Miss Charles by Jeff Guinn

Michael has a BA in History & American Studies and an MSc in American History from the University of Edinburgh. He comes from a proud military family and has spent most of his career as an educator in the Middle East and Asia. His passion is travel, and he seizes any opportunity to share his experiences in the most immersive way possible, whether at sea or on the land.

Back to Fort Clark
Posted on Sun, Sep. 15, 2002
Miss Charles speaks
Jeff Guinn
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

One day in summer 1994, Star-Telegram Books Editor Jeff Guinn headed to Brackettville, Texas, to write a newspaper story on the little-known past of the Seminole African, whose descendants still live in the dusty little town. This journey inspired his book, Our Land Before We Die: The Proud Story of the Seminole African , published this week and nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award by publisher Tarcher/Putnam. It is the first oral history of the Seminole African ever written. Guinn's book tells us of a people who sought shelter in the shadow of a tribe whose land and welfare already hung in the balance. And yet in their tireless journey -- from Florida to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, on the 700-mile flight from persecution that took them across the Rio Grande into Mexico, and then back across the Rio Grande to Texas -- they never surrendered hope of attaining land of their own. But that hope was continually thwarted; in 1914, after decades of dedicated, distinguished performance as scouts in battles against the Comanche, Apache and border outlaws, the Seminole African were marched at gunpoint off the grounds of Fort Clark in Brackettville. The government had no more use for them, or for the agreement the tribe believed had guaranteed them land of their own in return for their service. Still, modern-day descendants celebrate Seminole Heritage Days each year on the third Saturday in September -- and still hope for land of their own.

Today, and in Monday's Life & Arts section, we print excerpts from the prologue and Chapter One.

Miss Charles Speaks


Miss Charles Emily Wilson, last survivor of the Seminole African camp on Fort Clark across from Brackettville in South Texas, doesn't organize the Seminole Heritage Days celebration anymore. She has what her Brackettville friends call "the Alzheimer's," and has been moved 70 miles away to a niece's home in Kerrville.

It was 18 years ago that the 91-year-old retired schoolteacher, known to everyone as "Miss Charles," declared there had to be an annual Brackettville event celebrating the rich history of the Seminole African. With the tribe's modern-day young people getting so distracted by television and video games, Miss Charles warned, the storytelling tradition of the Seminole African was fast disappearing.

Tribal descendants had scattered around the Southwest after the terrible day in 1914 when the United States Army, having run out of uses for scouts on horseback, evicted them from the shady Las Moras Creek village on Fort Clark land where they'd lived for more than 40 years. Miss Charles herself was the last one left who'd been there when the empty wagons arrived, who saw the soldiers with their guns and heard the old people crying when they were left on the Brackettville streets to survive or starve -- the Army didn't care anymore.

The story of the Seminole African was so glorious, going back to the days when the Spanish owned Florida and escaped slaves eagerly ran south. There was so much everyone, not just the Seminole African children, should know about the great chiefs, the great battles -- how the Seminole African fought the U.S. Army in Florida, then helped the Mexicans guard their borders, then returned to Texas to show the Americans how to finally beat down the Apache. Whole history books could have, should have, been filled with these things.

But historians overlooked the Seminole African. Only tribal bards told the stories, and there were fewer of them as years passed and people died or drifted away. Now, Miss Charles said she was getting on, her memory might weaken at any time, and after she was gone, knowledge of all those great and terrible times still had to be passed down from one generation to the next, or else everything that had happened to the Seminole African would be forgotten, and the blood and tears shed over centuries would come to nothing.

So they chose the third Saturday in September, when the blast-furnace South Texas heat abates a little. Miss Charles and other tribal elders conferred with Brackettville leaders. Traditionally, whites among the 1,700 or so town residents never cared much for their dark-skinned neighbors, whose numbers had steadily dwindled over the years, though many Brackettville Hispanics, comprising about half the population, had some Seminole African blood in them. But times had changed enough so everyone agreed it would be good for the community as a whole to have a Seminole African celebration.

Miss Charles orchestrated everything -- a parade, the wearing of traditional turbans and cloaks, gospel singing, dancing in the cool of the evening and, above all, time for the children to hear the tales of Abraham and John Horse, of the slaves who ran away to Florida and the Seminole tribe that welcomed them; about fighting the American Army to a bloody draw in the early 1800s, then relocating to Indian Territory; the treachery that awaited the Seminole African there and the amazing exodus to Mexico that, 150 years later, still seems almost impossible to comprehend, it was so awful and yet so brave; then the fine service to the Mexican government and the request from the Americans to come back to Texas. Help us defeat the Apache and we'll give you land of your own, that was the promise, and, though the promise was broken by the white men, the tribe's children needed to know, to be proud, that their ancestors, the Black Indian scouts, more than kept their part of the bargain.

For 13 years, Seminole Days went almost according to plan. The 35 or so Seminole African families left in town were joined by a few hundred scout descendants who came back to visit from Oklahoma or Mexico or wherever they had drifted, some from as far away as California and Illinois. They didn't come for the scenery -- Brackettville is a charmless hamlet between Uvalde and Del Rio that ceased to have a reason to exist when Fort Clark was shut down in 1946. The surrounding countryside is flinty and desolate.

When John Wayne wanted to film The Alamo someplace so isolated that nobody would bother his cast and crew, where he could blow up buildings and not have to worry about scarring the countryside, he chose a ranch just outside town. Filming ran three weeks over schedule in part because hundreds of rattlesnakes had to be cleared off the set every morning. Brackettville is a place most people don't go on purpose, except for the oasislike grounds of adjacent Fort Clark, and rights to any of that land were unceremoniously taken from the Seminole African in 1914.

