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1835-1839 Massacres in Florida Poinsett Report

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Photo: A staged scalping in the 19th century. (I think those are California Indians, but you get the idea.)

This was a little nugget I found in the Military Affairs papers. A handwritten letter from 1840, by the Secretary of War, Joel Poinsett, to the President of the Senate and Vice President, Richard Johnson. (The same Richard Johnson who started the Kentucky Choctaw Indian Academy and is credited, although never verified and doubtful, with killing Tecumseh.)
This is an excellent letter because it mentions several attacks that few others pay attention too. It also acknowledges that the newspapers of the day are wildly inaccurate. But, where the newspapers mention names, we can trace the events, so they do have some value.

I will insert comments where needed. I had to check with other sources to get some names right, and spellings vary. For example: Poinsett writes Sgt. Harret, and Sprague writes Harriet. Other names and sources had to be checked to verify some of the names when I couldn’t read the handwriting of the letter, and John L. Williams and M.M. Cohen were very useful for this.


Above: From Florida Memory: "The above is intended to present the horrid Massacre of the Whites in Florida, in December 1835, and January, February, March and April 1836, when near Four Hundred (including women and children) fell victims to the barbarity of the Negroes and Indians."

This is from, The New American State Papers, Military Affairs, Vol. 9, Combat Operations; Page 305-308. “Letter Recounting Massacres in Florida”; from Sec. of War Joel R. Poinsett to Pres of the Senate Richard M. Johnson, Washington City.

Hon. R[ichard] M. Johnson
President of the Senate
January 28, 1840

Sir,
In compliance with the directions of the President, the following report is respectfully submitted in answer to the resolution of the Senate of the 30th ultimo, requesting “the President of the United States to cause to be communicated to the Senate all the information which the War Office contains, or can conveniently procure, of the massacre of individuals, of families, of small parties, and of shipwrecked crews or passengers, which have taken place in Florida during the present hostilities, and including those which took place before the war became open on the part of the Indians; noting, as far as it conveniently can be done, how far families have been broken up, and driven from their homes, their houses burnt, and their fields and property destroyed.”

There were but two sources within the reach of this Department to which it could resort for the information called for by this resolution; first the reports of the Commanding Generals in Florida and other communications received at the Department, and Second the Newspapers published in that territory. Neither of which can be relied upon as being very accurate. There were probably cases which did not become known to the Commanding Generals and the Officers making reports to the Department, or which, coming to their knowledge during the intervals of making reports, were forgotten when the next report was made.

Respecting particularly the breaking up of families, the burning of houses, and the destruction of property, the files of the Department furnish but little certain information, those things being referred to, only in very general terms, in the reports of the Officers.

The accounts contained in the Newspapers are in many cases known to have been greatly exaggerated, and in others entirely unfounded.

On examination of the files of the Department shows that,
In 1835 Eleven persons are reported to have been murdered chiefly in the settlements on the St. Johns River--

In 1836—Five persons are reported to have been murdered near Cape Florida [the Cooley family, Jan. 6, 1836.]

In 1837—No murders appear to have been reported.

In 1838—Fourteen are reported, and one family (number not stated).

In 1839—Forty persons are reported to have been murdered, and one family (number not stated)—of this number, one was a commissioned officer and fifteen non-commissioned officers and soldiers of the regular Army and four of the Florida Militia. [Since everyone is lumped together in general terms, it is impossible to determine who he is referring to unless names are given.] Thirteen of the regular soldiers were killed in surprise of a party under command of Lieutenant Colonel Harney on the Colosohatchee River the 23d of July 1839.

In 1835—The Plantations and houses of Denham, Dummett, Hunter, Depeyster, Williams, Harret, Andrews and Brush destroyed in the latter part of December.

In 1836—Plantations of Bulow, Hernandez and Williams destroyed.

In 1837 and 1838 and 1839 None reported.

In 1838 The crew of a fishing smack massacred, and the smack burnt. Brig Alva’s crew massacred—the Brig was broken and burnt by the orders of the Commander of the United States Schooner Wave.
The Captain of the Revenue Cutter Campbell reports that, after defeating a party of Indians, he took a number of pouches attached to which were eleven scalps, supposed to have been taken from persons cast away on the coast.
A French brig reported to have gone to pieces near the Ratones, crew aided and saved by the Indians.—
Two fishing smacks went ashore—crews of both massacred with the exception of one man, who saved himself by joining the crew of the French vessel, Schooner Caroline sunk—crew all lost. [Apparently the Indians have no argument against the French, only against the Americans!]

