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Osceola by George Catlin, 1838
Seminole leader
Personal details
Born1804 (1804)
Talisi, Mississippi Territory, US
DiedJanuary 30, 1838(1838-01-30) (aged 33–34)
Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, US
Resting placeFort Moultrie, South Carolina, US
Childrenat least five
Parent(s)Polly Coppinger and William Powell
NicknameBilly Powell

Osceola (1804 – January 30, 1838, Asi-yahola in Creek), named Billy Powell at birth in Alabama, became an influential leader of the Seminole people in Florida. His mother was Muscogee, and his great-grandfather was a Scotsman, James McQueen. He was reared by his mother in the Creek (Muscogee) tradition. When he was a child, they migrated to Florida with other Red Stick refugees, led by a relative, Peter McQueen,[1] after their group's defeat in 1814 in the Creek Wars. There they became part of what was known as the Seminole people.

In 1836, Osceola led a small group of warriors in the Seminole resistance during the Second Seminole War, when the United States tried to remove the tribe from their lands in Florida to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. He became an adviser to Micanopy, the principal chief of the Seminole from 1825 to 1849.[2] Osceola led the Seminole resistance to removal until he was captured on October 21, 1837, by deception, under a flag of truce,[3] when he went to a site near Fort Peyton for peace talks.[4]: 135  The United States first imprisoned him at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, then transported him to Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina. He died there a few months later of causes reported as an internal infection or malaria. Because of his renown, Osceola attracted visitors in prison, including renowned artist George Catlin, who painted perhaps the most well-known portrait of the Seminole leader.[1]: 217–218  [4]: 115–116 

Early life

Historical monument honoring Osceola near his birthplace in Tallassee, Alabama.

Osceola was named Billy Powell at his birth in 1804 in the Creek village of Talisi, which means "Old Town". The village site, now the city of Tallassee, Alabama, was located on the banks of the Tallapoosa River about 20 miles (32 km) upstream from Fort Toulouse where the Tallapoosa and the Coosa rivers meet to form the Alabama River. The residents of the original Talisi village and of the current city of Tallassee were a mixture of several ethnicities. The Muscogee Creek were among the Indigenous peoples of the Southeastern Woodlands, and some of them held enslaved black people. Powell was believed to have ancestors from all of these groups.[5] His mother was Polly Coppinger, a mixed-race Creek woman, and his father was most likely William Powell, a Scottish trader.[6]

Polly was also of Muscogee and European ancestry, as the daughter of Ann McQueen and Jose Coppinger. Because the Muscogee had a matrilineal kinship system, Polly and Ann's children were all born into their mother's clan. They were reared by their mothers and their maternal male relatives following Muscogee cultural practices, and they gained their social status from their mother's people. Ann McQueen was also mixed-race Muscogee Creek; her father, James McQueen, was Scottish. Ann was probably the sister or aunt of Peter McQueen, a prominent Muscogee leader and warrior. Like his mother, Billy Powell was raised in the Muscogee Creek confederacy.[7]

Billy Powell's maternal grandfather, James McQueen, was a ship-jumping Scottish sailor who in 1716 became the first recorded white person to trade with the Muscogee Creek Confederacy in Alabama. He stayed in the area as a fur trader and married into a Muscogee family, becoming closely involved with these people. He was buried in 1811 at the Indian cemetery in Franklin, Alabama, near a Methodist missionary church for the Muscogee.[7]: 8 

In 1814, after the Red Stick Muscogee Creeks were defeated by United States forces, Polly took Osceola and moved with other Muscogee refugees from Alabama to Florida, where they joined the Seminole.[8] In adulthood, as part of the Seminole, Powell was given his name Osceola (/ˌɒsˈlə/ or /ˌsˈlə/). This is an anglicized form of the Creek Asi-yahola (pronounced [asːi jahoːla]); the combination of asi, the ceremonial black drink made from the yaupon holly, and yahola, meaning "shout" or "shouter".[9]

In 1821, the United States acquired Florida from Spain, and more European-American settlers started moving in, encroaching on the Seminoles' territory. After early military skirmishes and the signing of the 1823 Treaty of Moultrie Creek, by which the US seized the northern Seminole lands, Osceola and his family moved with the Seminole deeper into the unpopulated wilds of central and southern Florida.[7]: 55–58 

"The Wife and Child of Osceola" from Holden's Dollar Magazine, volume 6, no. 4 (October 1850): 591–592.

