1812 was a tumultuous time in U.S. history. America was finding her way and once again found herself defending her hard-fought freedom from Great Britain. Red Stick Creeks in Georgia and Alabama, opposed to U.S. expansion, supported the British which resulted in the Creek Wars. Many Red Stick Creeks fled south into Spanish Florida to avoid the war. These Red Sticks joined with the few indigenous people that survived the European explorations and previously enslaved Africans to become what would be known as Seminole.
There was, at this time, a young black woman, living on the rich and fertile Payne’s Prairie on the Alachua Savanna in central Florida where the Seminole made their home. Her name is lost to history. Perhaps she was owned by Charles Cavallo, a Seminole chief, or perhaps she was a wife. These details are lost. What we do know is she gave birth that year to a son and she named him John Cavallo. When she cuddled her baby boy and looked into his laughing eyes, did she suspect that he would become known by many names, Cowaya, Cohia, Co-wia, Gopher John, Juan Caballo and that he would ultimately lead her people to freedom?
John Horse’s birth name, Cavallo, reveals they multi-cultural world into which he was born where Spanish, English, Hitchiti, and Muskogee mixed freely. His name is most likely a variant of the Hitchiti word Kaway for horse. Later in life, he called himself John Horse and this is the name by which he is remembered.
In March of 1818, he would have been 6 years old when Andrew Jackson invaded Spanish Florida starting the Seminole Wars. While the braves fought, the women and children fled in the baggage train. John Horse was undoubtedly in that baggage train.
Spain ceded Florida in 1819 under the Adams-Onis Treaty. The U.S. took formal possession in 1821, with Jackson briefly serving as the first governor. This brought southern-style chattel slavery to Florida and this was not good news for the Black Seminoles. The U.S. began negotiations with the Seminole to emigrate west. These negotiations went back and forth for several years so John Horse’s childhood was relatively peaceful except for forced moves and relying on Army for provisions. By 1826, we find him living in a village about 12 miles from Fort Brooke, now Tampa.
Had John Horse seen many white people before this? His mother surely warned him to stay away from the whites who might try to enslave him. His curiosity must have gotten the best of him and he found the military camp an interesting place. He could make small change running errands for the officers or supplying them with fish or game. One cool crisp fall morning, Andrew, Lt. Colonel George Brooks’ cook, told the colonel that there was a young Black Seminole boy here with some gopher. Since Colonel Brooks loved gopher turtle, he asked to see the terrapin and John tumbled them out of his bag onto the colonel’s desk. John could tell he wanted them. How much? asked Colonel Brooks. John didn’t know. He thought a minute and said about 2 bits. Colonel Brooks flipped a coin in the air and John Horse caught it. Andrew put the turtles in the colonel’s pen of rails out back. Brooks asked John Horse for a steady supply. John obliged. Sort of. He brought the colonel two turtles a day for the next week or so. The colonel thought, okay, it’s time for an officer’s feast. He sent Andrew to count the turtles and there were only two. John Horse sold the same two turtles every day for over a week!
Enraged, Brooke sent for John Horse and had him hauled to the fort. John Horse had a tendency to stammer and at that moment, the ashen-faced boy managed to say his only intent was to not disappoint the colonel. This disarmed the man’s anger. Feigning anger, he demanded John Horse fill his pen and he nicknamed him Gopher John to remind him of his dishonesty. This name stayed with him his entire life.
The next several years would have been peaceful. John acquired a rifle, became noted for his hunting skills, and raised cattle. By his mid-twenties, he owned at least 90 head of cattle. He married, but the details are lost to history. Some say he was brother-in-law to Holatochee, a relative of Micanopy. It is not known what happened to his wife; life was hard and the Seminole were often starving on the run from the U.S. Military. But John Horse never lost his sense of humor; when he was an interpreter for Major General McCall, John Horse made reference to courting the girls. The general asked him about his dog, fuse. John replied that the dog's name was fuse because the girl he was courtin' for a wife, and all de gal fuse me (refused me). Dis so provoking to me, I git mad.”
By Spring 1840, John was married to Susan July, and remained so for the next 40 years until his death. They had one son, Joe Coons, survive and grandson, John Jefferson served in the 10th Calvary and the Black Seminole Scouts.
