By Spessard Stone
Coacoochee was a Seminole chief, famed for his intelligence, eloquence, and fearlessness as a warrior.
Philip, or Emathla, the father of Coacoochee, at the onset of the Third Seminole War (1835-42), was a Mikasuki chief and with Coe Hajo occupied the country on both sides of the St. Johns River, around Lake Monroe. About sixty, Philip was known as a good-natured, sensible Indian, whose views and advice were often adopted. Inclined to peace, he wanted to avoid, rather than resist, the whites, but expressed a determination to die upon the soil. In July, 1837, Philip had 350 Seminole warriors, located on the west side of the St. Johns, two days march south of Fort Mellon (now Sanford), while Micanopy, the Alachua head chief, on the other side of the Kissimmee River, below Lake Tohopekaliga, had 100 warriors and located with him an additional eleven chiefs, with 454 warriors.
Coacoochee, also known as Wild Cat, was born about 1809, near Ahapopka (now Apopka), Florida. As his father was Philip and his mother was a sister of Micanopy, he was the heir apparent to the throne of the Seminoles. Five feet eight inches in height, he was physically well proportioned, with dark, full, and expressive eyes, and an extremely youthful and pleasing appearance. Governing his band with skill and firmness, he early obtained a reputation as a brave and daring warrior, as well, for his fluency of speech, vivid imagination, and spirituality.
When the Florida war began, Coacoochee lived near the Ahapopka lake, but soon he and his band of 250 sought refuge in the swamps and hammocks ranging from Fort Mellon to the Atlantic coast; south to Fort Pierce, and west to Lake Okechobee. Coacoochee soon became nown as the most dangerous chieftain in the field. Roaming with fleetness throughout the country, he, while being chased through the swamps, would from a distance laugh at and taunt the soldiers mired in the mud and water.
Coacoochee, with two hundred warriors, shortly before daylight on February 8, 1837, attacked Camp Munroe (afterwards Fort Mellon, now Sanford). Repulsed when reinforcements arrived, they, with their dead, withdrew south to the vicinity of the Kissimmee River. Capt. Charles Mellon had been killed and fifteen soldiers wounded.
In March 1837 at Fort Dade on the Withlacoochee River, a large number of Seminoles, led by Jumper, Halatoochee, and Yaholoochee, entered into an agreement with General Thomas S. Jesup to emigrate to Arkansas. A site ten miles from Fort Brooke (Tampa) was set for the them to gather, and by May’s end seven hundred were in camp. That Micanopy had given his sanction and also that Alligator, Coacoochee, and other chiefs seemed to be agreeable gave rise to expectations that the war would soon be ended. These hopes were quickly dashed when Coacoochee and Osceola threatened to kill Micanopy if he surrendered. Led by the two young chiefs, the Seminoles then slipped away to Palaklikhaha before day light in early June.
On September 9, 1837, General Joseph M. Hernandez attacked the camp of Philip and captured him and eleven of his tribe. Subsequently, Philip sent to Coacoochee a tribal member with a message, in which he urged his son to surrender. Under a flag of truce, Coacoochee and Osceola came into see the general, but Hernandez, fearing they wouldn’t surrendered, ordered them seized on October 21, 1837. Imprisoned in Fort Marion, St. Augustine, Coacoochee with his friend, Talmus Hadjo, on the night of November 29, 1837 escaped through the loophole of the casemate in the fort and five days later joined his band on the head waters of the Tomoka River, near the Atlantic coast. He subsequently reached the camp of Sam Jones (Arpeika), who, with other chiefs, was enroute to Fort Mellon to negotiate surrender terms with General Thomas S. Jesup. To the chagrin of the general, Coacoochee persuaded Sam Jones not to surrender and the latter in turn induced the other Indians not to come in and discuss peace, thus prolonging the war.
In the Battle of Lake Okeechobee on Christmas Day, 1837, Colonel Zachary Taylor, with over 1,000 men, charged his forces against about 380 Seminoles, encamped in a dense hammock with about a half of a mile of cypress swamp in front of them. Sam Jones, with the Prophet (Otulke Thlocco) commanded the right, Alligator the center, and Coacoochee, with 80 men, formed the left. When the Seminoles withdrew, they were not pursued. They had incurred 11 dead and 14 wounded, while Col. Taylor’s forces suffered 26 killed and 112 wounded.
Coacoochee had become the war chief most respected by the U. S. Army and was believed to have led raids on the St. Johns River settlements and taken part in the murders along the Georgia line from June 1840 to May 1841. On March 5, 1841, Coacoochee, then at the Big Cypress Swamp, south of Lake Ahapopka, at the invitation of Gen. Walker K. Armistead, came under a white flag into Fort Cummings (now Lake Alfred) to discuss bringing in his band. To the amazement of the soldiers, Coacoochee was arrayed as Hamlet, while another was Horatio, and a third Richard 111. The costumes had been stolen from an itinerant acting troupe, which his band, killing two of the thespians, had attacked in May 1840 Col. William Jenkins Worth and he were interrupted in their meeting when Coacoochee’s 12-year-old daughter, a captive in camp, on hearing his voice, joined him. Overcome that his daughter was reunited with him, Coacoochee wept.
