John Wilkes Booth and the real Billy Bowlegs

As I have mentioned before, I am currently in a graduate program working on a Master’s degree in American history. This is why updates here on BoothieBarn have been few and far between for the last year and will likely continue to be for a year or two more. This summer semester I took a class on American Indian History with Dr. Ned Blackhawk from Yale University. It was a very illuminating class and helped me develop a greater understanding of what American history truly is. For the final paper, each student was allowed to pick a subject of their choice. As always, I wanted to make a connection, even a small one, to John Wilkes Booth or the Lincoln assassination story. With the help of a Native friend on Twitter, we assembled a short list of some of the minor connections John Wilkes Booth had to Native Americans:

  • As a young child growing up at Tudor Hall, John Wilkes Booth and his siblings often invoked the imagery of Indians in their play. Asia Booth recalled her brother digging a large hole, the size of a trench, in the wooded area around Tudor Hall in search of Indian bones. Also, when riding his horse Cola di Rienzi around, Booth was known to spur him on with shouts of, “The Choctaws are after you, ride for your life!”

  • Located not far from Tudor Hall is The Rocks at Deer Creek. This natural rock formation was a common picnic and riding destination for the Booth children including John Wilkes Booth. Local legends stated that, in earlier years, the Susquehannock Indians occupied the area and performed ceremonies on the King and Queen Seat. In 1854, John Wilkes Booth wrote to his friend Samuel Williams O’Laughlen that, “the Indian’s where up here the other day with their great Bear.” A modern archeological study, however, was unable to find any significant evidence of Native American residency in the area.

  • While learning the acting profession in Richmond, John Wilkes Booth performed the role of Uncas, a Native American, in the play The Wept of the Wish-Ton-Wish which starred Maggie Mitchell. Researcher Angela Smythe has done a compelling amount of research into the story that a photograph of Booth in his Uncas costume once existed..

While interesting pieces of trivia, none of these connections really lent themselves to a research paper where Native Americans were the primary subject. However, there was one additional connection that had always piqued my curiosity. According to Asia Booth’s book on her brother,

“There was a celebrated Indian Chief named Billy Bowlegs, and Wilkes went by this name among his companions at [St. Timothy’s Hall in] Catonsville.”

John Wilkes Booth was even known to have used this boyish nickname in a letter he wrote to Samuel Williams O’Laughlen on April 30, 1854. In closing the letter signed it as “J.W.B alias. Billy. Bow. Legs”

Several books, including Art Loux’s John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day, provide the brief context that Billy Bowlegs was a leader of the Seminole tribe in Florida. The assumption is that John Wilkes Booth was given this nickname because he was bow legged himself. But I wanted to know more about the real Billy Bowlegs even if only to understand how a group of teenage boys in Maryland had heard of a Seminole chief way down in Florida. So, in the end, I decided to wrote my final paper on the real Billy Bowlegs who I discovered was actually called Holata Micco by his people. I looked at his life before and during the time when John Wilkes Booth became his namesake. What follows is that final paper.

I must warn you that the paper is a bit long, there are no pictures, and there is no mention about John Wilkes Booth in the text. While the nickname inspired the research, the paper itself is an analysis of Holata Micco’s actions between the Second and Third Seminole Wars, the latter of which would ultimately come to bear his name. I am not an expert on the Seminole and had never even read about the Seminole Wars before starting this class. However, I did a great deal of research on Holata Micco for this paper and am proud of the finished product. While I’m sure there are inevitable errors in what is written below, they are unintentional. I present my final paper on Holata Micco, the real Billy Bowlegs, for anyone interested in learning more about a fascinating figure in American history whose name happened to become the childhood nickname of a Presidential assassin.


Holata Micco: Peacemaker for his People

By Dave Taylor

The Third Seminole War during the 1850s was the final major conflict between the United States and Native tribes in Florida. At the time, the conflict was often referred to as The Billy Bowlegs War, named for a leader of the Seminole who was known colloquially as Billy Bowlegs. Billy Bowlegs’ true name was Holata Micco, and he was a well-known leader of the Seminole people in the years prior to the conflict. When the war – largely characterized by hit and run guerilla warfare – broke out in 1855, Holata was seen as the main aggressor and tactician behind the Seminole’s last stand. The bloody events of 1855 through 1858, impressed upon the name of Holata Micco a legacy of conflict and warfare. However, a close examination of the events that preceded the outbreak of hostilities in the Third Seminole War demonstrates that Holata’s reputation for violence is not supported by his documented actions. Rather than playing the aggressor, Holata Micco was committed to the peaceful coexistence of the Seminole and the United States and made many sacrifices in his attempt to protect his people.

The Third Seminole War, like the one that preceded it, was a natural extension of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, ordering the relocation of Native tribes to areas west of the Mississippi. The act opened up vast quantities of previously held Indian land in areas of the eastern United States to white settlers. President Andrew Jackson, a strong proponent of the Act, knew that not all tribes would willingly move from their native lands and therefore backed up the act with the use of military force. Jackson viewed the act as one of compassion combined with an ultimatum. “I was satisfied that the Indians could not possibly live under the laws of the States,” Jackson wrote shortly after the passage of the act. “If now they shall refuse to accept the liberal terms offered, they only must be liable for whatever evils and dificulties [sic] may arise.”[1] The difficulties that stemmed from the Indian Removal Act were numerous and many tribes refused to leave the lands they had occupied for generations. In the territory of Florida, the Seminole fought a war against then General Jackson who had allied the United States Army with the Seminole’s rival tribe, the Lower Creek. That war, known later as the First Seminole war, stripped the Seminole of much of their land holdings in the panhandle and northern parts of Florida. The Seminole retreated to a reservation created by the United States government in the central part of the Florida peninsula despite the fact that the signatory Indian chiefs believed that the allocated land, “did not contain a sufficient quantity of good land to subsist them.”[2] A subsequent war, stemming from the Seminole’s resistance to the 1830 Indian Removal Act, decreased the tribe’s numbers and forced them to seek refuge in the Everglades and Big Cypress swamps, areas even less hospitable than the reservation they had been assigned years before.

It was at the end of the Second Seminole War that Holata Micco rose to prominence. As noted by the research of Kenneth Porter, a historian who specialized in African American frontiersman and the relationship between African Americans and the Seminole people, the age and lineage of Holata Micco are unknown for certainty. He was likely born between the years of 1808 and 1812 and was of some close relation, possible a nephew, to Micanopy, the leader of the Seminoles during the Second Seminole War.[3] Holata’s ascension from warrior to a leadership position in the Seminole tribe came about due to Micanopy’s capture (under a flag of truce) in 1838 and the leader’s subsequent removal to the West. The Second Seminole War was a war of attrition that, through death, capture, and surrender, decimated the remaining population of Seminoles in Florida. General William Worth, the final U.S. commander during the Second Seminole War believed that 5,000 Seminole had been removed over the course of the seven years conflict.[4] Holata negotiated with General Worth at the end of the Second Seminole War, but he was not the sole leader of the around 400 remaining Seminoles. The war had broken the Seminole into different bands and different leaders had emerged within those groups. The idea that Holata Micco was the sole chief of the Seminoles and that he was responsible for all of the Seminole’s activities from this point forward was an erroneous assumption that was regularly repeated in the press in the years, and conflict, to follow. The lack of understanding regarding the complex interplay of powerful leaders among the remaining Seminole and the biased nature of the white press against the Native occupants of Florida caused Holata Micco to emerge in the eyes of the general populace as the main aggressor of the Third Seminole War.

The Second Seminole War did not end with the complete surrender of the Seminole. Despite the heavy losses in population, the bulk of the Seminole still in Florida were just as committed to staying there as they had been in the beginning of the conflict. What Holata Micco negotiated with General Worth in 1842 was more of a truce than a surrender and this was only possible because the United States government had grown tired of the financial and human expense of attempting to hunt down the remaining scattered Seminoles in the Everglades. In an initial peace meeting with one of Holata’s representatives, General Worth made it clear that he wished to end hostilities with the Seminole and that would mean his army would no longer force the removal of Indians in the region. Worth told Holata’s representative that the President, “is willing his red children should remain in Florida or go to Arkansas as they may prefer,”[5] showing President Tyler’s willingness to ignore the Indian Removal Act in order to bring about a modicum of peace. While the negotiations were filled with inducements to motivate the Seminole to depart Florida, the ending agreement established that the Seminole and the few other scattered tribes were, “permitted for a while to plant and hunt on the lands” and, more importantly, that any white settlers who encroached on the, “Indians and their places of residence” would be, “subjected to removal.”[6] From the perspective of Holata Micco and his group, the Second Seminole War ended much in the same way as the first, with the Seminole being allocated a piece of land and being told they were allowed to remain despite outside desires for them to relocate. These terms were largely agreed to by the other remaining scattered groups of Indians. With hostilities ended, Holata Micco set to work on creating a home for his people among the swamps of the Everglades and the Big Cypress.

