CABALLO, JUAN (1812?–1882). Juan Caballo, also known as Juan Coheia, Juan Cavallo, Gopher John, and John Horse, a Black Seminole warrior, diplomat, and civil leader, was a successful farmer and stockman in Florida in the early 1800s. His parents are believed to have been of mixed heritage (African, Spanish, and American Indian). His birth place is believed to be Thonotassassa in East Florida. Caballo, like many of the Black Seminole Indians (also called maroons), began his life as a slave of the Seminole Indians. In 1843, after he helped a group of Seminoles reach Indian Territory, he was granted his freedom. Throughout his life he served not only the interests of Black Seminoles but also assisted the Seminoles in numerous negotiations with whites. He was fluent in at least four languages. Caballo first achieved prominence during the Second Seminole War as a negotiator and military leader. The conflict had begun in the early 1830s when President Andrew Jackson initiated a policy to move the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast to western lands. At first many Seminoles were willing to move west, but their attitude changed once whites began kidnapping their slaves. Seminoles also began to worry about protection of their slaves once they arrived in the West. In 1835 these concerns turned into armed resistance. Once the United States Army promised to allow the Black Seminoles to accompany their Seminole masters, bands of Indians and their slaves began to surrender.
Between 1838 and 1842, Caballo traveled between Florida and Indian Territory helping Indians and other maroons to relocate. During the last two years of the war, he was responsible for convincing at least 535 belligerents to surrender. As in the Seminole homeland, once the groups arrived in Indian Territory, Black Seminoles established autonomous communities adjacent to their Seminole masters. Caballo's band settled on the Little River in Oklahoma at a place he named Wewoka, the "Village of Refuge." Life in the territory was extremely difficult for both Seminoles and Black Seminoles due to the domination of the Creek Indians. Seminoles allowed their slaves to own weapons and to control their own labor. The Creeks put intense pressure on the Seminoles to adopt the more stringent Creek slave codes. By 1849 Caballo, in conjunction with Seminole leader Coacoochee, organized a group of dissatisfied maroons and Indians to leave the territory and settle in Mexico, where slavery was outlawed. Mexican authorities provided the group with land and supplies in exchange for their promise to patrol the area and subdue renegade Comanche and Apache Indians. For his service to Mexico in fighting Indians, Juan Caballo was given the title of captain in the Mexican army.
By 1870, the internal problems of Mexico forced the Moscogos, as they were called by the Mexicans, to abandon their lands and return to the United States. Many of the Black Seminoles entered the United States Army as scouts, on the army's promise that they and their families would eventually be allowed to move to their own land in Oklahoma. Always skeptical of the white man's promises, Caballo refused to join the Black Seminole scouts, though he served them as an unofficial interpreter at times. In December 1873, John Kibbetts, Caballo's longtime second-in-command, beat out the elder leader in a vote for civil chief. Despite the loss, Black Seminoles continued to rely on Caballo's diplomatic skills. Dissatisfied with the delays of the government in giving the Black Seminoles a permanent home, Caballo returned to Mexico in 1876 with a band of followers. Sometime in late 1882, he died while on a mission to Mexico City to secure previously issued government land grants. The exact circumstances of his death are unknown. Some say he was murdered by outlaws; others believe that he died in a Mexico City hospital of pneumonia. During his life, the chief had survived four assassination attempts by various individuals unhappy with his ability to gain positive results for his people. This fact gives some credence to the murder theory. He was married to Susan July and had one son, Joe Coon.
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, E. Douglas Sivad, "CABALLO, JUAN," accessed August 14, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fcacl.
Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.