But what of John during the 2nd Seminole War? We do not know if he was at the Dade Massacre or with Osceola killing Agent Thompson, but we can surely assume he was involved somewhere. He had close ties with Osceola and Coacoochee and he was with Osceola when he was arrested under the white flag of truce at Pellicer’s creek. He escaped from Fort Marion with Coacoochee and proceeded to the headwaters of Lake Okeechobee for the Christmas day battle. In 1837 when Jesup captured Ben, a prominent Black Seminole and his family, he sent Ben to the Seminole with a message. He returned with Abraham and agreed to a meeting. During the meeting on Feb. 24, John Horse showed up and asked for pay for his cattle that were taken in January. He returned again on March 4 for a conference with Jesup and chiefs at Fort Dade and he signed the Capitulation agreement on March 6. They agreed to be in Tampa by April 10th. Jesup was thrilled and declared, “The negroes rule the Indians, and it is important that they should feel themselves secure; if they should become alarmed and hold out, the war will be renewed.” How right he was! Floridians entered the detention camp looking for slaves and on June 2, 1837, Osceola, John Horse, Coacoochee, and Abiaka (Sam Jones) emptied the detention camp at Tampa and Jesup was back to square one.
We can reasonably assume he was at the battle at the Loxahatchee. He was in Okeechobee on Christmas and in March, the commander of Fort Lauderdale reported that John Cavallo, Alligator, and Wild Cat were nearby.
When Jesup offered freedom to “all the negroes the property of the Seminole . . . Indians in Florida . . . who separated themselves from Indians and delivered themselves up to the commanding officer of the troops should be free” John Horse and 27 blacks surrendered at Fort Bassinger on April 4, 1838 because all John Horse was ever fighting for was freedom for himself and his family.
Abraham wrote to General Jesup that “All the black people are contented I hope . . . John Cawaya is in and contented. Glad to hear of the peace.”
John Horse and family arrived at Fort Gibson on June 28, 1838. Shortly thereafter General Matthew Arbuckle, commander of Fort Gibson, requested permission for “John Ko-wa-e, the Speaker of the Seminoles in this country” to return to Florida. John Horse allowed to return to Florida to “persuade the Seminoles . . . to emigrate to their new home in the West.” He said his reason for coming was to relocate family members that were taken by slavers. He was employed as a military interpreter.
What was he doing in Florida? Had he really switched sides? He was certainly in touch with the Seminoles still in the field and they obviously didn’t kill him when they saw him, so one must wonder. There is no evidence, but was he acting on behalf of the Seminole when he was working for the military?
He courted and married Susan, daughter of July, a prominent Black Seminole.
Finally, on April 19, 1842—Colonel Worth engaged Halleck Tustenggee in what was the last real battle of the war. John Horse was at this battle, but engaged as an interpreter for the Army.
As musket balls struck the tree next to him, he drew a flask from his pocket and said, "God-e massa, I feel all over, mighty queer, de Ingen fight so strong! I must take a big un." and emptied his bottle of all its alcoholic contents.
Once again on July 14, 1842 John Horse with 120 Seminoles departed for the west. John Horse’s party was forced to disembark because the Arkansas River was too low. When the escort, Lt. Canby could not negotiate a draft for the transport, John Horse gave him $1500 to pay for it.
The Seminole, on August 14, 1842, by direction of Micanopy, validated Charles Cavallo’s will thus reconfirming John Horse’s freedom.
What of this role of slavery in the Seminole? Was John Horse ever really a slave? The Black Seminoles kept villages separate and governed themselves. They are referred to as sub-chiefs, but they regularly signed treaties right alongside the red Seminoles; they appeared to be equal. Was this slave moniker just a convenience that lent protection to the Blacks? After all, if that is my slave, then no one else can claim him. And we have to remember that John Horse was born in Spanish Florida where there was no slavery. However in the Indian Territory, the Creek certainly looked upon the blacks as a source of revenue and wanted to enslave them, but for the most part, the black Seminole married within the tribe and there were mixed-race children with no disparity. The institution of slavery among the Florida Seminole remains an enigma. Scholars have attempted to define it, but with every explanation, one can find an exception.
Things weren’t going well in Indian Country. The Creeks were a constant source of trouble for the Seminole. John Horse made two trips to Washington to protest and request what was promised. Both times, Jesup hosted and supported the Seminole’s claims. The slavers became bolder and on June 28, 1848, Attorney General John Y. Mason “decided that the Negroes should be restored to the condition in which they were prior to the intervention by General Jesup.”
