Media Matters

Osceola Who?

Jeopardy misses the full story.

By 5.29.12

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A recent edition of the TV quiz Jeopardy offered the question of who an Indian named Osceola might have been. One contestant suggested "Cree[k]" and two declared "Seminole." Those two were declared correct by the ceremony master, Alex Trebek.

I felt sorry for the person who suggested "Cree," because Osceola was indeed a Creek Indian, born in Alabama and a migrant to Florida, where the Seminole Tribe was struggling to maintain itself against an ever-encroaching population of white U.S. citizens, protected and encouraged by U.S. troops and volunteers.

Heading the Indian removal was President Andrew Jackson and his Indian Removal Policy. His treaties stripped the southern tribes of three-fourths of Alabama (native to the Creek) along with parts of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi. Kentucky, North Carolina. and Florida. The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in with a ruling that it was illegal for Indians to hold title to land and Congress complied by passing the Indian Removal Act. Jackson's aim was to drive the "Five Civilized Tribes -- Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole" west of the Mississippi.

President Jackson declared of those who might resist displacement: "They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits or the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition."

The U.S. Army and the Seminoles fought three wars between 1816 and 1858. Osceola had moved to Florida after the War of 1812 and became a leader of the Seminole resistance, accounting through his leadership for several minor victories, and a major one called the Battle of Okeechobee, presided over by general Zachary Taylor. The government hyped what seemed a defeat into a major victory and Taylor eventually entered politics and became president in 1849.

Before this, however, Osceola had led his Seminole adoptees into several skirmishes.

But in October of 1837 he made the mistake so many Indian leaders made: he assented to a truce, and was taken captive by General Thomas Jesup, who threw him in jail where Osceola fell ill and died of malaria. Many Americans had come to admire Osceola as a fighter for his homeland and they were incensed at the treachery. Jesup recommended ending hostilities by granting the Seminoles a reservation in southern Florida, but the new President, Van Buren, rejected the idea and gradually nearly all the Seminoles bowed to the white supremacists and moved to Arkansas.

It was over for that part of the country in which a man named Osceola had captured the nation's attention. The attention of all except those who invent the questions for Jeopardy.

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.