History August 18, 2022 at 05:00 pm

Why the story of Caesar Bowlegs, a well-known interpreter in the Seminole nation, is important to American history

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor August 18, 2022 at 05:00 pm

August 18, 2022 at 05:00 pm | History

Caesar Bowlegs. Public domain image

The Seminole Maroons or the Seminole Freedmen were a group of free Blacks and runaway slaves (or maroons) that fled plantations in the Southern American colonies and joined with the Seminole Indians in Florida in the late 17th century. Most of the Black Seminoles were mostly Gullah fugitives who escaped from the rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia before joining the newly formed Seminole groups who broke away from the Creek people, according to BlackPast

Freedman Caesar Bowlegs contributed a lot to Seminole and freedman history in various ways but mainly through his well-respected job as an interpreter in the 19th century. He could move easily between both Creek and Seminole communities. Both Indians and whites in the Seminole Nation (now Oklahoma), greatly respected him.

He was born in the Seminole Nation around 1843. He and his parents were slaves of Eliza Bowlegs. Historians say that during the Civil War, Bowlegs traveled north to Kansas with the Loyal Seminoles and maroons but returned to the nation when the war ended. He then worked as a mail carrier between Fort Gibson and Wewoka before operating a toll bridge over Wewoka Creek in the 1890s. He also buried criminals for the Seminoles after the criminals had been killed.

Thanks to his language skills, Bowlegs soon started working as a personal interpreter for white physicians Dr. C. P. Lynn and Dr. Virgil Berry. Lynn was the first white physician to practice medicine among the Seminoles and Berry succeeded him. Since Bowlegs also knew the Seminole communities very well, he also served as a guide to the doctors during their tenures. For example, in May 1898 when Berry started work, Bowlegs did not only become his interpreter and guide but also an intermediary and an expert on Indian and maroon mores.

Bowlegs also learned a few medical skills and became Berry’s medical assistant, helping him to attend to patients, administer anesthetics, and so on.

It is documented that during an epidemic of smallpox, Bowlegs and Berry inoculated themselves before traveling throughout the Seminole nation with the aim to vaccinate the entire nation.

As stated by writer Kevin Mulroy, Bowlegs, through his work with the two physicians, “helped gain widespread acceptance for scientific principles and medical technology among the Seminoles and freedmen.”

Though Bowlegs’ story may not be known to everyone, his role as physicians’ interpreter and guide was, according to Mulroy, “a position of considerable importance.”

At the time of his death in 1912 in Seminole County, Oklahoma, Bowlegs was a leader in the Presbyterian Church, helping with the process of acculturation among the Seminoles and freedmen.

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