John Horse courageously led Seminoles and enslaved people to freedom from Florida to Mexico, even stopping in Pine Bluff.
Image Credit: Seminole National Museum
John Horse, also known as Juan Caballo, Juan Cavallo, John Cowaya, and Gopher John, was born in 1812. His father Charley Cavallo was a Seminole trader, while his mother, a woman of African descent, was his slave. While Seminoles maintained a form of slavery, it was markedly unlike Amerian chattel slavery as it allowed near full integration into Seminole society. Many blacks escaped from Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama to seek refuge in Florida with the Seminoles. Known as “Black Seminoles,” they intermarried and became an integral part of Seminole society, even rising the to the level of military leaders.
Horse spent his early life among the Oconee Seminoles, where he learned to fish, hunt, and track. He was an excellent marksman, with his skills extending from a bow and arrow to a rifle. Unlike the Seminole children he lived among, Horse learned to read, write, and speak English, Spanish, Hitchiti (the language of the Seminoles including the Oconee), and Muscogee (the language of the Upper Creek Indians). John, his mother, and sister Juana were displaced when General Andrew Jackson invaded the Alachua Savanna in Florida to seize Florida, then owned by Spain. Jackson scattered the Black and Seminole occupants and re-enslaved the Black Seminoles. This displacement led to Horse’s presence in the Tampa area when the Second Seminole War began in 1835.
With his early exposure to American soldiers and linguistic skills, Horse served as a warrior, interpreter, and negotiator for Chief Micanopy, who led the Seminoles against the US army invasion of their territory. Horse was a primary leader in many attacks that Seminoles mounted against white plantation owners in Georgia and South Carolina as they fought to free people of color who then retreated into Florida’s swamps. These runaways became part of the Seminole nation, raising families, working farmland, and fighting the U.S Calvary.
In 1838, after three years of fierce combat, Horse and General Thomas Jesup negotiated the terms of a truce. Horse agreed to cease fighting and relocate to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, while General Jesup promised that all the Black Seminoles who surrendered would receive their freedom. In their trek to Oklahoma, Horse and a party of Seminoles, ran aground on the Arkansas River at Barraque’s Bar in Pine Bluff on the Steamboat Swan. They remained in Pine Bluff for less than a week before continuing their race to freedom.
Unfortunately, in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory, the Black Seminoles were placed on the land of slave-holding Creek Indians. During this time, the US government decided not to honor General Jesup’s agreement with John Horse for the freedom of his people. Hence, Black Seminoles became subject to the raids of slave catchers, both white and Native American. Determined to keep his Black Seminoles safe, Horse moved them south to Wewoka, further away from the Creek settlement. Even in Wewoka, Horse’s settlement was still subject to raiding parties. So in 1849, Horse and Coacoochee (Wild Cat), a Seminole chief, gathered their people and made a run for Mexico. On their yearlong journey, the Seminoles were pursued by the US army, Texas Rangers, and bands of white and Native American slave catchers determined to stop them. They eventually made it across the Mexican border where they received a land grant and their freedom. They settled in a border city named Coahuila and served as border guards against various raiding parties. Their cross country trek was the largest mass escape by enslaved people in U.S. history.
After the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves, Horse and many of the Seminoles returned to Texas. While the Seminoles became scouts, Horse served as an interpreter and negotiator. Horse later returned to Mexico in 1882 when the US army failed to honor their agreement to relocate the Black Seminoles from Mexico to Indian Territory, and the Mexican government threatened to take the Seminole’s land. Horse agreed to make the 800 mile trek to appeal to the courts regarding enforcement of Black Seminole land rights. John Horse died of pneumonia during this trip, most likely on August 10, in a military hospital. Nevertheless, many Black Seminoles still live in Coahuila today.
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard