Native-Americans - African-Americans - Mexicans
Copyright 2002. Katarina Wittich, Brooklyn, New York. No portion of the document shall be reproduced without express written consent of the author.
In a tiny village in the remote mountains of the state of Coahuila, Mexico
there lives a unique group of people who in Mexico are called the Mascogos.
In the U.S. they would be known as Black Seminoles, descendants of escaped
African slaves who joined with the Seminole Indians in Florida to form a new
identity. Most of the Mascogos are direct descendants of one group of Black
Seminoles, the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts. This is the story of their
odyssey: how they ended up in Mexico, and why they deserve U.S. citizenship.
In the 1700s the Seminoles and Black Seminoles lived peacefully and
prosperously in Spanish and British ruled Florida. Technically, the Black
Seminoles were considered slaves of the Seminoles, but in truth were more
vassals and allies, as the Seminoles did not practice the European version
of slavery. The Black Seminoles intermarried with the Seminoles to some
degree, but mostly they lived in separate settlements, where they blended
Seminole customs with their African heritage.
As American settlers expanded their search for new lands into the areas of
Florida claimed by the Seminoles, the Seminoles began to fight back. There
were three Seminole Wars in the 1800's as the Seminoles and Black Seminoles
fought against removal to Indian Territory. One of the main arguments
against removal was that the Seminoles would be forced to share a
reservation with Creek Indians, who practiced a form of slavery more like
white slavery - and they worried that their black members would be at risk
from slave traders. This fear was accurate. Once they were finally forced on
to the reservation, the Black Seminoles repeatedly had to take refuge at the
forts, as their family members were stolen and sold right under the noses of
the soldiers. Some of the Indian agents even appear to have collaborated
with the slavers.
Furious and desperate, a group of Seminoles and Black Seminoles under the
leadership of Seminole sub chief Wild Cat and Black Seminole chief John
Horse fled from Indian Territory. They traveled for a year, all the way
across the United States to Mexico, where slavery was outlawed and they
could make a living working for the Mexican Government as military
colonists, defending the border against Indian raids. They settled
eventually at Nacimiento in Coahuila, where they shared their duties as
military colonists with a group of Kickapoo Indians who had accompanied them
from the States. As they had in Florida and Oklahoma, the black members of
the Seminoles settled in their own village, close to that of their Seminole
allies. And, for the first time, they were referred to by name of their own,
the Mascogos, probably derived from Muskogee.
From 1850 to 1870 the Mascogos lived and prospered in Coahuila. The
Seminoles did not fare as well. Smallpox decimated their ranks and
eventually the remaining Seminoles returned to Oklahoma. However, toward the
end of the 1860s things were becoming difficult for the Mascogos as well.
Mexico was in a constant state of civil war, and the duties of military
colonists were becoming very unpleasant. The Mascogos preferred farming to
fighting, although they were excellent warriors. With the departure of the
Seminoles, they were left to carry a heavier burden of fighting, and the
raiding by Indians from the American side of the border was increasing.
Then, in the late 1860s Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Ely S. Parker began
to make overtures to all the Indians living in Nacimiento to return to the
U.S. The U.S. government had decided that the best way to stop the Indians
who lived in the Mexican mountains in Coahuila from raiding into Texas was
to bring them back to the US and resettle them on reservations. The
proposal was not specifically aimed at the Mascogos. It was a broad attempt
to get all the Indians "Kickapoo, Seminoles, Potawatomie, Lipan, Delaware,
Mescalero, Muscayus (Mascogos) etc." back on the U.S. side of the border,
where they would be more controllable. But the Mascogos were the only ones
who responded. Slavery had ended, so there was no strong reason for them not
to consider the idea. Traditionalist Seminoles were currently in power in
the Seminole Nation in Oklahoma, and they were welcoming to their black
members. Life seemed like it might be more peaceful and prosperous on the
reservation. So the Mascogos were very interested in the possibility of
In 1870, Colonel Jacob De Gress, commander at Fort Duncan, sent an official
invitation to the Indians at Nacimiento to come to Fort Duncan to discuss
removal. John Kibbetts, representing the Mascogos, negotiated an agreement
proposing that his people to come over and settle on the military
reservation while awaiting a decision about resettlement.
In May of 1870, Captain Frank Perry, who had replaced De Gress as commander
at Fort Duncan, was authorized to accept the agreement and to bring the
Mascogos over. He suggested that while the details of their removal were
being worked out between the army and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, they
could be very useful to the army. He requested that the able bodied male
members of the Mascogos be enlisted as Indian Scouts, to help the
inexperienced Regular Army fight against the Kickapoo and Lipan who were
continuously raiding into that part of Texas. The Mascogos were intimate
with the countryside and with the Indians they would be fighting. This
proposal was approved and John Kibbetts and Captain Perry finalized an
agreement, called by the Mascogos "the treaty", which set out the details of
the Scouts employment. Unfortunately, if this treaty was ever put on paper,
no copies exist. But the Mascogos understanding was that they would be
provided removal expenses, rations, and a place to live for the group. Their
men would serve as scouts for the army while awaiting removal to permanent
settlement on the Seminole reservation, where they would be provided land
under the same terms as other Seminoles.