No, scout descendants came because they loved Miss Charles -- she had taught most of them, or their parents, or their cousins, in elementary school -- and because the Seminole African value family ties with a devotion almost unimaginable to outsiders who haven't shared their generations of incredible struggle. If the crowd never seemed to include as many young people as Miss Charles had hoped, well, perhaps they would be more interested next year. Saturday's events went on from morning until dark, and on Sunday there were outdoor services in the tiny tribal cemetery outside town, the only property the Seminole African have been able to retain. Four Medal of Honor winners are buried in that cemetery, but their descendants must ask permission before visiting the Fort Clark site where Adam Payne, John Ward, Isaac Payne and Pompey Factor once lived.

So for years the annual get-together was a success. Occasionally, people would talk about how Miss Charles was looking frail, probably it was time for somebody else to really jump in and take over, but it is human nature to take people like her for granted. Then Miss Charles turned 90, and suddenly she couldn't remember anyone's name. Now she's brought down from Kerrville as guest of honor, but it isn't the same.

Nobody can tell the old stories like Miss Charles, except maybe Willie Warrior, and he's in his 70s, has heart disease and doesn't get along well with the younger officers of the Seminole Indian Scouts Cemetery Association, the group organized by Miss Charles to tend the cemetery and serve as de facto keepers of the tribal flame. So the speakers now are less interesting -- they lack rhythm, and they take an hour to say what Miss Charles or Willie Warrior could have told better in 10 minutes. The heat seems more oppressive, too, and the teen-agers still don't come. A cynic might even point out that more people ride in the parade than line up to watch it; Brackettville's nontribal citizenry apparently has better things to do with its third Saturday morning every September.

But the beer is free. Area Budweiser and Coors distributors make generous donations. The barbecued goat is tasty, and old friends enjoy seeing each other again. Though Willie Warrior isn't fond of him, current association president Clarence Ward is a great genial bear of a fellow. And there, all dressed up and looking pretty, is Miss Charles, now gaunt instead of plump but still, at age 91, able to sit on a parade float and wave vaguely at old friends she can no longer recognize. Most of the "floats" are just pickups dotted with flowers fashioned from Kleenex, but Miss Charles' float is an elaborate, if tiny, reproduction of the wood huts in which the scout families used to live along Las Moras Creek. She sits in front of the hut on a high-backed chair, looking regal.

After the parade is over, everyone troops to the tiny park Brackettville has set aside for the Scout Association. Forty-five minutes are given over to well-meaning speakers who are more confusing than informative when they try to pay tribute to the Seminole African's noble history. Awards are given for the best parade floats, and then two staffers from San Antonio's Institute of Texan Cultures make remarks -- at least they get the facts right, though their presentations are more scholarly than entertaining. With the Seminole African storytellers all but gone, the institute's exhibit delineating the tribe's past may soon be the best record that ever existed.

Through it all, Miss Charles sits quietly on a metal folding chair in the front row. Each speaker makes a point of praising her. When she hears her name mentioned, she smiles and waves. At one point she's even called to the microphone --"This wouldn't be Seminole Days without a word from Miss Charles," somebody cries. In a reedy voice, tottering in the warm breeze, Miss Charles says everybody looks nice. Then she sits back down.

After the program, many of the men head for the free beer. The women hug each other and exclaim over dresses and jewelry. There is endless talk involving family -- who married whom, where they might be living now, trying to learn the whereabouts of as many third cousins as possible. The few children in attendance amuse themselves playing on some rickety swings and climbing bars. Even in mid-September, it is still blazingly hot, as it has been since May. A few weeks earlier, using the weather as an instructive example, the marquee of Brackettville's Frontier Baptist Church noted, "Hell Is A Lot Hotter!!!" Now, Miss Charles sits on her metal chair, perspiring but still smiling.

"So nice to see you, Miss Charles," she is told over and over. "You look so well."

"Thank you," Miss Charles responds politely. Her eyes are cloudy.

Then, gradually, the memories return. The reason she proposed Seminole Heritage Days is somehow back, burning in her mind. Miss Charles twists a little in her chair, looks up at the people all around, most now turned away from her and chatting about jobs and families and who's had three of those free beers already when, Lord, it isn't much past noon.

Seminole Woman Picture
Seminole Woman

"Our people . . ." Miss Charles begins. Her voice fades for a moment, but her eyes seem to focus better, and she sits up straight and tries again, talking to people's backs and elbows and not caring, because the words are so important to her, it is crucial to get the story told the right way, with all the good and bad things that happened.

"Our people were originally from Africa," Miss Charles declares. "We came to America as slaves hundreds of years ago. Soon many of us chose to run away. We fled south, to Florida, and there were taken in by the Seminole . . ." Her voice weakens. She slumps a little. But her eyes remain bright. She is remembering. If she can just get her breath, she'll try telling the story again.

"They ran," Miss Charles says, softly but clearly. "They ran, and finally they saw -- "

Chapter One

The first things they saw, as they followed a path through the prickly brush into a clearing, were the fields. Corn was being grown there; the stalks waved in the soft breeze. The air was rich with the odors of tilled earth, animal droppings, cooking food, and oranges and lemons. At least, that's the way it probably was. Miss Charles always admitted she couldn't be certain what those first runaway slaves saw, or even who they were. No records were kept then, not by escaping slaves or the Seminole who took them in.

"But we know they ran there and were welcomed," Miss Charles recalled in 1994 on the first morning that I met her. We sat in the darkened living room of her clapboard house in Brackettville. Like most houses there, it was box-shaped with a tiny yard whose spiky grass had been blasted a dull yellow color by the relentless sun. The living-room curtains were drawn and only one dim light was on. As a retired schoolteacher who had to be careful with her pension dollars, Miss Charles kept a watchful eye on her electricity bill. Like everyone else in Brackettville, she was already expending endless wattage that summer on air conditioning. At 10 a.m., the temperature outside was already in the mid-90s. Miss Charles' house was cooled by a couple of cranky window units. The one in the living room, straining to combat the heat, groaned rather than hummed. The noise almost drowned out Miss Charles' hushed voice.