He then eloquently spoke:
“The whites dealt unjustly by me. I came to them, they deceived me. The land I was upon I loved, my body is made of its sands; the Great Spirit gave me legs to walk over it; hands to aid myself; eyes to see its ponds, rivers, forests, and game; then a head with which I think. The sun, which is warm and bright as my feelings are now, shines to warm forth our crops, and the moon brings back the spirits of our warriors, our fathers, wives, and children.
“The white man comes; he grows pale and sick, why cannot he live here in peace? I have said I am the enemy to the white man. I could live in peace with him , but they first steal our cattle and horses, cheat us, and take our lands. The white men are as thick as the leaves in the hammock; they come upon us thicker every year. They may shoot us, drive our women and children night and day. They may chain our hands and feet, but the red man’s heart will always be free. I have come here in peace, and have taken you by the hand; I will sleep in your camp though your soldiers stand around me like the pine. I am done; when we know each other’s faces better I will say more.”
On March 9, 1841, Coacoochee, his daughter, and warriors departed, but on March 22, he met with General Walker K. Armistead at Fort Brooke and reaffirmed, after the green corn dance in June, his intent to gather his band and emigrate with Fort Pierce as the point of assembly. Accordingly, Lt. Colonel William S. Harney of the 2nd Dragoons and Major Thomas Childs, commander of Fort Pierce suspended active engagements. On May 1, 1841, Lt. William Tecumseh Sherman escorted Coacoochee into Fort Pierce. Making frequent journeys to Fort Pierce for the next two months, Coacoochee, leaving well provided with supplies and whisky, related that near Lake Okeechobee a council, composed of Billy Bowlegs, Sam Jones, and Hospetarke, would be held, and he would endeavor to induce them to emigrate. Believing that Coacoochee was just stockpiling supplies for a return to the hammocks in the summer, Major Childs so communicated to General Armistead, who ordered the capture of Coacoochee and his band when they returned to the fort. On June 4, Major Childs seized Coacoochee, his younger brother Otulke, a brother of King Philip, and thirteen warriors. Directed by Negro Joe, Coacoochee’s interpreter and agent, the soldiers marched fifteen miles to Coacoochee’s camp to arrest his band, but they had decamped to the hammocks. Lt. Col. William Gates then ordered the captives shipped to New Orleans en route to Arkansas. Col. William Jenkins Worth, who had intended to use Coacoochee to induce other Seminoles to emigrate, revoked Gates’ action and ordered his return from the barracks at New Orleans. Pledging that he would get his people to emigrate, Coacoochee and fifteen others arrived on July 3 at Tampa harbor where they were left on the ship, two miles off shore.
On July 4, 1841 on the quarterdeck, Colonel Worth interviewed Coacoochee, his hands manacled and feet-irons barely allowing him barely a four-inch step. Pale and haggard, Coacoochee, nevertheless, maintained a dignified demeanor. Col. Worth then delivered a speech, in which he demanded Coacoochee bring in his band or he and his fifteen young men would be hung.
“I was once a boy, then I saw the white man afar off. I hunted in these woods, first with a bow and arrow; then with a rifle. I saw the white man, and was told he was my enemy. I could not shoot him as I would a wolf or a bear; yet like these he came upon me; horses, cattle, and fields, he took from me. He said he was my friend; he abused our women and children, and told us to go from the land. Still he gave me his hand in friendship; we took it; whilst taking it, he had a snake in the other; his tongue was forked; he lied, and stung us.
“I asked but for a small piece of these lands, enough to plant and to live upon, far south, a spot where I could place the ashes of my kindred, a spot only sufficient upon which I could lay my wife and child. This was not granted me. I was put in prison; I escaped. I have been again taken; you have brought me back. I am here; I feel the irons in my heart. I have listened to your talk; you and your officers have taken us by the hand in friendship. I thank you for bringing me back; I can now see my warriors, my women and children; the Great Spirit thanks you; the heart of the poor Indian thanks you. We know but little; we have no books which tell all things; but we have the Great Spirit, moon, and stars; these told me, last night, you would be our friend.
“I gave you my word; it is the word of a warrior, a chief, a brave, it is the word of Coacoochee. It is true I have fought like a man, so have my warriors; but the whites are too strong for us. I wish now to have my band around me and go to Arkansas. You say I must end the war! Look at these irons! can I go to my warriors? Coacoochee chained! No; do not ask me to see them. I never wish to tread upon my land unless I am free. If I can go to them unchained, they will follow me in; but I fear they will not obey me when I talk to them in irons. They will say my heart is weak, I am afraid. Could I go free, they will surrender and emigrate."
