Billy Bowlegs: Seminole Chief By Spessard Stone

Billy Bowlegs: Seminole Chief

By Spessard Stone

Billy Bowlegs (Holata Micco) was born between 1808 and 1812 on the Alachua savannah, now Paynes Prairie, Florida. A member of the Cowkeeper Dynasty of the Seminoles, he was the nephew of Micanopy (Florida headchief 1818-1838), who was the nephew of the brothers, King Payne (headchief 1785-1813) and King Bowlegs (headchief 1813-18).

Following the destruction in 1813 by Tennessee and Georgia militia of Kings Payne and Bowlegs� towns (two miles north of now Micanopy), King Bowlegs moved to Suwannee Old Town. During the First Seminole War (1817-18), General Andrew Jackson invaded Spanish Florida, captured the garrison at St. Marks on April 6, 1818, then advanced to the Suwannee, where on April 16 his army destroyed 300 houses in the several villages. The Indians, thereafter, relocated to various areas, with King Bowlegs� band moving to west of Lake Harris in now Lake County.

During the Second Seminole War (1835-42), Micanopy was exiled west in 1838, thereby relinquishing his Florida chieftaincy; whereafter, in 1839, Billy Bowlegs was referred to as Holatter-Mico and awarded the title of Holata Micco, i.e., chief governor. With Arpeika (Sam Jones), Otulke Thlocko (the Prophet), and Assinwah, Bowlegs sought refuge in the region of the Caloosahatchee River and Big Cypress Swamp. At day break on July 24, 1839, Seminoles, led by Hospetarke, Billy Bowlegs, and Chakaika, attacked the Caloosahatchee River camp of Lt. Col. William S. Harney and the nearby trading post of James B. Dallam. In all they killed 13 soldiers and 3 civilians, including Dallam, and captured several, who, except for a Negro interpreter Sampson saved by Bowlegs� intervention, were eventually tortured and killed. In March 1841, General Walker K. Armistead offered bribes to induce surrender, and on March 24 �William Bowlegs, a Seminole Sub chief, and third in rank to Micanope� arrived from Sarasota to Fort Brooks on the Oklawaha to discuss joining his uncle in Arkansas. In April 1841, however, a council of chiefs, which included Bowlegs, opposed the peace negotiations. Continued Army inroads, however, forced more surrenders and flight by Bowlegs and others to the Everglades or other inhospitable locales. On December 20, 1841, Major William G. Belknap engaged Billy Bowlegs and the Prophet�s bands in the Big Cypress in a campaign which, though initially indecisive, forced then to move into the Everglades and Alligator Swamp, west of Lake Okeechobee, and resulted in the surrender of two other bands. In early 1842, Billy Bowlegs achieved ascendancy by being named chief with Fuse-Hadjo as his sense-bearer although Sam Jones maintained the allegiance of the diehards. On August 5, 1842, Bowlegs and other Seminole leaders met with Colonel William J. Worth at Tampa, and Bowlegs accepted Worth�s peace terms. On August 14, 1842, Worth declared the war ended.

In April 1843, now General Worth estimated in Florida only a remnant of 300 Indians. In 1847, Captain John Casey, Florida Seminole Agent, compiled a list of a list of Indian men in Florida, which included Billy Bowlegs, �King of the Seminoles,� chief of 54 Seminole men.

In the summer of 1848, an agreement was made between Bowlegs and Sam Jones, by which the Caloosahatchee River was to be the dividing line with Bowlegs and the Seminoles to reside south of the river, and Sam Jones and the Mikasukies north of the river.

In January 1847, Capt. John T. Sprague observed of the Indians: �The game of the country, climate and natural productions, places them above sympathy or charity, every necessary want is supplied. Deer skins are the principal articles of clothing and trade, for which powder and lead are obtained. Corn, pumpkins, potatoes, beans and peas are raised fresh and dried venison, turkeys and sea-fowl, fish and oysters in abundance, assures an independence the year round...�

Of Bowlegs, Sprague observed: �In all respects (he) is qualified for supreme command, which he exercises with skill and judgment. He is about thirty five years of age, speaks English fluently, active, intelligent and brave...�

Panic ensued in 1849 after two Indian attacks. At the Indian River settlement near Fort Pierce on July 12, four of a group of outlawed Indians killed one man and wounded another. Then on July 17 at the Kennedy-Darling trading post at now Paynes Creek, four Indians attacked and killed the manager and a clerk, wounded another clerk and his wife, and burned the store. Bowlegs, seeking to maintain the peace, averted war when he in October 1849 at Charlotte Harbor turned over to Major General David Twiggs three of the alleged murderers, the hand of a fourth, and reported a fifth had eluded capture.