John Horse began making plans to flee to Mexico. In the meantime, Micanopy died. Coacoochee, expecting to become Principal Chief had been meeting with western Indians. He envisioned a multi-cultural tribe that was strong and viable, but he lost the election to Jumper. Jumper was of like mind with the Creek and he saw the Black Seminole as a revenue source. Therefore in April, 1849, John Horse led his people from Fort Gibson defying the U.S. Government and the new Seminole chief. He prepared for an exodus to Mexico. Early in November, 1849, John Horse and Coacoochee led their people from the Indian lands in separate groups. They wintered in Texas. The “two nations” were going to stay until their crops were ready, but Coacoochee’s fondness for liquor caused John Horse to take his people and ride for the Rio Grande immediately. Coacoochee’s funds ran out before he was finished drinking so he offered John Wood and Kitty for sale. In all fairness; he didn’t intend to abandon them, but to steal them back before leaving. To avoid any issues, John Horse hustled them from the bar, broke camp, abandoning most of their possessions, and did not stop until they got to Las Moras Springs.
Molly Perryman, one of Kitty’s daughters said of the incident that Wild Cat “was so drunk, he didn’t know what he was doing . . . John Horse liked his liquor . . . but he was chief—he know when there was danger and he mustn’t touch it. That was John Horse—always watching over his people.”
On July 24, 1850, Gato del Monte (Wild Cat), Papicuan (leader of Kickapoos that joined Coacoochee), and El Moreno John Hourse, chief of Mascogos met with Col. Juan Manuel Maldonado at San Fernando de Rosas. They were granted a petition for land and tools in exchange for military service, but Texas wouldn’t forget so easily. Jose Maria Jesus Carvajal invaded Mexico in search of run-away slaves. He made 3 attempts but was rebuffed each time. By 1851 the Mexican government praised the immigrants help and declared that their hospitality was justified. They announced that Hacienda El Nacimiento would be a safer place for the immigrants. It was farther inland and farther from the slavers in Texas. On July 26, 1852, Coacoochee, in Mexico City, was formally granted the land at Nacimiento.
John Horse appeared to be a gentle soul, but Coacoochee was more brutal. There an incident in 1851 when John Horse was detained at Eagle Pass. Coacoochee sent a strong message when he paid the $500 ransom in gold for John Horse’s release. (The coins were covered with human blood.)
Coacoochee died of Smallpox in 1857.
By 1861, John Horse, now known as Juan Caballo or Juan Vidaurri led 200 soldiers, both Mexican and black. He wore a uniform and was probably a colonel.
By 1870, seven years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Joe Coon, John Horse’s son, and others were working in Brownsville as farm laborers. The main body of the Black Seminoles was still living in Mexico under the leadership of John Horse. On July 4, 1870, a group of Black Seminoles led by John Kibbitts, John Horse’s subchief, crossed into Texas, settled on Elm Creek and became officially the “Detachment of Seminole Negro Indian Scouts.” John Horse returned to Fort Duncan to act as Kibbitt’s advisor.
From 1873-1881, Seminole Negro Indian Scouts, in a dozen or so clashes, never lost a man or suffered serious injury, even when outnumbered.
There were several claims over the land ownership in Mexico so in 1881, John Horse rode to Mexico City to see Porfirio Diaz where he crowded him from the divan. Diaz sat down, and John Horse sat almost on top of him; Diaz moved and John Horse moved with him. “Capitan Caballo, what are you trying to do? Do you want to push me from the divan to the floor?” John Horse replied, “Just so, mi presidente, are the Mexicans and white men pushing the Seminoles—they want to push us not merely from a divan but from the earth itself.” Sadly, on
August 10, 1882, John Horse died in the Military Hospital in Mexico City probably from pneumonia. As a result of the meeting with Diaz, the Nacimiento land was ordered to be divided between the Mascogos and the Kickapoos. After a final order to dissolve the detachment of Negro Seminole Scouts, the Black Seminoles were ordered to leave their homes at Fort Clark. Most returned to Nacimiento where their descendants live today. John Horse, the original freedom fighter, finally won his fight. His people now firmly owned the Nacimiento land.