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Abraham (c. 1790–?) - Slave, linguist, Abraham as Interpreter and Negotiator, Chronology, Broken Peace Agreement

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Abraham was a full-blooded African slave who escaped and adapted himself to the customs and language of the Muskogee Seminole Indians living in Florida. As was their custom toward runaway slaves, the Seminoles’ welcomed Abraham. Over time, Abraham’s relationship with the Seminole Indians evolved such that they regarded him as both a brother and ally. Eventually he became chief of Peliklakaha, one of four major Seminole Negro communities under the tribal authority of principal Chief Micanopy (sometimes spelled Mickenopah). Peliklakaha became the most influential of the Negro communities located in Seminole Indian territory because Abraham lived in it and because Chief Micanopy preferred living there much of the time rather than at his official residence in Okihumpky.

Little is known about Abraham’s birth, boyhood, and family life. Some historians say he was born in Georgia in the Late 1790s; others contend that he was born in Florida sometime during this same period. Before escaping from his master, Abraham lived and worked as a slave for a Spanish doctor in Pensacola, Florida. It is apparent that Abraham came in contact with teachings of the Christian religion, which was not unusual for slaves living on a plantation. His speech was spiced with religious expressions, earning him the nickname “the Prophet.”

Little is known about Abraham’s family. Jeff Guinn, in Our Land Before We Die: The Proud Story of the Seminole Negro , records an excerpt from a letter U.S. Army General Thomas Sidney Jesup wrote to the commissioner of Indian Affairs: “I have promised Abraham the freedom of his family if he be faithful to us.” On another occasion, Abraham delayed attending a meeting scheduled to negotiate Indian and American affairs because he needed to care for his family, but information about his family was not preserved.

In 1814 when the British military came to Florida to fight the U.S. Army over territory in the region, Major Edward Nicolls announced that all blacks living in Florida who joined England in its war against America would be rewarded with free land in the West Indies. Moreover, they would not be returned to former masters. Abraham was numbered among the 3,000 Indians and 400 blacks who joined the British forces. Immediately he and the other new recruits were armed and trained for military maneuvers. As part of his duty as a British soldier, Abraham helped to build a new fort about 150 miles east of Pensacola, near the mouth of the Apalachicola River. The believed-to-be indestructible three-walled fort, eventually called Negro Fort, was manned by escaped slaves, Abraham among them, and Seminole Indians. A black man served as its commander when Major Nicolls was called back to England. In 1816, Abraham miraculously survived being killed when the U.S. Army Marines and 500 Creek Indian mercenaries blew up Negro Fort following the orders of General Andrew Jackson. U.S. Navy ships bombarded the fort with a red hot cannonball heated in the furnace of the ship. The cannonball landed on hundreds of barrels of gunpowder, igniting Negro Fort into a burning inferno. The attack resulted in 270 dead and 64 wounded. Only three men escaped without injury.

Abraham as Interpreter and Negotiator

Abraham became significant when he was appointed the official spokesman for Chief Micanopy and when he served as interpreter between the Seminole Indians of Florida and the U.S. Army. His experience as a slave afforded him the ability to understand the thinking and actions of white men, an attribute which made him a keen negotiator, a masterful military strategist, and a fierce warrior. It is likely that Abraham spoke several languages, probably English, Spanish, the two primary Seminole languages—Hitchiti and Muskogee—and his own language, a Creole similar to Gullah. The interpreter’s native language was likely a mixture of these and the African tongues he spoke. Abraham was so gifted with languages that government agents and military personnel with whom he negotiated expressed mixed feelings about him. On the one hand, they acknowledged his undeniable intelligence; on the other hand, they complained about Abraham and other black Seminole interpreters like him, such as Cudjo and John Horse. The agents and military men recognized, and rightly so, that the black interpreters dictated policy as they translated language between factions. According to an article by Dana Peck, General Jesup described Abraham as “a good soldier and an intrepid leader. He is a chief, and the most cunning and intelligent negro we have here.” Another military officer said, “The negro Abraham is obviously a great man …. His countenance is one of great cunning and penetration. He always smiles, and his words flow like oil. His conversation is soft and low, but very distinct, with a most genteel emphasis.”