I'd come to Brackettville on assignment from my newspaper. Like many Texans, for years I'd heard fragmentary tales about a black Indian tribe down by the Texas-Mexico border. They were supposed to have helped the Army defeat the Comanche and Apache. There were Medals of Honor involved, and a cemetery. But for most of us, these Seminole African, whoever they really were, remained more rumor than legend.

When I finally took time to consider it, the black Indian story seemed interesting enough to follow up. There was surprisingly little reference material about the Seminole African in the downtown Fort Worth library. From the limited sources of a few articles from scholarly magazines and a mention in The Handbook of Texas, published by the Texas State Historical Association, it seemed the tribe's history broke down into well-defined sections.

Its origin involved runaway slaves reaching Florida and being adopted by the Seminole Indians. After the Second Seminole War, the Seminole African were shipped off to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Persecuted and miserable there, they embarked on a lengthy escape across Texas and down into Mexico, where they fought Indians for the Mexican government. After the Civil War, the Seminole African came back to Texas, where their men served as scouts for the United States, tracking marauding Comanche and Apache. Several scouts won the Medal of Honor. In 1914, the army eliminated the scouts, some of whose descendants still lived in the tiny West Texas town of Brackettville. There was just enough sketchy information to be intriguing -- at least, enough for the basis of a Sunday feature story and the chance to get out of the office for a couple of days.

I flew from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to San Antonio, rented a car and drove southwest for almost two hours. The land became progressively harsher. Brackettville, when I arrived, was disappointing. The town itself was a small, depressing conglomeration of clapboard shacks, roadside convenience stores and more than a few shuttered shops that had closed for lack of business. There was a huge sign by the highway touting Alamo Village, a vast ranch about six miles north where John Wayne made his epic (if historically inaccurate) movie, and where other Westerns like Lonesome Dove needing desolate, harsh-looking locations had later been filmed. There was also a formal entrance to Fort Clark Springs. The old military installation adjacent to Brackettville had been turned into a combination residential community/golf resort. I took a room at the motel there -- the charge came to less than $40 a night -- and drove to Brackettville's tiny combination City Hall/police station, where I asked a heavy-set Hispanic woman at the front desk whom I should talk to about the Seminole African.

"That would be Miss Charles Emily Wilson," she said immediately. "You're from a newspaper? She's their leader. A retired teacher, you know. Lovely lady. I'm sure she'll be glad to see you." She turned her back and made a quick phone call. I could hear a few words -- "reporter" was emphasized. Then the woman turned around and said Miss Charles would be glad to see me. I was given directions to her house. They weren't complicated. Brackettville doesn't have many streets.

Though I'd later learn she had once been heavy, the 84-year-old woman who greeted me now had a bony frame. She wore a print dress -- its hemline reached halfway down her shins -- a gold necklace and just a touch too much of the sort of sweetish perfume favored by elderly ladies everywhere. Miss Charles -- "Call me that or Miss Wilson, but Miss Charles will do" -- also retained a teacher's air of authority. She invited me inside, pointed to the living-room chair where she wanted me to sit and, after establishing which newspaper I represented and that I intended to write a nice story about her people, said she would tell me all about it.

"I'll tell you just what I always tell our children," Miss Charles said. I had to lean forward to hear her. The window air-conditioning unit was very loud. "Do you know about our Seminole Days celebration in September? Do you have children of your own? You could come back then, and bring them to hear the stories."

So Miss Charles began, saying her people had originally been slaves in the American Colonies and that they escaped from their white masters, ran south and were taken in by Seminole in the Spanish colony of Florida. "When did the first slaves escape and do this?" I interrupted, scribbling in my notebook. "In what year? What were their names?"

"Oh, no one knows," Miss Charles replied, sounding slightly impatient. "Who was there to write down such things? I know what my mother and father told me, which was what their parents told them, and so on back through the generations. Just listen to the story. For the first part, the names don't matter much."

"Well, do you know how many escaped to the Seminole? Just one or two at first? Did they come in groups or separately?"

Miss Charles was clearly not pleased. Adopting the tone she must have used for decades with especially recalcitrant students, she said, "It's not certain. I believe they may have come in small groups. Perhaps six. Half a dozen. That's as good a number as any." Irritation made her voice slightly more audible above the laboring air conditioner. Miss Charles began her story again. On this occasion, as on the others that followed, her reedy tone gradually took on a near-hypnotic rhythm. She spoke with her eyes closed and her head swaying slightly, no doubt imagining, as she always hoped her listeners would imagine, the great saga as it unfolded.

"The six runaways came into a clearing," Miss Charles said again. "They looked about them, and then they saw . . ."

They weren't certain what to expect. They fled south because, like many blacks in American bondage, they heard there was freedom if you could elude pursuit and get to what white men called "the Floridas." But this substantial village surprised them; they stared at it, almost unable to believe it could be real.

The so-called Revolutionary War had just ended. American colonists had overthrown British rule, but it made no real difference in the lives of their slaves. These half-dozen Africans, all men, perhaps ran away from a South Carolina plantation months earlier. They came more than 300 miles south, mostly moving at night, stealing food from farms they passed, staying alert for the sound of hooves or hounds that would indicate pursuit.

Every unexpected noise or movement could have meant the slavers were on them, those men with their guns and chains, eager to drag them back to where they'd run from. Capture would have meant certain agony, for runaway slaves could be punished at the discretion of their masters. No law limited the severity of the discipline -- nose-slitting or lashings that left backs permanently torn were most common. They could each have had an ear cut off as punishment, or, if their South Carolina master was sufficiently furious, they might have been castrated. Hanging was less common, though not unprecedented, if a master wanted to make a lasting impression on his remaining slaves. But these six were not captured.

Instead, they ran south until, finally, they came to the fabled Spanish town of St. Augustine, revered by American slaves as the place where white men allowed black men to be free and gave them tools for farming and even guns to help protect Florida from invaders. These newcomer slaves were puzzled when, with signs and broken English, it was indicated by the white men in St. Augustine that they should keep going south and west. They did as they were told, and there was relief in knowing they were probably safe from any American pursuers.

