Crazy Horse. Geronimo. Sitting Bull. Cochise. These are some of the names that spring to mind when one thinks of American Indian leaders.
But what about Osceola, the Seminole warrior who led one of the longest and costliest wars fought between a tribe and the United States? Though well known while he lived and also for a time following his death in 1838, he has since been sadly neglected by historians.
Now, in Osceola and the Great Seminole War: A Struggle for Justice and Freedom (St. Martin’s Press, 2012), award-winning author Thom Hatch aims to restore the legendary leader to his rightful place in history. In this 308-page biography, complete with impressive appendix and bibliography, Hatch takes the reader on an epic journey back to early 19th century Florida—a hot, swampy frontier that had become a haven for blacks escaping slavery and American Indians seeking refuge from the encroaching whites.
Osceola, born Billy Powell in 1804, was actually a mixed-blood Creek from Tallassee, Alabama. While still young he was forced southward with his family and other tribal members after their village was burned to the ground by U.S. soldiers. He was taken in by the Seminoles—who at the time, as Hatch notes, were a mix of Indians from other tribes, mainly Creek.
Osceola would find his new home anything but peaceful. He grew to manhood surrounded by oppression and strife. He witnessed the First Seminole War (1817–1818), which was waged against the Seminoles and their black allies. He bore witness, too, to the 1823 treaty signed at Moultrie Creek, whereby the tribe ceded 28 million acres in the establishment of a 4 million–acre reservation.
Osceola openly opposed the whites after two more treaties were signed—one at Payne’s Landing in 1832 that stipulated the removal of the Seminole from Florida, and another at Fort Gibson (in today’s Oklahoma) a year later. By that time, he had risen to a leadership position within the tribe. Though married, a father and unwilling to leave his homeland, Osceola nonetheless declared hostilities in 1835, sparking the Second Seminole War.
According to Hatch, the conflict cost $30 million to $40 million and thousands of lives on both sides over seven years. That the tribe achieved victory after victory was due to the courage and cunning of one man—Osceola.
Not From Central Casting: The Eastern Warrior
Thom Hatch, author of The Blue, the Gray, and the Red: Indian Campaigns of the Civil War (Stackpole, 2003), discussed his research for Osceola and the Great Seminole War and explained why he turned his attention to Florida.
Your other books mainly deal with the history of Indian people west of the Mississippi. What drew you southeast?
Well, I have known the story for a long time. I was looking at writing another book, and I kept coming back to that. I discussed it with my late agent, and [he] fell in love with it. He said, “We got to do this.” It was just a void in history that cried out to be filled. To me, [Osceola] was the number one warrior in American history.
Why do you believe, despite his popularity when he lived, that he faded into obscurity?
I think, and I hate to say this, if you have a copy of the book and look at the picture of Osceola on it, which George Catlin painted and was supposedly a very striking resemblance, he does not look like a warrior. He looks more like you could put him in a tuxedo, and he would be a statesman—and he was known as a very handsome man. I think it was the ferociousness factor. You look at pictures of Sitting Bull, Geronimo—the defiant look they had. To me Osceola was defiant in action rather than looks. Also, he was [from the East]. A lot of Westerns in the 1950s and even before that were very big in the movies and on television. He did not fit into that mold.
How valuable was the Seminole Tribe of Florida in your research?
Well, I had some contacts, who don’t wish to be identified. So they were not identified in the book. I should probably leave it at that.
What hole did you desperately want to fill but could not?
His marriage or marriages. There really is no evidence. We know that he did get married. We know he did have children. There is a controversy over whether one or both of his wives were black or were partially black or descendants of slaves who had run away.
Of all of Osceola’s exploits, which one really gave you goose bumps?
That’s a very tough one, but I think the Battle of Withlacoochee. That is where they discovered they could fight—the Seminoles could match up with the army on their terms in a pitched battle—and that is the battle in which Osceola shed blood on the battlefield.