Like many Native Americans of his time, the man known as Osceola had several names throughout his life. Osceola was the white man's distortion of his adult Indian name, Asiyahola, which meant Black Drink Crier, alluding to a caffeinated drink used in ceremonial purification of the body and spirit.
Little Owl was born in 1803, near the border of Alabama and Georgia. He was a member of the Creek Indians. The Creek always lived in one place, raising cattle, hunting, and farming. His mother, Polly Copinger, was a Red Stick¹ Creek woman. She married William Powell, a white man. As the result of his mother's marriage to Powell, Little Owl was sometimes called Bill Powell, but he considered Powell to be his stepfather and asserted that he was full blooded.
Many of the Creek who were displaced from Alabama during the 1700s had moved to Florida, and over time formed their own tribe known as the Seminole.
Following the Northern Creek attack on Fort Mims, led by the Red Stick chief Peter McQueen, in which 400 white men, women, and children died, General Andrew Jackson began a campaign against the Red Stick, or Northern Creek faction of the Creek Nation.
At the March 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River of Alabama, 800 Northern Creek Red Stick Indians were killed, and the victorious General Jackson began to burn all the Red Stick villages. Following the devastating defeat at Horseshoe Bend, young Little Owl (about 11 years old), his mother, and the surviving Red Sticks fled Alabama to escape the general's forces. Traveling with a Red Stick town² led by Peter McQueen, Little Owl and his mother, they retreated toward Florida. When Little Owl's people reached Florida, they found sanctuary among the Seminole.
Escaped slaves often fled to the northern reaches of the Florida territory to find comfort and protection among the Seminole. Angry slave owners then entered the Indian villages, looking for their runaway property. Because the Seminole had welcomed the fugitives into their villages, the whites attacked them and burned their villages.
When white settlers beheld the fertile land of the Florida territory and began to move onto Seminole lands, they wanted the Seminole to abandon their homes and move west of the Mississippi River.
Among the Tallahassee
As a growing young man among the Tallahassee, Little Owl was renamed Tallahassee Tustenugee. The name was a title of war, meaning "Warrior of Tallahasee Town."
When Tallahassee Tustenugee was 15, he went through a rite of passage to become a man. He drank a bitter black drink and prayed to the Great Spirit. Then Tallahassee Tustenugee was given another new name, Osceola. During his short life, Osceola would have two wives and at least five children.
At Moultrie Creek, in September 1823, Chief Neamathla was told the Indians must move from the east and west coasts of Florida to a reservation in the interior. They would be paid each year for 20 years for the land. The Americans said if the Indians did not move, there would be bloodshed.
Given the white mans ever-increasing lust for Indian land, the federal government signed numerous treaties with Indian tribes, which usually followed a basic pattern: The participant tribe withdrew to a prescribed reservation and in return, the federal government promised to provide supplies, food, and often an annuity.
In 1830, however, at the urging of President Andrew Jackson, Congress chose to disregard Indian treaty guarantees when it passed the Indian Removal Act. Despite its friendly words, the act opened the door for abuse by the militias of several states, allowing them to simply drive the Indians across the Mississippi by force.
Because of the U.S. removal policies, the Treaty of Payne's Landing of 1832 required all Seminole to leave Florida within three years for Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). However, the treaty did not include African-Americans among the Indians. According to the treaty, Seminole persons with African blood would be captured and sold as slaves; that included one of Osceola's wives and at least one of his children. The treaty outraged Osceola and many other Seminole who dared to resist.
In 1833, a few Seminole chiefs endorsed the Treaty of Fort Gibson, which created a homeland in Oklahoma territory near the Creek tribe. However, most Seminole did not comply readily with the requirements of the treaty. Osceola seized the opportunity to unite the opposition of the young warriors. At that time, Osceola became an infamous anti-removal leader. Osceola vowed to the U.S. Indian agent, General Wiley Thompson, that any chief who prepared to relocate would be killed. He urged various bands to remain in Florida.
A new threat
At Fort King in April 1835, Wiley Thompson angrily declared that the federal government would no longer recognize any chief who resisted removal to Oklahoma. Insulted by Thompson's outburst, several chiefs declined to endorse the treaty or deal further with white officials.
Thompson seized, chained, and jailed Osceola for refusing to sign the Treaty of Payne's Landing. Although he continued to protest, in the end, Osceola pretended to agree to the treaty terms. Following his release, however, he slipped into the marshes with many Seminole following him. They built villages deep within the swamps, then began to attack the settlers in Florida.