Perhaps the greatest impediment to the study of Holata Micco and the Third Seminole War is the lack of perspective from the Seminole themselves. Like too much of Native history, the material is overwhelmingly one sided. We lack any writings on the day to day life of the Seminoles after the Second Seminole War. However the conclusion that Holata sought to uphold the peace for as long as possible is supported as much by his non-actions as by his confirmed actions. Almost a year after the final peace negotiations were agreed to, General Worth wrote, “For eleven months, indeed since my announcement of August 14th, 1842, became known to the straggling bands, not an outrage or offensive act has been committed by Indians.”[7] After such heavy losses in the prior wars, the commitment to maintain peace was strongly held by the Seminole and, in peace, the organization of the tribe had coalesced around Holata Micco. General Worth wrote in November of 1843 that Micco was, “the acknowledged chief,” among the Seminole and that, “these people have observed perfect good faith, and strictly fulfilled their engagements.”[8] The peace between the Indians and the whites continued to hold which caused newspapers across the nation to announce that, “We hesitate not to say, that ‘the Florida war’ is not only ended, but that it will ‘stay ended.’ Emigrants may now seek a residence here with as much safety as in any part of the country.”[9] Peace brought an influx a new settlers to Florida and also caused older settlers to make their way into the sparsely inhabited interior of the state. As settlers encroached closer and closer to Indian land, federal authorities took steps to prevent further conflict from arising. Capt. John T. Sprague, the Indian Agent assigned to the region, aptly noted that any conflicts that might occur were likely to be the fault of white settlers failing to heed the boundary of the Seminole’s reservation. Sprague wrote in 1845 that, “there is a class of men destitute of property and employment, who for excitement and gain, would recklessly provoke the Indians to aggression,” and that, “the advice and example of the chiefs and subchiefs…has been salutatory, and will continue so, if unprovoked.”[10] It was Sprague’s belief that the influence of Holata Micco helped to keep the more aggressive Seminole warriors in line and committed to peace.

Even when occasional clashes did break out between usually young Seminoles and white settlers, Holata and his subchiefs took great pains to cool things down. In late 1846, news came to Capt. Sprague about an Indian raid on a farm. Sprague requested, and received, a meeting with the Seminole leadership including Holata Micco. In his report back to Washington, Sprague recounted that,

“these chiefs and their followers express the strongest friendship and have adopted vigorous laws to punish those who violate the relation existing between the whites and red men…They came into my camp prepared to receive kindness and extend it, evidently determined to avenge on the spot any manifestation of a contrary feeling.”[11]

Preserving the peace, which in turn meant continued freedom for his people, was of the utmost importance to Holata. In his report, Sprague also gave his personal impressions of Holata Micco and his influence over his people:

“This chief has been since the commencement of the Florida War a bold, resolute and unyielding leader. [He is] ambitious, and cunning, remarkably intelligent, speaking English with facility… With these peculiar qualifications and undisputed authority exercised in Florida with an auxiliary force or alone, this Indian would be a most formidable foe.”[12]

Despite Sprague’s assertions that Holata possessed “undisputed authority” over the Seminole, there were interior conflicts and politics within the remaining bands of Indians residing in Florida. When discussing the assembled chiefs, Sprague makes note of the absence of the Seminole leader Abiaka, known to non-Natives as Sam Jones. Abiaka had been elected “Grand War Chief” among the Seminoles in 1837 during the Second Seminole War. Sprague was disappointed that Abiaka, who was perpetually portrayed as a truly ancient leader of the Seminole, was unable to attend the meeting due to the weather. Sprague reported that his, “insisting upon seeing [Abiaka] tended to disparage the position and power of Holatter Micco, who in all respects, is qualified for supreme command which he exercises with skill and judgement.”[13] While Sprague goes on to express that Abiaka was, “without warriors, authority or influence,”[14] subsequent historians believe that Abiaka still held a degree of control over the Seminoles despite Holata having become the public face of tribe. James W. Covington, a historian who focused on the Seminoles, wrote that, “Persons like Sprague did not understand that though Billy Bowlegs had the largest band of warriors (fifty-four), and considerable political power, he lacked the religious influence of Sam Jones who had a following of only thirty-two warriors.”[15] In fact, much of the political power that Holata Micco was able to attain largely came from his continued interactions with the U.S. government and its representatives. Men like Gen. Worth and Capt. Sprague appreciated the ease in which they could communicate with Holata and sought to foster their relationship with him. It was Holata, not Abiaka, who had negotiated the end of the Second Seminole War and it was Holata who regularly met with federal authorities when asked. Though Holata had fought in the Second Seminole War he did not have quite the same “savage” reputation as the Grand War Chief Abiaka. Holata Micco became the desired point of contact between the U.S. and the Indians, and so they did all in their power to improve his standing. At the end of his 1847 report, Sprague recommended continued inducements to Holata not only out of hope that he would convince the rest of his tribe to emigrate, but because a relationship with Holata could prove useful to the U.S. in case of attack from without: “As a friend cherished by that which would contribute to his vanity, power, and independence, he could be relied upon to expel the intruders of whatever nation and become a faithful ally to those who secure his confidence and regard.”[16] For a time, at least, the government saw that it was better to have Holata Micco as a friend rather than an enemy.

