American Indian languages
American Indian peoples
What's new on our site today!
Osceola: A Brief Account and Evaluation of His Life
by Collin J. Overby (MLRHR, MSW), Seminole descendent
Author's Note: This research paper is dedicated to my paternal grandmother, Mildred Rivers Overby. Grandmama Mildred often entertained me with interesting stories and old photographs relative to her Indian lineage. She was born in Miami, Florida and reared in the small picturesque Indian town of Palatka, Florida, which is located at the mouth of the St. Johns River.
Mildred is the daughter of Leona Hall and Joseph Rivers. Leona (born in 1896 in Thomasville, Georgia) was the daughter of Ansel, an Indian, and Louis Hall, a white man. Joseph Rivers (my great grandfather) traces his lineage to the union of his grandparents (my great, great, great grandparents) a Spaniard and a full blooded Seminole woman.
My writing of this paper was undertaken in response to my budding interests in my lineage due, in great part, to the effects of my grandmother's stories, but also due to my newly heightened interest in the history of the deplorable treatment of the American Indian (including the Seminoles) at the hands of the United States.
In order to understand the life and times of Osceola (and his relation to them, an overview of the late 1700's and early 1800's in the United States, as they related to the Seminoles, is useful.
During this period, the Seminoles fought to maintain their land in Florida, and opposed the United State government as it attempted to force them to move west to the Indian Territory, now known as Oklahoma. The Seminoles originally were a part of the Creek confederation of tribes. They lived in what today is Alabama and Georgia. In the early 1700's, however, the tribe moved into Florida which was then occupied primarily by the Spanish. Once in Florida, the tribe became known as "Runaways" or Seminoles.
In the late 1700's, the English occupied Florida, and often incited the Seminoles to attack United State settlers. During this same time period, escaped black slaves were often welcome by the Seminoles. As a results of these two reasons, the United States invaded Florida in the 1817 1818 time frame, and started the First Seminole War. U.S. troops who were commanded by General Andrew Jackson, defeated the Indians.
In 1819, the United States acquired Florida, and began urging the Indians there to sell their land and move west to the Indian Territory along with other southeastern tribes. Some Seminoles groups came to terms with the United States in 1832, and moved to the Territory. Other groups of Seminoles resisted the U. S. advances, and fled into the Florida swamps. As a result, the Second Seminole War was fought to force the Indians to go west in 1835. This war lasted for seven years, and cost the United States more than a thousand lives and tens of millions of dollars. Osceola lead the Seminole Nation during this conflict, until he was tricked while negotiating peace under a flag of truce and subsequently imprisoned. Osceola died while imprisoned in 1838, but his desire to keep Seminole land and resist relocation continued in the Everglades until 1842.
Childhood and Youth
Researching Osceola's life is comparable to attempting to put together a jig saw puzzle with many missing pieces. His life is inextricably intertwined with the cultural, economic and political events of his time. From a historical perspective his, childhood, youth and adult life were influenced by three wars: the Creek war (1813 1814), the First Seminole war (1817 1818), and the Second Seminole war (183 5 1842).
The Seminoles are a tribe of the Muskhogean family allied closely to the Hitchiti and Creek. They formerly lived in southern Georgia and northern Florida. They are usually thought of as inhabitants of the semitropical, swampy country of Florida, even though they did not enter the Everglades until after a long and bitter war with the white man.
Seminole men usually were tall and well proportioned. They wore long kneelength shirts of striped material, tied around the waist by a cord from which hung bags or pouches for pockets. The Seminole lived on various game deer, turkeys, fish, and turtles, which they roasted in their shells. Traditional Seminole homes were made mostly from the palmetto tree, and were open on all sides, much like a covered platform (Davison, 280).
By far the greatest, as well as the most famous leader of the Seminole tribe, was Chief Osceola. Osceola was born in the Upper Creek town of Tallahassee near present day Macon County, Alabama, northwest of modern Montgomery, in or about 1804. (It should be noted that at that time the Creek Indians who migrated to the sparely populated area of Florida to form the Seminoles were often divided into two groups know as "Upper Creeks" and "Lower Creeks." "Upper Creeks", or Red Sticks, were mostly from Alabama, and generally rejected assimilation with the white man. "Lower Creeks", on the other hand, were primarily from central Georgia, and welcomed assimilation.)
Osceola was born to a Scottish father and a Seminole mother in Tallahassee, which at that time was a town of mixed cultures of Indian, Irish, English, Scottish and African. Osceola being an "Upper Creek" Indian spoke Muskogee (Hartley, 23 ).
There is no record of Osceola's given name at birth, because most American Creek (Muskogee) boys were named first from something seen or experienced by adults at the time of birth. The permanent, or adult, name was given sometime during young manhood and often after an act of valor or sometimes from an outstanding characteristic. ``Osceola's adult name was derived from Asi, meaning ``Black Drink" and Yaholo, meaning ``Singer." At one of the Indian rituals, the Green Corn Dance, men consumed a black drink ,and the server shouted the loud cry, Asi Yaholo." Thus, the name Asi Yaholo, meant Black Drink Singer. Whites pronounced Asi Yaholo as Osceola, and this would become his permanent name later in life (Hartley, 23 ).
