Black Indians
by William Loren Katz

“It is not that U.S. chroniclers of the past have failed to see a Black American heritage through the eyes of non whites, for that is understandable. Almost all were white. What is unforgivable is that some have insisted on seeing past events through the eyes of a slaveholding and Indian killing class that has been dead for a century or more” (page 5).

Kiowa chief Lonewolf and his wife Etla

Kiowa chief Lonewolf and his wife Etla

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Black Indians by William Loren Katz

I strongly recommend this ambitious and fascinating book, as I would his perhaps stronger, if more general work, “The Black West”, published earlier in 1971. Both are great reminders that History is dependent on who controls access to the channels of scholarship. It is certainly not the disadvantaged classes, and as time advances the prospect of discovering evidence of such people recedes.

Katz clearly shows the hypocrisy and myopia of European attitudes by using the letters of Christopher Columbus. When he landed in 1492 he wrote that he “took some of the natives by force”. Later he recorded they were “tractable” and “peaceable”, “there is not in the world a better nation”. However he also added that they must be “made to work” and “adopt our ways." (page 26)

Katz reminds us in his introduction that in 1920 historian Carter G Woodson called the relationship between the native Americans and blacks as “ one of the greatest unwritten chapters in the history of the United States”. (page 4) It wasn’t that the history was distorted, it was that it was wittingly or unwittingly ignored. Katz cites George Catlin, for example, painting a number of captive Seminoles, including the famous one of Chief Osceola, at Fort Multrie in 1837, but failing to paint or mention “that Osceola’s bodyguard of fifty-five warriors included at least fifty-two Black Seminoles”. (page 5) Indeed, later in the book it emerges that the chief’s wife was also black.

A number of chapters are devoted to the Seminoles, who, according to Katz, were originally refugees themselves from the Creek nation, and who readily accepted and assimilated other native Americans into their culture.

Maybe I do him a disservice but I could not readily understand why they were refugees so I looked up the official Seminole website to find out. “The Seminole Tribe (that is, the political entity) did not exist until it was created by the Seminoles in 1957. The Seminole people (that is, the cultural group), are the descendants of many Native Americans who have inhabited Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and parts of South Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi for at least 12,000 years. They lived as hundreds of separate tribes when the Spaniards (the first Europeans to enter North America), arrived in 1510. But they were members of the same linguistic family, the Maskókî speakers, and they shared many of the same belief systems. Over the last almost-500 years, however, as their descendants have endured diseases and warfare, the survivors of these numerous Maskókî tribes grouped together in Florida, around a core of cimarrones — refugees from the Spanish Florida missions (see above). Only after the 1770s, when the first English speakers entered Florida, were they called Seminolies or Seminoles, Today, the entire group bears their Anglicized name, Seminoles.”

It seems clear and not surprising, then, that since these people were runaways from the Spanish they were sympathetic to runaway slaves who took refuge in the Florida swamps. As the official Seminole website explains: “The African-American historian, Kenneth Porter, defined Black Seminoles as "[T]hose people of African origin who attached themselves voluntarily to the Seminoles or were purchased by them as slaves." They were permitted by the Seminoles to make their camps close by the Seminole camps and, in return, shared their agricultural produce with the Indians. A few of them gained prominence among the Seminoles because of their ability to translate. One, at least, Abraham, was a "sense bearer" or spokesman for Micanopy, an hereditary micco, or civic leader.

Almost all of the slaves who sought the protection of the Seminoles in Florida also left with them for Oklahoma. Many of their descendants are there today, organized as "Freedmen's Bands," and still living under the aegis of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. A few, who left Oklahoma in 1849 with the famous Florida warrior, Cowák:cuchî or Wild Cat, to fight other Indians in Mexico, returned to Texas and their descendants now live in the tiny town of Bracketville, near the Mexican border.”