Col. Worth and Coacoochee then negotiated an agreement, in which the chief dispatched five of his warriors to bring in his band on the Kissimmee and St. Johns rivers, for which he received considerations of about $8,000. Daily, they in small parties came in so by the end of the month, seventy-eight warriors, sixty-four women, and forty-seven children, including the chief’s wife and daughter, were encamped at Fort Brooke. Coacoochee, his irons removed, was escorted ashore to meet his people. Afterwards, he personally brought in, from their camp in a swamp near Pease Creek, Hospetarke and eighteen warriors, who declared their intent that they had come only for powder, whisky, and bread, but Col. Worth ordered them seized. Feigning intoxication, Coacocochee violently denounced the soldiers so that he convinced Hospetarke that he was not involved in the capture, and thereby retained their friendship and attachment to his band.
On October 11, 1841, Coacoochee and over 200 other Seminoles, including 18 Black Seminoles embarked on the brig Sarasota and the steamer James Adams enroute to New Orleans Barracks, from which they would go on to Fort Gibson, Arkansas, then 40 miles to the country (in now Oklahoma) assigned them. On the morning of departure of October 12, Col. Worth came aboard and bid farewell to Coacoochee.
Coacoochee courteously thanked the colonel for his consideration and responded: “The whites are, I know, too strong for us. They darken the earth as the leaves of our ever green forests do the bright skies which the Great Spirit has ever set over us to conceal his loveliness from the prying eyes of the pale face. You can make powder; I cannot.
“I care little for myself. Coacoochee is the son of Philip. I can live like a wolf. Hunger cannot wet the eyes of a brave man, or embitter his proud heart, when fighting for his country, but my women, my children are suffering, driven about from place to place, without food or clothing.
“My father Philip always told me I was made of the sands of Florida, and that when I died, my brothers and my people would sing and dance over me. When I depart from this country, I leave behind me the spirits of my ancestors and friends with whom I have had frequent interviews, and which have hung around me and influenced my actions. All my life I have been with them, and now to leave them and go to a distant country is like laying in the earth the dead bodies of my wife and child. They have passed away-gone to the happy home.
“I am alone. I am going to my new home in Arkansas. I have thrown away my rifle and uried my hatchet. With the bright eyes of my sister looking at me from the pebbled bottom of my own Ahapopka, I have washed the dark stains of blood from my clothes and person, and I now say unto my white fathers, take care of me.”
In December 1845, Coacoochee was taken from the Arkansas reservation on a peace mission to the Comanches in Texas. Afterwards, until December 1849, he from the reservation traveled in Texas and Mexico to endeavor to organize a confederation of tribes. Unsuccessful in being appointed as chief of the Seminole Nation, he and his followers went for the winter to the Brazos Valley where he recruited some southern Kickapoo warriors. They then found refuge in Coahuila, Mexico where they were settled on military reservations to defend the section against hostile Indians, in which they succeeded. They also participated in campaigns opposing Carbajal's War and Callahan's 1855 invasion. Coacoochee died of smallpox in January 1857 at Alto, Coahuila, Mexico.
Prior to Coacoochee’s exile from Florida, he had been asked where he should go when he died. He, with much solemnity, responded with the vision of the White Cloud:
“When I am laid in the earth, I shall go to my twin sister, with whom I played until I was a large boy. When she died, I was on a great bear hunt. Seated alone by myself one night, something told me to go to her. The wolves howled around me, one sounded like her voice. At daylight I started for her camp and on my arrival found her dead.
“When hunting again, with my brother, Otulke, I was sitting beside a pine tree. I tried to sleep, but could not. I felt myself rising, and went far above to a new country where all was bright. I there saw clear water ponds, streams and prairies, deer, and all kind of game abounded.
“Soon I saw a white cloud approaching, out of which came my twin sister. She was dressed in white, with silver work all over. Her long black hair streamed down her back. She clasped me around the neck. I shook with fear. When she said Coacoochee, I knew her voice, but could not speak. In one hand she held a string of white beads, which she said came from the spring of the Great Spirit, and if I would drink, I should return and live with her.
“While I drank, she sang the peace song of the Seminoles, and danced to its music. She had silver bells on her feet, which made a loud noise. Taking something from her bosom, I could not tell what, she laid it before, shook her head and gradually disappeared in the cloud. The fire she made had gone out. I looked about me and felt myself sinking until I came to the earth when I met my brother Otulke. He had been seeking me, and was alarmed at my absence, having found my rifle where he last saw me asleep.
“I could not tell him neither can I tell you what else my sister said to me....When I die, I shall go to her, live with her. My body may be placed on land or in water. I shall go to her. At first I thought she lived alone, but she told me—no. There were others around, but I could not see them. There was no night there; it was always day. No white man came there.”
Principal references: John T. Sprague, The Origin, Progress, And Conclusion Of The Florida War, 1848, reprinted 2000; Savannah Daily Georgian, Feb. 19, 1842; John K. Mahon, History of Second Seminole War, 1835-1842, 1967; Donald A. Swanson.
An abridged version of this article was published in The Herald-Advocate (Wauchula, Fla.) , 5D, October 30, 2003.
October 30, 2003