On examination of the Newspapers as far as they are within reach of the department, shows that,
In 1835 the following murders were committed—Dalton a private (mail carrier) [Killed near Ft. Brooke in August 1835.]
Mr. Brown and four children
Dade’s Brigade—117 men— [We all know the story here, but were there ten more men than what we always counted, or is this number incorrect?]
Wilie Thompson, Lieut. C. Smith, Erastus Rogers & two others [Osceola killing Thompson near Ft. King and attacking the sutler store, Dec. 28, 1835.]
An old man named Castillo
A family (number not mentioned) near Cape Florida. [Cooley family killed, Jan. 6, 1836.]
A Boy about 15 years of age.
Four men killed and two wounded.
Mr. Dupont’s overseer killed
One negro and one boy killed—Mr. Gorman wounded.
Carter shot and scalped
Light house on Cape Florid burnt—two killed— [July 1836]
Two wounded—three dwellings burnt.
Five men murdered—
Mr. and Mrs. Jones murdered
Edward Gold, Jo Walker, Mr. Falk & one other killed
The Collector at Charlotte Harbor killed—two men wounded—[at Boca Grande, in April 1836.]

In 1836—One Negro.
Fifty families reported to have been killed by the Creeks— [in North Florida.]
Mr. and Mrs. Uptegrove killed
Mr. Johns, Mr. Wallace and daughter and one man killed

In 1837 One family reported to have been killed
Mrs. Clements and five children, Captain Gilleland, Captain Whalton and seven men, Mr. Wilkinson killed. [Capt. Whalton and his ship crew landed on Key Largo, and were ambushed in June 1837.]
Father, mother and 8 children murdered.
Several men no number mentioned reported to have been murdered.
In June of this year, 12 women and children (Indians) were murdered by a party of whites. [Maybe referring to an incident in May 1837 on Alaqua Creek/Walton County, where militia soldiers captured and slaughtered captive Creeks.]

In 1838 Eleven men killed
One family killed
Mr. Sasley and daughter killed.
Five families murdered at Black Creek.
Mr. Singletenary, wife and two children murdered
Eight persons murdered in Ware, County, Georgia, by the Seminoles
Mr. Wilde and family, Mr. John Davies & family murdered near Okefenokee Swamp.
Mr. Baker, wife, and two children were murdered near Monticello.
A wagoner killed in Ware County, Georgia
One man, Mr. Tippin, wife and two children, and two of Mr. Green’s family murdered near Okefenokee Swamp.
Two men killed near Fort Floyd. [Georgia/Okefenokee.]

In 1839 Eighteen men killed and two wounded
Colonel Harney’s detachment (15 men) [Once again, July 1839.]
Three men, one woman and two children killed—two wounded and others reported, but no number mentioned.
The Florida Herald of November the 14th says that 70 murders are recorded since peace was declared.
Sergeant Harriet and one man killed—five wounded— [Ambush of 6th Infantry Soldiers from Ft. Andrews working on a bridge, probably on Fenholloway River.]
Two volunteers murdered
Thirteen men murdered.
Twenty one killed—four wounded.
Fifteen murders reported to have been committed near Tallahassee—
Seven men killed—six wounded—four mules killed
Six men killed—two wounded.

It appears by the same papers that during the years 1835, 1836, 1837, 1838 and 1839 there were destroyed by fire.
Twenty three dwellings
One light house, and several plantations are reported to have been destroyed or deserted.

J.R.P. (Joel R. Poinsett)
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Okay, that is the end of the letter. That was only the first four years of the war. There were still three more years to go. 1840 and 1841 would prove to be among the bloodiest of the war, and the highest casualty rate. There will be the attack and destruction of the Dade County seat on Indian Key in August 1840, through December 1841 with the attack on the town of Mandarin on the St. Johns River. There will be devastating attacks near Micanopy with the Battle of Bridgewater, Martin’s Point with the killing of Mrs. Montgomery, and the killing of Methodist Minister McRea. Soldiers ambushed near Fort King. Numerous mail riders attacked. The McLane family massacre in Gadsden County. When Poinsett gave his report in January 1840, the troubles were far from over!
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