Despite the machinations of settlers in attempting to bring about the forceful removal of the Seminole, the peace between the two groups held for almost seven years with any major conflicts. Then in July of 1849, three subsequent acts of bloodshed against white settlers shook the region. On July 12, 17, and 19th a rogue band of five Indians looted and burned three different groups of isolated homes, killing three men in the process. In two of the events, the band of Indians had first visited and traded in stores in the community before coming back with weapons. This tactic of scouting the scene before committing the crime put all settlers who came into contact with the Seminoles on guard and added to the hysteria of the times. While the loss of life deservedly escalated the response on the part of the U.S. government who sent extra troops down into Florida, it was far from the all-out war that the press of the day portrayed it to be. The newspapers seized on any and all news they could get about the “Indian depredations” even when such news was little more than hysterical gossip. On August 7th, the Springfield Republican erroneously reported that, “the Indians are preparing for a general war, and that during the past year they have provided themselves with large quantities of powder and lead…Billy Bowlegs is the master spirit and Chief of the hostile red-skins.”[17] This was not the first time, nor would it be the last time, that Holata Micco’s name would be used in conjunction with fears of a mass Seminole uprising in Florida.

Rather than preparing his people for war, Holata Micco’s response to the rogue raids of July, 1849 was perfectly in character with his behavior over the last seven years. Holata sought to cool tensions despite the hysteria. He was joined in this quest by Capt. John Casey, a veteran of the Second Seminole War and a man who had become the United States’ unofficial ambassador to the Indians in Florida. As increased troops mounted in Florida, Casey reached out to Holata hoping to make contact. It had been a month since the attacks and so Casey was fairly certain that these events had not been a prelude to all-out war. After some diplomatic arrangements Casey and Holata met, each flanked by their men, on September 18. Major General David Twiggs, who joined Capt. Casey at the meeting, wrote in his later report that:

“Bowlegs came on board my vessel, with a party of four or five warriors, repeated the statement made some time previous by his runner, that the outrages were perpetrated by a few outlaws, who would be given up to justice; that the nation had nothing to complain of on the part of the whites – were desirous of peace, and determined not to allow peaceable relations to be disturbed by the acts of individuals.”[18]

Twiggs’ assertion that Holata expressed the Seminole had “nothing to complain” about in terms of their treatment by the white settlers demonstrates Holata diplomatic sense. In truth, the Seminole had a lot to complain about, including the fact that the government had not upheld their end of the 1842 truce which called for the U.S. to enforce the Seminoles’ territory rights. Despite the U.S. creating a 20 mile buffer zone between the Seminole territory and the rest of Florida where no people could reside, white settlers had still moved into the area. One of the homes that was attacked during the July raids had been built within that zone.[19] In addition, even before the recent troubles, local laws and regulations had been passed restricting the Indians movements and access to trading centers. Holata had many grievances he could have aired with the Capt. Casey and Maj. Gen. Twiggs but he chose not to, placing the priority on quelling their apprehensions and fears.

The proposed surrender of the five rogue warriors who carried out these attacks was also a political move on the part of Holata Micco. Those responsible for the attacks were a band of warriors who were, ostensibly, under the control of Kapiktsootsee, a sub-chief of Abiaka, the Seminole’s Grand War Chief and Holata’s rival. Kapiktsootsee sought to replace Abiaka after the elder’s death but Abiaka favored another warrior causing Kapiktsootsee and a small band to leave Abiaka’s camp. Kapiktsootsee gave his men permission to hunt outside of the assigned territory and it was a small group of these rogue Indians that subsequently attacked the farms.[20] In agreeing to surrender those responsible, Holata was putting himself at odds with Abiaka. To ease repercussions from any internal conflicts, Holata brought Kapiktsootsee into the meetings with Capt. Casey and it was in this way that Holata got Kapiktsootsee to also agree to turn over his men. The date for the transfer of the prisoners was set for a month later, giving Holata and Kapiktsootsee time to capture and transport the rogue band.

