Osceola was born around 1804 among the Creek Indians in Georgia but moved to Florida with his mother. While still in his teens, he fought against Andrew Jackson in the first phase of the Seminole Wars (1817-18). The Seminole Wars were waged over the government's attempt to move the Seminoles off their land and onto a reservation in Arkansas. Though Osceola was not a chief, he was the dominant military leader of the Seminoles, using brilliant guerrilla tactics to harass the government troops. In 1835 he plunged his knife into the treaty he was asked to sign that would move his people from their swamplands in the Southeast to the unoccupied territory west of the Mississippi. This action precipitated the Second Seminole War--a seven-year game of cat-and-mouse in the Florida swamps against federal troops.
Tricked into talking peace, Osceola was captured in 1837 while carrying a white flag of truce. He was imprisoned in Fort Moultrie, South Carolina. This treachery so outraged George Catlin that he went immediately to the prison. He and Osceola became friends and Osceola willingly posed for his portrait. Soon after this portrait was completed, Osceola died of malaria.
Osceola's name was derived from the Indian term "Asiyahola," the cry given by those taking the ceremonial black drink that was supposed to cleanse the body and spirit.