Neamathla, Seminole Chief

Neamathla, A Seminole Chief

The war between the United States and the Florida Indians having given an increased interest to the history of those tribes, we propose to treat that portion of our subject with some degree of minuteness, should we succeed in procuring the requisite materials. Our information in regard to them is not sufficiently precise to enable us to attempt this at present, and in presenting the valuable portrait which accompanies this sketch, we shall confine ourselves to a few general remarks.

The Spanish conquerors and discoverers, if we may place any confidence in their reports, encountered numerous and warlike tribes in the regions which they were pleased to describe as t the land of flowers; but they may have indulged in the poetic license as greatly in regard to the number of inhabitants as in reference to the luxuries of the soil and climate. It is certain that but few of the ancient inhabitants remain; and these are divided into small hordes, who neither exhibit the appearance nor retain the recollection of any former greatness. A new people has been added to them, who now form the great majority of the savage population of that country, and whose character has become impressed upon the whole mass.

The Seminoles, or Runaways, are descended from the Creeks and Cherokees, and perhaps from other of the southern tribes, and derive their name from the manner of their separation from the original stocks. While Florida belonged to Spain it afforded a place of refuge for the discontented individuals belonging to the tribes within the United States, as well as for fugitive Negro slaves; and of this mixed population were formed the various tribes now known under the common name of Seminoles. From the swamps and hammocks of Florida, they have been in the habit of annoying the frontiers of the adjacent states, and these injuries have been rendered the more galling by the protection afforded by those savages to runaway slaves, and by the atrocities practiced by the latter under the influence of revenge and the fear of recapture. It is not to be denied, nor is it surprising, that these Indians have, under such circumstances, suffered much injustice, for the spirit of retaliation is never limited by moderation; and it was a wise as well as a humane policy of the government which decreed the separation of the exasperated parties, by the removal of the Seminoles to a territory more distant from the white settlements. Nor could the former, with any propriety, plead the territorial rights and local attachments so strongly urged by their parent nations; for they were mere intruders, or at best but recent inhabitants, of the lands from which it was proposed to remove them.

Neamathla, who has been one of the most distinguished of the Seminoles, and was at one time their head man, or principal chief, was by birth a Creek. At what time he emigrated to Florida, or by what gradations he rose to authority, we are not well informed, and as we propose to make these sketches strictly authentic as far as they go, we pass over those details that have reached us with no better evidence than mere rumor. Mr. Duval, governor of Florida, in a dispatch to the government at Washington, dated in March, 1824, describes him as a man of uncommon abilities, of great influence with his nation, and as one of the most eloquent men he ever heard. At a subsequent date in the same year, he writes thus : “Neamathla is a most uncommon man, and ought to be induced to remove with his people. This chief you will find perhaps the greatest man you have ever seen among the Indians : he can control his warriors with as much ease as a colonel could ii regiment of regular soldiers.” Again, we find the hospitality and manly feelings of this chief, and his great energy of character, spoken of in terms of high respect. When these opinions were expressed, hopes were entertained that Neamathla could be induced to second the views of the American government in regard to the removal of the Seminoles to the land appropriated to them west of Arkansas; but in the summer of that year it was found that, instead of promoting that desirable measure, he was exerting his influence-to defeat it, and Governor Duval deposed him from the chieftaincy. This is a curious instance of the anomalous character of the relation existing between our government and the Indians: for, while the latter are for many purposes considered as independent nations, and are treated with as such, they are in all essential respects regarded and governed as subjects, and the government has, on several occasions, sanctioned the creation and removal of chiefs.

