Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)
In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of revcom.us. Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.
See all the articles in this series.
Florida became the 27th state in 1845, and in recent years has played a prominent part in U.S. politics. Many school children learn the dates different states entered the union, but have no idea of the history that led up to statehood. In Florida’s case, it involved numerous invasions of Spanish territory, the bloody ending of Florida as a refuge for escaped Black slaves and indigenous people, and the genocidal conquest of the Seminole nation, all serving as a major driver in the expansion of slavery in Florida, and overall. Andrew Jackson, as military general and then U.S. president, played a key role in carrying out all of these crimes.
Spanish Florida, 1693-1821: A Refuge for Native Americans and Runaway Slaves
The territory that would one day become the state of Florida was “discovered” by the Spanish explorer Ponce de León in 1513. Indigenous peoples had already occupied the land for 14,000 years before his arrival, and estimates are that 100,000-350,000 were living there when the Spanish first set foot. But by the start of the 1700s, most of the original inhabitants had been killed in battles with Spanish troops and by diseases brought by European colonizers.
In 1693, Spain abolished slavery in La Florida, and as cotton plantations and slavery in the U.S. expanded into Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, runaway slaves began to escape across the border, where they found safe haven among the Seminole Indians. They were joined by Creek and other Native peoples whose land had been stolen by the settlers, creating settlements of free ex-slaves and Seminole Indians. To the planters in Georgia and the Carolinas, the existence of a haven for free, escaped slaves across the border was a magnet encouraging even more slaves to escape.
In 1815 a fully armed fort in La Florida, abandoned by the British after the War of 1812, was taken over by 300 former slaves and 30 Seminole Indians who had fought on the side of the British in the war. News of “Negro Fort” (as it came to be called) attracted as many as 800 escaped slaves who settled in the surrounding area. The inhabitants of Negro Fort provided protection for the free community that settled around it. According to the Savannah Journal, “fugitives” ran from as far away as Tennessee and the Mississippi Territory to seek refuge at the fort.1 The pro-slavery press in the U.S. expressed outrage at the existence of Negro Fort.
The “Negro Fort” Massacre: the Start of the Seminole Wars and the Takeover of Spanish Florida
In March 1816, under mounting pressure from Georgia slaveholders, General Andrew Jackson ordered a commander of U.S. military forces to attack and destroy the fort and “restore the stolen negros and property to their rightful owners.” Jackson, a slave owner from Tennessee, was already known as a champion of “Indian removal,” after he led U.S. forces to defeat a part of the Creek nation in 1814 at the battle of Horseshoe Bend, taking 22 million acres of their land in southern Georgia and central Alabama and driving tens of thousands of Creek warriors into Spanish Florida.2
On July 27, 1816, U.S. troops blew up Negro Fort and massacred 270 men, women, and children. A U.S. colonel wrote to the Secretary of the Navy praising its destruction:
The force of the negroes was daily increasing; and they felt themselves so strong and secure that they had commenced several plantations on the fertile banks of the Apalachicola [River], which would have yielded them every article of sustenance, and which would, consequently, in a short time have rendered their establishment quite formidable and highly injurious to the neighboring States.3
The battle of Negro Fort was the beginning of Jackson’s conquest of La Florida, and the start of what was later called the First Seminole War. U.S. military forces invaded Spanish Florida, scattered villagers, burned their towns, and drove the Seminoles off their lands and deeper into Florida. Captured slaves were returned to their owners, who carried out horrific punishments such as amputating limbs, whippings, and branding.
In 1817, Jackson led military forces to take control of Pensacola, the center of Spanish rule in Florida, with the backing of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who defended Jackson’s invasion in the name of “national defense.” After first demanding Jackson be arrested and punished, Spain eventually agreed to cede its territory, and in 1821 the United States took formal possession of the territory of Florida.
Slavery was now legal in Florida, leading some free Blacks and Black Seminoles to flee to Havana, Cuba, to avoid coming under U.S. control. Andrew Jackson became the first military governor of Florida, and the city of Jacksonville was named after him.
From Territory to Statehood: Expansion of Slave Plantations and Ethnic Cleansing of the Seminoles
The central conflict of territorial Florida was now the removal of the Native people. Cotton plantations quickly developed in Florida, and pressure grew on the U.S. government to remove the Seminoles and open up their lands for the expansion of cotton production. This was the case throughout the southern states. The invention of the cotton gin had made the value of cotton as a cash crop skyrocket, and the explosive growth of the cotton industry of the South greatly increased the demand for both land and slave labor.4 By some estimates, the United States was supplying three-quarters of the global demand for cotton by the start of the Civil War.
Millions of acres of land in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee belonged to the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations—known as the “Five Civilized Tribes.”5 Andrew Jackson became president in 1828. In his 1829 Message to Congress, Jackson called for “Indian Removal,” and in 1830 he secured passage of the Indian Removal Act. The Act gave the federal government the power to “exchange” Native-held land in the slave states east of the Mississippi for land to the west, the “Indian colonization zone.” At the beginning of the 1830s, nearly 125,000 Native Americans were living on millions of acres of land in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida—land their ancestors had occupied and cultivated for generations. By the end of the decade, 100,000 had been removed from their homelands, and thousands died while being forced on a deadly journey of nearly a thousand miles, known as the Trail of Tears. (See American Crime, Case #44: The Trail of Tears, 1838-39.)
