Bushnell – The note on the road map says “state historic site.” It’s so close to Interstate 75, I pull off and have a quick look.
The kids are getting restless in the back seat, counting the signs that advertise the state’s better-known tourist destinations.
“Now how far is it to Disney World?” my son, Kai, 6, asks for the tenth time in less than an hour.
“Not as far as the last time you asked me,” I respond as 10,000 dads have before me.
Driving down a sleepy country road past forests and fields, I tell the little ones about our destination, the Dade Battlefield Historic State Park.
“This was once Indian country,” I begin. “In these very woods once roamed a proud people called the Seminoles.”
History books don’t talk much about this chapter of American history. But the battle of the Second Seminole War, fought on this land nearly 200 years ago, is studied by scholars even today.
After driving through the gate and into the parking lot, we climb out of the car and head toward the half-mile nature trail that winds through the park.
“Will we meet any Seminoles today?” Nia, my three-year-old daughter, asks.
The mighty warriors were far too clever to be seen, I say, but if we keep quiet, perhaps we might hear a twig snap or leaf rustle as the native Americans move through the pines around us.
It was on a day like this, back in the winter of 1835, that Maj. Francis Dade and 107 men marched from Fort Brooke in what is now Tampa to Fort King in present-day Ocala.
“This trail actually follows the old Fort King Military Road,” I explain. “Soldiers walked through these woods just like we’re doing.” Their eyes grow wide, and I continue my tale. The United States wanted the Seminoles’ land. The government told the natives to move west or fight.
The Seminoles, under the leadership of chiefs Jumper, Micanopy and Alligator, waited patiently for their chance to strike.
Three days after Christmas, when Dade and his band of cold, tired and hungry men reached this point in the trail, Chief Jumper emerged from the palmettos and let loose a war whoop. Upon hearing that call to action, 180 brightly painted warriors rose from their hiding places and fired. The first volley dropped Dade and more than half of his troops and ignited the longest and costliest native American war in U.S. history (the history is detailed with a 12-minute video).
As I describe this scene, my children scan the trees, looking for some sign of the battle that had happened so long ago. “Don’t worry,” I assure them. “The Seminoles are very nice. In fact, if you’re good, we might meet them some day.”
Back in the car and on our way, I wonder if my children are too young to start learning about Florida’s history. But then my son asks, “Where do the Seminoles live now?”
“Down in the Everglades,” I answer. “Do you want to go?”
That’s when the proverbial light bulb goes off in my head. Why not take my family on a driving tour of all the Seminole historic sites in Florida? What better way to learn about our state than to combine a history lesson with a family vacation?
To see it all would mean a very long trip. The battles of the Second Seminole War were fought throughout the state, from the northwest to the Florida Keys. The action started in the north and headed south as the Indians sought refuge in areas where white men dared not venture.
In the spring of 1836, Gen. Winfield Scott led a beleaguered band of Georgia volunteers to the area that is now called Inverness to rest and recover from their wounds alongside Lake Holathlikaha. The soldiers built a stockade out of rough-hewn logs, fearing another attack like the one that had wiped out Dade’s command. Scott left a young major named Mark Cooper to protect the position.
The Seminole native Osceola quickly set up camp on the opposite side of the lake, but despite several skirmishes, Cooper held his own, and the fort continued to serve as an observation station and supply depot throughout the rest of the war.
Each March, one of the battles that was fought is re-enacted. In addition to being a good stop on the Seminole History Trail, Fort Cooper State Park, located in Inverness north of Tampa, offers hiking, canoeing and nature observation.
Farther south along the old Fort King Military Road, hidden away on the banks of the Hillsborough River near present-day Thonotosassa (pronounced tho-no-ta-sá-sa), you’ll find another reconstructed Seminole War-era fort.
In March 1836, federal troops, still reeling from what had become known as “the Dade Massacre,” knew they had to keep the road between Fort Brooke and Fort King open if they wanted to hold on to Florida.
