Seminole Chief Osceola, Billy Powell

Osceola was named Billy Powell at birth in 1804 in the Creek village of Talisi, now known as Tallassee, Alabama, in current Elmore County. “The people in the town of Tallassee…were mixed-blood Native American/English/Irish/Scottish, and some were black. Billy was all of these.” He was born to Polly Coppinger, a Creek woman, and William Powell, an English trader. Polly was the daughter of Ann McQueen and Jose Coppinger.  Because the Creek have a matrilineal kinship system, Polly and Ann’s other children were all considered to be born into their mother’s clan; they were reared as traditional Creek and gained their status from their mother’s people. Ann McQueen was also mixed-race Creek; her father James McQueen was Scots-Irish. Ann was likely the sister or aunt of Peter McQueen, a prominent Creek leader and warrior.  Like his mother, Billy was raised in the Creek tribe.

Like his father, Billy’s maternal grandfather James McQueen was a trader; in 1714 he was the first European to trade with the Creek in Alabama. He stayed in the area as a fur trader and married into the Creek tribe. He became closely involved with the people. He is buried in the Indian cemetery in Franklin, Alabama near a Methodist Missionary Church for the Creek.

In 1814, after the Red Stick Creek were defeated by United States forces, Polly took Osceola and moved with other Creek refugees from Alabama to Florida, where they joined the Seminole. In adulthood, as part of the Seminole, Powell was given his name Osceola. This is an anglicized form of the Creek Asi-yahola, the combination of asi, the ceremonial black drink made from the yaupon holly, and yahola, meaning “shout” or “shouter”.

In 1821, the United States acquired Florida from Spain. More European-American settlers started moving in, encroaching on the Seminole. After early military skirmishes and the 1823 Treaty of Moultrie Creek, by which the US seized northern Seminole lands, Osceola and his family moved with the Seminole deeper into central and southern Florida.

As an adult, Osceola took two wives, as did some other Creek and Seminole leaders. With them, he had a total of at least five children. One of his wives was African American, and he fiercely opposed the enslavement of free peoples.

Through the 1820s and the turn of the decade, American settlers kept up pressure on 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.[6]

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 the ban. He felt it equated the Seminole with slaves, who were forbidden to carry arms.

Thompson considered Osceola to be a friend, and gave him a rifle. Later, though, when Osceola quarreled with Thompson, the agent had the warrior locked up at Fort King for a night. The next day, to get released, Osceola agreed to abide by the Treaty of Payne’s Landing and to bring his followers in to the fort.

On December 28, 1835, Osceola led an attack on Fort King (near modern-day Ocala) which resulted in the assassination of the American Indian Agent Wiley Thompson. Simultaneously, Micanopy and a large band of Seminole warriors ambushed troops under the command of Major Francis Dade south of Fort King on the road to Fort Brooke (later Tampa). These two events, along with the Battle of Withlacoochee on December 31 and raids on sugar plantations in East Florida in early 1836, marked the beginning of the Second Seminole War.

Osceola arrest

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

In late October 1837, Osceola contacted General Joseph Hernandez, through a black interpreter named John Cavallo (also John Horse), to arrange negotiations about ceasing hostilities. General Thomas Jesup responded by ordering Hernandez to seize Osceola and his party should he have the chance.

Osceola’s camp, located one mile south of Fort Peyton, raised a white flag of truce in order to signal their desire to negotiate. When Hernandez and his entourage reached the camp, they promptly seized Osceola and the warriors, women and children present. Osceola and his band were brought to St. Augustine and imprisoned at Fort Marion (Castillo de San Marcos).

Remarkably, on November 30, Coacoochee (Wildcat) and 19 other Seminoles escaped Fort Marion; Osceola was not among them. Coacoochee’s escape prompted Jesup to transfer the most important Seminole captives out of the area. In late December 1837, Osceola, Micanopy, Philip and about 200 Seminoles embarked from St. Augustine for Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island, outside Charleston, South Carolina.  After their arrival, they were visited by townspeople.

Osceola’s capture by deceit caused a national uproar. General Jesup and the administration were condemned by many congressional leaders.

Osceola George Catlin

George Catlin and other prominent painters met the war chief and persuaded him to allow his picture to be painted.  The painting above is by Catlin.  Robert J. Curtis painted an oil portrait of Osceola as well. These paintings have inspired numerous prints and engravings, which were widely distributed, and even cigar store figures.

