The first Seminole War, which began in 1817, was a continuation of tensions stemming
from conflicts with the Creek Confederacy during and after the American Revolution and
from the presence of runaway and freed slaves in border settlements in Spanish Florida.
The Seminoles were a group of Muskogee- and Hitchiti-speaking tribes
living in towns along the frontier. They incorporated within their population the militant
Red Stick Creeks, refugees from the defeat of the Creeks by Andrew Jackson in 1814.
These Creeks refused to acknowledge the stringent land cession terms of the Treaty of
Fort Jackson (1814) and continued to occupy lands on both sides of the Spanish Florida–
American border. Under the protection of the Spanish, and the British as well, the
Seminoles took in not just Creeks, but slaves fleeing plantations, which infuriated their
From the American perspective, the situation was exacerbated by the continuing presence
of British agents during the War of 1812 (1812–1815), notably Lieutenant Colonel
Edward Nicholls of the Royal Marines. He armed the Red Stick Creeks and their African
American allies but was prevented from using them by the British defeat at New Orleans
and the Treaty of Ghent. Instead, Nicholls—recruiting two British expatriates and
merchants, Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Ambrister—kept up agitation amongst the
Red Sticks regarding their ceded land and lands that part of the tribe had ceded to Forbes
and Company and now wanted considered an illegal transaction. Many of the former
slaves belonging to Nicholls's force left with the evacuating British, but some stayed,
increasing American anxiety that their armed presence would encourage slaves in the
United States to revolt or flee.
Open warfare began when Andrew Jackson, acting on petitions from slaveholders,
ordered his subordinate, Major General Edmund Gaines, to destroy what was called
Negro Fort, a Seminole and freed slave settlement fortified by the British and located
over the border in Spanish Florida on the Apalachicola River. The attack, which occurred
on 27 July 1816, destroyed the fort, with refugees fleeing to join other Seminole
communities. In October and November 1817, American officers at Fort Scott ordered
the arrest of Seminole leaders living at Fowl Town, a settlement just north of the Spanish
border; they were accused of being banditti and of threatening the Americans when they
attempted to harvest timber. When the Seminole leaders refused, Fowl Town was
destroyed in a series of raids. Survivors retaliated with devastating force, ambushing a
transport boat on the Apalachicola River and killing fifty-one Americans, four of them
children. Meanwhile, raids continued to be made by both the Fort Scott soldiers against
Seminole towns and Native Americans against Georgia plantations.
Jackson replaced Gaines on 9 March 1818 and proceeded to invade Spanish Florida,
sacking the town of Suwanee on 16 April. Although the Seminoles did not suffer high
casualties, they were driven out of settlements and lost substantial amounts of stored food
to Jackson's deliberate policy of destruction. Arbuthnot and Ambrister were captured by
Jackson, court-martialed for treason for their role in encouraging the tribes, and executed.
The international controversy generated by the execution of these British subjects was
compounded on 24 May 1818, when Jackson seized Pensacola, deposed the Spanish
governor, and forced the surrender of all those Seminoles who had fled there to Spanish
protection. En route to Pensacola, Jackson looted and destroyed British plantations,
Seminole villages, and Spanish property, even though he faced virtually no opposition.
In 1821 Spain implemented the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819 by leaving its Florida
possessions, which placed the Seminoles, Creeks, and the former slaves allied with them
at the mercy of Jackson and the American government. The British, also not wanting
conflict, overlooked the deaths of Arbuthnot and Ambrister. Some Seminole leaders,
under pressure, accepted a series of treaties promising annuities and a reservation and
agreed to return runaway slaves. However, these treaties, which specified that the
Seminoles would join with the Creeks and also placed a limit on the annuities, proved
impossible for the American governor to enforce. That only some tribal leaders had
signed also gave rebellious Seminoles reason to feel themselves not bound by the
agreements, which led to further conflicts beginning in 1835.
Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler. Old Hickory's War. Mechanicsburg, Pa.:
Knetsch, Joe. Florida's Seminole Wars, 1818–1858. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2003.
Porter, Kenneth Wiggins. "Negroes and the Seminole War 1817–1818." Journal of Negro
History 36 (1951): 249–280.
Wright, J. Leitch. "A Note on the First Seminole War as Seen by the Indians, Negroes,
and Their British Advisors." Journal of Southern History 34 (1968): 565–575.
By Margaret Sankey (americanforeignrelations.com)