Written by Jeremy Ray Jewell
Illustration: “The Indians and Negroes Massacreing the Whites in Florida”, from A True and Authentic Account of the Indian War in Florida, Saunders & Van Welt, 1836. Internet Archive.
My great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was Burroughs “Burris” Higginbotham. Burroughs’ grandfather settled in Goochland (now Amherst County), Virginia sometime in the early 1700s. He was from a planter family with 4-5 generations of history in St. Philips, Barbados with roots before that in Cheshire, England. Lore concentrated in Virginia-based genealogies describes the Higginbothams as being Irish, owing likely to the Burroughs’ father marrying a Frances Riley, and that being the more distinct detail for a few generations.
Coming 40 or so years after other Barbados planters founded the Province of Carolina in the fertile lowlands to the south, the family’s choice to settle instead in the Virginia Piedmont might reflect a lesser status. And yet by 1813 Burroughs’ cousin David would become Thomas Jefferson’s friend and neighbor in Albemarle County. It is claimed that Jefferson once said that the United States ‘couldn’t keep its hands off Florida.’ A Higginbotham would help prove that right.
While another cousin, Thomas Higginbotham, would free his slave Archibald “Archy Carey” Higginbotham in the late 1820s, Burroughs had no such interest. Having fought in the Revolution, Burroughs was granted land by the state of Georgia in 1784 in exchange for his service: 287.5 acres in Washington County and 150 acres in Richmond County. He had every intention of utilizing enslaved labor. Burroughs then moved south to Spanish East Florida. He owned a plantation on the north side of the St. Mary’s River between Georgia and East Florida, and he owned and operated a ferry and traded livestock there.
In 1790 he married Isabella Donna Incy. According to tradition, Isabella was said to be Seminole, although later said to be Spanish or Florida Minorcan. By 1791 Burroughs was calling the Nassau, Spanish East Florida side of the river his home, at a place called Higginbotham’s Bluff, where he lived with his wife, 9 sons, and one slave. Presumably, he kept this enslaved person under close scrutiny, for the Spanish would offer an escaped slave freedom for converting to Catholicism and putting in some military service. Or, failing that, his slave could well have run off to live a semi-feudal existence under the Seminoles, and perhaps to mix with them as well.
Burroughs was living in Nassau when, in 1793, Edmund Genet came to South Carolina as the minister of the new French Republic. Burroughs may have been privy to Genet’s conspiracy to raise an army in the US together with Georgia state militia colonel Samuel Hammond to invade East Florida. John McIntosh, another veteran of the Revolution from a Georgia family which had acquired land in East Florida, was privy to it. Genet’s conspiracy was stopped, but in 1795 a force of 170 Georgians and East Floridians attacked two Spanish forts on the St. Johns River, with St. Augustine in their sights.
After their defeat, Burroughs would have witnessed the strengthening of Spanish fortifications with troops from Cuba and Mexico, as well as free people of color from all over the Spanish Caribbean. Burroughs was still living in Nassau during the West Florida controversy between Spain and the US, during which time the Treaty of San Lorenzo would be signed (1795), granting the US Mississippi navigation rights. 1800 saw the Spanish cession of New Orleans to France, and 1803 saw its purchase by the US. In 1804 President Jefferson signed the Mobile Act, incensing Spain with its stated intentions to annex all lands east of the Mississippi.
West Florida was filled with Anglo-Americans, including loyalists who had fled the Revolution and their descendants. It was also surrounded by US planters enraged to see their slaves escaping into Spanish lands and partnering with the Seminoles. These people, together with property speculators, organized in Baton Rouge to secede from Spain and form the Republic of West Florida in 1810 — the ‘bonnie blue flag that bears a single star’. Factions arose, some pro-Spanish, some pro-US, and some pro-independence.
The Spanish governor offered to surrender all of West Florida to the US if Havana or Veracruz provided him with no other instructions. In 1811 the US occupied the disputed territory in pursuit of further negotiations, although in January Congress had passed a secret act calling for the final acquisition of the Floridas. Burroughs may have lived a relatively more quiet life on his East Florida border, but that was bound to change.
On March 16, 1812, Georgia volunteers aided by 9 US Navy gunboats captured the Spanish outpost of Fernandina, an important smuggling port for goods and slaves bound for Georgia. By this time Anglo-Americans and other non-Spaniards formed a majority of the population north of the capital of San Agustin de la Florida, while Indian, Black Maroon, and runaway slave settlements were scattered farther south. Outlaw gangs such as that of poor cracker Daniel McGirtt also terrorized Anglo-American planters, stealing cattle and slaves. Taking a page from the Blackbeard playbook, when the Spanish offered McGirtt clemency in exchange for leaving Florida, McGritt accepted the clemency and stayed.
