left a stain on his reputation for the rest of his life, even if it was not enough to keep him from becoming president.[14]


  1. Naval Historical Center - accessed September 10, 2009
  2. Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2006 - accessed September 10, 2009
  3. Missall. Pp. 33-37.
  4. Missall. Pp. 36-37.
  5. Missall. P. 38.
  6. Extract from Army Historical Series P. 152 - URL retrieved September 30, 2006
  7. Missall. Pp. 39-40.
  8. Missall. Pp. 33, 40-41.
  9. Missall. Pp. 33-34, 41-42.
  10. Missall. P. 42.
  11. Missall. Pp. 42-43.
  12. Missall. Pp. 46-47.
  13. Missall. P. 45.
  14. Missall. Pp. 44, 47-50.


See Bibliography.