On August 6, 1850, another crisis occurred when an eight-year-old orphan boy was killed by Indians in Marion County. An investigation by Capt. Casey resolved the situation in May 1851 with the arrest of three Indians, whom Bowlegs had surrendered.

On January 21, 1850 at Fort Chokonikla, General David E. Twiggs met with Bowlegs and four sub-chiefs for the purpose of arranging terms for emigration. On February 28, 1850, seventy-four Indians sailed from Fort Hamer to New Orleans, but most Seminoles, including the bands of Bowlegs, Sam Jones, and Chipco, who had initially indicated they would emigrate, made known to Capt. Casey their determination to stay.

Tragically, President Zachary Taylor, a few days before his death (July 9, 1850) told General Twiggs, �Gen. Twiggs, tell Bowlegs whenever you see him, from me, that if his people remain within their limits & behave themselves, they shall never be disturbed while I remain in office.�

A frequent U. S. ploy was taking delegations of Indians to northern cities to convince them that white power was so overwhelming that further resistance to emigration was futile. General Luther Blake, who replaced Capt. Casey as Seminole agent in Florida, so endeavored in 1852. Departing Fort Myers on August 31, General Blake escorted Bowlegs, six Indian chiefs, and an interpreter northward. At Washington, D. C., Bowlegs met with President Millard Fillmore, who awarded him a medal. On September 20, the chief and three others of the delegation signed a memorandum, in which they agreed to emigrate. On September 23, they arrived in New York City where they occupied two adjoining rooms on the fourth floor of the American Hotel along Broadway. At Niblo�s Garden, an entertainment center, they witnessed a ballet troupe in the �Barber of Seville.� They shopped at Grant and Barton dry goods, toured the New York Herald, visited Tiffany�s Jewelers, attended an evening performance of Christy�s Minstrels, toured Phineas T. Barnum�s American Museum, at finally at City Hall, Bowlegs met Mayor Ambrose Kingsland.

Leaving on September 25, they returned via the steamer Florida to Tampa Bay where Bowlegs in an interview with a New Orleans Delta correspondent stated: �I saw the Great White Father in the White House. I told him that no one would scare me from Florida; if I wanted to go, I would; if I did not, I would not.�

The reporter described him as �about five feet eight inches in height, rather stout, has a round face, and an expression one never forgets. He is said to be possessed of more cunning than any other Seminole Chief that ever lived.�

In 1854 another visit to New York and Washington, D.C. was arranged for Bowlegs and several other Seminole leaders, but the chief declared he would not leave Florida under any circumstances.

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. Talks and trade with them were directed to be stopped. Lands, previously withheld from settlement, were opened for homesteading in the fall of 1854. In August, Davis, in a letter to Senator Stephen Mallory, restated his stand, including force if the Seminoles did not consent to removal.

In 1855, the Army began to erect a new cordon of forts and roads and intensified patrols into the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamps. Lt. George L. Hartsuff�s excursions into the Big Cypress resulted in his discovery of several Indian villages, including Bowlegs.� The Indians protested to Capt. Casey, the Indian agent who had been reinstated in July 1853, that the incursions would inevitably lead to a renewal of hostilities.

On December 7, 1855, Lt. Hartsuff with six mounted men, two foot soldiers, and two teamsters left Fort Myers to resume exploration of the Big Cypress. Entering Bowlegs' village on December 18, they discovered it had been uninhabited for some time and the garden unkempt. Upon leaving, some of them took a bunch of bananas. At about 5:00 A.M. on December 20 as the soldiers were breaking camp, a Seminole 40-man war party led by Billy Bowlegs opened fire and killed three. In the ensuing fire-fight, three of the privates were wounded, as was Lt. Hartsuff After burning the wagons and killing the twelve mules and two of the horses and stealing the others, the war party, having thus commenced the Billy Bowlegs War, or Third Seminole War, withdrew.