But the Seminoles destroyed the makeshift bridges across the river as fast as the soldiers could build them. A blockhouse was needed to defend the fort. Fort Alabama lasted about three months before the Indians burned that too. The soldiers returned the following winter, rebuilding the structure and calling it Fort Foster.
The fort helped protect the bridge and road for two years, but it was eventually abandoned. In the late 1830s, long before doctors understood the mosquito’s role in transmitting disease, yellow fever and malaria killed more soldiers than Seminole bullets or arrows.
The fort was forgotten for more than a century until 1973, when a local rancher deeded the land to the Florida Park Service, which painstakingly reconstructed the building down to the most minute detail. Re-enactors often garrison the fort on the third weekend of every month, offering visitors a glimpse of what frontier life was like in the 1830s.
After touring the fort, visitors can paddle the river, one of the most scenic in Florida, hike one of several trails or cool off in Hillsborough River State Park’s revamped swimming pool (opens on Memorial Day). Next to the pool is the Spirit of the Woods Poolside Cafe.
As federal troops poured into the Florida Territory, the Seminoles traveled south into the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp to avoid the troops. From these wilderness sanctuaries, the Indians would raid settlements and army bases, then retreat back into the swamp. As the war dragged on year after year, it became harder for the Seminoles to find the food and supplies needed to sustain their communities. In August 1840, on a moonlit night, Chief Chakaika led a band of more than 100 warriors across the open water of Florida Bay to attack a settlement at Indian Key.
In the early 1800s, when pirates still ruled the Caribbean and the Florida Straits, this tiny island was ground central for the lucrative “wrecking” trade. So many merchant traders wrecked on the nearby coral reefs that an entire industry developed just to salvage goods from sunken ships.
By the time the Second Seminole War started, Key West had become one of the richest cities in the United States, and Indian Key, just up the coast, played a crucial role in keeping the southernmost point supplied.
Chakaika knew Indian Key had a storehouse filled with badly needed food and ammunition. His raid, the only one ever carried out at night, was a masterful act of navigation, prompting naval officials to wonder whence it was launched.
Today, there aren’t many ruins left at Indian Key Historic State Park, but like everyplace else in the island chain, the spot is well worth a visit, if only to see fish, snorkel and canoe or kayak on the turquoise waters that have earned this region a reputation world-wide. Outside of the Keys, Billie Swamp Safari holds a re-enactment (late February or early March) of the Second Seminole War.
After the raid at Indian Key, the Seminoles retreated to the safety of the swamps, where sporadic fighting continued into the late 1850s. The Seminoles never formally surrendered, doing their best to maintain a tribal identity through harsh economic times.
Today, travelers can get a firsthand look at what life was like in a Seminole village by visiting the AH-TAH-THI-KI (“A Place to Learn”) Museum on the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation in Hendry County.
The museum is located near Alligator Alley (take Exit 49 off I-75, then head 17 miles north on County Road 833 to West Boundary Road). It is about halfway across the state, making it easily accessible from either coast. A popular destination for school groups, the gallery exhibits are always a big hit, even for my theme park-spoiled youngsters.
“Are those real people?” my daughter asks as she points to a display featuring a Seminole family in a canoe.
The scene looks so real, I am tempted to toss a fishing lure in among the lily pads, hoping to hook a bass for dinner.
“No,” I answer. “It’s just pretend. But if you like, we can go meet some real Seminoles.”
My daughter, fascinated by the brightly colored clothing, agrees to visit the village.
A raised boardwalk from the museum winds through the swamp to a living Indian village, complete with a chickee, the traditional Seminole dwelling. The open-air, thatched-roof huts are as practical today as they were more than 150 years ago, when Chakaika ruled these swamps.
“Welcome, little one,” a woman says, extending her hand to my child.
Nia smiles and accepts the invitation. The amusement park can wait for another day.