Sometimes signs simply don’t tell it all …

The grandson of the Seminole chief who resisted the loss of his tribes lands.

The grandson of the Seminole chief who resisted the loss of his tribes lands.

Sometimes signs simply don’t tell it all. If you have a surface knowledge of history, you probably know that the Seminole Nation was one of the Native American people that first colonists, and later the U.S. Government, “displaced.” What is the word I want to describe their treatment? Unfair? Detestable? Corrupt? Dastardly? Yep, all of those.

The Seminoles emerged as the principal inhabitants of what is Florida today after the Calusa and Timucua tribes were decimated by early white settlers. Fighting caused some fatalities, but European diseases introduced by the Conquistadores practically exterminated these people. The survivors were absorbed into the Seminole tribe as were portions of other tribes in the area. The tribe was a true “melting pot” as many of the villages became havens for escaped slaves, some being accepted as peers by the Seminole. (But, some blacks became their slaves as well)

When the English gained control of Florida in the mid-1700s, the first serious influx of white settlers invaded the “Fourteenth Colony.” The Spanish had been less than enthusiastic caretakers of their Florida holdings. Their focus lay further west and south. In most ways Florida had been a disappointment to Toledo – no gold, poor soil, disease infested, war-like inhabitants … those facts didn’t pique Spain’s interest. Their Florida Colony was held at arm’s length. Because of this the Spanish and Seminole relationship wasn’t strained past minor hostilities that arose spasmodically. Then the American Revolution occurred.

Two things happened. The Tories (loyalists) fled the fledgling United States where they weren’t welcome (Having people wanting to kill you IS a sure sign of not being welcome). Many crossed the border into Florida which remained “loyal” to the king. The second event was that Florida was returned to Spain as a result of the Treaty of Paris (1783), ending the both the Revolutionary War and a wider conflict between Europeans. It meant Spain was given something it was luke warm about receiving. In many ways it was like the Wizard of Oz being congratulated on getting a blind date with the Wicked Witch of the West. Spain never took full control. Anarchy reigned.

The Seminoles had seen what happened to the Cherokee, Creeks, Calusa and Timucua. When they tried to protect their lands from an increasing number of white farms and plantations, things became violent. Raids, destruction and massacres became more frequent. Both sides were guilty. Basically, the Seminoles were indicted for protecting what was theirs. Enter Andrew Jackson. Jackson cared little about minor things like a country’s boundary. He gave the Spanish governor an ultimatum, the governor caved, and Jackson conducted what became know as the 1st Seminole War. Though the Seminoles made brave efforts to defend, it was more of a slaughter than a war. The whole story of Florida’s early days was one of violence, broken treaties, violated white flags, false accusations, murder, destruction and anarchy. It makes the old West seem as menacing as a Quaker prayer vigil by comparison. For example, the Seminole Wars were the most costly of any fought against Native Americans. The Seminoles never signed a “final” peace treaty with the US government.

The sign pictured at the beginning of this post is testimony to the ruthlessness of the period’s history. Billy Bowlegs III was the grandson of the primary leader of the Seminole Nation during what is called the 3rd Seminole War. After realizing that he’d been cheated when he signed the Treaty of Payne’s Landing in 1832 agreeing relocate his people to Oklahoma, he successfully resisted forcible eviction until 1858. Exiled from his “country,” he died of smallpox in 1864 on the Oklahoma reservation. Interestingly, Billy served with distinction as a captain in the Union Army during the Civil War.

His grandson, for whom the sign is erected, returned to his grandfather’s home lands years after the great chief’s death. Billy Bowlegs III became an outstanding member and leader of the Seminoles that remained in Florida.  Sometimes signs simply don’t tell it all.


The "original" Billy Bowlegs - Seminole Chief - 1858, six years before his death.

The “original” Billy Bowlegs – Seminole Chief – 1858, six years before his death.


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