John Horse and the Seminoles

Born sometime in 1812, John Horse (also known as Juan Caballo, Juan Cavallo, John Cowaya and Gopher John) was of mixed African and Seminole ancestry. He lived in the northern part of central Florida. Although not much is known of his childhood or his father Charley Cavallo (who was of Spanish and Native American descent) except that John (or Juan as he was known at the time) was an African slave that Charley had acquired in his travels. It does not appear that Charley treated both his children as slaves.

In 1812, around the time that John was born, his mother lived with him and his sister in one of the black settlements affiliated with the Alachua band of Oconee Seminoles along the Suwannee River. When War broke out between the United states and Great Britain, American General Andrew Jackson took advantage of the state of war to invade Seminole territory and scattered the tribes. As a result John’s family was displaced along with many Seminoles, although the Seminole’s black allies were not fortunate enough to be able move on – many were recaptured and forced back into slavery on the plantations. John Horse and his family were affected by these actions and he first enters the historical records as an adolescent in the Tampa area many years later.

John spent his formative years among the Oconee Indians, being taught to hunt, fish, track, and use a bow and arrow and became proficient with a rifle – in later years he became a renowned marksman. John was steady in combat but unlike the other youths he was also taught to read and write and learnt English, Spanish and Hitchiti. It is also assumed he could speak in Muscogee, the language of the upper Creek Indians of the Seminoles and their great war chief, Osceola.

As an adult John became one of the main translators for Osceola in his dealings with the Americans.

John enters historical record at some point after the first Seminole war (1817-1818) as a teenager who was mentioned by US army major George M. Brooke in a report written at Fort Brooke (which was built in the recently annexed Florida). In his report Major Brooke states that he discovered a young Black Seminole youth swindling his personal cook whilst selling him gopher for the Major’s personal mess. John was shown leniency for his fraud on the condition that he made good on the promised Gophers – which he supposedly did. This earned him the nickname ‘Gopher John’ from the US Army.

In 1835 John joined the fighting during the second Seminole war against the Americans. John served as what would today be called a field officer for the Seminole. The second Seminole War (1835-1842) was fought over white settlers pressuring the Seminole for their lands. John was mostly a translator for the Seminole war chiefs and their black allies, as many could not speak English. Later John would become a lower level war chief. Thanks to his skill with languages and his quick thinking John was brought in on the negotiations between the Seminoles and the US army. Many of these were unsuccessful due to Osceola and Abiaca refusing truces and refusing to be moved on into “Indian territory”. After many pitched battles, sieges of US forts and raids on small towns and isolated settlements, the Seminole casualties were high and the fighting descended into guerrilla warfare against the US army. In 1837 the US army dispatched Brevet Major General Thomas S. Jessup to Florida to take command against the Seminole during a negotiation with Osceola. John Horse was present during this meeting. Jessup had the Seminole war chiefs arrested and sent to Fort Marion (previously known as Castillio de San Marcos) where John met Coacoochee (known as Wild Cat) the son of the Mikasuki chief King Phillip Emathla (1739-1839). Coacoochee and John formed an alliance whilst imprisoned and came up with a daring plan. They fasted for 3 days, then using a rope made out of blankets hoisted themselves up to the rusted bars of their cell windows and prised them away. Along with 20 others they then scaled the walls of the fort to freedom. Although the details of the escape aren’t documented, John and Wild Cat found their way back to the scattered remnants of the Seminole who, after the capture of their war chiefs, had become increasingly disorganized. As the war could not be won against the US, Horse and Wild Cat went to Jessup under a flag of truce and pleaded that the fighting stop and they be permitted to remain in their territory. Surprisingly Jessup accepted the offer and dispatched a message to the US government, who vetoed the agreement.

Jessup attempted to call the new war chiefs to parley under a flag of truce but, weary of Jessup’s previous treachery, the Seminoles refused to attend and fled ahead of Jessup’s forces. As a result of his failure to end the war Jessup was desperate to catch the Seminoles and finally force them out of Florida, relocating them to the new “Indian territory” set up by the US government in Oklahoma. Four Columns were sent after the Seminoles in a bid to end the war, each heading in different direction. The Fourth Column was under the command of Colonel Zackary Taylor who was ordered to set up a depot to supply the other 3 columns. Once the supply depots had been set up Colonel Taylor advanced his force of over 1000 men to Lake Okeechobee where many Seminoles surrendered to his overwhelming force. He then built Fort Basinger and left the captured Seminole prisoners there with guards and the sick and proceeded closer to the lake.

