Date posted:  February 3, 2016

The Cherokee Delegation to the Seminole in 1837 was a diplomatic mission to prevent the massacre of a kindred warrior people whom the United States government viewed as defiant terrorists. Furthermore, it was an attempt to create stronger ties with the U. S. government. During this period the Cherokee Nation was fighting against removal to Indian Territory. Meanwhile, in Florida, the U. S. government was engaged in the Second Seminole War, fighting against an enemy waging guerrilla warfare in nearly impenetrable swamps. The U. S. government, embarrassed by its failure to achieve a military victory over the Seminole, requested the help of the Cherokee Nation to end the conflict. Although the Cherokee Nation engaged in the effort in good faith, the incompetence and deceit of the U. S. military doomed the mission to failure. The Seminole leaders were imprisoned under a flag of truce, resulting in the Seminole retreating further into the swamps. The U. S. military’s treachery shattered any hope for negotiating a peace, and the Cherokee delegation had to reassure the Seminole, and the U. S., that they were not duplicitous or in league with the United States government’s actions.

Once the U. S. government began removing southeastern Indians west of the Mississippi River, the Seminole moved deeper into the swamps of Florida in an effort to avoid removal. Government forces pursued the Seminole with the intention of forcible removal, now called the Second Seminole War. While the war raged on, Major General Thomas S. Jesup submitted a proposal to Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett on June 15, 1837. The proposal outlined the tactics necessary to defeat the Seminole, force them west, and “preserve the country from entire devastation.”

While General Jesup tried to defeat the Seminole, others in Washington were trying to find a peaceful resolution. On 8 July 1837 John H. Sherburne wrote a confidential letter to Principal Chief John Ross of the Cherokee Nation revealing a private meeting he had had with Secretary Poinsett. During the meeting, Sherburne mentioned how in the First Seminole War, Chief John Ross said he would assist in brokering a peace between the U. S. and the Seminole to end the bloodshed. Sherburne inquired as to Chief Ross’s willingness to offer his services during this war. The hope was that he could persuade the Seminole to end the conflict without making the U. S. look weak during negotiations. Chief Ross replied to Sherburne that a “personal visit to Florida on this subject … could not be justified by the suffering interests of the Cherokee people.”

After much deliberation and reflection, Chief Ross wrote to Sherburne saying that although he could not personally travel to Florida to deliberate with the Seminole, he had decided to send a delegation of influential men in his place. He believed it was his duty to sue for “peace and justice for the welfare of the human race.” Chief Ross understood the strife that the Seminole faced, as his own people were in  the process of being forcibly removed. To keep the Seminole from being annihilated, he agreed to help the U. S. broker an agreement with the Seminole. Chief Ross appointed “Tekahskeh (alias Hair Conrad), Taskeketehee (alias Jesse Bushyhead), Oosahetah (alias Richard Fields), and Ahnahstaquah (alias Thomas Polecat) as the members of the delegation to the Seminole.

Richard Fields waited in Augusta, Georgia, with Colonel Sherburne, who was charged with overseeing the Cherokee Delegation. Richard Fields wrote to Chief Ross relaying that he received communication from Secretary Poinsett that contained instructions for General Jesup to allow the delegation safe passage through Florida. The instructions also outlined the objectives of the delegation and spoke of the “peaceful mission on which they have come to Florida.”

On 18 October 1837 Chief Ross created his “Talk” and instructed the delegation to deliver it to the Seminole chiefs, headmen, and warriors. The Talk transmitted Chief Ross’s conversations with Secretary Poinsett and President Martin Van Buren. He stated his wish that the Seminole and the U. S. could come together to negotiate an end to this conflict, adding that “if your people desire[d] peace and would lay aside your war like attitude and come in . . . a treaty of peace would be negotiated with you under the authority of the President of the United States.” Ross hoped that mediation would resolve the issues and result in a new relationship of mutual trust and friendship. He believed the government would do its best to bring about a peaceful solution to the war. It was in this hope that he penned the Talk to the Seminole.