Chronology

Late 1790s Born in Georgia or Florida

1814 Joins British military forces to fight U.S. Army

1816 Survives explosion at Fort Negro

1826 Becomes principal interpreter for Seminole Chief Micanopy and accompanies an official delegation to Washington, D.C.; gains freedom from Chief Micanopy as a reward for services rendered

1830 Takes part in the negotiations of the Indian Removal Act

1832 Enters negotiations with Colonel James Gadsden concerning the relocation of the Seminoles; is sent with six other leaders to examine the territory designated for the Creek Indians west of the Mississippi

1836 Initiates a peace agreement with General Edmund P. Gaines following the Indians’ seizing of a U.S. military installation, Camp Izard

1837 Meets with U.S. Major General Thomas Jesup at Fort Dade to discuss peace negotiations; reaches an agreement regarding relocation of Seminole Indians and Seminole Negroes

1838 Moves west of the Mississippi with Seminole Indians and other Seminole Negroes

1850 Accompanies Wild Cat and Gopher John to Mexico to avoid continued U.S. government harassment

1858 Returns to Oklahoma following Wild Cat’s death

Despite his genteel mannerism, Abraham was as fierce a negotiator for both the Seminole Indians and Seminole Negroes as he was a warrior. For example, he was a staunch opponent of the 1832 Treaty of Payne’s Landing, a decree which stated that all Indians in Florida would move west of the Mississippi River to Indian Territory (in what later became Oklahoma) assigned to them by the U.S. government. Abraham fought this relocation treaty vehemently for at least two reasons. First, his loyalty to the Muskogee Seminoles made him want to protect them from being driven from their homesteads and land. Second, according to the treaty, Seminole Negroes would be returned to their white owners and/or sold back into slavery. Initially, Abraham, like other runaway slaves, was not willing to accept the Payne’s Landing Treaty. The Seminole Negroes stood a double chance of losing their freedom. If the Seminole Indians agreed to relocate, the Seminole Negroes would be separated from them. All ties between the two groups would be severed by the Anglo Americans as the Seminole Indians boarded ships headed west from Tampa Bay. Or if the Seminole Negroes made the trip to Indian Territory, the Creek Indians, longtime enemies and excessively brutal slave owners, would capture and enslave the Seminole Negroes or sell them back into slavery. After intense bargaining, Abraham and the Seminole chiefs reached an agreement with U.S. Army General Jesup. During negotiations, Abraham would not compromise the welfare of the Seminole Negroes any more than he would compromise the Seminole Indians. According to Guinn, following the talks, General Jesup would write in a letter, “We have, at no former period in our history, had to contend with so formidable an enemy.”

Broken Peace Agreement

Abraham used his diplomatic skills and the assistance of several Seminole chiefs to construct a peace agreement. The treaty promised that the Seminole Negroes could migrate to Indian Territory with the Seminole Indians and that both, as quoted by Guinn, “shall be secure in their lives and property.” Among other promises, the peace agreement stated that the American government would pay a fair price for the horses and cattle the Seminole Indians and Negroes would leave behind, provide rations for one year, and provide seed for planting crops. In return, the Anglo Americans would have the Florida territory to themselves.

When the details of the treaty were publicized, General Jesup faced the ire of southerners from Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Florida. The plantation owners wanted their escaped slaves returned to them. They demanded the return of the slaves and the slave children and grandchildren of the runaways. Angry planters converged upon Fort Dade demanding their human property. The southerners’ demands caused Jesup to relent. This decision put Abraham in a precarious position because it was he who urged the Seminole chiefs to agree to the relocation plan.

The subject of moving to Indian Territory generated much conflict and threatened to cost Abraham his life. At this time, close to a thousand Seminole Indians and Seminole Negroes were encamped around Fort Dade preparing to move west. Several Seminole chiefs were in this number as well. When slavers began to harass the Seminole Negroes, the Seminole Indians became irritated and began to distrust Jesup. Some sensed something was amiss and fled into the swamps. Some Seminole Negroes in the camp, however, were seized and returned to white masters or sold.

Osceola, the great warrior chief who never agreed to the Payne’s Landing Treaty, came to the camp under cover of night and rescued almost all of the Seminole chiefs, Indians, and Negroes. Abraham was not among those rescued. At this point, his life was in danger. If he left camp, General Jesup could charge him with treason. Moreover, he would not be safe among the Seminole Indians and Negroes since some would blame him for Jesup’s not honoring the treaty. Still others might feel Abraham had tricked them. Too, Abraham was reluctant to leave camp because he had witnessed Chief Osceola’s rage when he fatally shot Chief Charley Emathla because Emathla decided to move his tribe west of the Mississippi. Osceola’s influence among the Seminoles was as great as his rage against moving to Indian Territory, and Abraham was no longer viewed as a brother or ally. In the end, Abraham stayed in protective custody of the U.S. Army until he migrated west with several hundred Seminoles. There, in what later became Oklahoma, he lived, except for a brief time spent in Mexico, and continued to be engaged in the affairs of his people. Abraham—runaway slave, interpreter, warrior, freedom fighter, diplomat, Seminole chief—faced the challenges of his day with resolve and a tenacity to promote the wellbeing of his people. He is buried in Bruntertown Cemetery in Oklahoma.

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almost 5 years ago

I would like to thanks for the efforts which you written this nice article. This is such a great resource that you are providing and sharing with us.
http://www.youthgamez.com/need-for-speed-most-wanted