As an adult, Osceola took two wives, as did some other high-ranking Muscogee and Seminole leaders. With them, he had at least five children. One of his wives was black, and Osceola fiercely opposed the enslavement of free people.[10] Lt. John T. Sprague mentions in his 1848 history The Florida War that Osceola had a wife named "Che-cho-ter" (Morning Dew), who bore him four children.[11][4]: 58 

1830s resistance and war leader

Osceola stabbing the treaty with his dagger. Statue in Silver Springs, Florida

Through the 1820s and the turn of the decade, American settlers continued pressuring the US government to remove the Seminole from Florida to make way for their desired agricultural development. In 1832, a few Seminole chiefs signed the Treaty of Payne's Landing, by which they agreed to give up their Florida lands in exchange for lands west of the Mississippi River in Indian Territory. According to legend, Osceola stabbed the treaty with his knife, although there are no contemporary reports of this.[7]: 87–89  Donald L. Fixico, an American Indian historian, says he made a research trip to the National Archives to see the original Treaty of Fort Gibson (also known as the Treaty of Payne's Landing), and that upon close inspection, he observed that it had "a small triangular hole shaped like the point of a knife blade."[12]

Five of the most important Seminole chiefs, including Micanopy of the Alachua Seminole, did not agree to removal. In retaliation, the US Indian agent, Wiley Thompson, declared that those chiefs were deposed from their positions. As US relations with the Seminole deteriorated, Thompson forbade the sale of guns and ammunition to them. Osceola, a young warrior rising to prominence, resented this ban. He felt it equated the Seminole with slaves, who were forbidden by law to carry arms.[7]: 82–85 

Thompson considered Osceola to be a friend and gave him a rifle. Osceola had a habit of barging into Thompson's office and shouting complaints at him. On one occasion Osceola quarreled with Thompson, who had the warrior locked up at Fort King for two nights until he agreed to be more respectful. In order to secure his release, Osceola agreed to sign the Treaty of Payne's Landing and to bring his followers into the fort. After his humiliating imprisonment, Osceola secretly prepared vengeance against Thompson.[7]: 90 

On December 28, 1835, Osceola, with the same rifle Thompson gave him, killed the Indian agent. Osceola and his followers shot six others outside Fort King, while another group of Seminole ambushed and killed a column of US Army, more than 100 troops, who were marching from Fort Brooke to Fort King. Americans called this event the Dade Massacre. These nearly simultaneous attacks catalyzed the Second Seminole War with the United States.[13][7]: 102–8 

In April 1836, Osceola led a band of warriors in an attempt to expel U.S. forces from Fort Cooper. The fortification was built on the west bank of Lake Holathikaha as an outpost for actions against the local Seminole population.[14] Despite running low on food, the U.S. garrison had enough gunpowder and ammunition to keep the Seminoles from taking the fort before reinforcements arrived.[15]

Capture and death

Osceola's grave at Fort Moultrie

On October 21, 1837, Osceola and 81 of his followers were captured by General Joseph Hernández on the orders of General Thomas Jesup, under a white flag of truce, when they went for peace talks to Fort Peyton near St. Augustine.[16][4]: 25  [17] He was initially imprisoned at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, before being transferred to Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island, outside Charleston, South Carolina. Osceola's capture by deceit caused a national uproar. General Jesup's treacherous act and the administration were condemned by many congressional leaders and vilified by international press. Jesup suffered a loss of reputation that lasted for the rest of his life; his betrayal of the truce flag has been described as "one of the most disgraceful acts in American military history."[7]: 221, 218 

That December, Osceola and other Seminole prisoners were moved to Fort Moultrie. They were visited by various townspeople.[7]: 213–215  The portraitists George Catlin, W. M. Laning, and Robert John Curtis, the three artists known to have painted Osceola from life, persuaded the Seminole leader to allow his portrait to be painted despite his being gravely ill.[1]: 217–218  [4]: 115–116  Osceola and Curtis developed a close friendship, conversing at length during the painting sessions; Curtis painted two oil portraits of Osceola, one of which remains in the Charleston Museum.[7]: 231  These paintings have inspired numerous widely distributed prints and engravings, and cigar store figures were also based on them.

Osceola, having suffered from chronic malaria since 1836, and having acute tonsillitis as well, developed an abscess.[7]: 233  When he was close to death, as his last wish he asked the attending doctor, Frederick Weedon, that his body be returned to Florida, his home, so that he might rest in peace.[18] He died of quinsy[4]: 144  on January 30, 1838, three months after his capture.[5][19] Rather than honoring his last wish, Weedon cut off Osceola's head and buried his decapitated body, displaying the Seminole leader's head in his drug store. During the time Weedon had the head in his possession, he would often place it in the bedroom of his three sons as punishment for misbehavior.[20] Weedon would later give the head to his son-in-law, Dr. Daniel Whitehurst, who gifted the head to Valentine Mott in 1843. Mott placed it in his Surgical and Pathological Museum, where it was presumed destroyed in a fire in 1866.[18][21]

Legacy and honors



Sedgeford Hall Portrait, painting possibly depicting Osceola's wife (formerly thought to be Pocahontas) and son
  • Chairman Joe Dan Osceola (1936–2019), ambassador of the Seminole Tribe, was Osceola's great-great-great grandson.



