Capt. John C. Casey - Seminole Emigration Agent
Captain John C. Casey - Seminole Emigration Agent

By Spessard Stone

John Charles Casey was born in 1809 in England, and as a child emigrated with his parents to the United States where they settled in Paterson, New Jersey. On July 1, 1825, he was enrolled at the Military Academy and, subsequently, graduated eleventh in his class of forty-six on July 1, 1829. Classmates included Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston.

Commissioned as Brevet Second Lieutenant in the Second Regiment of Artillery, Lt. Casey first served in the garrison at Fort Pike, Louisiana. On January 21, 1831 he was assigned to the Military Academy as Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Geology where he taught until December 19, 1833. Thereafter, he was reposted to Fort Pike until early 1835.

He next commenced the start of a long tenure in Florida. On March 24, 1835, he arrived at Fort Brooke (Tampa), and, soon after, on April 30, 1835, was promoted to First Lieutenant From the fort, bound for Fort King, Major Francis L. Dade marched his command where in the Wahoo Swamp, near present-day Bushnell, on December 28, 1835, Seminoles ambushed them and thus precipitated the Second Seminole War (1835-1842).

Lt. Casey engaged in skirmishes at Camp Izard on February 27-29 and March 5, 1836 and saw action at Oloklikaha on March 31, 1836. He was Acting Agent in transferring Seminoles beyond the Mississippi from 1836-39, in which capacity, he traveled several times to the new Indian Territory in the west and was further involved in various staff duties, including the Commissary General at Fort Brooke at the recommendation of General Thomas S. Jesup in January 1838.

Casey was, thereafter, stationed away from Florida for over nine years. From March 1839 to late 1841, he was Purchasing Commissary at New York City. He was variously Assistant to the Commissary-General at Washington, D.C., 1841-47, except in 1843 when he was a Member of the Board of Visitors to the Military Academy. On January 4, 1842, he was promoted to Captain, 2nd Artillery. On May 15, 1844, Capt. Casey was transferred to the 3rd Infantry. In the War with Mexico, he served from August 15, 1847 to May 13, 1848 as Chief of Commissariat of the Army, commanded by Major General Zachary Taylor.

Ill with tuberculosis and believing the climate of Florida would be beneficial to his health, Capt. Casey requested duty at Fort Brooke, which was granted. When he arrived at Tampa to assume his duties as Commissary of Subsistence, he was so emaciated from hermorrhages, he was carried in the arms of his servant. Subjected to frequent attacks of bleeding of the lungs, he, nevertheless, courageously pursued his duties. By August 1848, he was already traveling as far as Lake Istokpoga. On September 1, 1849, he was named also Commissioner for the Removal of the Seminole Indians from Florida.

In compliance with an order from the War Department to select a site for a new port at Charlotte Harbor, a board of officers, which included Fort Brooke commander Major W. W. Morris and Capt. Casey, from November 15-22, 1848 examined the area, and then on January 20, 1849 recommended as the most suitable site for a new post the Island of Guiseppe (Useppa Island). The post on Useppa Island was established on January 3, 1850 and named Fort Casey.

Capt. Casey was instrumental in selecting a site for a new trading post for Kennedy & Darling to replace their Indian store at Charlotte Harbor, which was destroyed in the hurricane of 1848. On February 23, 1849, John Darling of the Tampa firm recommended a point in the fork of Hatse Lotka and Peas Creek, fifty-one miles east southeast from the Tampa route, now Paynes Creek. On March 21, Capt. Casey visited the site of the new store.

Capt. Casey, as Seminole emigration agent, dealt fairly with the Indians and soon earned their trust for his honesty and integrity. A fellow officer commented: "He was known to have great influence with the Indians...he never deceived them; never told them a lie; and never made a promise he did not fulfill....By this simple means he gained the confidence of the whole nation."

That good will was tested when war threatened in the summer of 1849. At the Indian River settlement near Fort Pierce on July 12, four Indians killed James Barker and wounded William Russell. Then on July 17 at the Kennedy-Darling trading post at now Paynes Creek, four Indians attacked and killed Capt. George Payne, the manager, and Dempsey Whidden, a clerk, and wounded William McCullough, another clerk, who with his wife, Nancy, fled, and, though pursued and shot, managed to escape. The Indians, before leaving, burned the store.

Upon learning of the murderers, Capt. Casey, to establish contact with
Billy Bowlegs, the Seminole chief, and others, sailed in a small sloop from Sarasota Bay to Charlotte Harbor. On September 4 at Sarasota, he learned from three Indians, sent by Billy Bowlegs, that the murders, without sanction or knowledge of any chief, were committed by five young Indians who resided on the Kissimmee River, and that Assinwah had been sent to arrest them. Further, Sam Jones, leader of the Mikasukis, had to Bowlegs sent word to urge active measures to preserve the peace, and that Bowlegs sought a council at Charlotte Harbor on September 18.

On the appointed date, Billy Bowlegs and 37 of his sub-chiefs and warriors met with Capt. Casey, then the chief went aboard the steamboat of Major General David E. Twiggs and promised to give up the murders for justice. The next day he returned with a sub-chief of Sam Jones, and they set October 19 at Charlotte Harbor for the surrender of the five.

