Osceola by George Catlin
Talisi, Mississippi Territory, US
|Died||January 30, 1838 (aged 33-34)|
Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, US
|Resting place||Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, US|
|Children||at least 5|
|Parents||Polly Coppinger & William Powell|
Osceola (1804 - January 30, 1838, Asi-yahola in Creek), named Billy Powell at birth in Alabama, became an influential leader of the Seminole people in Florida. Of mixed parentage, including Creek, Scottish, African American, and English, he was considered born to his mother's people in the Creek matrilineal kinship system. He was reared by her in the Creek tradition. When he was a child, they migrated to Florida with other Red Stick refugees after their group's defeat in 1814 in the Creek Wars. There they became part of what was known as the Seminole people.
In 1836, Osceola led a small group of warriors in the Seminole resistance during the Second Seminole War, when the United States tried to remove the tribe from their lands in Florida to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. He became an adviser to Micanopy, the principal chief of the Seminole from 1825 to 1849. Osceola led the Seminole resistance to removal until he was captured on October 21, 1837, by deception, under a flag of truce, when he went to a site near Fort Peyton for peace talks. The United States first imprisoned him at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, then transported him to Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina. He died there a few months later of causes reported as an internal infection or malaria. Because of his renown, Osceola attracted visitors in prison, including renowned artist George Catlin, who painted perhaps the most well-known portrait of the Seminole leader.
Osceola was named Billy Powell at birth in 1804 in the Creek village of Talisi, which means 'Old Town'. The village is a city now known as Tallassee, Alabama, which Is located on the banks of the Tallapoosa River about twenty miles upstream from Fort Toulouse where the Tallapoosa and the Coosa Rivers meet to form the Alabama River. The inhabitants of the original Talisi village and of the current city of Tallassee were a mixture of all races. The Creek were among the Southeastern Native Americans who held slaves. Powell was believed to have ancestors from all of these groups. His mother was Polly Coppinger, a mixed-race Creek woman, and his father was most likely William Powell, a Scottish trader.
Polly was also of Creek and European ancestry, as the daughter of Ann McQueen and Jose Coppinger. Because the Creek had a matrilineal kinship system, Polly and Ann's children were all considered to be born into their mother's clan; they were reared by their mothers and their maternal male relatives as traditional Creek and gained their social status from their mother's people. Ann McQueen was also mixed-race Creek; her father, James McQueen, was Scottish. Ann was probably the sister or aunt of Peter McQueen, a prominent Creek leader and warrior. Like his mother, Billy Powell was raised in the Creek tribe.
Billy Powell's maternal grandfather, James McQueen, was a ship-jumping Scottish sailor who in 1716 became the first recorded white to trade with the Creek tribe in Alabama. He stayed in the area as a fur trader and married into the Creek tribe, becoming closely involved with this people. He was buried in 1811 at the Indian cemetery in Franklin, Alabama, near a Methodist Missionary Church for the Creek.
In 1814, after the Red Stick Creek were defeated by United States forces, Polly took Osceola and moved with other Creek refugees from Alabama to Florida, where they joined the Seminole. In adulthood, as part of the Seminole, Powell was given his name Osceola ( or ). This is an anglicized form of the Creek Asi-yahola (pronounced [as:i jaho:la]); the combination of asi, the ceremonial black drink made from the yaupon holly, and yahola, meaning "shout" or "shouter".
In 1821, the United States acquired Florida from Spain, and more European-American settlers started moving in, encroaching on the Seminoles' territory. After early military skirmishes and the signing of the 1823 Treaty of Moultrie Creek, by which the US seized the northern Seminole lands, Osceola and his family moved with the Seminole deeper into the unpopulated wilds of central and southern Florida.
As an adult, Osceola took two wives, as did some other high-ranking Creek and Seminole leaders. With them, he had at least five children. One of his wives was African American, and Osceola fiercely opposed the enslavement of free people. Lt. John T. Sprague mentions in his 1848 history, The Florida War that Osceola had a wife named "Che-cho-ter" (Morning Dew), who bore him four children.
Through the 1820s and the turn of the decade, American settlers continued pressuring the US government to remove the Seminole from Florida to make way for their desired agricultural development. In 1832, a few Seminole chiefs signed the Treaty of Payne's Landing, by which they agreed to give up their Florida lands in exchange for lands west of the Mississippi River in Indian Territory. According to legend, Osceola stabbed the treaty with his knife, although there are no contemporary reports of this. Donald L. Fixico, an American Indian historian, says he made a research trip to the National Archives to see the original Treaty of Fort Gibson (also known as the Treaty of Payne's Landing), and that upon close inspection, he observed that it had "a small triangular hole shaped like the point of a knife blade".