By Christmas of 1837 Taylor’s army had come upon a large swamp area near the lake, where the grass stood 5 feet high and the water was 3 feet deep. The grass had been cut in areas to provide an open field of fire, trees had been notched to steady rifle fire and scouts were perched in the treetops in order to spot Taylor’s troop movements. It was clear that the Seminoles intended to give battle here and that they were ready for the US army. At noon, under the hot Florida sun, Colonel Taylor ordered his men forward into the swamp. As he could not use his cavalry to surround the Seminoles he intended to crush them with a single direct assault. The first to advance were the Missouri Volunteers who came under such heavy fire that they broke rank and ran; their colonel, Richard Gentry, fatally wounded and unable to rally his men. Seeing the Missouri volunteers run the Seminoles launched a counter attack. In brutal hand-to-hand combat the remaining Missouri volunteers fled back to the US lines where the regulars advanced into the high grass. Five companies of the 6th infantry fought in hand to hand combat. When they retreated to reform with the rest of the regiment they found that only one officer had survived unscathed; most of the non-commissioned officers had been killed and only 4 men had not been wounded.

Taylor had been forced to stop his assault – 26 of his soldiers lay dead in the swamp (most of them his officers and NCO’s) along with 112 wounded. The Seminoles had lost 11 braves and had 24 wounded. The Seminoles, led by Chief Billy Bowlegs, had fought a delaying action to allow their non-combatants to escape further south with John Horse and Wild Cat taking major roles during this engagement. After the battle they regrouped with Halpatta Tustanagi (Chief Alligator) and medicine man Abiaki (also known as Sam Jones). Colonel Taylor withdrew his men to Fort Basinger where he claimed victory for the battle they had just fought – either believing he succeeded in his objective of forcing the Seminoles out of the swampland, or simply wanting to save face with his men.

The Seminoles then fought Jessup himself with his first column on the Loxahatchee River in January 1838, when Jessup was wounded. Despite these victories John horse could see they could not win the war; the Seminoles manpower was exhausted and he surrendered with his war band that year on the condition that black Seminoles like himself could remain free even if it was in Oklahoma (or Mississippi in some sources). This was accepted by Jessup and the US government, however Wild Cat and the other chiefs fought on with guerrilla tactics and it wasn’t until 1840 that John Horse returned to Florida at the request of the US army, in a bid to talk his comrades into surrender. Many, including Wild Cat, did surrender but a few hundred refused and fought on in swamplands of Florida where their descendants still live today.

John and many other Black Seminoles now found themselves living in Oklahoma. This was not ideal as during all this time John was still considered a slave by the Seminoles. In 1843 they finally granted him his freedom for his services during the war. John had now been been freed 3 times from slavery – once by Jessu’s terms of surrender, then by General Worth who John assisted in talking down the majority of remaining Seminoles, and now by the Seminoles themselves. However, freedom did not apply to John’s wife and children (despite the promises from Jessup in 1838).

Even more problems were arising as the Seminoles were supplanted in an area allocated to the Creek Indians due to the US government’s failure to recognise them as two different people (nota bene that the Seminoles were a detached group of the Creek people who settled in Florida). The Creek peoples had adopted the American model of chattel slavery, while slavery under the Seminoles was more similar to serfdom in medieval Europe. This was about to bring a lot of trouble for the black Seminoles, as gangs of Creek Indians started abducting black Seminoles and forcing them into slavery.

John Horse began to organise a black Seminole resistance against the slaver gangs – white slavers, Creek slavers and other groups living in the territory. John enlisted Wild Cat to help him in his endeavours. As the tensions began to rise the US army had been called in by the Seminoles to free black Seminoles who had been captured by the Creek, although no charges of kidnapping were brought against them.

In 1844 John travelled to Washington D.C. along with Coacoochee and other Seminoles to plead their case. John and Wilde Cat asked to be placed in a different territory away from the Creek Indians, which the US government refused. John Horse finally turned to the man who had betrayed them once before, and Jessup agreed to try and help. He spoke to Congress on their behalf but this was to no avail. Unable to sway the government, Jessup came up with a plan to help the black Seminoles as now even the Seminoles themselves were coming around to the idea of plantation style chattel slavery in a bid to stop the raids in their territory.