And now this! It was more than a camp, more than a village -- a town, a much grander one than the shacks and mucky streets that comprised many white American communities. Looking past the fields and the hog pens, the runaways saw many long cabins built from palmetto planks and thatched with fronds, and they somewhat resembled the huts with leafy roofs some of these Africans remembered from their native homelands.

This grand community was undoubtedly the Seminole town of Cuscowilla on the Alachua Plain, 50 miles southwest of St. Augustine. I deduced this later from old maps and history books, not Miss Charles, who, when her tale involved early tribal events in Florida, was much less specific than she would be regarding the Seminole African experience in Indian Territory, Mexico and Texas. For purposes of pegging Cuscowilla's location, the modern-day city of Gainesville is in approximately the same area.

Although the newcomers didn't know it, the Seminole were relatively recent Florida arrivals, too. Chief Cowkeeper established Cuscowilla 30 years earlier, making his peace with the British when they acquired Florida from Spain in 1763. Had these slaves arrived at Cuscowilla while Cowkeeper was still chief, in the days before the Americans won their freedom and chased the English back into Canada or across the great ocean, they would have had a different reception. Cowkeeper was loyal to the British and would have returned runaway slaves to their colonists. But in 1783, with the British reeling from the loss of their American colonies, Spain took control of the Floridas again. Cowkeeper was dead. His successor, King Payne, made friends with the Spanish and, as they did, welcomed escaped blacks.

"Didn't the Seminole make the blacks their slaves?" I asked Miss Charles.

"You'll see," she replied, her eyes still closed, her mind still picturing it all. "It took awhile for everyone to figure out what was what."

The six black men were directed into town, toward the larger huts in the center of the village. There they were formally greeted by a particularly well-dressed man who might have been King Payne. If he didn't happen to be present, there would have had subchiefs on hand for such duty. The blacks felt relieved. The extent of the welcome made them hope they would be allowed to stay. Conversation proved impossible. Besides their own native Muskogee dialect, the Seminole may have had a few words of Spanish. The runaway slaves probably knew some English -- white slaveowners did their best to keep slaves ignorant of anything that might help them to escape -- and, of course, their own native tongues, but they were not all from the same region of Africa and had a hard enough time communicating among themselves.

Then there was a commotion off at the north end of the village, and happy shouting. Someone else had arrived, several others from the sound of all the voices, and then the runaways nearly reeled with shock, because walking up to them were other black men, dressed in the same bright colors as the Seminole. These Indian-Blacks greeted the runaways in an odd language that included some English. It was astonishing.

The six newcomers were urged to their feet. Friendly hands on their shoulders filled in gaps left by unfamiliar words. The Indian-Blacks led them out of Cuscowilla, back into the brush, and the runaways wondered if they were being sent away to fend for themselves. But their new guides made it clear they were to all stay together, and there was a path they followed through the brush and past the lemon and orange trees until, in a clearing perhaps a mile from Cuscowilla, there was a second village, a smaller one, but the fields and pens and herds looked the same and the huts were bigger, built better. There was another, more amazing sight: The men and women and children rushing to greet them were all black, every one! Some held hoes and other farming implements. A few men had bows and arrows. One or two cradled muskets. Since being removed from their native lands, the runaways had not seen black men with weapons. The sight made them proud.

There were main huts in the center of this village, too, and the newcomers were ushered to them. A stooped black man in bright finery stepped out of one and walked to the runaways with his arms wide in greeting.

The six new arrivals looked around. After so many years in bondage, it was hard to comprehend the possibility of free black people in their own homes. "Where are?" one runaway asked, summoning his best pidgin English.

The man considered."A casa ," he finally said. "Home."

And so six runaway slaves needed to run no farther. In the days ahead, they would be assimilated into village life. They would be given tools to cut palmetto trees and build huts, parcels of ground for fields, seed to sow, weapons for hunting. If they found willing women, they could take wives. There were rules, of course, in this first camp of the Seminole African, these runaway slaves who aligned themselves with the Indian tribe. The newcomers had much to learn about their complicated relationship with their Seminole hosts, and about the Seminole relationship to the Spanish.

While they forgot about their old masters for a while, there was little chance the Americans would let their valuable property get away quite so easily. The relative tranquility of Cuscowilla and the adjacent Seminole African camp was not going to last much longer. The Americans wanted their slaves back, and they also wanted Florida. They would be coming soon.

In the decades and centuries ahead, critical events in history would often impact the Seminole African, almost always to their detriment. This moment, this speck of time in the 1780s, might have been when they were closer to happiness than before or since. Protected by the Seminole, they were relatively safe. Their numbers grew slowly but gradually as more escaped American slaves made their way into Florida. They proved themselves excellent hunters, good farmers, fine builders -- their fields yielded more crops than the Seminoles' and their huts were built better, because in their time of bondage to the white man they became skilled in such useful arts. Seminoles treated their slaves better than the white man did. It is easy to understand why the Seminole African valued their relative freedom so much and why, soon, they fought desperately to keep it.

After an hour or so, Miss Charles began to wear down. Her voice lost its rhythm; her breathing became thready. When I suggested a break, she didn't argue.

"Are you here for some time?" Miss Charles asked. "Will you come back in the afternoon?"

Part Two

Posted on Mon., Sep. 16, 2002
Miss Charles listens
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Miss Charles Wilson Picture
Star-Telegram photo by Ron T. Ennis -Miss Charles Wilson stands near an unmarked grave in the Seminole Indian Scout Cemetery outside Brackettville, Tex.

