Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

John Horse: Forgotten African-American Leader of the Second Seminole War

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

John Horse: Forgotten African-American Leader of the Second Seminole War

Article excerpt

Throughout the annals of American history, much of the role of African-Americans has been seriously neglected or misrepresented by historians. The Seminole War is no exception to this rule. While defiant Indian leaders like Osceola and Billy Bowlegs have become well-known and famous for fighting heroically against the might of the United States Army, other key leaders have been ignored. This negligence of important resistance leaders has been greatest in regard to those war chiefs who were not Indian but black. Indeed, one of the most forgotten, but most important, leaders of the Seminole War was the fiery and capable John Horse, who was an African- American.

John Horse first appears in the pages of American history as the result of an amusing incident that occurred in the Florida Territory during October 1826. At Fort Brooke, near present-day Tampa, Florida, blueclad soldiers of the Fourth United States Infantry first met a young man who they would never forget: John Horse, or Juan Cavallo. Spanish lineage was not only indicated by Horse's proper name, but it also showed that he had been a slave owned by a part Hispanic and Indian master in Florida. Certainly it was not the physical appearance of young John Horse that first impressed the West Point educated and blue-blood officers of one of the republic's best infantry regiments.

Indeed, in 1826, John was a member of the Seminole Tribe and fourteen years-of-age. He was gangly, thin, long-legged, and looked somewhat sickly. Hardly could the United States officers stationed at Fort Brooke imagine that one day this unpromising African-American would become a formidable adversary and a highly-skilled military leader who could not be defeated on the battlefield.(1)

Despite appearances, the personal characteristics which most distinguished John Horse at Fort Brooke were his intelligence, savvy, and cunning. During this period, members of the Seminole Tribe often sold turkey, venison, and whooping crane, which had been trapped or shot in the forests and swamps, to the United States garrison at Fort Brooke. By this method, members of the garrison supplemented their routine diets of poor-quality rations with fresh meat. For the United States soldiers, including many recent immigrants from Europe, the tortoise, or "gopher," was considered the best-tasting natural cuisine on the mess table from the Florida wilderness. John Horse knew as much. He, consequently, embarked upon a vigorous hunt through the pine woodlands along Tampa Bay for the turtles that burrowed deep in the sandy soil.

John's band of Seminole had visited Fort Brooke during that fall of 1826. Young Horse and his people were from the picturesque Lake Thonotasy, or Thonotosassa, area, just to the northeast of Tampa Bay. At this time, these African-Americans and Seminoles were safely out of harm's way, or the path of a relentless white encroachment. One balmy autumn day, the "long-legged, lathy negro boy," named John Horse, brought two of the highly coveted turtles to the officer's quarters at Fort Brooke for sale. A deal was quickly struck. John Horse walked away from the profitable transaction with a quarter of a dollar.

Here, at quiet Fort Brooke, John had a close look at the institution of slavery in the antebellum world of white Americans, when the officer's black cook took the turtles and placed them in a small holding area to fatten them up before slaughter. For the next ten days, John repeated the process each morning, bringing two turtles to the fort, striking a deal and walking away with money. The business arrangement with the same United States officers netted John Horse a total of $2.50 in only a week and a half, which was a fantastic sum in 1826 for a young and poor Negro-Seminole in the wilds of untamed Florida.

At the end of ten days, the officer ordered his slave, named Andrew, to evaluate the condition and the number of turtles in the pen. By his own estimation, the soldier expected his supply to have swollen to twenty turtles. …

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