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Osceola: A Brief Account and Evaluation of His Life
by Collin J. Overby (MLRHR, MSW), Seminole descendent
During 1837, the battles and skirmishes continued under the Command of General Jesup. In one engagement, William Katz reports, Jesup men stormed Osceola's headquarters and captured fifty five of his men; fifty two of whom were black. Osceola, however, escaped General Jesup who was being pressured from all sides the white slave owners to protect their land, and the U.S. government to end this costly war. On March 6, 1837, both sides signed a treaty granting the Seminoles the right to: "Keep their Negroes, their bona fide property and shall accompany them to the West" (60).
Jesup, however, felt that he could adopt and use a military strategy aimed at breaking the racial alliance that existed, in part because he believed the "Negroes, ruled the Indians." By late 1837, according to Katz, the "noose was tightening around the Seminole neck, but the Nation showed no willingness to surrender. Those most determined to fight gathered around Osceola and another war chief, Chief Wildcat" (6 3). In the final months of his effort, Jesup resorted to "full scale" deception and hostage seizure.
Jesup captured Chief Wildcat's father and brother, King Philip and John Philip, and was using their capture to force negotiations with Wildcat for their release, when Wildcat came to negotiate his relatives release, Jesup wanted to seize him for his part in the conduction of recent successful hostage rescues; but decided instead to use him to organize a final peace conference with the Seminoles. For this reason, Jesup sent Wildcat, bearing a white flag, to bring other leading Seminoles to him so he could negotiate with the Indians regarding their relocation (Katz, 63 ).
According to McNeer, in preparation for the conference with General Jesup, Osceola wore his ceremonial dress, turned to an old friend and said, "I may not see you again" (108).
McNeer goes on to say, the conference was held at Fort Peyton, which was approximately eight miles south of St. Augustine, Florida. Osceola approached the meeting with seventy warriors, followed by their wives and children. Beside Osceola walked a warrior carrying a flag of truce. Awaiting the delegation was Jesup's representative, General Hernandez, standing with 200 troops. As Osceola approached, he could sensed danger. Hernandez began questioning Osceola as to whether other Seminole leaders had held a council, and if they had decided to go to the land provide for them in Oklahoma, by the U. S. government.
Osceola listened to the General's question: "Why haven't the chief come to tell me, and to surrender?" ; then Osceola murmured something in a low voice which was interpreted as: "He says his throat feels choked. He can not answer this question. He . . . ."(108). At this point, General Hernandez abruptly raised his arm in a pre arranged signal which caused the troops to quickly surround the Indians, disarm them, and take them prisoners. Osceola was seized so violently that he almost fell (1 I 1).
General Jesup, who had planned this treacherous capture, under a 'flag of truce, arrived as Osceola and his warriors were being marched under guard to St. Augustine. As vividly described by McNeer, Osceola walked quietly between a double file of soldiers. His face was stony with grief, and his eyes burned with anger and hatred (see pic. p. 35).
The scene was a mad and curious one, as an excited soldier galloped through the town to announce to the men at Fort Marion that prisoners were in route. Word was shouted from house to house: "Osceola has been taken! They're bringing him to the Fort. He was taken under a flag of truce, Jesup gave the orders"(112). Osceola and his warriors were marched into the courtyard of Fort Marion, an old Spanish castle, and taken to a cell. They were then officially unconquered prisoners.
Illness and Death
Following Osceola's treacherous capture and imprisonment at Fort Marion, he, together with his two wives, children, and some 250 Indians and Indian chiefs were shipped to and imprisoned in Fort Moultrie at Charleston, S.C. (Ft. Moultrie was originally called Ft. Sullivan for the island on which it was located. They arrived on the S.S. Poinsette on January 1, 1838, according to the Hartleys. May McNeer adds that he also was accompanied by Dr. Frederick Weedon who had gone to Charleston at Osceola's request, and who attended him during his periods of illness, from January 26 to January 30, 1838.
