- Whose War Was It?African American Heritage Claims and the Second Seminole War
Clearly, blacks and Seminoles cooperated during the resistance, and some blacks acted as interpreters, messengers, and even advisors to Seminole leaders. From those facts, however, an unsupportable logical leap precedes the conclusion that interpreting, advising, carrying messages, and knowing about white men equate with ruling.Susan A. Miller, “Seminoles and Africans under Seminole Law”1
Contentious heritage claims based on rival notions of agency and empowerment during the Second Seminole War (1835–42) have surfaced from a group of scholars and from amateur historians who promote the unorthodox idea that African Americans, rather than Indigenous people, constituted the real “backbone” of military resistance.2 Competing claims often accompany memories of war, as victors and losers inevitably bring opposing versions of dramatic events that inflict death and suffering on a massive scale. In this case, however, rival assertions have arisen from the same side that fought and died together in the Florida wilderness in a long but ultimately ill-fated effort to thwart removal efforts by the United States Army. Historian Larry Rivers has recently inverted the standard paradigm of Seminole tragic heroes (Osceola being the most renowned) who led Indian warriors and their black allies into battle by reconfiguring the latter as the war’s principal leaders and by framing their motives as a slave rebellion, not an Indian war. In a fairly audacious move, Rivers even renamed the Second Seminole War as the “Black/Indian Rebellion,” thus rejecting the core concept that the war [End Page 31] was the second of three campaigns that were primarily aimed at Seminoles.3 Other authors, some without formal historical training, have espoused pricklier narratives; one has demanded that blacks reject history that has consigned them to the subservient role of playing “Tonto” to the Seminoles.4 High-end websites have also entered the picture and utilize new media to promote themes of African American volition in Florida.5 Various lectures, symposiums, and conferences, including one under the aegis of the National Park Service, additionally support the thesis of black empowerment and rebellion.6
All this has taken place despite the fact that leading historians of slavery and slave revolts, such as the late Eugene Genovese and Herbert Aptheker (both of whom would hardly have been deterred by controversy), are conspicuous by their omission of any such rebellion. Yet a romanticized freedom fighter motif—one that not only embodies the subaltern struggle against white oppression but also affirms a new power identity amid the Florida backwoods—continues to impact the memory of an extended seven-year conflict that has never been fully integrated into American history and is still poorly understood by nonspecialists. For this and myriad other reasons, such a radical retelling certainly warrants scrutiny. To date, only a single journal article by Seminole historian Susan A. Miller—a former professor of American Indian studies at Arizona State University—and a section in Miller’s book Coacoochee’s Bones have confronted the issue.7 In the former, Miller directed a blistering rebuke at those who “cast heroes of African resistance as stars, and made supporting players of the Seminole people.” Indeed, she declared that “Seminole place, identity and history” have been plundered “as raw materials for a triumphalist narrative celebrating the new thread in the history of [African American] people.”8 Despite such heated charges, the most characteristic reaction has been silence, a strong indication of the hazards awaiting historians who dare enter the fray—a veritable heritage minefield.9 At present the concept of black sovereignty appears oddly impervious to critique, and while some mainstream scholars have applauded Rivers, others—particularly military historians—have bypassed this perspective entirely while they continue to apply the standard narrative of Seminole leadership.10
Despite obvious obstacles, including the opposing claims of two groups who have long been oppressed and marginalized and whose historical traditions have been intensely politicized, this essay will nevertheless [End Page 32] attempt to place the notion of black sovereignty into much-needed critical context. Unlike Miller, who assumed a defensive posture in her article, focused on the period after removal, and aimed to...