The Gullah Connection
Submitted by a Student
(Name withheld at the request of the student. Posted by permission.)
Greetings! It's great to see a webpage highlighting one of the least known and most amazing chapters of American history. I'm a student at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. I'm currently taking the most exciting class I've ever taken, entitled "The Gullah Connection", taught by a Dr. Joe Opala, an anthropologist who's considered pretty much the leading expert on Gullah/Black Seminole history and culture. He lives and researches among the Gullah on a South Carolina Sea Island, andhow he came to be a visiting scholar here I don't know, but he's a wonderful resource. The class basically traces the migrations of rice farmers in the Rice Coast of West Africa (particularly Sierra Leone), taken as slaves to the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia, and on through Florida, Oklahoma, Mexico, and Texas as your article described.
Before this semester I never believed I could become so fascinated with such a specific segment of American history, but here I am, browsing the web, seeing what other people have written about these incredible people. The understanding of this history is so recent, and the resources so scarce, that different versions of this story inevitably appear. I really enjoyed the page about the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts, but I thought having access to a great deal of the materials published about this phenomenon and getting many of the facts directly from the anthropologist who peiced them together, I could add and clarify a few things.
First, a note I've learned concerning the Seminoles. They are not an ethinically distinct Native American tribe! Since Florida was long a Spanish territory but uninhabitable by the Spanish due to the existence of malaria and yellow fever. Thus the great empty Florida was a natural place to go if you wanted to be left alone and could withstand the diseases. Factions of Alabama and Mississippi tribes (largely Creek and Choctaw, but included others) fled English enchroacment by settling in Florida. This coalition of tribal splinter groups worked together to forge an existence in the wilderness, and they were soon joined by runaway slaves, especially from the nearby rice growing areas of Georgia and South Carolina. This group as a whole became known as the Seminoles (deriving from the Spanish word "Cimmaron", or "wild people", which actually originally referred to the "wild" blacks living free in the unsettled areas!
All these groups banded together, but there doesn't seem to be much intermarriage between the blacks and the Native Americans, hence the distinct "black" and "red" Seminole groups. Though the Indians held the official power, it was actually the blacks who were most important in the Florida frontier. Florida more resembled their African homeland than it did Mississippi and Alabama, and the blacks were very adept at living off the land and defending their territory in the difficult terrain.More so than the Indians, they had knowledge of the English language and the colonists' modes of operation when Georgians began raiding Seminole villages. This of course proved invaluable in the subsequent Seminole Wars. The most important assest the Black Seminoles had was a resistance to Malaria, courtesy of the sickle-cell trait. That meant that they could easily live in swampy areas where the white man, and just as often the Indian, would die a miserable death. Anyhow, the blacks were the fiercest fighters on the Seminole side during the wars. Thomas Jessup, the commander of American forces during the Second Seminole war put it in no uncertain terms: "This is a black, not an indian war," he wrote while engaging the large majority of the U.S. Army against a relatively small band of runaway slaves in the second longest war in American history.
The war ended in a stalemate, with the blacks and the majority of the Indians realized that they would eventually have to relocate or else all be killed, so they were shipped from Tampa by boat up the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers to Indian Territory (Oklahoma)... not overland via the Trail of Tears as the website states. An interesting side note... the Black Seminoles were permitted to keep their guns after the war and bring them to the new settlement. The Governor of Alabama was infuriated to learn that free blacks with guns and property weretraveling through his slave state:) The rest of the history agrees with what I've learned, but you might be interested to know that throughout their travels these people maintained a creole language little changed since it left West Africa, and a rice diet, also a custom directly from the Rice Coast. Both the rice and the language still prevail whereever the Gullah/Black Seminoles have settlements (South Carolina, Georgia, Oklahoma, Mexico, and Texas, as well as groups in the Bahamas and Cuba. There is also a group who fought for the Bristish during the Revolution and were transplated to Nova Scotia (of all places) after the war, eventually to return to Africa and found Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Well, that's about all I have time to write, but I hope I managed to add a little information to what you already knew about this great and overlooked corner of American history. If you are interested in knowing more (just because it's so interesting :), there is an engaging book titled "The Black Seminoles", by Kenneth Porter, and a good bit of other information, including some useful papers written by Dr. Opala. If you would like to get in touch with Dr. Opala or just have something to say, feel free to write back.
Thanks for reading, and congrats on a great site.