Surrendering the men was not merely an act of justice for the Seminole but was considered an act of sacrifice. Gen Twiggs and Capt. Casey had made it clear that the warriors would be executed for their crimes, and it took all of Holata’s influence to convince Abiaka and the others that this was an acceptable cost to pay for continuing the peace. On the agreed upon day of transfer, Holata and some sixty warriors met with Gen. Twiggs and Capt. Casey. According to Gen. Twiggs’ report, Holata, “delivered the prisoners; said he had made severe laws to prevent the whites from being molested, and had now brought his young men that they might see how sternly he executed them.”[21] Holata was proving to his warriors that peace was of the utmost importance to the tribe’s well-being and that, in order to maintain it, he would willingly sacrifice anyone who would threaten that peace. This act of sacrifice was shown in the fact that three of the five murderers were turned over. The fourth had managed to escape during his capture. Holata presented the bloodstained rifle that the escaped warrior had been holding and dropped after being shot in the hand as he fled as evidence of the attempt. The fifth warrior had been outright killed during the attempt at his capture. As evidence of this, Holata presented Gen. Twiggs with a grisly reminder of his devotion to their continued peace: the dead warrior’s severed hand.[22]

The usually elusive Abiaka made the journey with Holata on the day of the prisoner transfer, but he refused to go aboard the army ship for the final exchange. Abiaka stayed on shore with Capt. Casey while Holata dealt with the General. Like Holata, Abiaka had seen many of his friends captured under flags of peace and he was not going to fall victim to the same fate. His presence was no doubt a message to Holata that while the younger man held favor with the whites, there was still power behind the elder. Such important decisions like sacrificing their own to the whites was not a move Abiaka would let Holata make unilaterally. In fact, according to historians Joe Knetsch, John and Mary Lou Missall, Abiaka had influence over who was given over to their deaths. In their book on the Third Seminole War, Knetsch et al. state that the third, “surrendered man hadn’t even been mentioned in the attacks. Instead of Panukee, one of the accused killers, the army was being handed a substitute, Pahay Hajo. Abiaki and other hard-liners had helped choose who would be turned over, and Panukee was probably someone’s favorite. Pahay Hajo, unfortunately, was not.”[23] Abaika’s presence and influence over the surrender of the prisoners again demonstrates that despite press reports citing that Holata Micco, “heretofore has exercised complete control,”[24] over the Seminole, the internal workings of the tribe were far more complex. Yet the desire on the part of the United States to make Holata Micco the face of the Seminole and subsequently their ally in emigration, caused Abaika’s influence to be commented on less in the ensuing years.

For a time after the surrender of the prisoners, relative peace returned to Florida. The government was impressed by Holata’s commitment to remain peaceful but the events increased the calls for the Seminole’s emigration to Indian Territory. Even during the surrender meeting, Gen. Twiggs’ pressed upon Holata and his men to emigrate, portraying it as the only long-term solution. Holata, always the diplomat, expressed his desire to remain but said that he would consider the proposal. Over the next two years, various offers would be presented to Holata, many of which contained generous financial inducements if he could convince his people to emigrate. At times, Holata would make it seem like he was willing to emigrate but that he did not believe others in his tribe would. How much of this was Holata’s true feelings or merely a way to stall for time is uncertain. This strategy of publicly contemplating emigration was effective. From 1849 – 1852, newspapers regularly contained articles about the Seminoles’ imminent departure from Florida. Throughout this period, however, very few Indians made the choice to emigrate. Holata was aided in the year after the July 1849 raids by the presidency of Zachary Taylor. Taylor had actually fought against Holata and Abiaka in 1837 during the Second Seminole War and had an affinity for their bravery. In June of 1850, President Taylor met with Gen. Twiggs saying, “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.”[25] Sadly, President Taylor died less than three weeks after making that remark and his successor, Millard Fillmore, was less accommodating. The bulk of the Seminoles were content to stay in their Florida homes, much to the increased dismay of white settlers who feared them or coveted their land. New technology had been developed that could drain parts of the Everglades in order to create more farmland. Even the previously undesirable land held by the Seminole was now of value to settlers. As a result, the state legislature of Florida, unhappy that the federal government had failed in its duty to remove the Indians, passed laws to resupply and repopulate previously abandoned forts from the Second Seminole War. Florida was trying to force the hand of the federal government to fulfill its 1832 promise to remove all Indians from the region. In light of this, Holata Micco finally agreed to a proposal that Capt. Casey and the newly appointed Indian Agent for the region, Luther Blake, had presented to him repeatedly. Holata agreed to travel to Washington, D.C. in order to meet with the President.