In late December 1835, the Second Seminole War began with an eruption of punitive attacks by Osceola and his resistance warriors, precipitating a seven-year game of cat-and-mouse against federal troops in the Florida swamps.
While the treaty Seminole were preparing for deportation, on December 18, Osceola ambushed and killed Charley Emathla, a chief who advocated early capitulation and deportation.
On December 28, 1835, Osceola ambushed Wiley Thompson. He shot and scalped him, along with four other whites. Also on that date, about 300 Seminole warriors attacked Major Francis Dade and his detachment of 100 soldiers on Fort King Road and killed all but three of them.
Although his warriors were considerably outnumbered, Osceola was the architect of a major victory on December 31, 1835, against General Duncan Clinch's force of nearly 1,000 men on the Withlacoochee River. In the battle, Osceola was injured, but he eluded capture. He continued to wage a guerilla war for two years.
Having recovered from his battle wounds, Osceola attempted to recruit more Seminole warriors, but was thwarted when in early 1836, bluecoats (federal troops) brought the war home to the Seminole as they pursued them from northern Florida deep into the swamps in the south.
Generals Winfield Scott and Richard K. Call conducted numerous ineffectual campaigns against the Seminole in 1836. The conduct of the war was bitterly criticized by the American public, and the U.S. War Department ultimately sent General Thomas Jesup to end it. Jesup, in command of 8,000 troops, took overall command of the Seminole campaign at the end of the year.
General Jesups cavalry forced the Seminole away from the Withlacoochee area of central Florida. Even as he was pursuing the Indians south towards the Everglades, word came that several chiefs wanted to parley for peace. The summer of 1883 saw malaria strike numerous Indians and settlers, including Osceola.
In March 1837, several chiefs agreed to end the war, withdraw south of Tampa Bay, and provide hostages to guarantee their participation in the agreement.
On June 2, However, Osceola and about 200 warriors converged on Fort Dade and pulled off the escape of all 700 Indian prisoners held there, including the hostages taken to the Everglades in March.
Osceola is captured
On October 21, 1837, a black day in the history of the U.S. Army, Osceola was tricked by General Jesup into a peace council." Under the universal sign of truce, a white flag, Osceola proceeded to the meeting in good faith.
At the generals orders, soldiers surrounded Osceola, threw the white flag to the ground, and seized him. Jesups men put chains on his hands and shackled his feet. The army first imprisoned him near St. Augustine, Florida. Osceola was considered to be such a charismatic and dangerous enemy, that within weeks he was transported to a prison at Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina. Incensed by Osceola's capture, the Seminole continued to fight.
Exhausted and suffering from malaria, Osceola was placed under the medical care of Dr. Frederick Weedon at Fort Moultrie. Realizing he was near death, the chief requested the presence of his two wives and children. One of his last wishes was to be dressed in his finest clothes. Osceola had always enjoyed elaborate personal embellishments.
Death at a young age
Despite the care given to him, the famed Seminole warrior succumbed to malaria and died in a dark prison cell on January 30, 1838, still a prisoner of war. In spite of their renowned leader's death, numerous Seminole continued to resist removal to Oklahoma territory for many years. Using the Florida swamps as a base for their operations, they struggled until 1858, when most of the Seminole tribe were killed, surrendered, or moved west.
Eager to make money off the name of his deceased patient, Dr. Weedon decapitated Osceolas body, and embalmed his head. He also laid claim to many of Osceola's personal possessions and clothes, and made a death mask of Osceola. The mask, along with other objects that had belonged to the leader was sent to an army officer in Washington. The mask and other personal belongings ended up in the Smithsonian Institution's anthropology collection.
A drawn-out insult
Like a curious artifact, the head of Osceola passed through several pairs of hands. Dr. Weedon had given Osceola's head to his son-in-law, Daniel Whitehurst, who in turn sent it to Dr. Valentine Mott, a New York physician, in 1843. Mott placed Osceola's head in his Surgical and Pathological Museum. He later gave it to the Medical College of New York. Osceola's head disappeared in a fire that destroyed the museum in 1865.
Osceola, who led the Seminole in the Second Seminole War, is remembered as one of the greatest Native-American generals in U.S. history. He remains a symbol of Indian dignity and resistance.
¹ The Seminole (Creek) who aligned themselves with the Americans were called White Sticks. Those who had sided with the English were called Red Sticks, supposedly due to the red-colored war clubs that they carried into battle.
² The Seminole (Creek) lived in relational groups called Towns.