Chief Ross was, however, concerned about the actions the U. S. government might take to bring the Seminole in from the swamp, and what impact the delegation would have on the conflict. He feared the government would renege on its arrangement with the Cherokee Delegation and prevent the deputation from completing its task.

Chief Ross wrote to George Lowrey about the delegation, telling him that Secretary Poinsett had “sanctioned an attempt to bring about a treaty of peace with them through our mediation.” Chief Ross also sent a letter to Hair Conrad, Jesse Bushyhead, Richard Fields, and Thomas Woodward conveying that Secretary Poinsett had “given sanction to our mediation, and approves of the Talk [18 October] for the Seminoles.”

Although Ross had many conversations with Secretary Poinsett, he was still worried about the deputation. In a letter on 20 October 1837 to the delegation, he expressed his concerns, saying that success was solely dependent on cooperation from the military. He reminded the delegation that under no circumstances should they take over the proceedings, but that the U. S. must be seen as the ones who completed the negotiations to ensure the government could not blame the Cherokee for sabotaging the mission. He gave strict orders that they “only [to] act the part of mediators for the restoration of peace between the Seminoles and the United States.” The object of their mission was entirely to “endeavor to restore peace & friendship between the Seminoles & the U. S. with the approbation of the Secry [Secretary] of War” and the Cherokee Nation’s reputation was not of the greatest significance, but rather that the Seminoles received fair due process.

Chief Ross’s distrust of the U. S. government’s policies was not without merit, considering the forcible removal of his people and the recent history of broken treaties with numerous indigenous tribes. In a letter to Richard Fields on 23 October 1837, Ross relayed a conversation he had had with the recently deposed Sauk Chief Black Hawk. Chief Black Hawk mentioned that the government asked him to send warriors to fight the Seminole. He assured Chief Ross that he refused their proposition, because “the Seminoles had never harmed his people.” Chief Ross continued that he had approached Secretary Poinsett about Chief Black Hawks’ remarks, and questioned him about whether the military had enlisted the help of any other American Indian tribes to fight in the Florida Campaign. Secretary Poinsett said that at the time there were none fighting the Seminole, but that the Delaware and Shawaneese were going to send some warriors at the government’s request, but only if the delegation’s mission were to fail.

Chief Ross, extremely distressed by this, warned the secretary that “if there were any Indians in the service of the U.S…& the fact be known to the Seminoles[,] that [the deputation’s] lives may be endangered, as the Seminoles might distrust [the delegation’s] friendly visit, & suspect [them] for being Spies &c.” Secretary Poinsett assured Ross that he would do everything in his power to keep the delegation safe and would convey these concerns to General Jesup so that he could take appropriate action.

According to Chief Ross’s letter to his brother Lewis Ross on 11 November 1837, Richard Fields had already arrived in Florida and had connected with General Jesup on Black Creek. Fields communicated to Principal Chief Ross on 12 November 1837 that the other members of the delegation had arrived two days prior with Colonel Sherburne. He added that they were allowed to hold a meeting with the imprisoned Seminole chiefs and that the chiefs “were glad to see [the delegation], and expressed much gratitude, and good feeling for [the deputation’s] friendly intentions, and hoped that every thing ‘would be made straight,’ when [the delegation] could have an interview with the Chiefs of the [Seminole] Nation in Council.”

As Ross feared, the government did not cooperate. General Jesup began to deter the delegation from the start. Even though Secretary Poinsett assured Chief Ross that his Talk was acceptable and that it could be transmitted to the Seminole chiefs, Richard Fields wrote to Chief Ross that the officers at the fort prohibited them from reading his Talk to the imprisoned chiefs. He said the officers were given direct orders from General Jesup to suppress the Talk. Richard Fields wrote there was no surprise at this since General Jesup expressed to him that “he could not permit your talk to go to the Seminoles, as it held out expectations that could not be realized.”