Osceola, who previously contracted malaria in Florida, became severely ill soon after arriving at Fort Moultrie.   Osceola died of quinsy (though one source gives the cause of death as “malaria” without further elaboration) on January 30, 1838, three months after his capture. He was buried with military honors at Fort Moultrie.

After his death, army doctor Frederick Weedon persuaded the Seminole to allow him to make a death mask of Osceola, shown below, as was a European-American custom at the time for prominent people.

Osceloa death mask

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Later Weedon removed Osceola’s head and embalmed it. For some time, Weedon kept the head and a number of personal objects Osceola had given him.

Later, Weedon gave the head to his son-in-law Daniel Whitehurst. In 1843, Whitehurst sent the head to Valentine Mott, a New York physician. Mott placed it in his collection at the Surgical and Pathological Museum. It was presumably lost when a fire destroyed the museum in 1866. Some of Osceola’s belongings are still held by the Weedon family, while others have disappeared.  One of Chief Osceola’s possessions is shown below.

Osceola possession

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

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 ended up in the anthropology collection of the Smithsonian Institution, where they are still held.

Osceola’s grave marker says, “Osceola, Patriot and Warrior, died at Fort Moultrie, January 30, 1838.”

Osceola grave

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Tracing Your American Indian Ancestors

If you have family in Oklahoma at almost any time period, you likely have a family story of American Indian ancestry. This is a quick guide to help you begin to document that story.

In Oklahoma, the tribes most people believe their ancestors belong to are one of the Five Civilized Tribes— Choctaw, Cherokee, Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole. To be a member of these tribes today, a person has to be a direct descendant of a person who was enrolled by the Dawes Commission 1898-1907.

Here are the basics:
1. You must do your genealogy. Get a pedigree chart and start filling in the blanks—ask your extended family for help. When and where were your family members born? Record the places and dates—even an estimate will help.

2. Use the federal censuses to trace your family line back to 1900 in order to determine if they were in the right place at the right time. You can use the census records available on or Heritage Quest available on all the Research Center’s computers.

3. Was your family living in Indian Territory in 1900?

4. IF you find your direct line (not an aunt or uncle, but a great-grandparent) was living in Indian Territory on the 1900 census, check the Dawes Rolls Index. You can do this on a computer in the Library, on film in the microfilm room in the Research Center OR you can also check the index on the website at
5. If you find your ancestor’s name on the Dawes Roll index, look at the age. Does it match (within 2-3 years) the age your ancestor was in 1902? If you are using the online index, click on the CC# and see the other names of the persons on that census card. Do you recognize these names as other family members?

6. Use the microfilm OR the Dawes Rolls on fold3. com to examine the census card AND the packet. The packet will provide information about the family—this is the transcript of the interviews that the applicants went through when they applied for tribal membership. Applicants had to document their “Indianess” by proving they were on an earlier tribal roll or descended from someone who was. This will help you determine if you have the right person or a person with the same name.

7. IF you find your ancestor on the Dawes Rolls, and you wish to apply for tribal membership, you will have to prove your descendancy from that person. This is done by collecting birth, marriage and death records. Specific requirements for application to each tribe are available on their websites and at their tribal headquarters. 

• Cherokee
• Choctaw
• Chickasaw
• Muscogee (Creek)
• Seminole

What if your family member is NOT found on the Dawes Rolls? The major problem people encounter when attempting to document a family tradition is the uncertainty of how and when Indian ancestry enters into a pedigree. Many times the tradition is there but the identifying details are not, leaving supporting evidence hard to find. You may want to check the available lists for rejected Dawes applications. These are available at the Research Library. Why is this important? Applicants were required to be living in Indian Territory in order to qualify for tribal enrollment. Track your family back to the 1900 census to determine if they met this requirement. 

Perhaps your ancestor was a member of another tribe that was not part of the Dawes enrollment process—the Dawes Rolls were for the Five Civilized Tribes only. You may want to check other tribal rolls at the Research Center such as Kiowa, Cheyenne, Comanche, Osage, Sac & Fox, Pawnee, Apache, etc. There are 38 federally-recognized tribes with headquarters in Oklahoma!

Keep in Mind: In 1900, there were 3 times more white persons living in Indian Territory than there were Indians living there.

