America's Original Special Forces: Black Seminole Scouts in the American West
America’s Original Special Forces: Black Seminole Scouts in the American West

America’s Original Special Forces: Black Seminole Scouts in the American West

Robert Ranstadler - August 9, 2017

American special operations forces, such as the U.S. Army Rangers, were formally commissioned during the last century. Established in 1952, the United States Special Operations Command officially traces its roots back to the Office of Strategic Services. The true history of American clandestine operations goes back much further than the Second World War, however. A relatively unnoticed group of Black Seminole Scouts, who helped America’s frontier army pacify the Great Plains during the late nineteenth-century, has been overlooked for nearly 150 years. These elite scouts were the most effective desert trackers in U.S. Army history and this is their story.

Culture, Conflict, and Relocation

Today’s Seminole Tribe of Florida is a federally-recognized Native American group, consisting of more than 4,000 members and six reservations, spread across the southern region of the state. Including the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, the Florida Seminoles comprise the three officially sanctioned Seminole entities in the United States. They achieved formal recognition in 1957, but their native tribal history extends back much further, to the early eighteenth-century. Creek Indians, along with several other Native Southeastern tribes, gradually integrated to form the Seminole Nation, which prospered through the late 1700s into the early 19th century.

America’s Original Special Forces: Black Seminole Scouts in the American West
Seminole Tribe of Florida. Emaze.com

The Florida Seminole Nation is historically considered part of the “Five Civilized Tribes,” a broader group consisting of the five Native American cultures first encountered by European settlers during North America’s early colonial period. Along with the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks, the Seminoles were typically regarded as “civilized” by white colonists because they broadly incorporated many European practices within their own respective cultures. The adoption of centralized bureaucracies and converting to Christianity generally facilitated stable relations between these groups over the years. The Seminoles developed a robust trading network in colonial Florida, which economically and geographically flourished over the course of several decades.

Seminole Indians became increasingly independent of their Native American and Euromerican neighbors, rapidly expanding their control over many parts Florida. Free blacks and escaped slaves frequently sought refuge in the southern lands of the Seminole Nation. Subsequent generations of African-Americans assimilated into Native society but also retained many of their distinct Gullah customs and traditions, which eventually led to the establishment of a unique Black Seminole culture. Tenuous Indian-White relations began to crumble after the Revolutionary War, however, as a nascent U.S. Government began exerting political and territorial pressure on many Native Southeastern groups, sparking the First Seminole War of 1816.

America’s Original Special Forces: Black Seminole Scouts in the American West
The Second Seminole War. Wikipedia

Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1819. The Seminoles, meanwhile, surrendered their northern lands and settled in southern Florida. Two subsequent Seminole Wars (1835-42 and 1855-58) marked the costliest period of conflict in the history of the Indian Wars. Seminole warriors frustrated the U.S. Army by employing irregular warfare and guerrilla tactics against a numerically and technologically superior force of well-equipped soldiers. Nevertheless, years of bloody battle eventually exhausted the Seminoles’ limited stores of food and equipment. Tired and hungry, most of the tribe agreed to relocate to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), ostensibly to start a peaceful new life on the frontier.

America’s Original Special Forces: Black Seminole Scouts in the American West
The Trail of Tears. PBS

The Trail of Tears and Life in the West

On May 28, 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law. This piece of legislation foreshadowed the forcible relocation of the “Five Civilized Tribes,” from their hereditary homelands in the Southeastern United States to federally-designated reservations west of the Mississippi River. The U.S. Government marched droves of Native Americans countless miles, over harsh terrain, for the next twenty years. Aptly dubbed the “Trail of Tears,” it’s estimated between 2,000 and 8,000 Amerindians died on their way to Indian Territory. Most succumbed to disease, starvation, or exhaustion over the course of their arduous journey out west.

Native Florida Seminoles and Black Seminoles, along with a few other tribes, initially resisted relocation. The Seminole Wars were predicated upon the Federal Government’s opposition to Native land rights and were marked by many gruesome conflicts. The Dade Massacre occurred when the U.S. Army attempted to forcibly relocate hundreds of Seminole Indians from present-day Ocala, Florida to Indian Territory. Almost 200 warriors ambushed two U.S. Army companies, led by Major Francis L. Dade, on December 28, 1835. Seminole guerrillas decimated the detachment, killing all but three men. The Second Seminole War was lost by the early 1840s, however, with most of the tribe leaving Florida shortly thereafter.