This was in direct conflict with what Chief Ross and Secretary Poinsett had agreed to, and what was relayed and accepted by President Van Buren. But, according to General Jesup, the “talk contained, as [he] thought, propositions at variance with [his] instructions. It held out on the Seminoles the promise of a treaty; but [he] was required to enforce the provisions of an existing treaty, not to make a new treaty.” This was in contradiction to Ross having been previously assured by Secretary Poinsett that President Van Buren had authorized the Seminole to negotiate a new treaty with the U. S. if they ended the conflict.                 

Fields also wrote to Ross that the general was not going to assist in the delegation’s mission. General Jesup affirmed that he was “not fighting for peace, but emigration and violated treaties—that the Seminoles must surrender themselves into his power completely.” Jesup also chided Fields, saying that he did not need the delegation to make peace, and that he could end this war on his own accord, whenever he pleased. General Jesup’s conversation with Richard Fields was highly disturbing and volatile. From a military perspective, the U. S. was engaged in one of the costliest wars yet, and General Jesup was commander of the campaign, so his frustrations are understandable. However, his comment that they were not fighting for peace, but rather for violations of treaties and the forced relocation of the Seminole was outlandish and hypocritical. If any group in the U. S. had a reason to fight due to treaties being violated, it was the Seminole and the rest of the indigenous population. The Seminole were only defending themselves, their land, and their rights that the government assured them through treaties.

The fact that General Jesup’s orders did not reflect the correspondence and discussions between Chief Ross and the Secretary Poinsett, who was in charge of the military, begs the question of the government’s true intent. Chief Ross told Secretary Poinsett that he could not understand “that whatever, [he] as Secry [Secretary] of War had sanctioned in this affair would be suppressed by those who are subject to [his] orders.” Did the U. S. really wanted to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, or just to foster an image of cooperation? Chief Ross even expressed to Secretary Poinsett that if he knew of the falsities given to him he “would not only have refused to communicate it to [the Seminole] — but would have declined any agency in this mediation.” Chief Ross was coming to the conclusion that the government did not intend to resolve its conflict with the Seminole. He sternly wrote Secretary Poinsett that “a suppression of my talk…cannot be viewed in other light than a rejection of the Cherokee Mediation.” He brought this opinion to the forefront in the hope that Secretary Poinsett would change his course of action and be more receptive to the delegation’s mission.

Although the military pushed back against the delegation, Richard Fields seemed optimistic. His letter to Chief Ross of 12 November 1837 expressed his belief that the deputation could accomplish its mission in a short time, and in a way that would please all involved even though both sides were wary of the other and of the delegation’s mission. He mentioned that two imprisoned Seminole chiefs, Osceola and Coa Hadjo, had been asked by the deputation whether “they thought there would be any danger in … going to visit the Seminoles in their camps” and that the chiefs answered that there was no danger in the visitation. This gave hope to the delegation that it could accomplish its mission as long as the military gave them an opportunity to broker a peace.

The delegation was presented with good news after a meeting with Coa Hadjo and Osceola concerning how best to deliver Principal Chief Ross’s Talk. Fields wrote Chief Ross that General Jesup had said that his interpreter felt the Talk would be a positive influence on the Seminole in the hope to end the conflict. The general also assured Richard Fields that “he would do all he could to save [the Seminole], and that it was not his wish to shed any more blood …” This was a complete change of cadence from General Jesup’s previous conversations with Richard Fields. The information from the interpreter gave the delegation the hope that their mission could be a success. In addition, according to Richard Fields, “The officers in general wish an end put to this war by any means; and most of them, particularly [Brigadier] Genl. [General] [Joseph M.] Hernandez, is warm in the belief that through our aid, the object can be easily effected.” Chief Ross expressed to Secretary Poinsett that he was “pleased” that General Jesup had a change of heart toward the delegation’s mission and intentions, and the possibility of its success. However, General Jesup only allotted six days for the delegation to meet with the Seminole in council and return to Fort Mellon.

On 6 December 1837, Fields sent a letter to Ross regarding the delegation’s council with the Seminole chiefs, headmen, and warriors. The deputation traveled to the inner swamps to deliver Chief Ross’s Talk. When they first arrived, there was no one at the meeting grounds. Chief Coa Hadjo went out to the swamp to bring in the other Seminole. It seemed the others waited away from the council grounds so as not to be double-crossed by the military. When all the chiefs were gathered, the delegation was granted the opportunity to give Chief Ross’s Talk. Afterwards, the delegation returned to their staging area.

