Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Along the Fort King Military Road: Dispatches from the Sunshine State IX

I recently took a road trip from Gainesville down through the scrub cattle country of central Florida. This is a part of Florida that most tourists (indeed most Floridians) only see from their car windows as they drive down Interstate 75 at 70 mph (if not faster). That is a shame, because there is so much to see, along with a great deal of hidden history, if you know where to look. My route took me south from Gainesville to Williston where I joined US Highway 41, a main north-south route paralleling I-75. This highway runs from the Georgia border, near Valdosta, south through central Florida to Tampa and the Gulf coast before turning east near Naples to cross the Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades as the Tamiami Trail. It ends on the shores of Biscayne Bay south of Miami.

The area I explored was the heart of the territory held since the early 1700s by the Seminoles, a southern branch of the Creek tribal confederation originally found in what is now Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. A dominion of Spain since 1513, this region of Florida hosted a number of Spanish missions and cattle ranches as well as native Timucuan Indians. There was also the Alacuha Seminoles led by Chief Cowkeeper who also raised cattle in this area.

Florida was transferred to British sovereignty by treaty in 1763 after the Seven Years War (known as the French and Indian War in this side of the pond). The British naturalist William Bartram traveled throughout this area in 1774, describing the Seminole cattle herds on the great Alachua savannah now known as Paynes Prairie (a tribute to the great Alachua Seminole chief King Payne) located just south of Gainesville. Florida did not remain British long, however, and was returned to Spanish rule in the 1780s following the British defeat during the American Revolution.

The infant United States flexed its military muscle and in 1814 American soldiers commanded by General Andrew Jackson defeated the Creek in their original tribal lands in the former southeastern colonies. They later pursued them into Spanish Florida in 1816 in what became known as the First Seminole War which ended in 1818. This was America’s first “foreign war” as Spain did not cede Florida to the United States until 1821.

With the influx of settlers into the new American territory, the Seminoles (this became a collective term for all Native Americans in Florida) were forced to move farther south. This resulted in clashes and loss of life which the new territorial government found unacceptable. The Seminoles provided sanctuary for fugitive slaves in the territory and this led to a further deterioration of relations. The white settlers also challenged the Seminoles for cattle grazing rights. Something had to give. The Treaty of Moultrie Creek, in 1823, established a number of Seminole reservations in the central Florida scrub country as a means of segregating the native population so that it could not interfere with further settlement of the territory.

Even with the creation of reservations, Seminoles and white settlers continued to clash and a number of forts and military fortifications were established throughout the Florida territory to keep an eye on the reservations and their inhabitants. Two of the most important of these were Fort Brooke, established at the confluence of the Hillsborough River and Tampa Bay, at present-day Tampa, in 1824, and Fort King, today Ocala, just over 100 miles to the northeast, in 1827. The Fort King Military Road, a wide path cut through scrub country (roughly following the route of State Route 41 today) connected these two fortifications.

The government in Washington quickly realized that the Seminoles were an impediment to the settling of the Florida territory. Following the passage of the Indian Removal Act in May 1830 during the administration of President Andrew Jackson, who was no friend to Native Americans, the government convinced a number of native chiefs that their people would be better off in unsettled territory west of the Mississippi acquired from the French in the Louisiana Purchase. This led to the Treaty of Payne’s Landing, in 1832, and plans for the westward resettlement of Florida’s Seminoles. Both Fort Brooke and Fort King would play a major role in protecting settlers from encroachment by the Seminoles while assisting in their resettlement to “Indian Territory” in what is now Oklahoma.

The treaty was ratified in 1834 giving the Seminoles three years to accomplish the move. A core group of Seminole under chiefs Osceola and Micanopy opposed this plan and chose to defend their homeland against further American expansion. Fort King, which had closed in the meantime, was reopened to enforce the treaty and to facilitate the westward migration. Seminole continued to clash with white settlers and Osceola and Micanopy conducted hit and run raids throughout the territory. Washington responded by sending more troops to Florida to reinforce the existing garrisons. By 1835 there were approximately 550 regular troops and more volunteers stationed throughout the Florida territory. The situation remained tense and Fort King, with a garrison consisting of a single company of 50 men, feared it might be overrun.

A decision was made to transfer two additional companies from Fort Brooke to Fort King. Two days before Christmas, 108 American troops under the command of Major Francis L. Dade, departed Fort Brooke for the march up the military road to reinforce the garrison at Fort King. A band of Seminole shadowed their route almost from the outset, and on December 28, the Seminole war party ambushed the column along the military road just a short distance from the present day town of Bushnell. The troops dug in to fend off the attackers but were eventually overwhelmed. During the skirmish all but three of the American soldiers were killed. Two made their way back to Fort Brooke and one of these died a few days later; only one lived to tell what happened on that fateful day.

The Dade massacre, as it came to be called, precipitated the Second Seminole War which eventually forced the Seminoles southward out of central Florida and into the swampy Everglades. The United States eventually committed over 30,000 troops to the struggle and suffered nearly 1500 battle deaths. With the expenditure of millions of dollars, the Second Seminole War was the longest and costliest of all the Indian wars fought throughout the 19th century. Osceola was captured in 1837 and imprisoned at Fort Moultrie, in Charleston, South Carolina, where he died the following year. His Seminole warriors continued to fight until 1842 by which time they were all but eradicated. Most of those who did survive were moved west to Oklahoma while a few small bands remained on reservations scattered across the Everglades. The peace treaty ending the Second Seminole War was not formally signed until 1934.

This war did not, however, bring a final and lasting peace to Florida. The few remaining Seminole in Florida retaliated again when the American authorities continued to press for their final removal from Florida. Their hit and run raiding parties against settler communities resulted in a third and final war between 1855 and 1858 which left only a hand full of Seminole in Florida.

I was thinking about this mostly forgotten chapter of American and Floridian history as I wandered through the scrub land near Bushnell where Major Dade and his band of soldiers met a quick and unmerciful end. This is still cattle country, and herds of cracker cattle and Black Angus wander the Florida prairie here in central Florida. It is quiet and peaceful now and it is difficult to imagine what happened here on a quiet December morning in 1835. Or is it?


  1. Thank you for the history you brought up here. I lived in Florida (Dade county incidentally) since 1980. Finding this facts is eye opening and makes it easy plan my family's next vacation trips.
    On previous trips between Tampa-Orlando-lake Okeechobee one would never fatom this dormant, sun drenched places were once theater of one of the most fierce battles in our land.

  2. There is a section of the preserved Fort King Military Road inside Fort Cooper State Park with a drive for road route markers and a hiking trail along the "actual Route".