One hundred dissidents remained behind in the Florida Everglades, but approximately 3,000 Seminoles and 800 Black Seminoles relocated to Indian Territory during the 1830s. Geographically isolated from the Florida Seminoles, descendants of this group adapted to their new surroundings, eventually founding the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. Over 13,000 Oklahoma Seminoles currently reside in Wewoka, Oklahoma, on approximately 600 square miles of federally-allotted land, but their journey was far from easy. They faced intense persecution in the years leading up to the American Civil War and, prior to Emancipation, accepted many escaped slaves and freedmen into Black Seminole society.

America’s Original Special Forces: Black Seminole Scouts in the American West
U.S. Soldiers viewing the aftermath of the Dade Massacre. Wikipedia

Facing continued pressure from slavers, raiders, and the U.S. Government, many Black Seminoles looked to settle elsewhere. In 1849, a tribal war chief called Wildcat led a group of disenfranchised Seminoles, Creeks, and Black Seminoles from their reservations in Indian Territory to Mexico. Mexican officials welcomed them with open arms and provided the group with a new home in Coahuila, along the Rio Grande River. The men joined the ranks of the Mexican Army, who regularly and decisively defeated Comanches, Apaches, and Texans during the 1850s. Some Seminoles missed their families in Indian Territory, however, and peaceably returned north just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Black Seminoles, facing continued persecution in the United States, remained in Mexico after the conclusion of the Civil War. The roles of black soldiers changed significantly, however, during the post-war period. Understaffed, ill-equipped, and facing the seemingly insurmountable task of pacifying the expansive frontier, U.S. Army officials looked to exploit any possible opportunity that would work to their strategic advantage. Thus, in the summer of 1870, American policy-makers extended an invitation to the Black Seminoles, who proved themselves indispensable while fighting for Mexico. Offered land and pay, in exchange for fighting recalcitrant Apaches and Comanches, they agreed to return north and don the army blue.

America’s Original Special Forces: Black Seminole Scouts in the American West
Black Seminole Scouts patrolling on horseback in western Texas. Legends of America

Service and Legacy

According to the accomplished Mexican Major General Alberto Guajardo, the Black Seminole Scouts were “always triumphant” while serving the Mexican cause. They continued to live up to this reputation during their service to the United States. Over the course of roughly twenty years, Black Seminole Scouts fought in dozens of battles, gained the respect of their fellow soldiers, fought aggressive Plains Indians across the American Interior, and won numerous accolades and awards. Four of these elite men—Adam Paine, Pompey Factor, Isaac Payne, and John Ward—even won the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military decoration for exceptional valor and courage in combat.

John Horse led the Black Seminoles for years and guided the group to Fort Duncan, Texas on July 4, 1870. Two hundred men enlisted later that August and were reassigned to Fort Clark, where they became acquainted with their new commander, Lieutenant John L. Bullis. A native New Yorker, Bullis established himself during the Civil War as commander of 118th United States Colored Troops Infantry. He successfully led his men but was mustered out of the downsized army after the war. Bullis was later offered a new commission in the regular army, where he served as a second lieutenant in the 41st and 24th (Colored) Infantry Regiments.

Black Seminole Scouts fought in Mexico, Texas, Indian Territory, and Kansas. They typically patrolled with cavalry regiments, pursuing renegade Indians on horseback across the Great Plains. Some notable engagements took place near the end of the Plains Indian Wars, in the Big Bend area of western Texas, during the late 1870s and early 1880s. In 1875, Bullis and a handful of scouts tracked and engaged a numerically superior band of Indian horse thieves, while crossing the Pecos River. Bullis was thrown from his horse but rescued by Sergeant John Ward who, along with the aforementioned Pompey and Payne, was awarded the Medal of Honor.

America’s Original Special Forces: Black Seminole Scouts in the American West
Medal of Honor Recipient, Pompey Factor. Seminole Cemetery Association

One of the greatest adversaries the scouts ever faced was the Apache war chief and bandit, Victorio. His gang murdered dozens of settlers and prospectors across parts of New Mexico and the Big Bend during a year-long reign of terror. In early 1880, Bullis and his men set up camp in the Chianti Mountains of South Central Texas. Over the course of three months, Bullis’s scouts escorted countless miners and prospectors to safety. Although assigned to escort duty, the group continually harassed and gathered intelligence on the Victorio, who was eventually destroyed by the Mexican Army later that winter.

Black Seminole Scouts were revered by their fellow soldiers for possessing seemingly superhuman endurance, unwavering loyalty, and preternatural tracking abilities. It wasn’t uncommon for a group of bandits to think that they had evaded capture only to be confronted by a scouting party months down the road. Sadly, the group did not receive what was promised to them by the U.S. Government, fought their last engagement in 1893, and was officially disbanded in 1914. Despite this, the Black Seminole Scouts established an incredible precedent within the military community, setting the bar for clandestine warfare and special operations forces into the twentieth-century.

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