On the next day, the delegation was again summoned to relay the Talk to other chiefs who had not been present previously. That evening, the Seminole Principal Chief Micanopy thanked the delegation for traveling to Florida and stated their appreciation for the risks assumed by the delegation. “The Seminole exhibited every demonstration of feeling and friendship towards [the delegation] and [their] cause that brought [the deputation] among them.” Chief Micanopy, Opiahki, Cloud, and other sub-chiefs decided to speak with General Jesup.

The delegation succeeded in its mission of convincing the Seminole chiefs to negotiate peace. After a stressful interrogation, the chiefs agreed to send for their people to come in to the forts, and asked for a week for the people to prepare for their journey. The general agreed. Ironically, the general also reminded the Seminole chiefs that they must abide and uphold the treaties which they have made with the U. S. since “she [has] always fulfil[led] hers.”

While the runners were sent to give word to the Seminole to come in, the situation at Fort Mellon turned into a travesty. General Jesup, abiding by the U. S. always upholding treaty agreements, labeled the Seminole chiefs prisoners of war, even though they came to the fort under a white flag of truce with the Cherokee Delegation for negotiations. Chief Ross berated Secretary Poinsett for this treacherous action and stated that it was an “unprecedented violation of that sacred rule … recognized by every nation, civilized and un-civilized … for the purpose of proposing the termination of a warfare.” Chief Ross insisted that the Seminole chiefs should be released at once and allowed to return to their people. He was enraged by the outlandish deception by the U. S. government, and was greatly hurt by how the U. S. portrayed the Cherokee Delegation. He felt that the Cherokee were used as pawns in the military’s mission, since the delegation was able to get the Seminole to come to Fort Mellon to negotiate a peace.

The imprisonment of their chiefs caused the Seminole, especially the Mikasuki, to rally against this egregious action, refuse to come to the forts, and continue to fight. The Cherokee Delegation left Florida in disgust after the Seminole chiefs were herded on steamers towards the Gulf of Mexico. Secretary Poinsett refused to correspond with Chief Ross concerning the subject of the Seminole imprisonment. The only subject that Secretary Poinsett would write of was to state that he had received Chief Ross’s letters.

The U. S. government immediately went on the offensive to create a smear campaign against the Cherokee Delegation to cover up the fact that it was their actions which caused the mission to fail. According to Lewis Ross in his letter to Chief Ross on 17 January 1838, a number of letters supposedly written in Florida went to the papers in Georgia, blaming the failure on the Cherokee Delegation and stating that they gave the Seminole false hope and lies.

Chief Ross wrote to George Lowrey on 27 January 1838, stating that the U. S. government had continued with its duplicity, and had turned the public against the Cherokee Delegation. He wrote that the National Intelligencer had censured the deputation for its failure and false-dealings. Chief Ross viewed the delegation as a success. When General Jesup botched the negotiations by imprisoning the Seminole chiefs, the U. S. government began looking for a scapegoat to avoid claiming an error on its part. Secretary Poinsett even went as far as to call for a formal inquiry into the delegation before the Department of War concerning possible charges to bring against them for their failure. The delegation, according to Chief Ross, burdened “hardship and perils … by penetrating the deep swamps and hammocks of [F]lorida in the Service of the U. S. as mediators for the restoration of peace and friendship between the Seminoles and the U. S.,” only to have that same agency accuse them for its own errors and failures. Chief Ross tried fervently to clear the deputation’s name. He did not want the Seminole to believe that his people had any hand in the treachery that the government perpetrated against their chiefs and their people. He knew that if there was any suspicion from the Seminole, that when they all were inevitably removed to Indian Territory, that the two could possibly be neighbors, the Seminole might hold a resentment towards the Cherokee for something that they did not wish to happen nor have a hand in. The delegation was only sent to negotiate a peace between the Seminole and the U. S., and not to falsely gain the Seminole trust, and bring them in to the forts to be imprisoned. The delegation was unaware of what General Jesup would do, and their intentions were of the purest means.