Over the next few years almost all of the Mascogos left Mexico and settled
on the military reservations at Fort Duncan and Fort Clark. Initially, only
10 men were enlisted in the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts, but later the
Scouts came to number as many as 100. In 1873, command of the Scouts was
given to Lt. John Bullis. Under Lt. Bullis the scouts would spend the next
ten years as a major force in the eradication of Indian and bandit
depredations in that area of Texas. Every commander who worked with the
scouts praised them for their courage and their skills - and those who
worked most closely with them were the most vehement in their protests at
the abandonment and mistreatment of the Mascogos by the U.S. government. The
scouts would win four Medals of Honor, an incredible statistic for their
tiny numbers. They served valiantly in a number of capacities until they
were disbanded in 1914, but the U.S. Government kept none of its promises to
them. From 1871 on the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Army took turns
denying responsibility for the Mascogos presence in the US and for
fulfilling the promises that had been made to them. Not only were they never
awarded the promised land in Indian Territory, or anywhere else, but they
were also denied rations and any survival aid for any but enlisted Scouts
during the period of time that they were awaiting a decision about removal.
At any given time, the Scouts were only a small portion of the Black
Seminoles gathered at Fort Clark and Fort Duncan awaiting removal. The
majority of the Black Seminoles were women, children, and older men, not fit
for service. At the height of the Indian Wars, when the Scouts were
continuously in the field providing invaluable service to the U.S. Army and
the citizens of Texas, their families and community were starving because
the government had cut off their rations and would give them no land or
supplies for farming. Nor would the Bureau of Indian Affairs cough up the
money to move them to Indian Territory and give them land there. The primary
excuse for this breach of trust was the argument that since the Mascogos
were black, they couldn't be Indians and therefore the government's
agreements with them were nullified. This, however, did not stop the
government from making great use of the scouts in their military campaigns.
Actually, the usefulness of the Scouts may have worked against them, as
their superiors were not eager to lose them to Indian Territory.
Nonetheless, there is a lengthy paper trail as most of the officers who
worked closely with the Scouts entreat the government to give them their due
-- land somewhere, if not in Indian territory, then in Texas, or Florida.
Occasionally, some new Commissioner at the Bureau of Indian Affairs would
agree to honor the agreement, and arrangements would begin to be made to
move the Mascogos to Indian Territory -- and then the Commissioner would
discover that they were black and rescind his order, or he would be replaced
and his successor would have no interest in setting a precedent of giving
aid to Black Indians.
By the mid 1870's the Black Seminole community was mostly destitute and
starving, forced to resort to stealing stock from local ranchers to survive.
The army insisted it was not its responsibility to feed them, and without
land they couldn't feed themselves. Tension rose between the Black Seminole
settlements and local ranchers, and in 1876 an assassination attempt was
made on the life of the Black Seminole chief, John Horse. That was just too
much for a number of the Scouts and their families. Severely crippled by the
attack, John Horse led a sad exodus back to Nacimiento. At least there they
had land that they could farm. In the following years a number of Black
Seminoles returned to Nacimiento, but maintained close ties with their
relatives across the border in Brackettville.
In 1914, when the Scouts were disbanded, the remaining Black Seminoles were
ordered off the military reservation. Destitute, many of the older people
had to return to Nacimiento, as they had nowhere else to go. Most of the
younger families stayed in Texas and worked on cattle ranches. To the end,
the Army and Bureau of Indian Affairs kept trying to shift responsibility
for the Mascogos onto each other's shoulders. But, in the end, the Mascogos
had to take responsibility for themselves and go back where they could
Today, there are Black Seminoles in all parts of the U.S., with the heaviest
concentrations in Oklahoma and Texas. The Mascogos in Coahuila, Mexico are
still in close contact with the Black Seminoles in Brackettville and Del
Rio, Texas. They share customs and celebrations and ancestors. But the
Mascogos are once again destitute, as drought has dried up the San Juan
Sabinas River, leaving them without water for their subsistence farming.
There are very few ways to make a living in their area of Coahuila. The
young people are being forced to leave Nacimiento altogether to go inland to
the bigger Mexican cities where they will be absorbed into the mainstream
culture and lose their unique blend of African American, Native American and
Mexican cultures. Like their ancient allies/enemies, the Kickapoo, they
would like to have dual citizenship, so that they can cross into the U.S. to
work and still return to Nacimiento to keep their culture strong.
The Kickapoo were given this right of dual citizenship solely because they
were originally from the U. S. and should have the right to return to their
reservation when they please. Can we do no less for the descendants of the
Seminole Negro Indian Scouts, who served so valiantly in our interests and
yet were never given land that was their birthright as Native Americans? Do
they not deserve to finally be acknowledged?