Hidden Histories

A Forgotten Massacre and Little-Remembered War

Friday, 3/4/11

 

***This article appeared in a December, 2009 HSP monthly email publication, "History Hits: Collecting & sharing the stories of Pennsylvania." To subscribe, click here.***
 
Everyone recalls the Alamo and its heroic but tragic defense in Texas in 1836, and the "Last Stand" of George Armstrong Custer and his forces at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana in 1876. But very few are aware of the battle that occurred on this day, Monday, December 28, 1835. During the battle, called the Dade Massacre, Major Francis Langhorne Dade and his entire command of more than 100 men were annihilated within the "piney woods" country of Florida in a surprise attack by a combined force of Seminole Indians and runaway slaves.

Only three men survived the battle, and only one--Private Ransom Clarke--lived long enough to write about it. (read his account to the right) Clarke suffered a shattered shoulder and pelvis, broken legs, and wounds to his head and lung. The injured soldier crawled 50 miles from the site of the battle (not far from what is now Bushnell, Florida) to Ft. Brook (near present-day Tampa).

The Dade Massacre was the catalyst for the Second Seminole War, which was fought between 1835 and 1842 and included such famous individuals as Seminole chief Osceola, who was later captured and died of malaria in January of 1838. Army physician Frederick Weedon embalmed and preserved Osceola's head!

Presidents and military authorities fretted over what to do about the "Seminole problem."  Major General Thomas Sidney Jessup, who was in command of the Florida forces, wrote to Colonel Persifor Frazer Smith in April 19, 1838, that since "no part of the Indians can be safely trusted...the only proper course is to seize and send them off...."

Smith (pictured below) was a Philadelphia native, a graduate of Princeton, and a lawyer. He became the colonel of a regiment of volunteers and led them in various campaigns during the Second Seminole War. The correspondence between Jessup and Smith (also below) is found in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's papers of Washington Townsend, a representative from Chester County.


President Martin Van Buren sent General Alexander Macomb, the Commanding General of the United States Army, to negotiate a treaty with the Seminoles in May of 1839. However, the war continued. In 1840, Macomb wrote a lengthy discourse to Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett (whose papers are on deposit at the Historical Society) titled, "A Plan For Subduing the Indians in Florida."

The war would eventually cost the United States more than $20 million and some 1,500 men. The three Seminole Wars would tax the funds and manpower of the federal government from 1817 until 1842. By the end of the war, thousands of Seminoles had been forced westward and only a few hundred remained in Florida.

Like so many other topics, the collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania are composed of a diverse range of materials, both topically and chronologically for both the scholar and layperson alike. We invite all to visit the society and enjoy.