One day in summer 1994, Star-Telegram Books Editor Jeff Guinn headed to Brackettville, Texas, to write a newspaper story on the little-known past of the Seminole African, whose descendants still live in the dusty little town. This journey inspired his book, Our Land Before We Die: The Proud Story of the Seminole African, published this week and nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award by publisher Tarcher/Putnam. It is the first oral history of the Seminole African ever written. Guinn's book tells of a people who sought shelter in the shadow of a tribe whose land and welfare already hung in the balance. And yet in their tireless journey -- from Florida to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, on the 700-mile flight from persecution that took them across the Rio Grande into Mexico, and then back across the Rio Grande to Texas -- they never surrendered hope of attaining land of their own. But that hope was continually thwarted; in 1914, after decades of dedicated, distinguished performance as scouts in battles against the Comanche, Apache and border outlaws, the Seminole African were marched at gunpoint off the grounds of Fort Clark in Brackettville. The government had no more use for them, or for the agreement the tribe believed had guaranteed them land of their own in return for their service. Still, modern-day descendants celebrate Seminole Heritage Days each year on the third Saturday in September -- and still hope for land of their own.

The Star-Telegram chose to print two excerpts (the first ran in Sunday's Life section) from the prologue and Chapter One. The Sunday excerpt introduced modern-day tribal matriarch Miss Charles Emily Wilson, who 18 years ago organized an annual celebration to help Seminole African descendants keep their history alive with a day of parades, barbecues and, above all, Miss Charles passing down the oral history of her people. But now Miss Charles has Alzheimer's disease. She is brought to Seminole Heritage Days by relatives and welcomed there by old friends whose names she can no longer recall. Still, as other would-be historians stumble through speeches, Miss Charles begins remembering, and once again launches into the tale of how escaped slaves from British colonies ran away to Florida and were taken in there by the Seminole tribe. The Seminoles, too, practiced slavery, although a more benign version than that of the whites.

Seminole African Scouts Picture

On Sunday, through flashbacks to his interviews with Miss Charles years ago, Guinn took readers through the early years of the blacks' existence among the Seminole. In today's excerpt, Miss Charles explores the tribe's gradual disenchantment with being kept in any sort of slavery.

From Chapter One

I stayed in Brackettville for five days and came back again afterward. The more I learned about the Seminole African, the more I wanted to know. Besides doing my own research, I spent several mornings and afternoons with Miss Charles in her dark living room and many more hours with Willie Warrior, her old pupil who succeeded her as tribal historian. They were really the only two Seminole African descendants left who knew enough to be mesmerizing storytellers.

But even their knowledge had gaps, mostly concerning the tribe's early years in Florida. Once the great U.S.-Seminole Wars concluded and the Seminole African were transferred to Indian Territory, there were government records, many letters, and a few books and other documentation. But of the Seminole African in Florida very little was recorded, and, apparently, the early tribal storytellers didn't provide much detail.

Recourse to history books and non-Seminole African historians, though, provided me with background to more fully appreciate Miss Charles' first tales of the anonymous half-dozen slaves, and to flesh out what she and Willie told me later. The existence of the Seminole African resulted, as most cultures had to, from merging forces of history. That there were blacks seeking freedom; that they fled to Florida above all other regions of the North American continent; that the Seminole tribe was there to greet and shelter them -- these were separate elements that, through chance or some higher design, came together in that place and time.

Later, when I shared what I'd learned with Miss Charles, she listened raptly, leaning forward but usually with her eyes closed. I could easily imagine her sorting through what she was hearing, deciding which facts could be incorporated into her own tale-telling. It had been necessary, I said, to go back some 350 years from the time the first slaves ran to the Seminole in Florida. To understand all that was going to happen, I'd needed to begin with the development and eventual collision of three historic facts -- slavery in the New World, the colonial ambitions of Spain and the decision by members of the Creek tribe to break away and form their own nation.

"Oh, yes," Miss Charles said. "Let me get some paper." She rummaged in a desk drawer and brought out a pad and pencil. Then she gestured for me to begin.

Slavery came first. In 1415, Portugal became the first European nation to actively participate in the slave trade. Spain and the Netherlands became heavily involved. For a long time, France and England participated to a lesser extent. In Europe, there was limited use for uneducated African slaves. There was not an endless amount of land to be tilled and harvested. But, across a great ocean, there were new economies that could only flourish with an immense influx of slave labor.

Early on in their New World colonies, the British didn't dabble in the African slave trade. As in England, indentured servants provided the first labor for American colonial masters. When British colonists did experiment with slave labor, they used captured American Indians. That plan failed miserably. The Indians were still in their homeland; it was easy for them to escape. Members of their tribes often skulked about and stole them back. So when Indians didn't prove suitable, and the number of available indentured servants dropped off -- this New World was, by wide repute, a dangerous place, and poor, young Englishmen were reluctant to gamble on a period of indenture in return for eventual freedom if they survived -- African slaves suddenly seemed necessary.

Scout Fay July and Wife Picture

In a very real sense, blacks were brought to America from Africa to die. Three or four Africans in 10 died on the slave ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean. On average, the slave who survived the voyage lived five years after arriving in the British colonies. Measles and influenza killed them. Living in shanties and rough lean-tos, many died of exposure. Some were worked to death, with no more value assigned to their lives than those of mules that dropped in the traces of a plow. A percentage died from beatings, and it was not unknown for slaves to commit suicide.

So slaves faced hard choices. Once sold to an owner and put to work on his property, each captive African could, of course, accept his or her sad fate and work resignedly until freed by death. Fighting back was almost certainly fatal. A single armed slave was easy for whites to subdue and execute; rebelling in a group only meant more Africans would die. Trying to run away, individually or as part of a group, was also risky. Recapture would certainly mean terrible punishment, and even if white pursuers could be eluded, there were hostile Indians everywhere who might either kill Africans or enslave blacks themselves.

But among the three choices -- work until death, fight until death, run until captured or free -- one had, in modern jargon, the best upside. The healthiest, strongest slaves looked for chances to run away. The potential penalties for a failed escape -- beating, mutilation, even execution -- weren't that much worse than everyday pain endured in the fields. So, many slaves tried to run.

"How many?" Miss Charles asked. "I don't know," I admitted. "Most people then didn't keep accurate records."

