Footprints Along the Border - Story of the Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts
by William Gwaltney
Superintendent, Fort Laramie National Historic Site
Fort Laramie, Wyoming
(NOTE: The following was written by Mr. Gwaltney when he was a Park Ranger assigned to the Fort Davis National Historic Site, Fort Davis, Texas.)
One of the most fascinating but little known stories of the Indian Wars period in that of the Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts. This group of experienced frontier guerilla fighters was recruited in 1870 from a sizeable number of black people living at Nacimiento, Mexico. Most were descendants of slaves who had escaped slavery and had taken up with the Seminole Indians in Florida.
Wars against the Seminoles were fought by the United States in 1817 and again in 1836. The wars were largely conducted to regain escaped slaves whose departure created a very real economic loss to the slave owners and encouraged other slaves to attempt an escape. In 1836 General Philip Jessup declared, 'This (the second Seminole War) is a Negro, not an Indian War.'
The Seminoles were never truly defeated but many were captured or forced to relocate after a treaty was agreed to by the U.S. Government and the Seminole Nation.
Many Seminoles and Seminoles-Negroes were transported to Indian Territory which was later to become Oklahoma. Uncomfortable with the attitude of other tribes who had settled in the Territory, mainly the Creeks, a group of Seminoles under the leadership of Chief Wild Cat, and Black Seminoles under the leadership of John Horse moved into Texas and across the Border into Mexico.
In 1857 after the death of Chief Wild Cat in Mexico, the tribe dispersed, many of their number returning to the United States and Indian Territory.
The Blacks had no real home to return to and faced kidnapping and a return to slavery if they crossed the border back into Texas. Catholic Mexico prohibited slavery and as a result the Seminole-Blacks remained in Mexico and were relative safe if they remained south of the Rio Grande.
Drawing on survival skills learned while living in the Florida Wilderness, these people gained a tremendous amount of outdoor savvy living in the harsh and barren terrain of the Mexican borderlands. Trained from youth to ride, hunt, track, trap and shoot, these frontier Blacks became totally immersed in pioneer and native skills and traditions. Many served as soldiers in the Mexican Army and had gained an early reputation as tough and daring frontier soldiers.
After gold had been discovered in California, migration westward increased greatly. Many settled in the southwest and others attempted to travel on to New Mexico, Arizona and California along the Overland Trail. As more and more settlers came westward raids by the Comanche and Apache bands increased, and the Army was hard pressed to stop the raiders.
The white and black soldiers had proved again and again their worth in conflict and campaign but the Army needed a special reconnaissance force with expert trackers and fighters.
In 1870 Major Zenas R. Bliss of the 25th U.S. Infantry, a unit comprised of all black enlisted, authorized Captain F.W. Perry to travel to Nacimiento, Mexico and recruit Black Seminoles as U.S. Army scouts. In return for their services, the men would receive pay and also promises of rations for themselves and their families plus grants of land upon which they could settle after the mission was completed.
On the fourth of July 1870, the first group recruited crossed the silt laden waters of the Rio Grande to enlist at thirteen dollars a month. The first group mustered in by Major Bliss at Fort Duncan, Texas were John Kibbitt, Joe Dixie, Dindie Factor, Pompie Factor, Hardie Factor, Adams Fay, Bobby Kibbitt, John Thompson, John Ward, and George Washington. Things progressed slowly at first, the men being occupied with hasty training, equipment issue and recruiting.
In 1873 a new chapter began in the history of the scouts when a new officer was assigned to the unit. Lt. John Lapham Bullis was attached to the 24th Infantry and saw in the Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts the type of highly mobile strike force he knew could be used to take the war to the enemy. For the next decade, working closely with the Black as well as the White regiments, the scouts would see combat in extremely rugged conditions. Under a special agreement with the Mexican government, the scouts were able to pursue raiders across the border into Mexico and strike at their mountain strongholds. They saw action against the Lipan Apaches and Kickapoos at Remilino, Mexico. A detachment of Scouts was assigned to garrison a permanent camp at Nevill's Springs in what is now the Big Bend National Park in West Texas.
Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts also accompanied well known cavalry commander Col. Ranald MacKenzie on his brilliant punitive expedition against the Comanche at Palo Duro Canyon in 1874.
Bullis himself was saved from death by the quick thinking of three of his scouts. While tracking a group of Indians who had made off with seventy-five horses, Bullis and the scouts engaged the Indians at about seventy-five yards. The action was fast and furious and several Comanche warriors were killed or wounded. Recovering from the initial attack the Indians were able to outflank the scouts and forced Bullis and his men to make a break for their horses.
The scouts, Isaac Payne, John Ward and Pompey Factor succeeded in reaching their horses only to find that Bullis? mount a wild, newly-broken horse had run off leaving him afoot. Even though under a galling fire the scouts rode back to rescue the Lieutenant. Narrowly escaping with their lives, all three men later were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Private Adam Paine was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantry in action and rendering invaluable service to Colonel R.S. MacKenzie, 4th United States Cavalry at Staked Plains, Texas, near the Canyon Blanco tributary of the Red River 20-27 September 1874.
Just after midnight on New Year's morning of 1877, Adam Paine - then a former scout, while attending a dance at the Seminole camp was blasted from behind with a double-barreled shotgun by a Texas Sheriff reportedly at such close range that his clothes were set on fire. Shortly thereafter Pompey Factor, five scouts and former scouts became so exasperated by this second killing of scouts within a year - the third in less than two years - returned to Mexico and while crossing the Rio Grande washed the dust of Texas from their horses' hooves. While in Mexico they again fought Indians while serving in the Mexican Army under the command of Colonel Pedro Avincular Valdez.
The scouts were well thought of by even the traditionally staid military minds of the 19th century. Major Bliss characterized them as 'excellent hunters and trailers, brave scouts . . . and splendid fighters.' Colonel Edward Hatch thought of them as 'fine trailers and good marksmen.' They were well known for their incredible skill at tracking and were said to have almost enjoyed hand to hand combat.
While the scouts were amassing an impressive record of frontier combat their families were having to face discrimination, governmental indifference and racial violence.
After some years had gone by the land promised the scouts had not been granted and rations were cut off from anyone who was not a regularly enlisted scout.
The War Department discovered that they had no land they could legally give away and to make matters worse there was confusion from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Bureau declared that registration for the rolls of the Seminole tribe had been closed in 1866. Seminole-Blacks were now truly people without a country. These wanderers, said the bureaucracy, should have either stayed in the United States or stayed in Mexico. Local citizens were often distrustful of and disrespectful to these black frontiersmen and their families.
In spite of their harsh treatment by local ruffians and Washington bureaucrats, the Seminole-Negro Scouts maintained a high level of effectiveness, loyalty to the Army and pride in themselves. In one remarkable feat of tracking Lt. Bullis and 39 scouts trailed Mescalero Apache raiders for 34 days over 1,260 miles.
Bullis commanded the scouts until 1881 but the role of the Scouts continued into the early 20th century. His career was recognized with steady, if not rapid promotions. From humble beginnings as a private in the 125th New York Volunteers during the Civil War (He fought in the Battle of Harpers Ferry and was captured by the Confederates); to an officer in the 118th United States Infantry Regiment; after the Civil War commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the 41st U.S. Infantry; commander of the Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts: and subsequently rising to the rank of brigadier general.
Much of Bullis' success can be linked to the exploits of the Scouts. They were bonded together with loyalty, dedication and respect throughout the many incredibly difficult mission that they accomplished utilizing their superbly honed frontier tracking skills, superior marksmanship and first rate horsemanship.
The story of Bullis and the Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts has never been fully told in books, movies or television, but the marks they left on the western frontier are as plain as the tracks they left across the desert over a hundred years ago.