As Katz explains, Wild Cat led the offshoot Seminoles into Mexico because politically the pro slavery group held sway in Oklahoma in 1849. They were so effective in helping the Mexican President Santa Ana to police the Rio Grande border that the U.S. army sent Captain Frank Perry to negotiate the black Seminoles crossing into Texas in 1870. In return for their young men pacifying the previously uncontrollable Comanche, Kiowa, Apache, United States and Mexican bandits along the United States side of the border, the Seminoles were promised, ”food, necessities and, eventually, good farming land.” ( page 76) “Seminoles remembered signing this ‘treaty’ with Perry, but the piece of paper, which soon became a bone of contention, disappeared. (page 78)

The Seminole auxiliary troops were unconventional as far as the army were concerned, although they were very effective. “The task of finding an officer who could command them and gain their respect was not solved for two years”. The job was finally handed to a young white lieutenant from New York, John L Bullis. (page 80). Shocking as it is to those who don’t know, blacks were not to permitted to be officers at this time, and even in the Second World war black regiments were still commanded by white, albeit usually sympathetic, officers.

“Under Bullis’s careful guidance the Seminole ……Indian scouts drove their incomparable skills into battle against crime in Texas. They could pick up a trail three weeks old, track foes who believed they had eluded all pursuers, and then surprise a target when least expected. On the trail they lived by uncovering hidden springs and eating rattlesnakes they caught.” (page 81)

“On April 25 1875, Bullis, Sergeant John Ward, trumpeter Isaac Payne and Private Pompey Factor were tracking a party of twenty five Comanche rustlers.” With daring or foolishness the white officer led his three black Seminole soldiers to challenge the Comanche who were in possession of seventy five stolen horses. When the thieves realized the odds they charged, and the Seminoles bolted for safety. However, when Sergeant Ward turned and saw that Bullis had been thrown by his mount he yelled to the others and Bullis was rescued. Despite such valiant and loyal service,when Pompey Factor left the army he received no pension, and when he died he was penniless. For the effectiveness of his troops Bullis received an honour “The Friend of the Frontier” from the Texans, but the Seminole troops themselves never received any recognition whatsoever.

One reservation I have about the book is that however informative it is, the content is heavily dependent on the ‘five civilised tribes’: Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws and, especially the Seminoles. Naturally enough, because they were in the south east, and, as such were likely to, and did, have most interaction with the black runaways from the southern plantations. As Katz recognizes, the nations in the north had less contact with blacks, largely because slaves were not treated as badly and were less likely to seek refuge.

The excellent book “The Black Seminoles”, by Kenneth Porter explains their development in more detail, and I was expecting a wider perspective from William Loren Katz. This might be particularly more anticipated now that he has chosen to put a picture of Kiowa Lone Wolf and his wife on cover of the latest edition of “Black Indians”. Lamentably he offers no specific evidence that either were of mixed race or black, thereby raising questions of how widely blacks were actually assimilated into native American society. I agree that the evidence is that they would generally welcome anyone who was young enough or willing to be assimilated, but actual cases were very much dependent on the amount of contact. I fear that unfortunately the title of his work has pushed him to overreach what is sustainable and that however much I agree with Katz’s values and admire him for his stance on racism, the book does not really take us beyond what Porter has more closely evidenced and what Katz already documented in his excellent “The Black West”. It might still be possible to research the subject but it would very much depend on oral history being passed on through the generations.

Nevertheless “Black Indians” contains much of interest and some notable observations that make it well worth reading. Take this, for example:

“In dealing with non Christians, they (Europeans) saw little reason to observe common rules of fair play, and rarely did. They tramped into the …American wilderness with a bible, a musket and a diplomacy that knew no rules.” (page 89)

Katz also draws attention to Edward Rose, Jim Beckwourth and the Bonga family, as he did in “The Black West”. He also points out that when Oklahoma became the 46th state the native Americans did not have the vote, and blacks faced violence if they tried to vote., There was segregation of seats in schools, public buildings and transport and it was the first state to segregate telephone booths.

Certainly I find myself in sympathy with an author who states in his introduction:

“I have dropped such derisive terms as ‘half breed’, ‘renegade’ and ‘tribe’ in characterizing Native Americans and Africans. If Europeans came from nations, so too did non whites.” I, too, try to use language which is respectful to the native Americans throughtout this website.

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© Chris Smallbone September 2006