In the middle of history: South Georgia and the Seminole Wars

  • Published
  • By Ann Lukens
  • Native American History Month committee
Perhaps like many of you, when I hear the word Seminoles, I think of the Natives Americans located on reservations in Florida. Having been stationed at MacDill in the 1980s, I visited their cultural areas and witnessed alligator wrestling.

What I didn't know was that these people were not indigenous to Florida and that their journey had taken them through south Georgia.

The Seminoles were actually a confederacy of multiple clans that had splintered off from several tribes in the southeastern U.S. They drifted south through Georgia and into Florida, eventually creating small towns along the Suwannee River. By 1790, locals living in Georgia and Spanish colonists had begun identifying these groups as Seminoles. Their towns served as a buffer between Spanish Florida and the newly established United States.

The new nation established a string of small forts throughout south Georgia, including Fort Scott located in what is now Bainbridge. Established in 1816 and named for Gen. Winfield Scott, a hero of the War of 1812, it was considered one of the most significant army posts on the frontier with Spanish Florida.

Tensions between settlers and Seminoles increased as Americans demanded more land occupied by the Seminoles. After the death of a few families along the Georgia border, tensions erupted. This was worsened by the fact the Seminoles were allies with the British. American forces marched out from Fort Scott in November 1817 to Fowl Town (near the present day border between Georgia and Florida) and demanded that Neamathla, a Seminole chief, surrender. When he refused, his village was burned and warriors scattered.

Thus began the Seminole Wars, a series of confrontations between the Seminoles and Americans along the Georgia-Florida border that continued for around 25 years. In addition to land they occupied, the Seminoles incurred the wrath of the inhabitants of Georgia for providing a refuge for fugitive slaves escaping from cotton and rice plantations.

In January 1818, Gen. Andrew Jackson assumed command of all American forces. Using Fort Scott as a starting point, Jackson marched through south Georgia, pushing the Seminoles in front of him until a remnant led by Chief Billy Bowlegs took refuge in the Okefenokee Swamp near Waycross and the rest fled into Spanish colonies in Florida.

General Jackson then turned his army southward and waged war until Spain formally ceded Florida to the U.S. in 1821. The Okefenokee Campaign during the second Seminole War was conducted by Gen. Charles Floyd in 1838 to 1839 and forced the remnant of Seminoles hiding there to either surrender and relocate off their lands or to flee further south into the Florida swamps.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the U.S. continued to "solve" their Native American problem by "relocating" tribes to the new Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) along the Trail of Tears. Entire communities in Georgia, the Carolinas and Alabama that once belonged to Cherokee, Creek and Seminoles and others became the property of Americans.