PROLETARIAN HISTORY: The Dade Massacre

Photo: News clipping refers to massacres of settlers throughout late 1835 and 1836, including the Dade Massacre

By Joseph Magyar

Micancopy
Seminole Chief Micanopy

On December 28, 1835, US Major Francis Dade and his 110 soldiers were nearly annihilated when Seminole forces led by Chief Micanopy ambushed them in what would later be called “The Dade Massacre.”

The battle was the first decisive victory for the Seminoles in the Second Seminole War, which occurred between 1835 and 1842. The war coincided with the largest slave rebellion in US history, occurring between 1835 and 1838 on Florida plantations. The primary objective of the US in the war was punishing the escaped slave (maroon) communities in the area and preventing more slaves from revolting. This goal became irreconcilably linked to pushing the Seminoles out of the region.

For years, Florida had been a haven for escaped slaves, as Black slaves who had freed themselves from bondage were welcomed by the Seminoles. Their towns traded and held close cultural and economic ties, and many of the freed slaves married Seminoles and joined their tribes. The peoples were so close that many maroon communities in the area became known as “Black Seminoles.”

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 empowered President Andrew “Indian Killer” Jackson (formerly a general in the First Seminole War) to “negotiate” with American Indian Tribes for their relocation to what is now Oklahoma. These negotiations depended on false promises of “freedom,” money, and land west of the Mississippi. When these promises failed, the US would bribe a small faction within an Indian Tribe, unrepresentative of its leadership, to sign away the Tribe’s sovereignty; this was the tactic used against the Cherokee in Georgia with the Treaty of New Echota. The forced death marches which resulted from these fake treaties would kill at least 4,000 Indian men, women, and children in what is known as the Trail of Tears.

In March 1832, several Seminole Chiefs were forced to sign the Treaty of Payne’s Landing, which stipulated that all Seminoles were to be transferred to the Creek reservation and were to liquidate into the Creek tribe within three years.

Once the Chiefs were back home, most of them immediately renounced the treaty. During the three interim years, both the Seminoles and the US prepared for the inevitable conflict to come to a head. Seminole bands performed raids on smaller plantations to free slaves and stockpiled black powder and guns. During this time, the federal government began moving white settlers out of the countryside and reinforcing forts and towns.

On December 25, 1835, Major Dade and his contingent began a resupply mission to reinforce Fort King. Over the course of several days, their route would lead through several dense forests and rivers, leaving themselves open to ambush.

War Chief Osceola painted by George Catlin
War Chief Osceola

During this mission, the Seminoles under Micanopy planned to lie in wait for an ambush until their main military leader, War Chief Osceola, arrived.  Unknown to Micanopy, Osceola was occupied with the successful assassination of House Rep. Wiley Thompson, the Indian Agent responsible for overseeing the Seminoles’ removal.

Dade passed these rivers and forests without harassment as Micanopy mistakenly waited for Osceola. As Dade was expecting an ambush earlier, he became complacent and withdrew his scouts to move more quickly. Taking advantage of this, Micanopy and his warriors hid in the marshes surrounding Dade’s exposed path.

Micanopy himself reportedly fired the first shot on December 28, signaling the start of the battle and killing Major Dade. Over half of the commanders in the US contingent died in the first volley, with 107 of the 110 being obliterated in the ensuing fight. Of the three surviving Yankees, one would eventually be tracked down by the Seminoles.

US troops discover Major Dade and his contingent two months after the battle
Painting of US troops discovering Major Dade and his contingent two months after the battle

In the aftermath of the victory, the Seminoles went on to win another battle on the south side of the Withlacoochee River on December 30.  The Seminole ranks continued to swell with recruits, particularly escaped slaves. As the US legally considered slaves property, they often called these recruits “stolen,” with Lieutenant Joseph Harris noting in late January that “[the Seminoles] have been strongly reinforced of late by runaway and stolen negroes.”

Seminoles attack fort on the Withlacoochee River in December 1835
Seminoles attack fort on the Withlacoochee River in December 1835

After these successes, War Chief Osceola summarized the situation: “You have guns and so have we; you have powder and so have we; you have men and so have we; you men will fight, and so will ours into the last drop of Seminoles’ blood has moistened the dust of this hunting-ground.”

However, the Seminoles made the major mistake of exposing their leadership in talks with the US, called for by US General Thomas Jesup. These talks were were never intended to be anything other than a trap.

Both Micanopy and Osceola were thus captured in these fake peace talks. Osceola died of illness while being kept in unsanitary conditions, and Micanopy was forced to integrate into the Creek reserve in Oklahoma. He was joined by most of the Seminole Tribe, while a small resistance stayed behind in the upper Everglades. This group’s descendants remain on the land today.

The Dade Massacre should be celebrated as a successful military action against early US settler-colonialism which utilized proto-guerrilla tactics and was carried out through the unity of oppressed peoples. It is one of hundreds of examples of violent resistance against colonialism in North America, both before and after the establishment of the US, demonstrating that people of the continent have always struggled and that political and military deeds drive social change.