Plantation slaves in rebellion, 1835-1838
This rebellion took place over 1835-38 and it involved plantation slaves in a classic uprising. The rebellion reached its peak in the first months of 1836, when hundreds of Florida slaves fled their plantations to join the Seminoles. White owners said that their slaves had been “captured” by Indians, but this was merely a gloss on circumstances that horrified the slaveholders. Indians did not capture the slaves. The slaves escaped.
Planning for the mass defections had been underway for over a year. According to Kenneth Wiggins Porter, Black Seminole leaders made frequent visits to Florida’s plantations throughout 1835, cementing ties to the field hands. When war erupted, hundreds of blacks fled to the Seminoles in an action that General Thomas Sydney Jesup described as a pre-arranged conspiracy: “I have ascertained beyond any doubt, not only that a connection exists between a portion of the slave population and the Seminoles, but that there was, before the war commenced, an understanding that a considerable force should join on the first blow being struck.” Field slaves fought prominently in several early engagements. Many defectors painted their faces to signal their new allegiance. Urban and house slaves did their part as well, joining with free blacks from St. Augustine to help the Seminoles obtain critical supplies like powder and lead.
In the general uprising, blacks and Indians specifically targeted the sugar plantations along the St. Johns River, west of St. Augustine. At the time these were some of the most developed plantations in all U.S. territory. Their destruction was swift and devastating. By February of 1836, less than two months into the war, the Seminole allies had destroyed 21 plantations. Where slavery and sugar mills once flourished, soldiers found smoking ruins and an industry laid waste.
Before the uprising ran its course, at least 385 field slaves defected to the Seminoles. This number, derived from the escapes reported at the time in official military correspondence, newspaper reports, and claims on the government for damaged property, is conservative and probably low. Two scholars who are among the foremost experts on slavery in the antebellum Florida, Canter Brown and Larry Rivers, speculate that there may have been as many as 750-1000 plantation rebels. My own guess is that the numbers were higher than 385 but still close to this documented total.
The conservative number alone accounts for the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history. Regardless of whether or not the Black Seminoles are counted as participants — and regardless of academic conventions — the facts show that they inspired an uprising that easily eclipsed all other American slave rebellions.
Curiously, this overlooked rebellion enjoys yet another distinction — it was not a complete failure.