Osceola, known as Billy Powell in his youth, is thought by many historians to be the son of William Powell, a white trader of the Tallasse area and an Indian woman named Polly Copinger. Osceola later denounced the name Powell, and declared emphatically that, "No foreign blood runs through my veins. I am a pure blooded Muskogee" (Coe, 23 ).
The most credible explanation of Osceola's lineage is given by T. S. Woodward, who traced Osceola's lineage back to a Scot, James McQueen, and Sally, an Indian Princess" (McNeer, 9). Based on my readings from various authors, I believe Osceola's lineage has not been diagrammed previously, and can be illustrated as follows below:
James McQueen (Scot) married Sally (Tallahassee Indian Princess)
Ann McQueen (daughter) married Copinger (white)
Polly Copinger (daughter) married William Powell (white trader)
Osceola had no official standing in his tribe because his father had not been a chief. His boyhood was like that of all young Seminole males. When he was too large to be carried by his mother, he toddled upon the platform floor of the chickee, or palm thatched hut in the village (see pic. pp. 29 & 30). The huts were built around a cooking chickee that stood in the center. The cooking chickee is nothing more than a roof without the two foot high floor. The ground served as a floor for the chickee. In the cooking chickee, the fire always burned. The fire was made of large logs which were laid like the spokes of a wheel with flames in the middle.
The sacred festival of the Green Corn Dance was likely the annual highlight of his childhood. Men and women danced for days, and children sang tribal songs dedicated to their elders. The people danced to the sound of drums and rattles, which were made from turtle shells, and feasted on meats and mush corn (Hartley, 18 21).
McNeer (30 3 1) believes there is abundant evidence to support the conclusion that Osceola was superlatively competent at all Muskogee sports. He was a skilled wrestler, runner, ball player, jumper and an all around Indian athlete. Though Osceola had no formal education, learning came primarily from observation, imitation and trial and error (McNeer, 27).
When Osceola was about nine years of age (1813), he and his mother, Polly, along with his grandmother, Ann, were forced to leave their home and flee into the swamps of northern Florida, when a band of white soldiers and White Creeks (White Sticks approached and burned their village. This incident remained deeply embedded in Osceola's young mind, as he and his family drifted from place to place (McNeer, 2).
During this vagabond period, Osceola and his family sought refuge at Negro Fort, a deserted British fort where many runaways, Negroes and Indians (Red Sticks, existed safely until U. S. troops attacked the fort. Again, Osceola, Polly and Ann were forced to flee into the swamp. Their wandering came to an end when they joined Peter McQueen's (Polly's uncle's) band of approximately 1000 Red Sticks, with whom they migrated to Florida. Ultimately, in a continued search for safety, the family found itself in central Florida.
While in central Florida, the location of Osceola's family's camp was revealed to U.S. troops. Led by a band of White Sticks, the U.S. troops attacked the camp killing many of McQueen's warriors. Surviving warriors fled into the woods; however, Osceola, his mother, grandmother, and some warriors were captured. His grandmother, Ann, secured her family's freedom by promising, if freed, she would try to coerce McQueen and the other survivors to surrender... a promise which did not have to be honored due to the necessity to keep the U. S. troops in the pursuit of various groups of fleeing warriors.
During these fugitive like years, Osceola learned to mistrust the whites, but most of his anger was directed at Upper Creeks who had signed Andrew Jackson's Creek War treaty in 1814, and toward the Lower Creeks who were allied with the whites, such as those Creek warriors who had been with Jackson during his attack of Negro Fort. By now, Osceola had come to regard himself as a Florida or Seminole Indian. He also began to realize that the only difference between Seminoles and native Creeks was that the Seminoles had inhabited Florida earlier than the Creeks.
Osceola had two wives, as was the Indian custom. His first wife was a lovely Indian woman called Morning Dew or Che cho la. Osceola met her when she was 15 years of age, while he was taking a drink from a stream, according to McNeer (42). McNeer goes on to state that Che cho la spoke English, and often served as his interpreter (which likely helped established her place in Seminole history.) Her father was a Seminole and her mother was a Negro who had escaped the whites and joined the Indians many years ago.
Osceola is believed to have been 22 years old when he met and married his first wife, Che cho la. However, not much information is available concerning his second wife. This lack of information Hartley believes may be due in part to the fact that Seminole women almost always avoided contact with white men. While it is true that they appeared at meetings, they were present as a group, and not as identifiable individuals. Contemporary research suggests that Osceola was about 30 years old when his second marriage occurred, and that it occurred in approximately 1834, prior to the outbreak of hostilities of the Second Seminole War.
One may wonder how Osceola's two wives co-existed, and what was the nature of their relationship. According to Cohen (23 I ), as referenced by Hartley (117), "His two better halves live in perfect harmony having one table in common, but occupying separate lodges."
From Che cho la's union with Osceola came four children (Hartley, 118). Most research, however, alludes to Osceola's two wives and two children. The reference being that the two wives and the two children were with him during hostilities and imprisonment over the years. The wives and two children were also said to be at his bedside when he died (1838) at the age of 34.
Go on to Osceola's Military Career
Back to the index of American Indian tribes
Learn about the Seminole languages, Mikasuki and Muskogee
Read our article submission guidelines
Would you like to help support our organization's work with endangered American Indian languages?