Seminole Wars: Monuments, Museums, and Commemorations

     “Only one American in six ever takes a course in American history after graduating from high school. Where then do Americans learn about the past? From many sources, of course…but surely most of all from the landscape” says James W. Loewen in his book Lies Across America. In my research I found that a major reason the costly Seminole Wars are not a well-remembered conflict was because the Civil War came directly on its heels, eclipsing it. Because of this, I think it’s very important that historical sites  give thorough and relatively unbiased information on these Wars that contain so many hard-learned lessons in military decisions and conduct as well as cross-cultural interaction.  In this part of my project I tried to identify where the sites were commemorating the conflict thoroughly and accurately , and where sites could use more work in order to better commemorate this conflict.

     The first site I visited was Dade Battlefield Historic State Park, located in Bushnell, FL. This was the site of Dade’s Massacre, the first conflict in the Second Seminole War. Frank Laumer, who wrote the book Massacre!, was a contributor to the information at the park, which included a mini-museum in the visitor’s center, a short trail marked by plaques detailing the conflict, a few memorial markers, and a reconstruction of the makeshift breastwork where the American soldiers made their last stand. The park as a whole was a goldmine of information, with a balanced approach to the subject overall.  The museum in the visitor’s center contained a re-enactment video of the massacre, various artifacts like cannonballs from the battle, recreations of US soldier and Seminole clothes, and information about the Seminole Wars as a whole on display boards. The information given was comprehensive and maintained a fairly neutral tone – I didn’t feel a strong leaning towards either side even though it was all about a massacre of US soldiers, meaning they probably did a good job of presenting both sides. 

Marker at the site of Major Dade's death, reading "HERE MAJOR DADE FELL"

 

I was especially impressed with the park part of the Dade Battlefield site. It contained a replica of the makeshift breastworks that was the site of the last stand of Dade’s men, a short trail with informational markers, and a few monuments built at the sites where some of the officers fell. The informational markers contained simply factual information about the attack that corresponded with secondary source info I had read, and the markers over the officers’ death sites were simple, honoring their deaths but not focused on eliciting inspiration, anger, or other extreme responses that biased monuments often try to draw. I felt this approach was appropriate for a site that is part of the Florida State Parks effort to preserve historic sites.

 

 

 

 

 

 

      The St. Augustine National Cemetery was, of course, not designed to be primarily an informational commemoration, but rather a tribute to the memories of men who died in these wars. According to the inscriptions on the memorials and the informational plaque on Dade’s Massacre stationed at the entrance, the cemetery (in which was interred soldiers from many different eras and wars) commemorates only the 2nd Seminole War, and contains accurate information on the War and Dade’s Massacre. The “individually unidentified remains of 1468 soldiers of the Florida Indian Wars 1835-1842”, including Dade’s command, are interred beneath 3 pyramids in the graveyard. This sedate, respectful memorial is watched over by a tall white obelisk containing details of the War and the “gallant men [who] perished in battle and by disease”.

 

The room in the Castillo where the Seminoles were imprisoned

     The Castillo de San Marcos, an old Spanish fort in St. Augustine, is a popular tourist destination. What happened at the fort encompassed a wide range of events and time periods. During the Seminole Wars it served as a prison for Osceola, Coacoochee, and many other Seminole chiefs who were captured by General Jesup under a flag of truce. However, the fort itself has barely any information on this. I had to ask the ranger there which room the Seminole chiefs were imprisoned in, and when she pointed it out to me, all I found was an empty room with two plaques – about Spanish shipping and food storage. The ranger said that they are doing updates on the displays and exhibits of the fort soon, and she was told that they may update them to include more information on the Seminoles. However, she also said that they have said this before when fort exhibits were updated – according to her they are very slow about things like this.  

     There was nothing in this room even mentioning the Seminoles. Nor were they mentioned in the ranger’s brief talk given to groups of tourists on the general history of the fort. The ranger herself knew about the subject and was able to tell me some interesting facts though. In the research I had done, the sources that mentioned the Seminoles’ imprisonment and escape described how they escaped through a window in the room, jumped into the moat, and got away. However, the ranger said that recent research has shown that the window (shown in the left picture above) was way too high for them to have escaped from, and the moat (shown in the right picture above) would have been an extremely dangerous jump.

 She said that evidence pointed to the Seminoles having been able to leave right through the front door; she suggested that the guards may have been asleep or paid off. However, a resident of the area who helped us out when visiting another site (below) protested that this new theory couldn’t be true, pointing out that Osceola had not escaped with the others, and saying if it had been this easy, the famed chief, although ill, would have been able to escape as well. Obviously, this point is debatable on both sides. On an interesting side note, another fact I learned from the ranger was that the Seminoles had often looked out the window that was over the door of their prison room, and so, using the knives that for some reason the guards hadn’t taken from them, they chiseled a foothold out of the wall so they could reach the window more easily.

 

 

     The thing that most disappointed me about the Castillo de San Marcos was the information that they did have regarding the Seminoles. Currently, the only information on the Seminoles at the fort was on a plaque that contained a broad timeline of the fort and history of the area:

— “Failure of Spain to control lawless Indians and escaped slaves leeds to American intervention and eventually a treaty with Spain. The territory is later annexed by the United States.” This sounds very much like President Monroe’s justification for bringing US forces into Spanish FL that was written in 1818:

      “The inability, however, of Spain to maintain her authority over the territory and Indians within her limits, and in consequence to fulfil the treaty, ought not to expose the United States to other and greater injuries. When the authority of Spain ceases to exist there, the United States have a right to pursue their enemy, on a principle of self-defence.” (James Monroe to House of Representatives, March 25, 1818)

     I think that, almost 200 years later, this explanation should be accompanied by a more thorough explanation of the motives behind America’s invasion of Spain. The sources I looked at for this project make it clear that it was not just a case of the heroic American troops protecting settlers from being victims of “lawless” Seminoles and escaped slaves, and I think it’s important to acknowledge other motives behind the invasion, like desire for land or the threat to Southern slaveholding.

