While Indian activity against the white population had been increasing throughout the year, on December 28, 1835, the Second Seminole War began in earnest when a detachment of 108 soldiers under the command of Brevet Major Francis L. Dade was ambushed in what is now Sumter County, Florida. The column was marching from Fort Brooke (now Tampa) to Fort King (Ocala). They had been told to expect hostilities during the march, but Major Dade believed that once he had passed the swampy areas and had moved into the piney woods the chance of an attack was less likely.
The Seminoles, under Chiefs Micanopy, Alligator and Jumper, also knew the soldiers did not expect a skirmish in the pines. They were well concealed in the thick palmetto cover under the pines.
George M. Brown, in his 1902 book Ponce de Leon Land and Florida War Record vividly describes the events of that December day:
The first direct demonstration of hostility was on June 19, 1835, near what is called Hogg’s Town settlement, at which time one Indian was killed, another fatally injured; also, three whites wounded. The fray commenced by some whites whipping a party of five Indians, whom they caught in the act of stealing. Private Dalton, a dispatch rider, was killed August 11, 1835, while carrying the mail from Fort Brooks to Fort King. This was an act of revenge for an Indian killed in a former encounter. Dalton was found 20 miles from Fort King, with his body cut open and sunk in a pond. The Indians commenced snapping their guns in the face of the government, at the same time expressing their contempt for the laws, and threatening the country with bloodshed if any force should be used to restrain them. November 30, 1835, the following order was issued by the agent: “The citizens are warned to consult their safety by guarding against Indian depredations.” Hostilities were soon inaugurated in a most shocking manner when a tragedy of deep import — the killing of Charlie Emathla, November 26, 1835, which act was a cold-blooded murder, Osceola heading the band of savages. Charlie Emathla was shot because he favored immigration, and was preparing to move West.
Osceola afterwards selected ten of his boldest warriors, who were to wreak vengeance on General Thompson. The general was then camping at Fort King, little dreaming that the hour of his dissolution was so near, or that Osceola was lying in wait to murder him. Although a messenger was sent to tell Osceola of the Wahoo Swamp engagement being in readiness, no laurels won on other fields had any charms for him until Thompson should be victimized by his revengeful machination. After lingering about for seven days, the opportune moment presented itself when Thompson was invited away from the Fort. On the afternoon of December 28, 1836 [ed. – should be 1835], as he and Lieutenant Smith who dined out that day, were unguardedly walking toward the sutler’s store, about a mile from the post, the savages discovered them. Osceola said: “Leave the agent for me; I will manage him.” They were immediately attacked by the warriors. They both received the full fire of the enemy and fell dead.
Thompson was perforated with fourteen bullet holes and Smith with five. The Indians then proceeded to the store, where they shot Rogers and four others. After the murder they robbed a store and set fire to the building; the smoke gave the alarm, but the garrison at Fort King being small, no assistance could be rendered them.
On the same day, December 28, and nearly the same hour, Major F. L. Dade, when five miles from Wahoo Swamp, was attacked while on his way from Fort Brooks to Fort King. The Indians were headed by Jumper, who had previously warned those who were cowards not to join him. Micanopy, their chief, who was celebrated for his gluttony, and, like the Trojan heroes, could eat a whole calf or lamb and then coil up like a snake for digestion, on a previous occasion, when an appeal was made to him, by the argument of bullet force, replied: “I will show you,” and afterward stationed himself behind a tree awaiting the arrival of the Fort Brooke force, while his warriors lay concealed in the high grass around them. When Major Dade arrived opposite where the chief and his men were ambushed, Micanopy, in honor of his position as head chief, leveled his rifle and killed him instantly. Major Dade was shot through the heart and died, apparently, without a struggle. The savages rushed from their cover, when Captain Frazier was the next victim, together with more than 100 of his companions. The suddenness of the attack, the natural situation of the country, with its prairies of tall grass, each palmetto ticket being a fortress of security, from which they could hurl their death-dealing bullets, were all formidable foes with which the whites had to contend. Within a few hours march of Fort King, under the noonday splendor of a Florida sun, were one hundred and seven lifeless bodies which had been surprised, murdered and scalped, with no quarter and far from the sound of human sympathy.
The night after the “Dade massacre” the Indians return to Wahoo Swamp with the warm life-current dripping from the scalps of those they had slain. These scalps were given to Hadjo, their medicine man, who placed them on a pole ten feet high, around which they all danced, after smearing their faces with the blood of their foes and drinking freely of firewater. One instance is mentioned worthy of remark, in regard to finding Major Dade’s men with their personal property untouched. Breast pins of the officers were on their breasts, watches in their places, and silver money in their pockets. They took the military coat of Major Dade and some clothing from his men, with all their arms and ammunition, which proved they were not fighting for spoils, but their homes. The bloody eight hundred, after they had committed the murder, left the bodies unburied and without mutilation, except from scalping. They were buried by the command of Major General Gains, who also named this tragic ground “The Field of the Dead.”
One of the participants Chief Alligator also described the ambush:
We had been preparing for this more than a year… Just as the day was breaking, we moved out of the swamp into the pine-barren. I counted, by direction of Jumper, one hundred and eighty warriors. Upon approaching the road, each man chose his position on the west side… About nine o’clock in the morning the command approached… So soon as all the soldiers were opposite… Jumper gave the whoop, Micanopy fired the first rifle, the signal agreed upon, when every Indian arose and fired, which laid upon the ground, dead, more than half the white men. The cannon was discharged several times, but the men who loaded it were shot down as soon as the smoke cleared away… As we were returning to the swamp supposing all were dead, an Indian came up and said the white men were building a fort of logs. Jumper and myself, with ten warriors, returned. As we approached, we saw six men behind two logs placed one above another, with the cannon a short distance off… We soon came near, as the balls went over us. They had guns, but no powder, we looked in the boxes afterwards and found they were empty.
There were two survivors who made it on to Fort King. One later died from his wounds. It wasn’t until the following February that a force could find the location of the massacre, finding the men surprisingly well preserved. They buried the dead at the site of the battle. At the end of the war, Major Dade’s column, along with the other Soldiers who died fighting or from disease during this conflict were re-interred in the post cemetery at St. Augustine – now the St. Augustine National Cemetery.
This was the first major defeat experienced by the U.S. Army and would be second only to Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn. Today the site is preserved as the Dade Battlefield Historic State Park and each year there is a reenactment of the battle. The next one will be January 7th and 8th, 2012.
References and resources:
- Dade Battlefield Historic State Park
- Dade Battlefield Society
- St. Augustine National Cemetery
- Brown, George M. Ponce De Leon Land. Jacksonville, Fla: Da Costa Print. Co, 1895.
- Sprague, John T. The origin, progress, and conclusion of the Florida War. New York : D. Appleton, 1848.
- Florida Memory, State Archives of Florida.