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John Horse (ca. 1812–1882), also known as Juan Caballo, Juan Cavallo, John Cowaya (with spelling variations) and Gopher John, was an African-American of mixed ancestry (including Seminole Indian blood) who fought with the Seminoles in the Second Seminole War in Florida. He rose to prominence in the third year of what was to become a seven year war when the first generation of Black Seminole leaders was largely decimated and the primary Seminole war chief, Osceola (Asi Yahola), fell into the hands of the American military commander, General Thomas Jesup. John Horse had been fighting alongside Osceola and acting as his interpreter by this time. When they were taken prisoner during truce negotiations with Jesup's emissary, Florida militia general Joseph Hernandez, John Horse found himself imprisoned along with Osceola and other members of his band at Fort Marion (Castillo de San Marcos) an old Spanish fort at the one time Spanish colonial port of St. Augustine. John Horse gained his initial fame for joining with a Mikasuki brave named Wildcat (Coacoochee), the son of the Mikasuki chief, King Phillip Emathla, in executing a daring escape from the fort which, until then, had been believed by American forces to be unbreachable. Wildcat and John Horse formed an alliance and went on to lead the remnants of the shattered Seminole bands, including members of the Mikasuki, Tallahassee, Appalachee and Yamassee bands (many of different ethnic backgrounds in what was by then a highly mixed grouping of Indians and Africans) to safety in the south-central part of Florida, ahead of Jesup's forces. In a famous Florida battle at Lake Okeechobee in the winter of 1837, Halpatta Tustanagi (Chief Alligator), an ally of the captured Osceola, and the Seminole medicine man Abiaka (Sam Jones) led the escaping Seminole and Wildcat and John Horse played leading roles in holding off the assault of Zachary Taylor, then in hot pursuit.
They successfully effected the escape of most of the fleeing Seminole who had joined with them and took refuge in the swamps of south central Florida. There they fought Jesup himself the following spring (1838) although the privations and losses they had suffered since their early victories in 1835 and 36 had taken their toll. Given a promise of peace and a new life west of the Mississippi with his family, John Horse was finally persuaded to surrender, although Wildcat refused to come in and fought on until around 1840 when John Horse was brought back to Florida from his exile in Indian Territory to negotiate Wildcat's acceptance of removal to the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in the west set aside for the eastern Indians in the early 1830s by Congress. John Horse, who was the son of a slave mother and an Indian father, was nominally a slave under both American and Seminole law until finally being freed by the American general, Alexander Macomb, for his service to the Americans in Florida, and by Chief Micanopy, titular head of all the Seminole bands, for his service to the Indians both during the war and after they had been relocated to the Territory. When the Africans living among the Seminole continued to face threats of re-enslavement in the Territory, despite Jesup's emancipation decree for all surrendering escaped African slaves, due to the connivance of some American officials, John Horse joined with his old comrade, Wildcat, to lead a group of disaffected Seminole and Africans across the Rio Grande to northern Mexico where they were granted land by the Mexican government in 1850 and where the Seminole Blacks could finally be assured of their freedom since Mexico had abolished legal slavery in the 1820s. Horse served as a captain in the Mexican army during this period and, after 1870, briefly with the US Army again as a scout. He disappeared several years later when, by now an old man, he made a trip to Mexico City to plead for reaffirmation of the land grant to his people which local Mexican landowners were seeking to overturn. It's generally thought that John Horse died in the course of this final errand to Mexico City.
Early life and education
John Horse, called Juan Caballo as a child, was born around 1812 in Florida. He was a Seminole slave of Spanish, Seminole, and African American descent. He lived in Micanopy, former Spanish Florida. John Horse assumed the surname of his owner, Charles Cavallo (who may also have been his father). "Horse" is the meaning of Cavallo. His mother may have been of mixed African-Indian parentage, and was possibly owned by Charles Cavallo, who was possibly of Indian-Spanish parentage. They also had a daughter, Juana (spelled "Wannah" or "Warner" in some sources). Not much is known about Charles Cavallo. He did not appear to treat his two mixed-race children as slaves.
The year John Horse was thought to be born, the War of 1812 broke out between the United States and the Great Britain. Horse was probably living with his mother in one of the black towns under the jurisdiction of the Alachua band of Oconee along the Suwanee River. When General Andrew Jackson invaded the area, he scattered the tribal peoples and their black allies.
The First Seminole War (1817–1818) occurred during Horse's childhood. During the Second Seminole War of 1835 to 1842, Horse served as a subchief of the Seminoles and negotiated with the U. S. Army.