There is some reason to believe that the reluctance of Neamathla to remove from Florida was the result of a natural attention to his own interest. By a previous treaty, the United States, with a view to conciliate this respectable chief, now advanced in years, set apart for his private use a tract of land, remote from the residence of the main body of the nation. The tenure of such reservations is that of occupancy only, and as Neamathla could not sell the land, he of course desired to enjoy its use, and was unwilling to remove to a distant wilderness. In another view of the subject, the liberality of the government to this chief proved injurious, as it gave him a home remote from the villages of his people, among whom his influence was unbounded, and left them exposed to the intrigues of the mercenary individuals whose interest it was to promote dissension. That Neamathla desired to be at peace with the United States, was apparent from the whole tenor of his conduct, since the war which closed in 1815. He had maintained a strict discipline in his tribe, punishing the offenses of his people, especially those committed against the whites, with uncompromising severity. His people feared, while they loved and respected him. The removal of such a man from among them was injudicious. It was proposed, therefore, to permit him to sell his reservation, under the expectation that he would convert the proceeds into cattle and horses, and be willing to remove with his people to the fertile lands provided for them. The arrangement was, however, not effected; and the influence of Neamathla being used in opposition to the views of the government, and of that which was esteemed the best interests of the Seminoles, he was deposed, upon which he abandoned the Seminoles and returned to the Creek nation. That he was well received by the Creeks, and recognized as a person of consideration, appears from the fact, that when Colonel M’Kenney, as United States commissioner, assembled the Creeks in general council at Tuckhabatchee, in 1827, to settle the controversy at that time going on between the United States and Georgia, and the Creek nation, Neamathla, took his seat among the principal men in the council, and gave proof of exercising considerable influence in their deliberations.

We have received from an authentic source an anecdote of this chief, which is highly characteristic of his race, and exhibits a remarkable coincidence in the opinions of Neamathla with those of other distinguished Indians. Pontiac, Red Jacket, Little Turtle, Tecumthe’, and a few other of the master spirits among the red men, uniformly opposed all attempts to introduce the civilization and arts of the European race among the Indians, under the plausible argument that the Great Spirit had created the several races for different purposes, and had given to each the arts proper to its destination. These sagacious men saw that as the Indians adopted the habits of white men, they acquired new wants, which could only be supplied by an intercourse with civilized people, upon whom they thus became dependent. They felt that they were the weaker party in number, and the inferior in ingenuity; and as they knew of no contact between nations but that in which one must gain at the expense of the other, they believed that all intercourse between the white and red races must tend to the disadvantage of the latter. There can be no question as to the correctness of this reasoning, nor any doubt that every advance made by the Indians towards civilization, contributes to destroy their independence. We may think that they would be better off without such savage freedom, and in the enjoyment of the comforts that we possess; but they reason differently, and while they admit the advantages of our condition, they are not willing to purchase them at the expense of their national integrity. Their most sagacious men have, therefore, always viewed with jealousy our attempts to introduce our religion and our arts among them, and have ever considered the arms of the white man far less dangerous to their existence as a separate people than the education by which we would win them over to our customs.

By the sixth article of the treaty of Moultrie Creek, in the territory of Florida, concluded September 18th, 1823, it was pro vided, among other things, that the sum of one thousand dollars per annum, for twenty years, should be applied by the United States to the support of a school at the Florida agency, for the education of the children of the Indians. In carrying the provisions of the treaty into effect, the commissioner for Indian affairs at Washington received no information for some time touching that one for the establishment of the school, and sup posed it to have been overlooked, when on inquiry it was found that the Indians declined receiving it. The delicate office of communicating this decision to the governor of Florida, was confided to Neamathla, or assumed by him as the head man of the Seminoles. The Indians are ceremonious in the mode of conducting their public affairs, and in refusing to receive the proffered liberality of the government, the chief delivered his reasons at length in u speech, of which the following is a translation

“My father, we have listened to the message of our Great Father at Washington, who has taken pity on his red children, and would teach us to speak on paper like the children of the white men. It is very good to know all those things which the white people know, and it is right for them to teach them to their children. We also instruct ours in our own way: we teach them to procure food by hunting, and to kill their enemies. But no want no schools, such as you offer us. We wish our children to remain as the Great Spirit made them, and as their fathers are, Indians. The Great Spirit has made different kinds of men, and given them separate countries to live in; and he has given to each the arts that are suited to his condition. It is not for us to change the designs of the Great Master of Life. If you establish a school, and teach our children the knowledge of the white people, they will cease. to be Indians. The Great Spirit wishes no change in his red children. They are very good as he made them; if the white man attempts to improve, he will spoil them.

“Father, we thank you for your offer; but we do not wish our children to be taught the ways of your people.”