According to the oral tradition of his descendants, Dr. Frederick Weedon was alone with the body and cut off Osceola's head, placing it in the coffin with the scarf that Osceola had customarily worn being wrapped around the neck, and immediately before the funeral ceremony removed the head and shut the coffin's lid.[4]: 172  Weedon kept the head for himself, as well as other objects belonging to Osceola, including a brass pipe and a silver concho.[33][4]: 212  Capt. Pitcairn Morrison, the U.S. Army officer in charge of the Seminole prisoners who had been transported with Osceola, made a last-minute decision to take other items belonging to Osceola. The historical evidence suggests that it was Morrison who decided that a death mask should be made,[4]: 174  a European-American custom at the time for prominent persons, but it was done without the permission of Osceola's people. An acquaintance of Morrison, Dr. Benjamin Strobel, a native of Charleston, made a plaster cast of Osceola's face and upper torso. The process of "pulling" the first mold, which was soon displayed in the window of a Charleston drugstore, destroyed the original cast.[4]: 178  Weedon apparently preserved Osceola's head in a large jar of alcohol and took it to St. Augustine,[4]: 181  where he exhibited it in the family drugstore.[4]: 187 

Captain Pitcairn Morrison sent the death mask and some other objects collected by Weedon to an army officer in Washington. By 1885, the death mask and some of Osceola's belongings were being held in the anthropology collection of the Smithsonian Institution. The death mask is currently housed in the Luce collection of the New-York Historical Society.[34]

In 1966, Miami businessman Otis W. Shriver claimed he had dug up Osceola's grave and put his bones into a bank vault to rebury them at a tourist site at the Rainbow Springs in Marion County. Shriver traveled around the state in 1967 to gather support for his project. Archaeologists later proved that Shriver had dug up animal remains; Osceola's body was still in its coffin.

In 1979 the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma bought Osceola's bandolier and other personal items from a Sotheby's auction. Because of the chief's significance, over time some people have created forgeries of Osceola's belongings. Rumors persist that his embalmed head has been found in various locations.

Osceola (1836 lithograph)
Osceola (1838 lithograph)




  • In the mid-1930s Nathanael West wrote a 17-page film treatment entitled Osceola but failed to sell it to a studio.
  • Seminole (1953), highly fictionalized American western film directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Anthony Quinn as Osceola.
  • Naked in the Sun (1957), the life of Osceola and the Second Seminole War, starring James Craig as Osceola.
  • Osceola – Die rechte Hand der Vergeltung (1971) by Konrad Petzold, an East German western with Gojko Mitić as the Native American leader.