Thereafter, Bowlegs kept a low profile. As the war advanced and the tactics of the Army and militias improved, the increased pressure forced Bowlegs, Sam Jones, and others to seek refuge in the hammocks and islands near or in the swamps of the Everglades and Big Cypress, from which they would make sporadic attacks on pursuing soldiers. Increasingly, though, they were harassed by increased Army and militia patrols. In November 1857, the discovery and destruction of Bowlegs� main stronghold near Royal Palm Hammock, including 30 dwellings and a 40-acre vegetable field, dealt a devastating blow.

On March 15, 1858, Bowlegs and Assinwah began negotiations with Elias Rector, superintendent of Indian affairs for the Southern Superintendency, and on March 27 the Seminoles in a council accepted the terms, which included $7,500 to Bowlegs, $1,000 to each of four other leaders, $500 to each warrior, and $100 to each woman and child, and exile west.

On May 4, 1858 at Fort Myers, 38 warriors and 85 women and children, including all of Assinwah�s band, 10 of Sam Jones� band, and probably all of Bowlegs� band boarded the steamer y Cloud enroute to exile. At Egmont Key, 41 more Indians boarded. On May 8, 1858, Col. Gustavus Loomis declared the war ended.

Enroute to Arkansas, the Indians had a week�s layover in New Orleans where Bowlegs, frequently inebriated, toured the city. A Harper�s Weekly correspondent described Bowlegs as a rather good-looking Indian of about fifty, with a fine forehead, a keen black eye, somewhat above medium height, 160 pounds, with two wives, one son, five daughters, fifty slaves, and $100,000 in hard cash, which was probably inaccurate as Col. Rector had only $60,000 at his disposal. It should also be noted the slaves were more accurately vassals.

Billy Bowlegs� first or �old� wife was the sister of Nocose Emanthla (Bear Leader), one of his two sub-chiefs who signed the peace with Col. Worth in 1842. The second wife, known as the young and comely wife, was the sister of Fasatchee Emanthkla, his lieutenant who had acted as a go-between with General Blake.

Via the steamer Quapaw, the exiles went up the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers to Fort Smith, Arkansas where they arrived on May 28, 1858. Then they continued overland by wagon on June 16 to the Little River in the Seminole Nation where Bowlegs was greeted ardently.

In December 1858, Bowlegs headed a group of eight Seminoles under Superintendent Rector, who returned to Florida to persuade remaining Indians to emigrate. With 75, including the elusive Black Warrior and his followers, they left for New Orleans on February 15, 1859 and onto Indian Territory in early March 1859.

During the Civil War, in 1861, Billy Bowlegs refused to sign a treaty with the Confederacy. In Kansas, he, as a captain, joined the Union forces and participated in several skirmishes against pro-Confederate Indians. Billy Bowlegs died of smallpox in 1864. He is buried in Fort Gibson National Cemetery, Muskogee County, Oklahoma. Inscribed on his tombstone is: �2109 Billy Bowlegs Capt. Ind Ter.�

References: Kenneth W. Porter, "Billy Bowlegs (Holata Micco) In The Seminole Wars,� Part 1, Florida Historical Quarterly, Volume XLV, No. 3, January 1967; John K. Mahon, History Of The Second Seminole War 1835-1842, 1970; James W. Covington, The Billy Bowlegs War 1855-1858 The Final Stand of The Seminoles Against The Whites, 1982.

See also Gary Mormino, editor, �The Firing of Guns and Crackers Continued to Light� A Diary of the Billy Bowlegs War.�.

Billy Bowlegs and his retinue, 1852

Billy Bowlegs, 1858

Young wife of Billy Bowlegs, 1858


I finished writing on February 25, 2004 and posted on my website on April 24, 2004. This article was published in The Herald-Advocate (Wauchula, Fla.), 4C, May 6, 2004. Slight modifications were made on May 14, 2008.