Bringing Native American delegations to urban areas of the United States like New York City or Washington, D.C. was not a new phenomenon. It was practice used to intimidate native peoples and demonstrate the sheer power and resources of the United States. In his 1847 report regarding how to secure Holata’s friendship, Capt. Sprague had recommended such a journey stating, “he should see our numbers and the power of the country.”[26] As the cherry picked leader of the Seminoles, if the government could impress or intimidate Holata into motivating his people to emigrate, the expense would be far less than a return to warfare. At the end of August, 1852, Holata and his delegation of subchiefs, interpreters, and federal officials departed Florida, making their way by ship to D.C. Notably absent from the journey was Abiaka. When meeting with Luke Lea, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in D.C., Holata was asked about Abiaka’s absence. The following interchange was documented in the The Republic newspaper the day after the meeting:

The Commissioner. I should have been glad if you had brought Sam [Abiaka] along with you.
Abraham [an interpreter]. He wouldn’t come.
Billy Bowlegs interposed, saying he could not expect Sam Jones to come with them unless he had killed him and brought a piece of his flesh. [Laughter.]”[27]

While, as Holata jokingly points out, it would have been unlikely for Abiaka to have made the trip into enemy territory given his established fear of forced capture and emigration, it unlikely that Commissioner Lea was too upset at Abiaka’s absence. Holata was the key to solving the “Seminole problem” and Abiaka would only make their goal harder to attain.

While the government’s goal was to convince Holata to emigrate, Holata had a different purpose for making the journey. To the Seminole, the treaty they had arranged with General Worth in 1842, allowing them to continue to reside and hunt on their lands, was binding. It was this treaty that Holata had agreed to and it was the one that had brought them the subsequent years of peace. Holata told Lea that, “the old people who made the treaty in Florida [i.e. General Worth] are dead,”[28] and that he wanted to learn the truth about it. For years, Holata had been told by many officials, Captains Sprague and Casey included, that he and his people had no rights to their land, despite the treaty with Worth. To Holata, this trip to Washington was a fact finding mission and a test to see if the white men would uphold this prior agreement. All the inducements to emigrate west meant little if the government could not be trusted to keep its word to leave them alone once they got there.

On the next day, September 17, Holata and his delegation were granted an audience with President Fillmore, Commissioner Lea, Gen. Blake, and the Secretaries of War and Navy. Holata told the President that, “he came not to pay a mere visit of compliment, but to seek for justice.”[29] Holata reiterated the circumstances of his negotiations with General Worth in 1842 and of how Worth had told him that he had, “the authority of the President,” to make, “a treaty of peace with the Seminoles.”[30] This treaty, Holata pressed, told the Seminole to, “gather together, draw a line, and live within it… raise their children and keep hold of the country.”[31] President Fillmore listened to Holata respectfully, but when it was his turn to reply, Fillmore echoed the words Holata had been told before. What General Worth had arranged with the Seminole was a truce, not a treaty. Worth allowed the Seminole to return to the land temporarily but an earlier treaty, one signed in 1832, was still in effect. That earlier treaty stated that all Seminole were to be removed from Florida and that they no longer had any claim on the lands of Florida. In the paternalistic tone regularly used with Native groups, Fillmore stated that he was, “anxious only to do what is for the Indian’s good,” and that, “the inhabitants of Florida are increasing and will crowd on the settlements where the Indians live.”[32] According to Fillmore, the white settlers of Florida had a right to ask him to see the 1832 treaty upheld and that he would do so. The meeting was brief and allotted to little more than a polite ultimatum on the part of the President. After shaking hands with the President and withdrawing, it was observed that, judging by their expressions, two or three in the delegation took, “the remarks of the President rather hard.”[33]

