Second Seminole War: The Scalping

Battle of Palaklaklaha Engraving

Engraving depicting the Battle of Palaklaklaha during the Second Seminole War. Following the scalping of dead native corpses, the Seminole Indians attack American forces, depicted here in this engraving by the US Army

One of the lesser known wars of the American Indian War series is the 2nd Seminole War. Fought in Florida, the Seminole indians were fighting to preserve their homeland and ancient burial grounds. American settlers and troops were coming onto the land, digging up the remains of the dead natives, decapitating them and leaving them in the open, as a scare tactic to rid the land of the natives. "The threat of removal from Florida and the violence perpetrated against their dead" (Strang) prompted the Seminole natives to take action, ultimately prompting the war that ensued. The white troops were tryin to scalp as many Seminole indians as they could, and this frightened the natives as "the practice of the Indians, not to abandon their slain, is founded solely on superstition. For they believe that the scalped cannot enter the hereafter hunting grounds, which constitute their notion of Heaven" (Strang). The revenge killings of whites to the Seminoles continued throughout the war, and was virtually the driving factor behind the continuance of the war. Both white and Seminole fighters used the war as a chance to "revenge the death of a relative of theirs" (Strang), by scapling their dead enemies, gouging their eyes out, or burning them. These means of phsycological destruction was the main mode the war was fought on, as "all combatants in the war attached cosmological, social, and personal significances to human remains" (Strang), so their mutilation was a great source of pain to each warring party.

Fort King Cemetery

Fort King Cemetery, one of many former Seminole Burial grounds that was desecrated and dug up to scalp the dead Seminoles. This cemetery was raided in 1836

The Seminole Indians were fighting mainly for their dead ancestors. Believing that the remains of their ancestors buried in the Flordian grounds provided them a pathway to their form of Heaven, it was imperative that they not be driven off the land by white settlers. "Since the remains of the dead were tied to the landscape, the living had to reside near their relations’ graves to sustain the community in its entirety" (Strang). An army surgeon in the American side of the war commented on this overtaking by the white settlers, "when the territory was ceded to the United States, a flood of emigrants poured in upon them, which threatened soon to consign to the ruthless ploughshare their green hunting grounds and even the sacred resting places of their dead. Alarmed at this, they took up arms" (Strang). This is imporant to highlight as the white's, though they probably wouldn't have cared otherwise, didn't realize that these burial grounds were sacred to the native people at first. It was only when the natives pushed back on their settlements was it discovered that they, in fact, truly cared about the land mostly because of the sacredness of the burial grounds - prompting the upheaval and ruin of those grounds by white settlers. The Seminoles knew that "Abandoning Florida would mean losing contact and conversation with the dead" (Strang). They were fighting against the "vampyre-like pioneers of civilization" (Strang), which of course were the white-settlers who were informed the land was "given" to them, though no formal agreement with the natives of the land - the Seminoles - was ever made. Even some Americans were protesting the false treaties, "The government is in the wrong, and this is the chief cause of the persevering opposition of the Indians, who have nobly defended their country against our attempt to enforce a fraudulent treaty. The natives used every means to avoid a war, but were forced into it by the tyranny of our government" (Strang). 

Woodcut, Native attack

Original woodcut art from A true and authentic account of the Indian war in Florida, by a witness to the massacre on the settler town (1836)

To the white settlers, and the President John Tyler, the war was about civilizing the natives. "With several of the tribes, great progress in civilizing them has already been made" (Thomson 537). However it can be noted that some believed - as had similarly had happened in the past - that this war was founded upon miscommunication and misconceptions about what was actually occurring. Tyler can be quoted as saying, "There is, however, much reason to believe that the Florida war was hastened by the imprudence of whites themselves... Indiviudal liscenses, committed in direct opposition to the will of the government, and without its knowledge, led to acts of retaliation" (Thomson 538). The war was not supposed to happen, as many before them were also not supposed to occur. The government had made it clear that they wished to move a significant portion of the natives into the Indian territory by peaceful means. There was no, to say, ill-will against them in the beginning, until the white settlers repeatedley desecrated the graves, and the natives retatliating caused a large uproar in the Florida territory that prompted swift government intervention. 

The Arrest of Osceola

The Arrest of Seminole Leader Osceola who came to the American forces under a white flag of peace and surrender, but was forcefully captured, and arrested by Thomas Jesup, an American commander

At first, Tyler wanted to engage the natives in a "rigid justice towards the numerous indian tribes, residing within our territorial limits, and the exercise of parental vigilance over their interests, protecting them against fraud and intrusion, and at the same time using every proper expedient to introduce them the arts of civilized life, we hope to inspire them with a love for peace" (Thomson 537). The government did not want to start a war with the Seminoles, however, as most wars had begun prior to this one, and most succeeding this one, there were odd occurences of misconstrued information and miscommunication that led to the ultimate bloodshed and forceful removal of the natives, when the government originally wished to work with the natives. Even under the guise of a white flag, a typical sign of surrender, the American forces captured the Seminole leader Osceola, and would not let any Seminole native return, and did not accept their surrender. Once the American forces were set on removal of the natives, they did not have mercy on them and did not let them return in peace to their families, or to properly surrender. After the spring of 1842, thousands of Seminoles were being forcefully shipped out in wagons and trains to the west where they would go to the Indian reservation. Though the initial calling of the settlement of Seminoles was peaceful, it can be said that the strained communications led to the ultimate bloodshed, and not an assimilation. 

1. Cameron B. Strang, “Violence, Ethnicity, and Human Remains during the Second Seminole War, Journal of American History”, Volume 100, Issue 4, March 2014, Pages 973–994

2.History of the War of the United States with Great Britain in 1812, and of the War with Mexico, John Lewis Thomson, War of 1812