Television, music, sports, and art

  • The Sedgeford Hall Portrait (c. 1830), once thought to be of Pocahontas and her mixed-race son, Thomas Rolfe, is now believed to be of Pe-o-ka (a wife of Osceola) and their son.[37]
  • 1957 Jim Bowie TV-series episode "Osceola." When the army attempts to remove the Seminole Indians from their own lands to a less desirable tract, Bowie steps in on their behalf.
  • The song "Seminole Wind", the title track of the album by the same name by John Anderson, refers to hearing the ghost of Osceola. The song has been covered by James Taylor and Gravemist.
  • Osceola and Renegade are mascots of the Florida State Seminoles football team.[38] The use of Osceola and Renegade as a symbol was approved by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b c John K. Mahon (1991). History of the Second Seminole War, 1835–1842. University Presses of Florida. p. 91. ISBN 978-0-8130-1097-7. At the time of the Creek War, after the Battle of Tohopeka, his mother took him with her when she migrated to Florida, accompanying a Red Stick band led by a half-breed relative, Peter McQueen.
  2. ^ "Osceola, the Man and the Myths", retrieved January 11, 2007 Archived December 2, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Mahon, John K. (1985) History of the Second Seminole War, 1835–1842, 2nd ed. Gainesville: University of Florida. ISBN 0813010977. p. 214: "General Jessup now reached the decision which was to make him more infamous than famous in the eyes of many generations. He decided to persist in his new policy of ignoring flags of truce."
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Wickman, Patricia Riles (2006). Osceola's Legacy. University of Alabama Press. ISBN 978-0-8173-5332-2.
  5. ^ a b Shapiro, Phyllis (2000). "Myths and Dreams: Exploring the Cultural Legacies of Florida and the Caribbean". kislakfoundation.org. Miami, Florida: Jay I. Kislak Foundation. Archived from the original on August 4, 2017. Retrieved May 4, 2018. The people in the town of Tallassee, where Billy Powell (later named Osceola) was born, were mixed-blood Native American/English/Irish/Scottish, and some were black. Billy was all of these.
  6. ^ Tucker, Spencer (2013). Almanac of American Military History. ABC-CLIO. p. 620. ISBN 978-1-59884-530-3.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Hatch, Thom (2012). Osceola and the Great Seminole War: A Struggle for Justice and Freedom. St. Martin's Press. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-312-35591-3.
  8. ^ Strang, Cameron B. (2014). "Violence, Ethnicity, and Human Remains during the Second Seminole War". The Journal of American History. 100 (4): 973–994. doi:10.1093/jahist/jau002. ISSN 0021-8723. JSTOR 44307855. Retrieved April 5, 2023.
  9. ^ Bright, William (2004), Native American Placenames of the United States, University of Oklahoma Press. p. 185 ISBN 978-0-8061-3598-4
  10. ^ Giddings, Joshua R. (1858). The Exiles of Florida. Columbus, OH: Follet, Foster and Company. p. 97.
  11. ^ Sprague, John Titcomb (1848). The Origin, Progress, and Conclusion of the Florida War. Library Reprints, Inc. p. 101. ISBN 978-0-7222-0196-1.
  12. ^ Fixico, Donald L. (2017). 'That's What They Used to Say': Reflections on American Indian Oral Traditions. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 79. ISBN 978-0-8061-5928-7.
  13. ^ Mishall, John and Mary Lou Mishall (2004). The Seminole Wars: America's Longest Indian Conflict. University Press of Florida. ISBN 0-8130-2715-2. pp. 90–91, 95–97.
  14. ^ Messersmith, Jeanne. "Fort Cooper Days Coming Up". Chronicle Online. Retrieved March 15, 2023.
  15. ^ "More About History". Friends of Fort Cooper. Retrieved March 15, 2023.
  16. ^ United States Congress. House. House Documents, Otherwise Publ. as Executive Documents: 13th Congress, 2d Session-49th Congress, 1st Session. p. 6.
  17. ^ Reilly, Edward J. (2011). Legends of American Indian Resistance. ABC-CLIO. p. 104. ISBN 978-0-313-35209-6.
  18. ^ a b Claudio Saunt (2020). Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory. National Geographic Books. ISBN 978-0393609844.
  19. ^ Bates, Christopher G. (2015). The Early Republic and Antebellum America: An Encyclopedia of Social, Political, Cultural, and Economic History. Routledge. p. 777. ISBN 978-1-317-45740-4.
  20. ^ https://stars.library.ucf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2544&context=fhq
  21. ^ https://stars.library.ucf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2544&context=fhq
  22. ^ Publications of the Florida Historical Society. Florida Historical Society. 1908. p. 33.
  23. ^ Chicago and North Western Railway Company (1908). A History of the Origin of the Place Names Connected with the Chicago & North Western and Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railways. p. 163.
  24. ^ "Bibliography on Osceola County". Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University. Retrieved January 29, 2013.
  25. ^ Journal and Republican and Lowville Times, Thursday, May 27, 1909
  26. ^ Edwards, Owen (October 2010). "A Seminole Warrior Cloaked in Defiance". Smithsonian. Retrieved December 25, 2018.
  27. ^ Julyan, Robert Hixson; Julyan, Mary (1993). Place Names of the White Mountains. University Press of New England. ISBN 978-0-87451-638-8.
  28. ^ Goodman, Allison (October 16, 2011). "The depths of Lake Osceola". The Miami Hurricane. Retrieved December 5, 2017.
  29. ^ Rajtar, Steve; Rajtar, Gayle Prince (2008). A Guide to Historic Winter Park, Florida. History Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-1-59629-436-3.
  30. ^ Fort Taylor, Key West at FortWiki.com
  31. ^ Jahoda, Gloria (1984). Florida: A History. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 59–60. ISBN 978-0-393-24367-3.
  32. ^ Kovac Jr., Joe (October 17, 2015). "She seemed to vanish without a trace, and her disappearance baffled a nation". The Telegraph. Retrieved December 26, 2018.
  33. ^ Milanich, Jerald T. (January/February 2004) "Osceola's Head", Archaeology
  34. ^ "Seminole Chief Osceola (1804–1838)". www.nyhistory.org. New-York Historical Society. Archived from the original on June 3, 2016. Retrieved May 3, 2018.
  35. ^ Whitman, Walt (1889 or 1890) Osceola. whitmanarchive.org
  36. ^ "Isak Dinesen". Penguin Classics Authors. Penguin Classics. Archived from the original on March 6, 2012. Retrieved January 5, 2012.
  37. ^ Navab, Valorie. American Indian Summer 2013, Smithsonian Institution.
  38. ^ Wieberg, Steve (August 23, 2005). "NCAA allowing Florida State to use its Seminole mascot". USA Today. Archived from the original on April 11, 2012. Retrieved October 11, 2011.