"I told you," she said, grinning. "But they all wanted to come south, didn't they? To Florida."

Africans fleeing masters in northern colonies could try for Canada. But there were fewer blacks in the north, and towns were closer together. There was less room to hide, and dark skin was more conspicuous. To the west were the Allegheny Mountains, and Indians who were as dangerous to runaway slaves as the masters they were fleeing. To the east was the Atlantic Ocean -- no hope there.

But to the south was Florida, territory of the Spanish, and many black slaves in the British colonies dreamed of escaping to Florida, where Africans were allowed to be free.

From the moment in October 1492 when Christopher Columbus and his crew spied land -- not mainland America, of course, but an island, which Columbus named San Salvador -- the Spanish were eager to conquer and occupy as much New World territory as possible. While the British wanted land and the French pursued trade, Spain wanted everything, especially the fabulous treasures its explorers believed were waiting to be taken from the native people who had accumulated them.

In the so-called New World, Spain concentrated on Mexico -- "New Spain"-- and the north and west South American coasts (there was an agreement with Portugal that left the interior of South America for Portuguese occupation). But the Spanish had one other colonial holding.

In 1513, Juan Ponce de León landed near the spot where, one day, Jacksonville would be built. Having come to the New World as a member of Columbus' first colony on Hispaniola, Ponce de León had a grant from the king to find and settle additional new lands, with any natives being forced into slavery and given as property to Spanish colonists. Not an especially observant explorer, Ponce de León thought he had landed on an island. He sailed his ships south and west, charting a unique, finger-shaped coastline, and named the "island" Florida.

Spain's main colonial focus was elsewhere. New Spain and its South American holdings held the promise of gold, or at least access to further vast expanses of land to conquer. Florida was oddly shaped, cratered with swamps, and full of angry natives who declined to be conquered. But Spain needed Florida. England was in the process of establishing colonies all down America's Atlantic coast and extending west with the colony named Georgia. Spain required its own foothold in this portion of the American continent.

In 1565, King Philip II's colonists built St. Augustine on the east Florida coast between the Atlantic Ocean and the St. Johns River. The settlers there were able to stave off initial Indian attacks and gradually began making friends with the natives. Catholic priests were sent to St. Augustine with specific instructions to bring red-skinned heathens to Christ, but soon lacked potential converts. Florida Indians seemed especially vulnerable to European diseases. Within a few years, these native tribes -- the Tocobaga, Chilucan, Yustaga, Oconee, Pensacola and several others -- virtually disappeared. Perhaps 1,000 American Indians were left in all of Florida.

Spain allowed its Florida colonists to own black slaves. The few remaining American Indians were tolerated, not annihilated. The central Florida plains offered some opportunity for farming, and game was plentiful. Besides deer, there were bear and wild pigs and even panthers. Lush citrus fruit was readily available. It became apparent Florida had great potential as a place to live, raise crops and hunt. The quirky Florida coastline offered all sorts of possibilities for ports. Fishing in its coastal waters was prime.

None of this escaped the notice of English colonists who spread down the Eastern seaboard. Settlers in South Carolina and Georgia felt no obligation to stop moving south. As more slaves were imported into these British colonies, their owners had greater interest in expanding their land holdings. In the 1680s, British colonists in Georgia and the Carolinas approached the Creek nation, one of the largest among all American Indian confederations, with the suggestion that the Creek raid Spanish settlements in Florida. The Creek were well-organized and essentially autocratic. Chiefs -- called miccos -- required taxes from their subjects, using the crops collected in this way to benefit poorer tribal members. The Creek also kept slaves, including some Africans sold or given to them by white colonists. The British/Creek alliance was a substantial danger to Spanish Florida.

Since the British and Creek made a habit of raiding Florida, the Spanish wanted armed manpower more than slave labor. They not only welcomed escaping slaves, they encouraged them to send word back to the Carolinas and Georgia that there were opportunities in Florida for runaways to be completely free. They would have to take instruction in Catholicism. And they would, of course, have to be willing to bear arms on behalf of their new Spanish friends.

In 1704, Gov. Jose de Zuniga y Cerda of Florida's Apalachee Province declared that "any African of Carolina, Christian or not, free or slave, who wishes to come fugitive, will be [granted] complete liberty, so that those who do not want to stay here [in this area of Florida] may pass to other places as they see fit, with their freedom papers which I hereby grant them by word of the king."

Miss Charles asked me to spell the governor's name for her. When I did, checking it carefully against my notes, she wrote it down on her own notepad. I asked why she wanted to know.

"I know about Ponce de León, of course," she said. "But not this Governor Cerda. Now, if one of our children asks me about him, I can answer."

"I don't think any of them will ask you that," I said.

"Children are a wonder," Miss Charles replied. "Someday, one of them might."

Seminole Men and Youngsters Picture

In February of 1739, Florida Gov. Manuel de Montiano built a coastal fortress a few miles north of St. Augustine. He invited free blacks to populate it; Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, more commonly known as Fort Mose, was the first free black community in North America. Spain did its best to make Fort Mose attractive to Africans. Seed and tools for farming were provided, and food was sent in until the first crops could be raised. There was a priest assigned to the fort for religious instruction. Cannon were placed on the ramparts. Muskets were issued to men who wanted them, and most did. The only obligation placed on the Africans living there was to help defend Florida against invaders.

Word about Fort Mose spread quickly to slaves in the southern British colonies. The colonists and the English army personnel stationed in the southern regions of their American colonies decided they had only one option -- to invade Florida, destroy St. Augustine and Fort Mose, and, they hoped, drive out the Spanish colonists forever. All they needed was an excuse.

In October, they got one. Britain declared war on Spain over Spanish harassment of English shipping. It was known as the War of Jenkins' Ear, because British sea captain Robert Jenkins supposedly had his ear hacked off by Spaniards near the coast of Cuba. British colonists in America marched south into Florida and attacked St. Augustine. They were amazed to find the city's

defenders included several hundred black soldiers. The Africans received the same pay and benefits as Spanish enlistees and fought under the command of black officers.

