Osceola Seminole leader Osceola (1804-1838) was born in the Creek town of Talasi (Tallassee), in present-day Elmore and Tallapoosa Counties. His family was allied with the anti-American Red Stick faction of the Creek Indians during the Creek War of 1813-14, after which they moved to Florida. There, he became a leader of the Seminole Nation during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). His fame arose from his leadership during that struggle of the Seminole people for independence from the United States.
Osceola was born in 1804 to a Scottish trader named William Powell and Polly Copinger, a Creek woman of mixed European and Creek ancestry. Known as Billy Powell for the first ten years or so of his life, he took the name Osceola after a coming-of-age ceremony. Also written as Asi-Yaholo, his name translates as “asi,” the ritual “black drink” popular among southeastern tribes, and “yaholo!,” the word shouted by the men serving asi during ceremonies. The heritage and ethnicity of Osceola is the subject of some debate among historians. Like many of the Native Americans living in the east-central region of what is now Alabama, Osceola was of mixed ancestry. His great-grandfather, James McQueen, was one of the first white men to live among the Creek Indians of the Tallassee area. Other experts believe that his father was a Native American and that his mother only married Powell after his father’s death. Osceola himself stated that he was a Native American, not white.
Battle of Burnt Corn Creek Artifact During his lifetime, Osceola’s family was affected by or involved in three wars. The first, the Creek War, took place between opposing factions of Creek society. Osceola’s family was part of the Red Stick faction who opposed the Creek Indians who wanted to trade and form better relations with white settlers. Likely quite influential with Osceola was Peter McQueen, one of James McQueen’s four children who became a leader in the clan of Osceola’s mother and a prominent leader of the Red Sticks. McQueen was a member of the party that had procured gunpowder and lead shot from the Spanish in Florida and burned some Creek plantations on their return. He and his Red Stick warriors were then ambushed at Burnt Corn Creek. McQueen also participated in the attack on Fort Mims and was at the Battle of Autossee, among others. The Creek War ended in 1814 with the Treaty of Fort Jackson, in which the Creeks surrendered much of their land in Alabama and Georgia to the U.S. government. Many Creeks fled south to Spanish Florida to live among the Seminole, a consortium of several southeastern Indian clans and tribe members, principally Lower Creek, and escaped slaves that formed in the late eighteenth century. At some point, Peter McQueen led Osceola’s family to the Tallahassee, Florida, area, where they were also welcomed into the Seminole nation.
In 1817, the First Seminole War broke out as Gen. Andrew Jackson pursued Seminoles who had aligned with the British during the War of 1812 and gave shelter to runaway slaves. The war pressed the Seminoles further south into Florida, and after the end of the war, the United States purchased the remaining parts of Florida from the Spanish. In 1821, the United States took control of this territory and once again, the Seminoles were living under the authority of the U.S. government. After Jackson was elected president in 1828, he pushed his Indian Removal Bill through Congress. This bill called for the forced relocation of southeastern Indian tribes to federal land west of the Mississippi River. In 1832, at Payne’s Landing, a group of Seminole leaders and chiefs met with government agents and agreed to the Treaty of Payne’s Landing, under which they would leave Florida.
Never before interested in politics or leadership of his band, the treaty signed at Payne’s Landing did not sit well with Osceola and he argued against it, specifically citing a clause that would return escaped slaves to their owners. He had no hereditary claim to leadership with either the Creek Indians or the Seminole Nation, but he did have some influence among some of the warriors. This was partly due to his devotion to the needs of the men he led and partly to his adherence to Indian traditions and customs. In addition, he was well respected and had a good relationship with the white authorities in his area.
In 1834, Indian agent Wiley Thompson organized a meeting with Seminole leaders, including Osceola, at Fort King near present-day Ocala to sign the treaty. When Osceola spoke, he did so with such disdain for the treaty that Thompson briefly placed Osceola in chains before releasing him a few days later. In November 1835, Osceola killed Chief Charley Emathla, despite their friendship, because he viewed him as a traitor for agreeing to the relocation terms. In December 1835, Osceola killed and scalped Thompson during one of several Indian raids he led against white settlements. That same day, all but two of the 110 soldiers under Maj. Francis Dade were ambushed and killed by other Seminole warriors. Both events helped trigger the Second Seminole War. Many Seminole warriors followed Osceola for his decisiveness and daring during this time, and he began a campaign against white settlers that embarrassed and confounded several Army generals as each one replaced the previous general.
By the third year of the war, Gen. Thomas S. Jesup had been appointed to head the effort against Osceola and the Seminoles. In 1837, Osceola agreed to meet with Army leaders at Fort Payton near St. Augustine to discuss a treaty. Under the protection of a white flag, Osceola and his whole party were captured by the Army. This event was not well received by the American public and remains controversial even today. After his capture, Osceola was transferred to Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina, where his wives and children joined him. At the time of his capture, Osceola was already sick. He suffered from malaria and also may have developed an abscess as a result of acute tonsillitis. His capture and imprisonment, along with the separation from his people, did not help his already weakened state. On January 30, 1838, just three months after his capture, Osceola rose from his bed and dressed himself in his best clothes. He then lay back down and died almost immediately. He was buried at Fort Moultrie where his tombstone reads, “Oceola: Patriot and Warrior.”
Bunn, Mike, and Clay Williams. Battle for the Southern Frontier: The Creek War and the War of 1812. Charleston: History Press, 2008.
Halbert, Henry S., and Timothy H. Ball. The Creek War of 1813 and 1814. 1895. Reprint, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.
Remini, Robert V. Andrew Jackson & His Indian Wars. New York: Viking Press, 2001.
Wickman, Patricia Riles. Osceola’s Legacy. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.