According to Dr. Weedon's account, as quoted by the Hartleys, on January 26, he was awakened and summoned by an Indian interpreter to attend to Osceola. When Dr. Weedon arrived, he found Osceola lying on his blankets on the floor before a flickering fire in the fireplace. Nearby were his two wives and two of his children. Osceola was immediately diagnosed as suffering from a violent attach of quinsy (an acute inflammation of the tonsils). Dr. Weedon states, "He was laboring under considerable difficulty of deglutition (a difficulty swallowing) and respiration, accompanied with pain and inflammation of the tonsils. To prevent suffocation and pain, it was necessary to support him in nearly an erect position. His pulse was full, quick, and hard. Blood was instantly drawn and an emetic (a substance that induces vomiting) and a blister prescribed" (245).
Dr. Weedon continues: "at this moment an Indian entered the room who as I afterward understood was in high esteem as a Prophet and Doctor. From the moment of his entrance, there was a refusal to take anything. Finding himself debarred from the administration of suitable remedies, and feeling the responsibility devolving upon me. I requested Professor B.B. Strobel, M.D. and Professor of anatomy at Charleston Medical College, to visit the patient with me. He (Dr. Strobel) attended and used his best exertions to prevail on the patient to submit to treatment such as scarification (making numerous small superficial incisions in the skin), leeching, etc. but, he perniciously refused . . ."(246). McNeer believes, however, it was the Prophet who twice emphatically refused further medical treatment (144).
On January 29, Osceola bid farewell to artist George Catlin who had become his friend. He later asked Dr. Weedon to describe the final moments of his life to his friend Catlin who had left for Philadelphia. On January 3 0, 183 8, according to the Hartleys, Osceola realized his life was coming to an end, and although he was unable to speak, requested (using signs) that Dr. Weedon assemble the chiefs and the officers of the Fort. He then signaled to his wives to bring his full dress, which he wore in time of war, so that he might receive the officials dressed appropriately.
He rose and carefully dressed himself; paying close attention to details and completeness of accessories leggings, moccasins, war belt, bullet pouch, powder horn, etc . . . and laid his knife at his: side on the floor. He applied, with difficulty, red war paint in the traditional manner, which preceded battle, and sheathed his knife in his belt. Being thus prepared in full dress, he lay down a few minutes to recover his strength before sitting to bid farewell to Dr. Weedon, the chiefs, the officers of the Fort, his wives and his children. Once assembled, Osceola smiled and shook hands with each of them. Shortly after these farewells, he was lowered onto his bed where he removed his war belt and his scalping knife. He grasped the knife in his right hand, and placed it across his chest. In a moment, Osceola gave a smile, and quietly drew his last breath (Hartley, 248).
Osceola was given a military funeral on January 31, 1838, the day after his death. His funeral is described by McNeer as follows: "He had an escort of two doctors, the Seminole Indians, who were led by the chiefs, the officers of the army post, and a detachment of troops Boats came over from Charleston all day in a choppy sea, carrying people who wished to attend the funeral of Osceola. A large group stood by in a cold salt wind, with head bowed as the troops fired a last salute over the grave of brave and valiant warrior"( 148).
Osceola was buried on Sullivan Island near the fort where he died. A marble stone, or slab, at his graveside bears the inscription:
PATRIOT AND WARRIOR
DIED AT FORT MOULTRIE
JANUARY 30, 1838
During the following months, all of the Seminoles who were captives with Osceola were transported to the western territories. It should be noted, however, that Osceola's war with the white man continued under other leadership.
Evidence of the greatness of Osceola has been preserved, manifested and extolled in numerous ways by his peers, historians, descendants and places and things named in his honor.
According to May McNeer (Foreword), the great granddaughter of Dr. Weedon, the physician who cared for Osceola during his last illness, the family still preserves Osceola's peace pipe, a silver neck ornament, a braided lock of hair and letters about the Seminole war leader. Moreover, the myth still exists about the disappearance of Osceola's head, which supposedly was cut off by Dr. Weedon after Osceola's death.
George Catlin, an outstanding artist and white friend, painted two portraits of Osceola during Osceola's imprisonment at Fort Moultrie. One painting is the famous head and shoulder study; the other, a full length figure. Of the latter portrait, Catlin said, "I painted him precisely in the costume in which he stood for the picture, even to a string and a trinket. He wore three ostrich feathers on his head and a turban made of a vari colored cotton shawls, and his dress was chiefly of calicoes, with a handsome bead sack or belt around his waist and a rifle in his hand"(Hartley, 245). This portrait of Osceola, so vividly described by Catlin is currently in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
Moreover, Osceola was so well respected by his peers that he was given a military funeral at his death. He is buried near the main entrance to Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan Island where he had been imprisoned and died. His grave marker, a marble slab, which proclaimed him PATRIOT AND WARRIOR, was supplied by a Charleston resident.