At this point, it became clear to Holata Micco that any diplomatic solution for ending the U.S. government’s insistence on his people’s removal was not possible, at least not under the current President. Perhaps it was with the knowledge that Fillmore had been passed over for his own party’s nomination and that an election was scheduled in a two months that gave Holata hope that his successor might be more reasonable. If he continued to bide his time and not make trouble, perhaps he could make the peace last. So, Holata played the part the government desired of him. On September 20th, three days after his meeting with Fillmore, Holata signed an agreement made up by Commissioner Lea. The agreement stated that the delegation acknowledged that, “all the Seminoles in Florida are under obligations to remove,” and that the undersigned, “faithfully promise to give the said agent all the assistance in their power, so that the removal of all the Indians in Florida may be effected with the least possible delay.”[34] With no affixed deadline, the “least possible delay” must have seemed as meaningless to Holata as General Worth’s agreement now seemed to the Unitied States government. After signing the agreement Holata’s delegation was taken to New York City where they were welcomed as honored guests. They met the mayor of New York City and enjoyed the city’s celebrated theaters before returning home to Florida. According to Knetsch et al., after Holata’s visit to D.C. and New York, “Billy Bowlegs was the most famous Indian in America.”[35]

Upon his return to Florida, Holata and his people retreated further into the Everglades, rarely agreeing to talks with government authorities. It was Holata’s fame and prestige that allowed him to continually push back against inducements to leave. When he did agree to meet with Indian agents like Capt. Casey, he would reiterate his peoples’ desire to stay in their homes and his own refusal to leave without them. The presidency of Franklin Pierce did not bring any desired change of opinion in regards to the Seminole. Intermittent contact with Indian agents and a strict adherence to staying on their proscribed lands allowed Holata to slow the efforts of the government towards his people’s removal, but he could not stem the tide completely. By May of 1854, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis wrote the Capt. Casey informing him that, “the time for negotiating with the Florida Indians is past, and that coercive measures only will induce them to emigrate.”[36] Davis ordered the end of all trade with the Indians and began the surveying and sale of the Seminole territory to white settlers. The U.S. government instituted a strangle hold on the Seminole, increasing troops to the region, reactivating old forts near their lands, cutting new roads, and patrolling for Indians outside of their territory. Despite the increased numbers of soldiers, Holata and his people tried their best to prevent any situation that would lead to open hostilities. When surveyors came into Holata’s village, effectively to determine how the land would later be parceled out to white settlers, Holata greeted them in friendly terms. Lt. John T. Greble, a soldier who encountered Holata during this period of time, wrote to his parents that, “the Indians are perfectly peaceable, and are the best inhabitants of the State, according to my way of thinking…A group of politicians have represented that the country occupied by the Indians is the most fruitful in the world…and the Indians, accordingly, have to vacate, unless they change their minds in Washington when they learn the true nature of the country.”[37] Greble was not the only solider sent to Florida who felt that the forced removal of the Seminole was not worth the effort. Lieutenant Alexander Webb wrote in his journal of the terrible conditions in the Florida Everglades and his mystification at the government’s insistence the Seminole be removed, “Mosquitos awful! Fleas! Indescribable! Heat!! Don’t speak of it. This country should be preserved for the Indians of all the territories, and if the fleas and other vermin do not destroy them they might be left to live. I could not wish them all in a worst place.”[38] Yet, to the Seminole, the vermin infested place that Lt. Webb complained of was home. Holata Micco had spent the majority of the last thirteen years working to preserve this place for his people. Despite having retreated even further into the swamps of Big Cypress and the Everglades, the Seminole found that the United States still would not leave them alone. As was warned by one of Holata’s subchiefs in 1855, “if you pull a little dog by the tail back & forth – to & fro – he will finally get mad & bite you.”[39]

In the end, the Seminole finally bit back at the United States on December 20, 1855. After years of mounting pressure and encroachments into their territory a detachment of federal soldiers was attached by a band of Seminoles armed with rifles. Four army privates were killed in the skirmish that started what was to become known as the Billy Bowlegs War. For the next three years the public was transfixed as the vastly outnumbered Seminole enacted raids on detachments of soldiers in Florida. Yet, as much as Holata Micco’s name was spoken and written during that three year period, there is little evidence to support that he even took part in any of the raids committed by the Seminoles. Even the planning of attacks, if they were truly products of a centralized chain of command, would likely have come from the advice of Abiaka, the Seminole’s Grand War Chief. In truth, we don’t really know how the Billy Bowlegs War was enacted on the part of the Seminoles nor how much influence Holata Micco had in the carrying out of attacks. The name of the war is attributed to the fact that Holata was the publicly recognized leader of the Seminoles and that the first conflict of the war occurred just outside of Holata’s abandoned camp. As Knetsch et. al, point out, “Most whites assumed that because the attack took place near ‘Billy Bowlegs’s Camp’ that Holata must have led the attack, but it may be an erroneous assumption. Seminole bands had more than one camp, this one was deserted, and there is no record that Holata led the attack or was even in the immediate area.”[40]