The purpose behind the Dawes Commission was to break up the lands held in common by the tribes, assign a specific tract of land to each Indian individual, and open up the remainder for settlement by non-Indians.
Remember than on the 1900 and 1910 censuses (or any census), persons could claim Indian ancestry if they so chose. Being listed on the separate population schedules for Indians does not determine tribal membership—finding a person classified as Indian on these special federal census schedules has no bearing on whether a person is considered Indian by officials.

It is entirely possible that your relatives were Indian but if they did not enroll with the Dawes Commission, their descendants are not considered Indian by the tribes nor by the federal government today.

A DNA test can show Indian ancestry, but tribes do not accept that as proof since such testing does not identify tribal affiliation.

Even if you cannot document your family story of Indian ancestry, value the history of your family that endured the hardships and challenges of living in early Oklahoma.

Some Definitions: Census cards – lists age, blood-quantum, earlier enrollments and family members for the enrollee, and may include information about their family members. This card includes the tribal affiliation as well as the census card number and a tribal enrollment for each person enrolled.

Enrollment packets – transcripts of the interviews conducted with the applicants by the Dawes Commission members. These packets, also know as application packets or jackets, may provide further details about the individual and their family, including marriage, birth, and death information. NOTE: There are very few packets available for the Muscogee (Creek) tribe. If you are checking for a Muscogee person, be sure to check both printed as well as online indexes.

NOTE: Enrollment packets are different from allotment packets. OHS has some allotment maps but for allotment packets, you will need to contact the National Archives in Fort Worth. The website for this agency is
Email is

1896 applications – enrollment was begun in 1896 but started over in 1898. Most persons on the 1896 rolls did not make it onto the Final Rolls (1898).

Minor or Newborn – a child born after the initial enrollment (when their parents enrolled) but prior to finalization of the Rolls in March 1907.

Major Resources at OHS: U.S. Federal Census Use the census records available through or Heritage Quest to track your family. Begin with the most recent census available and locate them each census date.

Index to the Dawes Final Rolls This index is available in several places, both in print and online, but one of the easiest is at the OHS website at www. research/dawes.php.

Fold3 Use the “Native American Collection” on the fold3 (subscription) database to search for the census card listing for your family members. Note the tribe and enrollment number and search for the individual’s packet on this site. These cards and packets are also available on microfilm at the OHS Research Center. For more information on the Dawes Commission and the enrollment process, read The Dawes Commission: And the Allotment of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1893-1914 by Kent Carter.

The Seminole Freedmen – A History

seminole freedmen

Popularly known as “Black Seminoles,” descendants of the Seminole freedmen of Indian Territory are a unique American cultural group. Now Kevin Mulroy examines the long history of these people to show that this label denies them their rightful distinctiveness. To correct misconceptions of the historical relationship between Africans and Seminole Indians, he traces the emergence of Seminole-black identity and community from their eighteenth-century Florida origins to the present day.

Arguing that the Seminole freedmen are neither Seminoles, Africans, nor “black Indians,” Mulroy proposes that they are maroon descendants who inhabit their own racial and cultural category, which he calls “Seminole maroon.” Mulroy plumbs the historical record to show clearly that, although allied with the Seminoles, these maroons formed independent and autonomous communities that dealt with European American society differently than either Indians or African Americans did.

Mulroy describes the freedmen’s experiences as runaways from southern plantations, slaves of American Indians, participants in the Seminole Wars, and emigrants to the West. He then recounts their history during the Civil War, Reconstruction, enrollment and allotment under the Dawes Act, and early Oklahoma statehood. He also considers freedmen relations with Seminoles in Oklahoma during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Although freedmen and Seminoles enjoy a partially shared past, this book shows that the freedmen’s history and culture are unique and entirely their own

Lieutenant Colonel John Jumper

Lieutenant Colonel John Jumper 1st Regiment Seminole Mounted Volunteers CSA

The Confederacy paid John Jumper the compliment of making him a Lieutenant Colonel, The order read:

“The Congress of the Confederate States of America do enact, That the President of the CSA be authorized to present to Hemha Micco or John Jumper, a commission conferring upon him the honorary title of Lieutenant-Colonel of the Army…but without creating or imposing the duties of the actual service or command or pay, as a complimentary mark of honor, and a token of good will and confidence to his friendship, good faith, and loyalty to the government.”

The monument to John Jumper resides at the Seminole Nation Museum, Wewoka, OK


Why Do So Many Americans Think They Have Cherokee Blood?