The Cherokee Delegation to the Seminole was seen by the U. S. as a complete failure. General Jesup stated that the delegation wasted valuable time and energy and gave the Seminole false hope and pretexts. In all actuality, the Cherokee Deputation was a success. They were able to arrange for the Seminole Chiefs to come to Fort Mellon to negotiate a peace with the U. S. government, and bring an end to the war. However, General Jesup’s treachery of imprisoning the Seminole chiefs was the catalyst for the failure, not the delegation’s efforts. The delegation was taken aback by the events at Fort Mellon and could not comprehend what General Jesup had executed under a flag of truce. The government was looking for a scapegoat and found a perfect candidate in the Cherokee Delegation, a group of men whose only intent was to bring an end to the bloodshed and save their brethren from annihilation. Without the Gilcrease Museum’s tireless efforts to preserve these documents, the public might not have the opportunity to see these events portrayed by the very people who were involved.

 

Sources

Unless otherwise noted, the following are from the John Ross Papers at Gilcrease Museum.
 

“General Thomas S. Jesup to Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett, 6 July 1838, in The Senate’s Message from the President of the United States: 25th Congress, 2nd Session.” GM4026.598.

“John H. Sherburne to Principal Chief John Ross, 7 October 1837.” GM4027.472.

“Lewis Ross to Principal Chief John Ross, 17 January 1838.”GM4026.515.

“Principal Chief John Ross to George Lowrey, 27 January 1838.” GM4026.521.

“Principal Chief John Ross to John H. Sherburne, 5 September, 1837.” GM4026.467.

“Principal Chief John Ross to Lewis Ross, 11 November 1837.” GM4026.488.

“Principal Chief John Ross to Lewis Ross, 13 January 1838.”GM4026.514.

“Principal Chief John Ross to Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett, 28 November 1837.” GM4026.496.

“Principal Chief John Ross to Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett, 5 March 1838.” GM4026.535.

“Principal Chief John Ross to William Shorey Coodey, December 1837.” GM4026.508.

“Richard Fields to Principal Chief John Ross, 7 October, 1837.” GM4026.473.

“Richard Fields to Principal Chief John Ross, 6 December 1837.” GM4026.500.

Principal Chief John Ross to the chiefs, headmen, and warriors of the Seminoles, 18 October 1837, in Gary E. Moulton, The Papers of Chief John Ross, vol. 1 (Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 523-526.

Principal Chief John Ross to George Lowrey, October 1837, in Gary E. Moulton, The Papers of Chief John Ross, vol. 1 (Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 529.

Principal Chief John Ross to Hair Conrad, Jesse Bushyhead, Richard Fields, and Thomas Woodward, 20 October 1837, in Gary E. Moulton, The Papers of Chief John Ross, vol. 1 (Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 526-28.

Principal Chief John Ross to John H. Sherburne, 18 September 1837, in Gary E. Moulton, The Papers of Chief John Ross, vol. 1 (Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 519-20.

Principal Chief John Ross to Richard Fields, 23 October 1837, in Gary E. Moulton, The Papers of Chief John Ross, vol. 1 (Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 530-32.

Principal Chief John Ross to Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett, 29 November 1837, in Gary E. Moulton, The Papers of Chief John Ross, vol. 1 (Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 555-56.

Principal Chief Ross to Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett, 2 January 1838, in Gary E. Moulton, The Papers of Chief John Ross, vol. 1 (Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 575-76.

Principal Chief John Ross to Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett, 8 March 1838, in Gary E. Moulton, The Papers of Chief John Ross, vol. 1 (Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 605-10.

Richard Fields to Principal Chief John Ross, 12 November 1837, in Gary E. Moulton, The Papers of Chief John Ross, vol. 1 (Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 543-44.

Richard Fields to Principal Chief John Ross, 14 November 1837, in Gary E. Moulton, The Papers of Chief John Ross, vol. 1 (Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 45.