Though St. Augustine withstood the attack, Fort Mose didn't. Enough of its buildings were destroyed that the Africans living there had to be relocated to St. Augustine. It was 1752 before it was rebuilt and became an African stronghold again.

Britain's colonies in the New World eventually had trouble on two fronts. In 1754, the extended French and Indian War broke out between the English and French. England was trying to extend its colonies west of the Allegheny Mountains, and the French felt they already had claimed the land there.

Even with the British also fighting France, and even with its contingents of black soldiers, Spain was still handicapped in efforts to retain Florida. Colonists in Georgia encouraged the Creek to stage hit-and-run attacks on Spanish colonies; the Creek especially welcomed the raids because it enabled them to capture Africans who would serve as tribal slaves.

Eventually, the Treaty of Paris in 1763 temporarily ended both the English-Spanish and English-French conflicts. But by the time the War of Jenkins' Ear was over, there was a new player in Florida, perhaps the critical mass in the violent explosion of war that would come 50 years later.

"This is where the Seminole come in, isn't it?" I asked Miss Charles on my first day with her.

"I know something about that, but Willie Warrior knows more," she said. It was late in the afternoon. After leaving Miss Charles earlier, I'd looked round Brackettville to find someplace to eat. I knew there was a restaurant on the old fort grounds near my motel, but I didn't want to drive back across the highway. Instead, I cruised the limited blocks of Brackettville and found exactly one cafe. It was called the Krazy Chicken. The menu consisted of a few things fried in grease. I ate a hamburger there and was immediately sorry. Afterward, I poked around town, killing time until I thought Miss Charles had sufficient time to rest. I passed one grocery and two video stores. There was a small public library, but no bookstore or movie theater.

When I got back to her house, the temperature outside was well over 100 degrees. The air conditioner in the living room window couldn't compete with such heat. The air inside was warm and sticky. Miss Charles blotted herself with a Kleenex.

"Willie and some girl from a college were talking about where the Seminole got their name," she said. "She was telling him things, and he was laughing at her. I think he said nobody knows about the name, they just think they know. Have you talked to Willie yet?"

I said I was going to see him the next day in Del Rio, a town some 30 miles west of Brackettville. I'd called from a pay phone outside the Krazy Chicken -- the helpful woman at City Hall had given me his phone number, too. A man with a deep voice on the other end of the line identified himself as Dub Warrior, and when I asked for Willie Warrior, he said that was his name, too.

"He's a good one," Miss Charles said proudly. "He and his wife, Ethel, are both in the Scout Association. He goes to schools all the time to give talks. He can tell you all about the Seminole."

Historians have argued for years where the name Seminole comes from. Some believe it is a bastardized term from the old Creek language. Others insist it is a corrupted pronunciation of the Spanish word Cimarron. Most agree Seminole is suppose to mean runaway. What is important is why there was a newly formed Indian conglomerate known collectively as the Seminole, because it would directly affect the eventual relationship between the Seminole and the black runaways the newly hatched tribe took in.

Early in the 1700s, the Spanish realized they needed more inhabitants in the Florida lands between Georgia and the Carolinas and St. Augustine. This would make it more difficult for the English colonists to conduct raids. Runaway slaves weren't numerous enough to occupy sufficient territory. Prospective Spanish colonists were mostly sent to New Spain and South America. So the same European power that gleefully slaughtered natives by the hundreds of thousands in New Spain rolled out the proverbial welcome mat in Florida to Indians who wanted to come and live there. As it happened, there were some Indians who were pleased to be invited.

Small bands began breaking away from the Lower Creek nation; these pushed south and east into Florida. Various struggles between colonists and Indians to the north drove additional American Indians south. So long as they would comply with Spanish rule, they were welcome in Florida.

Chief Cowkeeper and his Oconis established primacy among the newcomers, who were also joined by surviving members of Florida's indigenous tribes. A less stringent form of Creek government was enacted. Each village chief could assess taxes from crops and generally oversee daily life. Designated from among the village chiefs would be a few principal chiefs, who collectively would make decisions on behalf of the entire tribal nation. "Nation" might give the impression of greater numbers than were initially in Florida. Perhaps 2,000 Seminole lived there by the end of the 1700s. The tribe's numbers continued to swell as more Indians left the Creek and migrated east.

These newcomers were allowed to build on land unoccupied by the Spanish. Unlike many tribes in the western plains and Southwest, the Seminole built permanent villages. They meant to stay. They were primarily farmers and hunters.

And, from the beginning of their Florida existence, the Seminole had slaves. Their system of vassalage was more benign than that of the Creek. Slaves, captured in battles with other tribes, had their own lands, huts and weapons. They were required to give a portion of their crop to their owners. Slaves and owners intermarried, most often Seminole men and slave women. Monogamy was not required of Seminole males.

Different tribes joining to form the Seminole nation spoke different languages. It would be the 1820s before the Muskogee tongue of the Lower Creeks became the most common means of verbal communication. They learned some Spanish, too, but in 1763 they abruptly needed to learn English, when European powers met, negotiated and ended up trading large tracts of land in the New World. Spain received the French holdings west of the Alleghenies. Spain also received Cuba from England. England got Florida from Spain.

Immediately, the Spanish shipped most of their black Floridian allies off to Cuba and other island holdings. English colonists from the Carolinas and Georgia rushed into Florida searching for runaway slaves, and some were recaptured. But many black refugees stayed in the Florida swamps; other freedmen booked passage to Spanish islands in the Caribbean.

As English settlers swarmed in, they brought slaves with them. The British made friends with the Seminole, who had no reason to particularly miss the Spanish. The Indians noted how ownership of Africans conferred social status on English owners. The richer Seminole began to buy occasional black slaves for themselves. The British also made a habit of awarding slaves to various Seminole chiefs. These were known as "King's gifts."