Jessup had been tasked to construct Fort Gibson in Oklahoma to survey the situation and agreed with John Horse that every Black Seminole who surrendered to him in 1838 would be sheltered there and work as labourers, and that this would extend to their immediate families. Although tension between the black Seminoles and the slaver gangs continued, they were now under protection of the army and Fort Gibson itself. It was during this period that an attempt was made on John’s life. John took a musket ball to his shoulder but his would-be assassins were never found, after which John was allowed to live inside the fort with his family.

John made another trip to Washington in a bid to seek a better solution to the rising tensions in the Indian Territory. Despite his efforts nothing improved, and to make the situation even more volatile some Seminole sub agents living in the fort were now campaigning to have their slaves returned to them, as they viewed this as a means to get rich.

Attorney-General John Mason ruled that the black Seminole were descendant of fugitive slaves and henceforth born slaves themselves, and that they should be returned to their rightful Seminole owners. The soldiers at Fort Gibson (although sympathetic to John Horse and his people) were eventually forced to expel the black Seminoles back into Creek and Seminole territory where the new chief had decided they should live and work on the new agricultural land as slaves. John once again sought out Wild Cat who had been passed over the role as chief and was now disaffected together with 100 black Seminole men, women and children and many sympathetic Seminoles. Now only one option remained – to flee. With the help of the black US army scout Toney Barnet they hatched a plan to lure the slavers (led by the Seminoles Sub agent Marcellus Duval) to Florida while the rest of the group fled in the middle of the night from the fortified settlement. Barnet was to lead Duvall and his gangs away and he would then return to Oklahoma himself to try and free his son who was a slave to the Cherokee Indians.

John, Wild Cat and their people fled South over the red river into Texas, now pursued by both slaver gangs and Texas rangers as the furious Duval had placed a bounty on every Black Seminole that could be captured. After various skirmishes the wagon train even found itself fighting pitched battles against the Comanche, who found the presence of the accompanying Seminoles (led by Wild Cat) an affront – and had also possibly heard that Wild Cat had made a deal with the Mexican Government to settle the refugees in former Comanche territory in Mexico.

From 1849 until 1850 the caravan kept moving south, now picking up Kickapoo Indians along the way. After crossing the desert they found themselves outside the resupply post of Franklin (now named El Paso) where Horse and Wild Cat met their one-time enemy Major John T Sprague, who fought as a captain during the second Seminole war and had met Horse and Wild Cat during their surrenders, although it is not known if the Major was involved. While he was sharing a bottle of liquor with Horse and Wild Cat, reminiscing about the old days in Florida, one of his men left in the dead of night to alert the Texas Rangers. Upon realisation of the imminent danger they faced the cony raced into the night, southward towards the Rio Grande and freedom. Once at the river and running out of time the fleeing Blacks, Seminoles and Kickapoo desperately built rafts to cross the river.

The Texas Rangers arrived just a little too late – Horse and the convoy had reached the middle of the river and met with the Mexican officials waiting for them on the 12th of June 1850. They were now free and safe, protected by the Mexican government. This protection came at a price – John Horse, Wild Cat and their people must now protect the Mexican border from raiders from United States and the Comanche. They did this faithfully for many years and after emancipation many black Seminoles returned to United States to serve as scouts for the Union forces in the civil war.

John remained in Mexico, defending the border of the state Coahuila, and led his peoples in many battles against Comanche raiders, using his experience from the second Seminole war to avoid traps and ambushes and to ambush many raiders. Wild Cat had unfortunately died the smallpox shortly after arriving in Mexico and most of the Seminoles and Kickapoos who had followed him had drifted away over the years, until eventually only the black Seminoles remained with John.

In 1882 Mexican landowners were attempting to force the black Seminoles off their land and John, now an old man in his seventies and leader of his people, decided he had to speak to the Mexican government to reaffirm the contract between them. John saddled his horse and rode off towards Mexico City but never arrived and was never seen again. It is believed that he passed away during the trip, but his end remains shrouded in mystery.

Several hundred descendants of the black Seminoles still live in Coahuila today and are known as Mascogos.

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