— “1837 Osceola, a leader of the Seminole Indians, is captured near St. Augustine and imprisoned in the fort.” I think that any mention of Osceola should include the manner of his capture, as it is an important turning point in the war showing the increasing desperation of the US army over the length and lack of success of the war, as well as a dishonorable military action criticized even by many Americans that should not be ignored. This brief entry also did not mention Coacoochee and over a dozen more Seminoles who were imprisoned alongside him. 

     I understand that the Castillo has a long history, and cannot include as much information about the Seminole Wars because of all the other history that it should commemorate. However, out of all the sites I visited it is the one that attracts the most visitors by far, and so I think that there is a need for more information on the Seminoles, and an update and attempt to be more balanced in the information already there. Because of how well-visited it is, for many people, this is probably the only information they will receive about the Seminole Wars.

 

The other sites that had to do with the capture of Osceola were located in a neighborhood near St. Augustine. Overall, the most difficult part of my research project may very well have been trying to get to these sites. I found out about both through blogs and articles found by google searching. The first site was a marker on the capture site of Osceola. This site is not the most tourist friendly, to say the least. I found out about it first from an blog I found online about St. Augustine sites:

http://staugustineteamrealty.com/TheStAugBlog/?tag=osceola-capture-site-st-augustine-fl-2

If it hadn’t been for the step-by-step directions on the blog, I probably would never have found the site. We had to sketchily walk around a chain-link fence in a residential neighborhood somewhere south of St. Augustine, and then down an unpaved sand road surrounded by dense brush, palmetto, and pines as far out as I could see. According to the blog it was a good 1500 ft out, and eventually we lost sight of the road we had come in on. It was completely deserted except for the occasional gopher tortoise trundling across the path. After about 10 min of walking we finally reached the site.  This blank stone chunk is the sole marker of the site where Osceola was captured. I had to climb over some palmetto fronds and brush to get this picture of it, and it seems in danger of being overgrown sometime in the future. It’s a fairly significant site – marking the event that showed increasing American desperation and willingness to resort to extreme measures, as well as the taking out of the battlefield one of the Seminoles’ greatest leaders. When I spoke to a couple people in the surrounding neighborhoods to get directions, both knew about this site and what it marked. But I’m just not sure the casual tourist is going to be hiking out here anytime soon, let alone even know about it.

     The other site of interest in the area was the site where Ft. Peyton was – the closest fort to the Osceola capture site. It was only briefly used during the Second Seminole War as a military outpost before burning down in 1842, five years after being established by Gen. Jesup in 1837. Without the help of clear directions from a blog, this site proved to be even more difficult to find. I read about it in a 2009 article that described how it had been restored:

http://staugustine.com/stories/101909/news_2097089.shtml

     Luckily we met a resident of a surrounding neighborhood who offered to help us find the site. Mr. Jim Hunt had a personal connection to the Seminole Wars – he told us about how his great-great-grandfather, James Franklin Hunt, had fought as part of a militia in either the 2nd or the 3rd Seminole War. Apparently he hoped to get a land grant for his service, as his father had for his service in the War of 1812. Mr. Hunt didn’t think that he ever received this land grant, but his family eventually settled around the area, and Mr. Hunt and his wife still live here today.  He was a surveyor, and had actually surveyed the Fort Peyton ruins site around 15 or 20 years ago. Because the area was very different back then, we had great difficulty finding it. The first route we tried, we spent maybe 15 min fighting our way through a plot of forest, tripping over fallen logs and snaking vines and being scratched and smacked around by branches before admitting defeat. If nothing else, it certainly gave me a much greater appreciation for the difficulty American soldiers must have had fighting their way through untamed Florida forest and swamp on their way to fighting the Seminoles. After this we tried a different route with more success. Our guide drove down a sandy road that was partially overgrown. We had actually passed this road before while we were looking for the site on our own, but couldn’t see down it so assumed there was nothing there. A little ways down we came to a clearing:

 A marker that read “Place of Historical Interest: Fort Peyton” was over the blank marker similar to the Osceola capture site’s marker. The sign in the background gives a brief overview of the fort’s history. However, this site was still very difficult to find, and practically speaking, inaccessible to the casual tourist. The major problem that faces these two sites is that they are located in a residential neighborhood, which makes making them accessible and obvious a difficult task. In a 2001 Ocala Star-Banner newspaper article (Ocala is actually where Fort King, the destination for Dade’s doomed command, used to be located), Ron Word writes about how the markers at this site and at the Fort Peyton site are being run down and forgotten, as residential building goes on all around it. He says “The Seminole Tribe of Florida, St. Johns County, and the St. Augustine Historical Society want to upgrade the monuments.” The Fort Peyton site has been restored, but the Osceola capture site is still waiting for this restoration, 11 years later. It remains to see whether it ever will.

 

 

Comments

  1. Hey Avery! I find your project fascinating, I’ve already learned so much about the Seminole Wars from it. It’s so true, not many people know about them at all, because compared to the Civil War and other issues that the United States was dealing with at the time, they are considered relatively insignificant. I learned a very little bit about them in high school, and I’ve been to St. Augustine so I’ve seen a few monuments, like the cemetery, but that’s about the only exposure I’ve had to information about the wars (that and one of my friends goes to Florida State, whose mascot is the Seminoles…) I don’t think it’s right that all those sites were so difficult to find, because while they might not be the most important historical artifacts, they are still a part of America’s history, so I definitely think they should be shown a little more respect and be taken care of. I look forward to hearing more about what you find, thanks for sharing!