According to William and Ellen Hartley (248), news of his death was reported in newspapers around the world. These notices proclaimed him to be the most famous Indian of his time.
What do historians think and write about Osceola? According to Coe in Red Patriot, as referenced by the Hartley s (249), "Osceola will be remembered for his true patriotism and determined effort against the combined armies of a great and powerful nation in one of the most remarkable struggles known to history. His fame will never die; centuries will come and go, but the name of Osceola will remain as long as the earth is peopled."
To this glowing appraisal authors William and Ellen Hartley add, " One other epitaph should be added: Although he died in prison, Osceola was never conquered. He had never surrendered as a nation"(249).
Osceola is seen by the Hartleys as having shown that the Indian need not be dependent on the handouts of whites. Such handouts were well meaning, but the life of the Seminole Indian could be sustained without such gestures. Moreover, Osceola demonstrated to the Indian warrior that he was the equal of the white man in battle. White soldiers and their leaders were not infallible; they made mistakes and could be defeated. Osceola's two years of leadership had been marked by a series of victories that gave the Seminole warrior confidence.
While not all of the Seminoles caught the fire of Osceola's spirit; and many weakened under the privations of war and the pressures of the white military, enough fought to provide clear evidence of the continuing influence of Osceola's ideas and principles. These influences may not be easily defined or catalogued, but they have been evident through the years in the persistent independence of the Florida Seminole (251 ).
The Hartleys in their Introduction to Osceola, speak of the curious and chilling parallel of the Second Seminole War to the Vietnam War. Their observations are based upon conversations with civilian and military authorities in Washington, D.C., who believed the War with the Seminoles was a microcosm of the War in Vietnam. Both were wars of frustration for the U. S. In each case, vast power was checkmated by lesser force. Both wars, to many, may be regarded as fundamentally immoral. History will likely find that neither war cast much credit on the prevailing U. S. policy(9).
Joe Dan Osceola (who had been told by his Uncle Billy Joe that he is a descendant of Chief Osceola) in conversations with the Hartleys (266) and Capron in "Florida's Emerging Seminoles," in the National Geographic (716 734) speaks not only of the Chiefs past contributions and influences, but also relates these contributions and influences to the lives of present day Seminoles. Evidence of these contributions and influences, can be seen in improvements in housing, life styles and education which while remaining founded in Seminole tradition, have moved forward into the modern world.
For the record, Joe Dan Osceola, who according to the cited references, is considered a remarkable Seminole for his contributions to the quality of Seminole life. He most recently has been service director of the Indian Health Service; past president of the United Southeastern Tribes, Inc.; past president of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc.; and a member of the National Congress of the American Indians.
Joe Dan considers Osceola a man who represented an unconquered people. In addition, because of his beliefs, Joe Dan believes Osceola to have been personally unconquered. He is believed to have had tremendous determination to fight for his beliefs . . . his people's freedom and their land. For the Seminoles (according to Joe Dan), Osceola is similar to a George Washington or a Lincoln . . . a message which continues to be passed to Seminole children today. Knowing that Osceola would not quit, Joe Dan tells his children: "You can't 'give up. No matter what you're doing . . . you must not give up. You're a Seminole and you come from the heritage of Osceola" (Capron, 7 I 6 734).
Finally, Osceola's greatness is evident in lasting references to his name. McNeer states, "Throughout the U. S. you will come upon the name Osceola. It may be the name of a town, a county, a product, or even a man's first name. In Florida, the name is frequently met in lakes, streets, people and places and a naval vessel has born his name"(172).
With respect to present day references, observers point out that although Osceola's name may not be as common as some of the other chiefs, his story and name are not forgotten. His story lives in the folklore of the Seminoles, and the story of his life and death live in the history of our country. His name has been preserved by towns in Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin; and by counties in Florida, Michigan and Iowa.
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