A few years ago, while on a search for Seminole materials and music recordings at institutions around the globe, I came across records too important to dismiss – the Bureau of Indian Affairs Seminole removal records. The National Anthropological Archives in Washington, D.C. holds these documents from the Seminole War time in their collection and stores the scans on microfilm. (Microfilm 234 Roll 291). Considering the importance of the records and the mission of the museum to inform the world of the accurate history of the Tribe, we ordered scans for the Museum
Library and have been compiling a finding aid for the past two years. Working at this slow pace has given me the opportunity to read each record. In this column I want to substantiate the Collection staff’s writings, on the War and its devastating effects in remembrance of the Tribe’s 60th anniversary this year, with these primary sources so poignant and disarming they can make you cry.
The first set of records numbers over 900 and the second set over 500, spanning the years 1839 – 1853. Included are personal letters, form letters, muster rolls, letters asking for money, letters listing money spent, and letters with arguments about getting money back. There are documents with famous names such as Alligator (record 0476) and General (Zachary) Taylor (records 0006 – 0007) – and famous places like Payne’s Landing (records 011 – 0164) and New Orleans (record 0006). When all are synthesized and analyzed, the point of this correspondence (and let’s be honest, removal) can be summed up in one word: money. Money was the driver and the U.S. military, the bank.
The oldest letters on the first roll of documents are from 1839 and take a few moments to decipher – not the content but the very old school cursive, penned in liquid ink. These letters address the monies given to the “Apalachicola Indians … under terms of the Treaty of Payne’s Landing” when the U.S. government confiscated their land after they had “enrolled for emigration” to “country set apart for Indians west of the Mississippi.” Reading letter after letter, sent from Captain John J. Abercrombie to T. Hartley Crawford, identifying each man by name, gives the reader a sense of the magnitude of the removal and the loss. Picture the heart wrenching scene of a man receiving a small sum for the land he farmed, lived on, where he raised his family, and walking away knowing he was leaving it forever, but not knowing what awaited him and his family in the west.
Many letters start out with the phrase “it is my honor” to inform the higher up of action counted as success. The writer of letter no. 0006, Capt. Abercrombie, says it is his honor to be under General (Zachary) Taylor’s orders to move Indians north to New Orleans and return with several chiefs to be retained as agents in the removal of others from Florida. From what we already know from historical accounts, we can imagine the duress any leader would feel under that kind of (U.S. military) pressure. Not to mention the destabilization brought on by such tactics used against a threatened group. Despite the U.S. military’s might and the “successes” proclaimed in these letters, when Seminoles began to congregate under a strong leader, U.S. officials began to worry. If they wanted one Tribal member to work against the other, as shown in letter 0006 (referenced above), they certainly wouldn’t want displaced persons, removed to Indian Country, to join together under one powerful, influential leader outside their control. Document 0476, accompanying this article, is proof of the U.S. military’s discomfort at even the intimation of such a thing. In the letter, dated June 13, 1841, Major Armstrong states that “Alligator … is using his influence to induce many of the emigrants as they arrive to join him, so as to give him strength … Alligator should be removed from Cherokee Country and placed with the other Seminoles.”
These removal records contain many important historical facts that help us to more accurately tell the Seminole story. As a testament to the acts of removal, they stand alone, but more importantly, they testify to the courage and ingenuity of those resisting.
Everyone is welcome to come to the Museum Library and have a look. Much is left to be discovered and dissected in these documents; come and join the search.
Museum library hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. To make an appointment, call 863-902-1113, ext. 12252 (Mary Beth Rosebrough) – or just drop by.