In many ways, the name of the Billy Bowlegs War does not accurately represent the course of actions that resulted in the outbreak of hostilities. For over a decade, Holata Micco worked and sacrificed to maintain peace between his small group of Seminoles and the vast power of the United States. He curtailed his warriors’ freedom to keep them within an assigned territory. He surrendered, and even executed, his own people who were guilty of crimes against white settlers in the region. He appealed to the highest power of the United States personally, seeking justice and recognition of the rights of his group. And when all temptations were given him to betray his people, Holata held fast to the needs of his tribe. Even when the war drums were sounding in everyone else’s ears, Holata retreated his band further away from the conflict, hoping to wait out the true aggressors in inhospitable terrain. The conflict that Holata Micco’s people finally enacted was not the product of aggression, but reaction. Fighting back was the Seminole’s last resort in an attempt to thwart an invading force determined to remove them from their homes. Holata Micco had been a peacemaker for his people. He had been determined to maintain peaceful relations between the Seminole and the United States and it was the U.S. that betrayed that effort. The United States was the aggressor of the Billy Bowlegs War, yet, in the end, it was Holata Micco who sacrificed his name and reputation to the conflict.


[1] Andrew Jackson, Andrew Jackson to John Pitchlynn, August 5, 1830 (Letter: Library of Congress, Andrew Jackson papers, 1775-1874).
[2] “Treaty with the Florida Tribes of Indians, 1823” in Indian Treaties, 1778 – 1883, ed. Charles Joseph Kappler (New York: Interland Publishers, 1972), 204.
[3] Kenneth Porter, “Billy Bowlegs (Holata Micco) in the Seminole Wars (Part 1),” Florida Historical Quarterly 45, no. 3 (1967): 220 – 221.
[4] Weekly Globe (Washington, D.C.), April 9, 1842, 25.
[5] “Minutes of a Talk Held at Fort Brooke, July 22, 1842” in The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. 26, ed. Clarence Edwin Carter (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), 517.
[6] “Order No. 27, August 11, 1842” in The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. 26, ed. Clarence Edwin Carter (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), 519.
[7] “William J. Worth to the Adjutant General, June 19, 1843” in The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. 26, ed. Clarence Edwin Carter (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962), 666.
[8] John Sprague, The Origin, Progress, and Conclusion of the Florida War (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1847), 507.
[9] Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), August 8, 1843, 3.
[10] Sprague, Florida War, 509 – 510.
[11] James W. Covington, ed., “The Florida Seminoles in 1847,” Tequesta: The Journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida 24, no. 1 (1964): 51.
[12] Covington, “Seminoles”, 56.
[13] Ibid., 51.
[14] Ibid.
[15] James W. Covington, “Billy Bowlegs, Sam Jones, and the Crisis of 1849,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 68, no. 3 (1990): 301.
[16] Covington, “Seminoles”, 56 – 57.
[17] Springfield Republican (Springfield, MA), August 7, 1849, 2.
[18] United States Senate, Executive Document No. 1, 31st Cong., 1st sess., (1849), “Message from the President of the United States,” 125.
[19] Joe Knetsch, John Missall, Mary Lou Missall, History of the Third Seminole War 1849 – 1858 (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2018), 34.
[20] Knetsch et al., Third Seminole, 39.
[21] United States Senate, Executive Document No. 1, 134.
[22] Covington, “Crisis”, 307.
[23] Knetsch et al., Third Seminole, 44.
[24] Florida Republican (Jacksonville, FL), August 30, 1849, 1.
[25]Canter Brown, Jr., Florida’s Peace River Frontier (Orlando: University of Central Florida Press, 1991), 90.
[26] Covington, “Seminoles”, 57.
[27] The Republic (Washington, D.C.), September 17, 1852, 3.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), September 18, 1852, 3.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.
[34] United States House of Representatives, Executive Document No. 19, 32nd Cong., 2nd sess., (1853), “Message from the President of the United States,” 5 – 6.
[35] Knetsch et al., Third Seminole, 67.
[36] Lynda L Crist, ed., The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Vol. 5, 1853 – 1855 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985), 66.
[37] Benson J. Lossing, Memoir of Lieut.-Col. John T. Greble of the United States Army (Philadelphia: G. T. Stockdale, 1870), 38 – 39.
[38] Alexander S. Webb, “Campaigning in Florida in 1855” Journal of the Military Service Institution of the United States 45, no. 160 (1909): 423.
[39] Knetsch et al., Third Seminole, 82.
[40] Ibid., 100.

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