From the beginning, the Seminole had to decide what to do with their slaves. They certainly had no intention of imposing the same harsh rules as the white men and Creek did. The Seminole-owned Africans were given tools and instructed to build huts of their own, in villages adjacent to but separate from those of the Indians. The blacks had seed to plant their own crops. Some even received a few cattle or pigs to start their own herds. They were expected to share part of their harvests with their owners, but in all, blacks quickly discovered that being a slave among the Seminole was far preferable to white man's bondage. On a daily basis, they were as free as the Seminole themselves, and most often called Seminole African -- Black Seminole.

Word of this spread among slaves still held in the Carolinas and Georgia, and to slaves of white masters in Florida. These Africans kept running away, running south and east -- but now they were running to the Seminole, not to the Spanish. Some of the chiefs who were especially loyal to Britain, Cowkeeper in particular, returned runaway slaves. But other chiefs didn't.

The outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1776 uprooted many landholders in the Carolinas and Georgia who had remained loyal to the British. These people -- and their slaves -- took refuge in Florida. But in the Caribbean and other places, the French and Spanish fought the British as well. It was only in 1783, with yet another Treaty of Paris, that all hostilities in the New World ended, at least for a little while. Once again, the European superpowers traded colonial holdings, and this time the new American nation also was a participant. And, while America gained certain fishing rights off the Newfoundland coast, and other rights regarding passage and exploration along the Mississippi River, there was one aspect of the treaty that infuriated Americans, particularly those with land and slaves in Southern states. Spain had taken Florida back from Britain.

This meant that runaway slaves were welcome in Florida again. Spain had no particular stake in the prosperity of the so-called United States. While America had won its freedom from Britain, the fledgling nation was far from a global superpower. Spain intended to hang onto Florida this time.

"This is where you always start your story, Miss Charles," I said one afternoon as we sat in her living room. I can't remember what time of year it was, but the window air conditioner was emitting its usual roar because it was so hot outside. It almost always is hot in Brackettville.

"Yes," she replied sleepily. It was obvious she was tired. I offered to leave, but she said she wanted to "visit" a little more. "It happened just like I told you, didn't it?" she asked.

"Just like you said," I agreed.

The Spanish began encouraging runaway slaves to go to Seminole villages. The Indians' lenient tribal system of vassalage suited Spanish aims perfectly. The blacks would be part of the Seminole, and the Seminole could help fight Americans if and when it became necessary. By aligning the Indians and Africans, Spain increased its defenses without having the responsibility of providing for the runaways.

Outraged American slave owners in the South did what they could to retrieve their human property from Florida. They entered into new treaties with the Creek, and those chiefs promised to return the Florida runaways. The problem, of course, was that the Seminole now considered themselves separate from the Creek and in no way bound by that tribe's agreements. Such Seminole recalcitrance worsened relations between the tribes.

Blacks living with Indians or in their own camps were commonly called "Maroons" by the whites. In some history books, the Seminole African are identified only as Maroons. They were also called Black Seminoles or Black Indians. But Seminole African -- the latter word pronounced NAY-gro, not NEE-gro -- seemed to suit them best.

Early letters and trading documents describing visits to Seminole African villages describe inhabitants as hard workers. Certainly, the life they had in Florida with the Seminole was infinitely better than existence as slaves of white men on their Southern farms and plantations. But they weren't entirely happy. They were better off than before, but they still belonged to someone else. They were still property . And the Seminole, though benevolent masters, had no intention of ever giving up the slaves they owned.

The most telling measure of the very real division between the Seminole and Seminole African was the separation of their villages. There was always space -- a mile, two miles -- between them. Put simply, the Seminole African were considered allies, but not blood kin. The Seminole clearly felt themselves to be superior.

Such class distinctions developed over the years. The Seminole African spent these relatively quiet times assimilating some of the Seminole culture and developing their own. In particular, they gradually created their own language, Gullah , a mixture of English, Spanish and various African dialects. Slaves on America's southeastern seaboard also formed variations of Gullah, and future linguists would spend entire careers rooting out the origins of individual words.

Seminole African religion incorporated aspects of African faiths, Indian beliefs and American Christianity. Through the addition of runaways and some intermarriage with the Seminole, the tribe grew more numerous. Eventually there were several Maroon towns in northern Florida and along the Alachua Plains. Perhaps, if left alone, the Seminole African would have indefinitely stayed allied with, but subservient to, the Seminole. They might eventually have declared their freedom in much the same way the Seminole separated from the Creek. Certainly there were Maroon communities in the Caribbean where they would have been taken in, or they might have established their own lands farther south along the Florida peninsula, somewhere the Seminole hadn't yet reached and the Spanish settlers didn't want. But there wasn't enough time for such possibilities to play out, because a decade into the 1800s, America decided to take Florida away from Spain, precipitating tragic events that followed one upon another like bloody footprints across history.

"All that happened so long ago," Miss Charles commented late in our first day together. "That's why our kids at Seminole Days don't want to listen. They think if something's old, it's not important."

Later, when I'd learned more about her own remarkable history, I thought Miss Charles could have spent that first day telling me all about herself -- how she became the first scout descendant to go off to college, how she earned not only an undergraduate but a graduate degree as well (this in a time when young black women rarely completed high school), how she'd spurned opportunities for life in big, exciting cities to come home to seedy Brackettville and work with her people there. Miss Charles not only ruled the Scout Association, she'd founded it. She not only survived segregation in Brackettville, she was eventually named the town's citizen of the year. Charles Emily Wilson was one of the first black teachers in Texas to teach integrated classes. All this, and the only personal reference she made that first day was how, as a 4-year-old child, she'd cried in 1914 when the Army marched the Seminole African off Fort Clark grounds at gunpoint.

"Willie Warrior will tell you interesting things in Del Rio tomorrow," Miss Charles promised as she escorted me to her front door. "What we've talked about today is only the beginning of my people's history. Come back after you've seen Willie."

Join the discussion

Further reading

Recent Comments