“Listen, father, and I will tell you how the Great Spirit made man, and how he gave to men of different colors the different employments that we find them engaged in. After the world was made, it was solitary. It was very beautiful; the forests abounded in game and fruit: the great plains were covered with deer and elk, and buffalo, and the rivers were full of fish; there were many bears and beaver, and other fat animals, but there was no being to enjoy these good things. Then the Master of Life said, we will make man. Man was made; but when he stood up before his Maker, he was white! The Great Spirit was sorry : he saw that the being he had made was pale and weak; he took pity on him, and therefore did not unmake him, but let him live. He tried again, for he was determined to make a perfect man; but in his endeavor to avoid making another white man, he went into the opposite extreme, and when the second being rose up, and stood before him, he was black! The Great Spirit liked the black man less than the white, and he shoved him aside to make room for another trial. Then it was that he made the red man; and the red man pleased him.

“My father, listen I have not told you all. In this way the Great Spirit made the white, the black, and the red man, when he put them upon the earth. Here they were but they were very poor. They had no lodges nor horses, no tools to work with, no traps, nor any thing with which to kill game. All at once, these three men, looking up, saw three large boxes coming down from the sky. They descended very slowly, but at last reached the ground, while these three poor men stood and looked at them, not knowing what to do. Then the Great Spirit spoke and said, “White man, you are pale and weak, but I made you first, and will give you the first choice; go to the boxes, open them and look in, and choose which you will take for your portion.” The white man opened the boxes, looked in, and said, ‘I will take this.’ It was filled with pens, and ink, and paper, and compasses, and such things as your people now use. The Great Spirit spoke again, and said, ‘Black man, I made you next, but I do not like you. You may stand aside. The Red man is my favorite; he shall come forward and take the next choice; Red man, choose your portion of the things of this world.’ The Red man stepped boldly up and chose a box filled with tomahawks, knives, war-clubs, traps, and such things as are useful in war and hunting. The Great Spirit laughed when he saw how well his red son knew how to choose. Then he said to the negro, ‘ You may have what is left, the third box is for you.’ That was filled with axes and hoes, with buckets to carry water in, and long whips for driving oxen, which meant that the negro must work for both the red and white man, and it has been so ever since.

“Father, we want no change; we desire no school, and none of the teachings of white people. The Master of Life knew what was best for his children. We are satisfied. Let us alone.”

This is a happy instance of the mode of illustration by parable, which, being the most simple and natural method of .explanation, seems to have been adopted by all rude nations. The leading idea in the harangue of Neamathla was not original with him, but was the commonly received notion among the Indians, from the earliest times of which we have any account. The vast difference between them and the Europeans, both physical and moral, naturally suggested the idea that they were distinct races, created for different purposes; and the unhappy results of the intercourse between them, and of every attempt to unite them, gave additional strength to the opinion. The chiefs, who, like all other politicians, knew how to avail themselves of a popular prejudice, saw at once the great advantages of encouraging a belief which perpetuated their own authority, by excluding the foreign influences that would have destroyed alike the national character of the savages, and their existing forms of subordination. The wealth, the arts, and the numbers of the invading race alarmed their jealousy; for they had the sagacity to perceive that if amicable relations and an unrestricted familiar intercourse should be established with a people possessing such ample means of conquest, the latter must inevitably, either by force or ingenuity, obtain the complete ascendancy. The fiction employed by Neamathla, to convey the ideas entertained by his people, is of his own invention, and is creditable to his ingenuity. It is a fair specimen of the Indian style of eloquence. They do not attempt what we would call argument; mere abstract reasoning is beyond their comprehension. But they are expert in the employment of figures, by which the familiar objects around them are made to represent their ideas. They have no theories nor traditions, in regard to the creation, which seem to have been derived from any respectable source, or to be venerated for their antiquity, nor any, indeed, which have much authority among themselves. Every tribe has its legends, fabricated by the chiefs or prophets to serve some temporary purpose; the most of which are of a puerile and monstrous character. Few of them are of much antiquity; and, being destitute alike of historica and poetic merit, they are soon forgotten.

McKenny, Thomas & Hall, James & Todd, Hatherly & Todd, Joseph. History of the Indian tribes of North America: with biographical sketches and anecdotes of the principal chiefs. Embellished with one hundred portraits from the Indian Gallery in the War Department at Washington. Philadelphia: D. Rice & Co. 1872.

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