In the spring of 1838, Horse surrendered to US troops. This may have been after the death of his first wife, a Seminole woman said to have been a daughter of Chief Holatoochee, a brother or nephew of the chief Micanopy.
Horse was given his freedom by General Worth for his service to the U.S. in the latter days of the Second Seminole War in Florida. Horse had taken advantage of General Thomas Sydney Jesup's promise of freedom to escaped slaves who would surrender and accept removal to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi. Horse's wife and children, who also were removed to Indian Territory, did not gain freedom by his service, so they were at risk from slave traders. With other Seminole, Horse was shipped from Tampa Bay to New Orleans and then to Indian Territory. There he settled with the Seminole and Black Seminole who had accepted removal. In the Indian Territory, Horse rose as a leader of the Black Seminole.
Life in Indian Territory
Horse accepted a job as an interpreter for the US Army. They asked him to help persuade remaining insurrectionists in Florida to surrender and relocate to Indian Territory. Horse returned to Florida in 1839 to recruit people for removal. He returned to Indian Territory in 1842 along with some 120 Seminole who had been captured and deported.
In Indian Territory, the exiled Seminole leadership voted freedom for John Horse around 1843 for his services to them during the war. At the time, Chief Micanopy (Mico Nuppa) had nominal ownership over Horse. He officially granted the warrior his freedom.
Conflict arose as the Seminoles had been placed on the Creek people reservation, from whom the Seminole had earlier established their independence. Numerous Creek were slaveholders and they raided the Black Seminole settlements, to kidnap people for enslavement. They succeeded in capturing Dembo Factor, a veteran of the Seminole War. Coacoochee (Wild Cat), a Seminole traditionalist who opposed living with the Creek, and Horse protested against selling Factor as a slave. The Army recovered Factor and returned him to the Seminole, but neither they nor the Creek filed charges against the suspected slavers.
In 1844 Coacoochee and Horse traveled to Washington, D.C. to seek a separate land grant for the Seminole. After failing to secure a treaty, they returned to Indian Territory. Horse traveled back to Washington to lobby General Jesup, for a separate reservation. Jesup granted the Fort Gibson area to the Seminole. During Horse's time in Washington, then-Attorney-General John Y. Mason ruled that, as most of the Black Seminole were descendants of fugitive slaves and thus legally still considered born into slavery, he could not protect them against slave raiders. More than 280 Black Seminoles, including Horse's family, were at risk of being captured for sale as slaves.
Returning to the territory, John Horse and Coacoochee led a group of Seminole and Black Seminole from Fort Gibson to Wewoka, further from the Creek. The two waited until the Indian agent, Marcellus Duval, finished his tenure and returned to Washington. In 1849, the two led a migration of approximately twenty Black Seminole families (more than 100 people) across Texas and the Rio Grande into Coahuila, Mexico, to gain freedom as that nation had abolished slavery decades earlier. They presented themselves to the Mexican commander at Piedras Negras on July 12, 1850.
Horse secured land for the migrants in Mexico. In 1870, he lived in Laguna de Parras in Coahuila. Many of the veterans served Mexico as border guards. After the American Civil War and United States emancipation of slaves, the US Army recruited Black Seminoles from Mexico to serve as scouts. They promised pay and resettlement in Indian Territory, although they never followed through with the latter. Horse returned to Texas with a number of Black Seminoles to work as scouts. These men and their families settled near Fort Clarke in what is now Brackettville.
After a number of years, Horse returned to Mexico. He died en route to Mexico City in 1882, intending to try to gain more land rights for his people in northern Mexico. Several hundred descendants of Black Seminoles, known as Mascogos, still reside in Coahuila.
- May, Jon D. "Horse, John (ca. 1812–1882)." Oklahoma Historical Society's Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History. Retrieved 26 August 2012.
- Mulroy (2007), p. 338
- Mulroy (2007), p. 35
- Mulroy (2009), p. 188
- Mulroy, Kevin (2009). Freedom on the Border: The Seminole Maroons in Florida, the Indian Territory, Coahuila, and Texas. Texas Tech Press. p. 188. ISBN 978-0-89672-516-4.
- Mulroy, Kevin (2007). The Seminole Freedmen: A History. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3865-3.
- Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr., Africans and Seminoles: From Removal to Emancipation (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001)
- Katz, William Loren, "Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage" (New York City, New York: Atheneum, 1986)
- Turso, Betty, "John Horse: Florida's First Freedom Fighter", (Charleston, SC: CreateSpace,2014), ISBN 1502548909