On October 17, General Twiggs arrived at Charlotte Harbor to learn from Billy Bowlegs that Sam Jones and some 60 warriors had been waiting nine days, three of the murders were in confinement, one had been killed in an attempt to escape, and the fifth had effected his escape. The next day the chief again came on board and brought with him three prisoners, and a hand as proof of death of the fourth.

The crisis had ended to the complete satisfaction of General Twiggs, who earlier had commended Capt. Casey: "His efforts have been crowned with great success...It is a simple act of justice to acknowledge the important service Captain Casey has rendered in re-establishing, at no slight personal risk, a communication between these people and ourselves at a time when it was believed impossible by every man in this community, and thus probably averting a war otherwise inevitable."

Capt. Casey and others engaged in prolonged negotiations with the various tribes to secure their emigration. At Fort Chokonikla on January 21, 1850, Major General David E. Twiggs and Capt. Casey met in council with Billy Bowlegs, six subchiefs of the Seminoles and Mikasukis, and a delegate from the Tallahassees, who expressed their willingness to emigrate. On February 28, 1850, 74 Seminoles, including the three prisoners surrendered in the July 1849 murders, sailed on the steamer Fashion at Fort Hamer on the Manatee River for New Orleans.

Further talks were broken off by Billy Bowlegs in April 1850 as he feared he and his warriors would have been seized after he learned that among the exiles were two young men who’d come into trade. Bowlegs stated that he desired peace and could not make war, but he would not leave his country, nor induce his people to go.

When, on August 6, 1850, eight-year-old Daniel Hubbard was killed by Indians in Marion County, Capt. Casey again was called to settle the case. After a lengthy investigation, he tentatively concluded that three Indians of
Echo Emathla Chopko band's had slain the boy in retaliation for the theft of three ponies by Jacob Summerlin. On May 17, 1851, three were arrested at Fort Myers and on May 19 sent to Tampa where Capt. Casey, after separately examining them, learned they blamed others, and, though he feared they were scapegoats, delivered them for trial to Justice Simon Turman. Justice was thwarted though when on May 23, after an attempted jail break, the three Indians were found hanging by the bars of the windows.

From 1848 to 1851 the western coast of Florida was charted by the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, with Capt. Casey assisting. In his honor the inlet at the southernmost end of Little Sarasota Bay, just south of Chaise’s Key, was named Casey’s Pass. In April 1856, a map of Florida by Lt. J. C. Ives, in which he gave much credit to Casey, was published. Chaise’s Key was then charted as Casey’s Key.

In Washington, D. C., custodianship of the Indian tribes had been transferred from the War Department to the Interior Department, and it was concluded that a new special agent should be tried to induce the Florida Seminoles to emigration Accordingly, Capt. Casey was replaced by Luther Blake, who had achieved success with Creek removal in Georgia. Arriving in Fort Myers in May 1851, Blake soon engaged in various junkets, including a trip to Indian territory in the west from which he returned with a delegation in March 1852, and a jaunt with Billy Bowlegs and others to Washington, D. C. and New York in the fall of 1852, all with little success.

After Capt. Casey expressed his fear Blake would swindle the Indians, bad blood developed between the two. Blake retaliated by reporting Casey for interfering with the arrangements for emigrating the Indians of Florida. On November 1, 1852, the War Department reacted by ordering Casey to leave Florida as soon as practicable, but he so ably defended himself that he was reinstated in July 1853.

In May 1854, Jefferson Davis, the Secretary of War, resolved that only coercive measures would henceforth be used to induce the Florida Indians to emigrate and ordered Capt. Casey to end talks and trade with them. Lands, previously withheld, were to be opened for settlement. In 1855 the Army began to erect a new cordon of forts and roads and intensified patrols into the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamps.

Finding no alternative left but emigration or hostilities, Billy Bowlegs led a Seminole war party, which on December 20, 1855 attacked Lt. George L. Hartsuff’s surveying patrol in the Big Cypress and thus began the Third Seminole War.

Capt. John C. Casey died of pulmonary consumption on December 25, 1856. Major Morris eulogized, "His moral character was unimpeachable, his self denial and courage admired by all who knew him."

The war ended with the Seminoles’ agreement on March 27, 1858 to exile to the Seminole Nation reservation in the west. On May 4, 1858 at Fort Myers, a Seminole party which included Billy Bowlegs, embarked on the steamer Grey Cloud and on May 7 at Egmont Key more boarded. Coincidentally, the Grey Cloud carried also the remains of Billy Bowlegs’ friend, the late Capt. Casey to his final resting place.

References: Fred W. Wallace, "The Story Of Captain John C. Casey," Florida Historical Quarterly 41 (October 1962); Cullum’s Biographical Register; Casey Papers, U. S. Military Academy; Senate Executive Document No. 49; miscel. National Archives records.

This article was published in The Herald-Advocate (Wauchula, FL) as "History: The Seminole Emigration Agent" on Feb. 17, 2005, 10C.