Five of the most important Seminole chiefs, including Micanopy of the Alachua Seminole, did not agree to removal. In retaliation, the US Indian agent, Wiley Thompson, declared that those chiefs were deposed from their positions. As US relations with the Seminole deteriorated, Thompson forbade the sale of guns and ammunition to them. Osceola, a young warrior rising to prominence, resented this ban. He felt it equated the Seminole with slaves, who were forbidden by law to carry arms.
Thompson considered Osceola to be a friend and gave him a rifle. Osceola had a habit of barging into Thompson's office and shouting complaints at him. On one occasion Osceola quarreled with Thompson, who had the warrior locked up at Fort King for two nights until he agreed to be more respectful. In order to secure his release, Osceola agreed to sign the Treaty of Payne's Landing and to bring his followers into the fort. After his humiliating imprisonment, Osceola secretly prepared vengeance against Thompson.
On December 28, 1835, Osceola, with the same rifle Thompson gave him, killed the Indian agent. Osceola and his followers shot six others outside Fort King, while another group of Seminole ambushed and killed a column of US Army, more than 100 troops, who were marching from Fort Brooke to Fort King. Americans called this event the Dade Massacre. These nearly simultaneous attacks catalyzed the Second Seminole War with the United States.
On October 21, 1837, Osceola and 81 of his followers were captured by General Joseph Hernández on the orders of General Thomas Jesup, under a white flag of truce, when they went for peace talks to Fort Peyton near St. Augustine. He was initially imprisoned at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, before being transferred to Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island, outside Charleston, South Carolina. Osceola's capture by deceit caused a national uproar. General Jesup's treacherous act and the administration were condemned by many congressional leaders and vilified by international press. Jesup suffered a loss of reputation that lasted for the rest of his life; his betrayal of the truce flag has been described as "one of the most disgraceful acts in American military history."
That December, Osceola and other Seminole prisoners were moved to Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina. They were visited by various townspeople. The portraitists George Catlin, W. M. Laning, and Robert John Curtis, the three artists known to have painted Osceola from life, persuaded the Seminole leader to allow his portrait to be painted despite his being gravely ill. Osceola and Curtis developed a close friendship, conversing at length during the painting sessions; Curtis painted two oil portraits of Osceola, one of which remains in the Charleston Museum. These paintings have inspired numerous widely distributed prints and engravings, and cigar store figures were also based on them.
Osceola, having suffered from chronic malaria since 1836, and having acute tonsillitis as well, developed an abscess and died of quinsy on January 30, 1838, three months after his capture. He was buried with military honors at Fort Moultrie.
According to the oral tradition of his descendants, Dr. Frederick Weedon was alone with the body and cut off Osceola's head, placing it in the coffin with the scarf that Osceola had customarily worn being wrapped around the neck, and immediately before the funeral ceremony removed the head and shut the coffin's lid. Weedon kept the head for himself, as well as other objects belonging to Osceola, including a brass pipe and a silver concho. Capt. Pitcairn Morrison, the U.S. Army officer in charge of the Seminole prisoners who had been transported with Osceola, made a last-minute decision to take other items belonging to Osceola. The historical evidence suggests that it was Morrison who decided that a death mask should be made, a European-American custom at the time for prominent persons, but it was done without the permission of Osceola's people. An acquaintance of Morrison, Dr. Benjamin Strobel, a native of Charleston, made a plaster cast of Osceola's face and upper torso. The process of "pulling" the first mold, which was soon displayed in the window of a Charleston drugstore, destroyed the original cast. Weedon apparently preserved Osceola's head in a large jar of alcohol and took it to St. Augustine, where he exhibited it in the family drugstore.
Captain Pitcairn Morrison sent the death mask and some other objects collected by Weedon to an army officer in Washington. By 1885, the death mask and some of Osceola's belongings were being held in the anthropology collection of the Smithsonian Institution. The death mask is currently housed in the Luce collection of the New-York Historical Society. 
In 1966, Miami businessman Otis W. Shriver claimed he had dug up Osceola's grave and put his bones into a bank vault to rebury them at a tourist site at the Rainbow Springs. Shriver traveled around the state in 1967 to gather support for his project. Archaeologists later proved that Shriver had dug up animal remains; Osceola's body was still in its coffin.
In 1979 the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma bought Osceola's bandolier and other personal items from a Sotheby's auction. Because of the chief's significance, over time some people have created forgeries of Osceola's belongings. Rumors persist that his embalmed head has been found in various locations.
The people in the town of Tallassee, where Billy Powell, (later named Osceola) was born, were mixed-blood Native American/English/Irish/Scottish, and some were black. Billy was all of these.