In Florida, U.S. Indian agents were unable to convince the Seminoles to abandon their land and move west, and in 1835 the Florida Seminoles waged a war of resistance, leading to what’s considered the main Seminole War. The Seminoles withdrew into the Everglades and fought using guerrilla tactics, with runaway slaves fighting beside them. After two years, and only by capturing their chiefs by luring them under a false flag of truce, the fighting died down.
The Seminoles were eventually forced to move to Oklahoma. By the time Florida became a state in 1845, nearly all of the Seminoles were gone, except for a small group living in the Everglades. Almost half the state’s population were enslaved African-Americans working on large cotton and sugar plantations.
Andrew Jackson was a champion of the expansion of slavery and the genocidal “removal” of the Native peoples. He played a direct role in the decades-long effort that took La Florida from Spain, opened it up for slave plantations, and saw to it that the Florida Seminoles were ethnically cleansed so their lands could be taken by white settlers. As president, Jackson pushed to make “Indian Removal” the official federal answer to the white southern planters’ craving for the lands of the Native peoples to expand slave production. Jackson didn’t hesitate to violate international law and invade Spanish Florida repeatedly to serve the slave owners. And when, in 1832, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee nation was sovereign, and that Georgia had no rights to enforce state laws in its territory,6 President Jackson reportedly said: “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it,” and ordered the expulsion of the Cherokee nation from Georgia.
All of the leaders of the U.S. government during this period, including James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Martin Van Buren, in one way or another were committed to and oversaw the “removal” of the Indian nations to clear the land for the expansion of slavery.
The Americans justified their incursions into and occupation of parts of Spanish Florida without consent, and their ultimate takeover, under the banners of “national defense” and the rightful return of plantation property (slaves).
This was the period of the emergence of Manifest Destiny—the idea that the God-given superiority of the white Europeans in America gave them a sacred duty to “redeem” and “remake” the continent and beyond. This white-supremacist outlook, promoted by major political figures, intellectuals, and U.S. media of the day, is what justified the genocidal ethnic cleansing of the millions of Native peoples, and the ever-expanding enslavement and the more brutal exploitation of millions of enslaved Blacks essential to the expansion of the slave mode of production.
In his 1829 Message to Congress, “On Indian Removal,” President Jackson presented the genocidal ethnic cleansing of the five principal sovereign Indian nations in the Southeast as the generous gift from the superior white settlers to a lesser people needing guidance:
The consequences of a speedy removal will be important to the United States, to individual States, and to the Indians themselves.... It puts an end to all possible danger of collision between the authorities of the General and State Governments on account of the Indians. It will place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters.... It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.7
THE REAL MOTIVE:
The existence of ex-slaves and their integration with the Seminoles, first in Spanish Florida and continuing after Florida became a U.S. territory, posed a danger to the slavery system not just in Georgia and Florida but overall. This concern became all the more real as word spread of the victory of the slave rebellion in Haiti—the first successful slave revolt in history—leading to independence in 1804.8 This made the massacre of Negro Fort, and the genocidal war against the Seminoles, essential to the continued expansion of cotton production far beyond Florida.
In the early 1800s, with the advent of the cotton gin, U.S. cotton production was dramatically expanding deeper, further, and wider in the southeastern part of the country. The seizure of land to raise cotton and expand slavery was critical for the growth of the economy of the South—and for the rulers of the country as a whole, as the textile mills in the North supplied by southern cotton were expanding production as well. What stood in the way of this expansion were the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations and their native lands.
As far as American slave owners and their political representatives were concerned, the period of negotiating treaties of coexistence between sovereign native peoples and white settlers was over. Native peoples’ land was too valuable as a source of wealth for expanding cotton plantations. The time for “Indian Removal”—ethnic cleansing and genocide—had arrived.
2. The actions of the U.S. soldiers that followed were a monstrous depravity. “After the battle, Jackson’s troops made bridle reins from skin taken from Indian corpses, conducted a body count by cutting off the tips of their noses, and sent their clothing as souvenirs to the ‘ladies of Tennessee.’” (Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror, Little, Brown, 1993, p. 85. [back]
3. Finding African-American History, and Florida’s Angola Community, VisitFlorida.com. [back]
4. The cotton gin, invented in 1793, greatly reduced the time it took to separate cotton fibers from its seeds. [back]
5. The Five Civilized Tribes refers to five Native American nations that adopted some of the attributes of the Europeans, such as Christianity, literacy, centralized governments, written constitutions, intermarriage with white Americans, and plantation slavery practices. [back]
8. “The Haitian Revolution sent shivers through European possessions across the Caribbean and Latin America, and into the newly independent United States. It became a tremendous symbol of hope for slaves throughout these countries, and one of tremulous fear for their masters, particularly those living in the colonies. (“The Threat of a Free Haiti,” by Samuel Farber, Jacobin. [back]