“I cannot say when I first heard of my Indian blood, but as a boy I heard it spoken of in a general way,” Charles Phelps, a resident of Winston-Salem in North Carolina, told a federal census taker near the beginning of the 20th century. Like many Americans at the time, Phelps had a vague understanding of his Native American ancestry. On one point, however, his memory seemed curiously specific: His Indian identity was a product of his “Cherokee blood.”

The tradition of claiming a Cherokee ancestor continues into the present. Today, more Americans claim descent from at least one Cherokee ancestor than any other Native American group. Across the United States, Americans tell and retell stories of long-lost Cherokee ancestors. These tales of family genealogies become murkier with each passing generation, but like Phelps, contemporary Americans profess their belief despite not being able to point directly to a Cherokee in their family tree.

Recent demographic data reveals the extent to which Americans believe they’re part Cherokee. In 2000, the federal census reported that 729,533 Americans self-identified as Cherokee. By 2010, that number increased, with the Census Bureau reporting that 819,105 Americans claimed at least one Cherokee ancestor. Census data also indicates that the vast majority of people self-identifying as Cherokee—almost 70 percent of respondents—claim they are mixed-race Cherokees.

Why do so many Americans claim to possess “Cherokee blood”? The answer requires us to peel back the layers of Cherokee history and tradition.

Most scholars agree that the Cherokees, an Iroquoian-speaking people, have lived in what is today the Southeastern United States—Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama—since at least A.D. 1000. When Europeans first encountered the Cherokees in the mid–16th century, Cherokee people had well-established social and cultural traditions. Cherokee people lived in small towns and belonged to one of seven matrilineal clans. Cherokee women enjoyed great political and social power in the Cherokee society. Not only did a child inherit the clan identity of his or her mother, women oversaw the adoption of captives and other outsiders into the responsibilities of clan membership.

As European colonialism engulfed Cherokee Country during the 17th and 18th centuries, however, Cherokees began altering their social and cultural traditions to better meet the challenges of their times. One important tradition that adapted to new realities was marriage.

The Cherokee tradition of exogamous marriage, or marrying outside of one’s clan, evolved during the 17th and 18th centuries as Cherokees encountered Europeans on a more frequent basis. Some sought to solidify alliances with Europeans through intermarriage.

It is impossible to know the exact number of Cherokees who married Europeans during this period. But we know that Cherokees viewed intermarriage as both a diplomatic tool and as a means of incorporating Europeans into the reciprocal bonds of kinship. Eighteenth-century British traders often sought out Cherokee wives. For the trader, the marriage opened up new markets, with his Cherokee wife providing both companionship and entry access to items such as the deerskins coveted by Europeans. For Cherokees, intermarriage made it possible to secure reliable flows of European goods, such as metal and iron tools, guns, and clothing. The frequency with which the British reported interracial marriages among the Cherokees testifies to the sexual autonomy and political influence that Cherokee women enjoyed. It also gave rise to a mixed-race Cherokee population that appears to have been far larger than the racially mixed populations of neighboring tribes.

Europeans were not the only group of outsiders with which 18th-century Cherokees intermingled. By the early 19th century, a small group of wealthy Cherokees adopted racial slavery, acquiring black slaves from American slave markets. A bit more than 7 percent of Cherokee families owned slaves by the mid-1830s; a small number, but enough to give rise to a now pervasive idea in black culture: descent from a Cherokee ancestor.

In the early 20th century, the descendants of Cherokee slaves related stories of how their black forebears accompanied Cherokees on the forced removals of the 1830s. They also recalled tales of how African and Cherokee people created interracial families. These stories have persisted into the 21st century. The former NFL running back Emmitt Smith believed that he had “Cherokee blood.” After submitting a DNA test as part of his 2010 appearance on NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are, he learned he was mistaken. Among black Americans, as among Americans as a whole, the belief in Cherokee ancestry is more common than actual blood ties.

Slaves owned by Cherokees did join their owners when the federal government forced some 17,000 Cherokees from their Southeastern homeland at the end of the 1830s. Cherokee people and their slaves endured that forced journey into the West by riverboats and overland paths, joining tens of thousands of previously displaced Native peoples from the Eastern United States in Indian Territory (modern-day eastern Oklahoma). We now refer to this inglorious event as the Trail of Tears.