Now, in a pattern familiar throughout the history of American expansion, this so-called “Patriot War”, a plot hatched by President Madison, would be reenacting the Revolution all over again in order to end the Spanish rule so inconvenient for white Anglo-American planters. Their minutemen would be the poorer whites, bound with the promise of the share in the future cotton-based white supremacist Floridian utopia. These “patriots”, whose war would last until 1814 and run simultaneous to the War of 1812, wouldn’t succeed.
With British defeat in 1815 would come the rise of the populist Andrew Jackson to national prominence (Scots-Irish, but not from such a modest family as imagined) and the end of the idea of an “Indian barrier state” in the West. Defeated Creek Indians would join the ranks of the Seminoles. At the time of Burrough Higginbotham’s death in 1816, General Andrew Jackson was already poking along the East Florida border, engaging in raids against the Seminoles.
In 1818 Jackson invaded in earnest. By 1821 he had fully wrested control from the Spanish and the next year he became the first governor of the US territory of Florida. There was a fordable point across the St. Johns River on the King’s Road, built during the British period. It linked the cattle-rich lands of Florida with the markets in Georgia. The British called it Cowford. A few neighboring plantation owners, seeing the possibilities for the location opened up by this new, permanent reestablishment of Florida-Georgia commerce, decided to plat a town. Their name must have appeared obvious from the beginning: Jacksonville.
Among the founders was Isaiah D. Hart, another Georgian who had relocated to Spanish East Florida, and had been one of the 1812 “Patriots”. It was to this founder, Isaiah Hart, in his capacity as major of the local militia, that John Higginbotham would report on the morning of September 15, 1836.
Among the sons which survived Burroughs Higginbotham was John Higginbotham, named after Burroughs’ grandfather from Barbados. John was said to have been living 7 miles west of Jacksonville in 1836, around age 34. At about 10 o’clock that Thursday morning a band of Seminoles descended on the Higginbotham home. The family barricaded themselves inside their home. The Indians’ bullets left their marks against the sides of the house and inside it.
An unidentified woman who had left to gather water from a nearby branch found herself cut off from the house by the attack. The Seminoles fired at her, though the bullet merely passed through her clothes. Eventually, John Higginbotham successfully drove the Seminoles away and rode hastily into Jacksonville to notify Major Hart.
The Seminoles continued to the farm of a Fleming Johns. There they found Mr. and Mrs. Johns working in their yard and they shot Mr. Johns through the chest. The couple managed to make it back inside, however, the Seminoles kicked in the door and shot Mr. Johns dead. They then dragged Mrs. Johns to the door and told her to leave. At that very moment, however, a Seminole’s gun discharged and sent its bullet through her arm and neck. They brought her back inside and “with a large butcher knife” proceeded to scalp her.
They sacked the house and set it on fire. After the Seminoles left Mrs. Johns was able to pull herself out of the burning house. Bleeding profusely with her scalp-less skull bared to the morning sky, she passed out “at frequent intervals” while crawling her way towards a nearby swamp. She was rescued by 2pm. In the same period, the Seminoles would also kill an Allen Osteen, a William Barber, and “a man by the name of Hicks”. They would also steal a horse from a man named Eubank and wound several “in the vicinity of Brandy branch and the south prong of St. Mary’s river”.
Locals noted that “a few planters who had been kind to the Seminoles, remained on their farms and were never molested.” Thus arrived the Second Seminole War in the Higginbothams’ world… a war which was a long time coming… a war that arrived with my great-great-great-great uncle riding into a new town to tell its founder that the conflict incited by that town’s namesake had come home to roost.
“The government is in the wrong, and this is the chief cause of the persevering opposition of the Indians, who have nobly defended their country against our attempt to enforce a fraudulent treaty. The natives used every means to avoid a war, but were forced into it by the tyranny of our government.” Those were the words of Vermonter Ethan Allen Hancock on the Second Seminole War, which had begun the year before with an ambush of soldiers between present-day Tampa and Ocala. That’s one way to tell it, at least. Although the truth is that the conflict with the United States had been ongoing for a long time.
Andrew Jackson had become president in 1829 and signed the Indian removal act in 1830. The Seminoles merely refused to assent to being relocated. They refused with a memory of the constant conflict with the White supremacist, English-speaking slave owner. Memories which were Creek, Black, Choctaw… or even part White, like Osceola or Peter McQueen. They were memories brought together ever since the ethnic/cultural hybrid known as “Seminole” was invented in the 18th century, a frontier genesis, a birth on the borderlands of what was excluded from the body politic.
They were memories of betrayals, conspiracies, and an endless appetite of an invader. Now most of them are gone. Mr. Johns is also gone. But the Higginbothams survived. And when my father’s mother’s mother from the Tison planter family of Tisonia, Florida married a Higginbotham in 1919, they may have had some aristocratic-looking nostalgia penned in the inside cover of their family Bible. But by the time their daughter married the son of an Appalachian bootlegger in Fernandina named Jewell, you could safely say that something had truly changed.
It takes a while for the dust to settle from some of these scuff-ups. Some dusts settle sooner than others.
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