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Written at the Kluge Center: “Violence, Ethnicity and Human Remains During the Second Seminole War”

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Profiling books, articles and other publications written by scholars-in-residence at The John W. Kluge Center and researched using the Library of Congress collections.

The Second Seminole War was the longest and most expensive war between the United States and Native Americans. A violent and miserable conflict, the war began in 1835 after an Indian leader named Osceola murdered a U.S. official and another Indian leader who demanded he acquiesce to U.S. demands. One thousand, four hundred and sixty six U.S. military personnel would lose their lives, 14 percent from disease. According to one account, soldiers and officers were “sent to die, like dogs, in the swamps of Florida.” They ate horses. They drowned. They went insane. They committed suicide. Their mission was to remove approximately 5,000 natives who had elected to remain in Florida despite President Andrew Jackson’s decree that all Native Americans east of Mississippi be removed. By 1842, U.S. officials decided the war was too unpopular and too costly to continue. Approximately 300 natives remained.

Cameron Strang’s 2014 article “Violence, Ethnicity and Human Remains During the Second Seminole War” examines the horrifying and retaliatory violence of this lesser-known conflict. The violence was not restricted to one side: both Whites and Natives brutalized each other through the scalping of enemy heads and the desecration of enemy remains. Strang examines why this violence occurred and suggests how it contributed to each side’s view of the other. His research, published in March 2014 in The Journal of American History, grew out of a lecture he delivered here as a Kislak Fellow in summer 2011. Much of the article’s research was conducted in the Library of Congress Kislak Collection and Strang wrote the first draft of the article while a scholar-in-residence at the Library’s Kluge Center. The finished piece received the Louis Pelzer Memorial Award from the Organization of American Historians.

Violence was not new to Florida. During the 1810s the territory had been a place of continuous warfare. After Florida was ceded to the U.S. by Spain in 1821, a decade of relative peace ensued as American research teams examined its natural curiosities and Native populations. Those Natives were not of uniform ancestry. Some were a branch of Hitchiti-speaking Creeks who had migrated into Florida in the 1700s. Others were Creeks who left Georgia after the Creek War of 1813-1814—including Osceola. The Natives did not conceive of themselves as a unified ethnicity, Strang notes. Though Euro-Americans had called them Seminoles since the 1760s, Florida Natives did not begin to form a collective identity until the early 1800s. What Strang reveals is how the violence of the Second Seminole War cemented that ethnogenesis.

Cameron Strang
Cameron Strang was Kislak Fellow at the Kluge Center in 2011. Photo courtesy the University of Texas at Austin Graduate School.

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson declared Indian removal to be U.S. policy. The refusal of Florida Indians to acquiesce led to the ensuing war. During the conflict both sides “decapitated, scalped and disinterred each other’s bodies,” writes Strang, “and both groups saw such desecrations as profane offenses that warranted equally brutal reprisals.” Indian violence included decapitation, digging out the eyes of mail carriers, and scalped dead soldiers. For Native Americans, White attempts at removal were an affront to their Native ancestors. Connection to the deceased carried immense spiritual meaning in Native religion, and being expelled from the burial ground of their ancestors shattered the bonds between living Indians and those that came before them. As such, disinterring White remains were seen as fair vengeance. Native belief in the afterlife also contributed to Indian violence; one U.S. Army officer reported that the Natives believed that if one had been a successful warrior in life, he would enjoy bounty and harmony in the afterlife. Scalping in particular had been an aspect of southeastern warfare since the 1500s, and Seminoles continued the practice as a means to placate the souls of the dead. Strang described in his Kluge Center lecture how the scalps of American soldiers were presented to Native medicine chiefs, arranged upon a 10-foot pole, and celebratory dances conducted around them.

White soldiers also scalped Natives. An American lieutenant who collected two scalps during the war said, “I like to carry home some tangible ividence of my valor, so… I can support my reputation in the neighborhood of being of sheer meat axe disposition!” White soldiers commonly cut off the heads of recently killed Seminoles and mutilated their remains. Like their Native counterparts, White Americans also collected the heads of Natives and delivered them to medical practitioners and craniologists. The head of Osceola was decapitated by Dr. Frederick Weedon, embalmed, and used by him as a tool for disciplining his children. It was ultimately sent to New York and displayed in a museum until 1866 when it was destroyed by a fire. Over 300 skulls wound up in American scientific institutions, some, but by no means all, not repatriated until the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

The use of Native skulls for phrenological evaluation helped to advance a particular White narrative. Phrenologists who examined Seminole skulls published findings that stated that Seminoles were, indeed, an appropriate catchall term for Florida Indians—disavowing the Natives’ diverse heritage—and that the composition of Seminole skulls indicated that they were inherently violent. The skulls were presented as proof that, as Strang writes, “Seminoles were a unified ethnic group that lacked meaningful attachments to Florida and whose brains were so geared toward violence that their extermination seemed inevitable.”

Just as Whites used the violence of the Seminole War to shape their assessment of the enemy, Natives used the violence of the war to shape their own identity. Violence was a unifying factor for Natives; in an effort to fend off displacement, disparate Native people rallied around a common rejection of white people and culture. The scalps presented to religious leaders were thought to appease and avenge the dead, and fighting against removal cemented the bonds between the dead, the living, and the land. These all worked together to form a new sense of Seminole identity. The war, in effect, created the modern Seminole: both how he was viewed by Americans, and how he was envisioned by Natives. One claimed legitimacy for removal; the other legitimacy for remaining.

That the Seminole War occurred, and that it was a nasty and bloody conflict, is a historical fact. Strang’s research pushes us past facts into interpretation, analyzing the complex interconnection of war, violence, science, and identity that ultimately shaped Seminole presence in Florida today. The horrific cycle of violence pushed the two sides apart in more ways than solely on the battlefield. “Both scalping and skull collecting fed off the general context of violence against the enemy dead and both practices contributed to the Seminoles’ and Whites’ sense of ethic difference,” Strang observed in his 2011 lecture. “Once removed from the dead, scalps and skulls generated fresh emotions, knowledge and associations. Unfortunately most of the lessons that both sides drew from each other remains did more to perpetuate interracial violence than reconcile differences.”

Cameron Strang was a Kislak Fellow at the Kluge Center in 2011, researching “Entangled Knowledge, Expanding Nation: Local Science and the United States Empire in the Southeast Borderlands, 1763-1840.” His article “Violence, Ethnicity, and Human Remains During the Second Seminole War,” published in The Journal of American History in March 2014, was researched and drafted at the Kluge Center. He is currently Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nevada, Reno. This post, and others in this series, does not constitute the Library’s endorsement of the views of the individual scholar or an endorsement of the publisher.

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