But the Cherokee people did not remain confined to the lands that the federal government assigned to them in Indian Territory. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Cherokees traveled between Indian Territory and North Carolina to visit family and friends, and Cherokee people migrated and resettled throughout North America in search of social and economic opportunities. While many Native American groups traveled throughout the United States during this period in search of employment, the Cherokee people’s advanced levels of education and literacy—a product of the Cherokee Nation’s public education system in Indian Territory and the willingness of diaspora Cherokees to enroll their children in formal educational institutions—meant they traveled on a scale far larger than any other indigenous group. In these travels it’s possible to glimpse Cherokees coming into contact with, living next door to, or intermarrying with white and black Americans from all walks of life.

At the same time that the Cherokee diaspora was expanding across the country, the federal government began adopting a system of “blood quantum” to determine Native American identity. Native Americans were required to prove their Cherokee, or Navajo, or Sioux “blood” in order to be recognized. (The racially based system of identification also excluded individuals with “one drop” of “Negro blood.”) The federal government’s “blood quantum” standards varied over time, helping to explain why recorded Cherokee “blood quantum” ranged from “full-blood” to one 2048th. The system’s larger aim was to determine who was eligible for land allotments following the government’s decision to terminate Native American self-government at the end of the 19th century. By 1934, the year that Franklin Roosevelt’s administration adopted the Indian Reorganization Act, “blood quantum” became the official measure by which the federal government determined Native American identity.

In the ensuing decades, Cherokees, like other Native American groups, sought to define “blood” on their own terms. By the mid–20th century, Cherokee and other American Indian activists began joining together to articulate their definitions of American Indian identity and to confront those tens of thousands of Americans who laid claim to being descendants of Native Americans.

Groups such as the National Congress of American Indians worked toward the self-determination of American Indian nations and also tackled the problem of false claims to membership. According to the work of Vine Deloria, one of NCAI’s leading intellectuals, “Cherokee was the most popular tribe” in America. “From Maine to Washington State,” Deloria recalled, white Americans insisted they were descended from Cherokee ancestors. More often than not, that ancestor was an “Indian princess,” despite the fact that the tribe never had a social system with anything resembling an inherited title like princess.

So why have so many Americans laid claim to a clearly fictional identity? Part of the answer is embedded in the tribe’s history: its willingness to incorporate outsiders into kinship systems and its wide-ranging migrations throughout North America. But there’s another explanation, too.

The Cherokees resisted state and federal efforts to remove them from their Southeastern homelands during the 1820s and 1830s. During that time, most whites saw them as an inconvenient nuisance, an obstacle to colonial expansion. But after their removal, the tribe came to be viewed more romantically, especially in the antebellum South, where their determination to maintain their rights of self-government against the federal government took on new meaning. Throughout the South in the 1840s and 1850s, large numbers of whites began claiming they were descended from a Cherokee great-grandmother. That great-grandmother was often a “princess,” a not-inconsequential detail in a region obsessed with social status and suspicious of outsiders. By claiming a royal Cherokee ancestor, white Southerners were legitimating the antiquity of their native-born status as sons or daughters of the South, as well as establishing their determination to defend their rights against an aggressive federal government, as they imagined the Cherokees had done. These may have been self-serving historical delusions, but they have proven to be enduring.

The continuing popularity of claiming “Cherokee blood” and the ease with which millions of Americans inhabit a Cherokee identity speaks volumes about the enduring legacy of American colonialism. Shifting one’s identity to claim ownership of an imagined Cherokee past is at once a way to authenticate your American-ness and absolve yourself of complicity in the crimes Americans committed against the tribe across history.

That said, the visibility of Cherokee identity also owes much to the success of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. Today, the Cherokee Nation, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, and the Eastern Band of Cherokees comprise a combined population of 344,700. Cherokee tribal governments provide community members with health services, education, and housing assistance; they have even teamed up with companies such as Google and Apple to produce Cherokee-language apps. Most Cherokees live in close-knit communities in eastern Oklahoma or the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, but a considerable number live throughout North America and in cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Toronto. Cherokee people are doctors and lawyers, schoolteachers and academics, tradespeople and minimum-wage workers. The cultural richness, political visibility, and socioeconomic diversity of the Cherokee people have played a considerable role in keeping the tribe’s identity in the historical consciousness of generation after generation of Americans, whether or not they have Cherokee blood.

Gregory D. Smithers is associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of The Cherokee Diaspora.