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Fort Foster and the Seminole War: A Forgotten Fort in a Forgotten War
The concrete jungle of today’s Florida looks nothing like the Florida of the early 19th century. Where interstates, high-rises, and amusement parks sit today were once thick forests of cypress and oaks, swaps and grassy pastures. These lands were also scene to a series of brutally violent conflicts little remembered today, known as the Seminole Wars – a war which technically lasts to this day.
Even though Ponce de León first discovered Florida in 1513, the few permanent European settlements in Florida remained mainly along the coasts, including America’s oldest continuously inhabited city of St. Augustine. After ceding Florida in 1763 to the British in exchange for Cuba at the end of the Seven Years’ War, Florida once again became a Spanish colony in 1784 as part of the British peace treaty ending the American War of Independence.
Inhabiting the interior of early Florida was a Native American people known as the Seminoles. The Seminoles formed as a tribe in the 18th century as Native Americans, most notably members of the Creeks, migrated into the Florida peninsula from the areas now known as Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. During the late 1700s and early 1800s, runaway slaves also found a home among the Seminoles. The Seminoles were not considered hostile and were content to hunt, farm and raise cattle.
For a long time, the Seminoles lived in relative peace with European colonists. Since the European colonists remained close to the coast and the Seminoles generally remained in the interior, little friction existed between them. All this began to change as British, and then American, colonization pushed south.
Outlaws from Georgia began to raid Seminole settlements, stealing horses and cattle, and showing no remorse if the deed resulted in the murder of any Indians. In retaliation, Seminoles launched raids against innocent settlers in Georgia. Slave catchers ignored the fact Florida was a Spanish colony and pursued runaway slaves into Florida. Often times, they would not only seek capture of the runaways, but also simply round up any free blacks living among the Seminoles. Additionally, tensions began to mount between the Creeks in Georgia and the Seminoles. Topping it off was a Spanish Empire losing power to control her colonies. The stage was set for trouble.
The trouble began in November 1817 when General Edmund Gaines attempted to apprehend the Miccosukee chief Neamathla. A week later, a group of Miccosukee, Seminole and Creek warriors sought revenge by ambushing a small military transport column traveling along the Apalachicola River, resulting in the death of thirty-five US soldiers and six women. The First Seminole was had begun.
When reports of the ambush reached Washington, President James Monroe immediately ordered General Andrew Jackson to subdue the Indian warriors. Jackson’s force of 3,500, which included a large number of friendly Creek warriors, invaded Florida in March 1818. For the next eleven weeks, Jackson carried out a vicious campaign against the Seminoles and their villages, crushing the Seminole’s fighting power. During the operation, Jackson sparked a diplomatic incident with the execution of two British subjects. He also captured the Spanish settlements of St. Marks and Pensacola. Jackson’s invasion convinced the Spanish they lacked the power to control Florida, resulting in a treaty which seeded Florida to the United States in 1819. With the transfer of Florida to the United States, the First Seminole War officially concluded with the signing of a peace treaty in 1821 which confined the Seminoles to a reservation in Central Florida.
Conditions on the reservation proved harsh. Pressure also mounted on the Seminoles to surrender runaway slaves. The situation came to a head when Andrew Jackson, now President, signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830. The Act required the relocation of all Indians living east of the Mississippi to the Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. The Seminoles were forced to sign the Treaty of Payne’s Landing in 1832, wherein they surrendered all rights to their homes in Florida and agreed to the western relocation. The majority of Seminoles refused to comply with the Treaty and tensions mounted.
The bloody Second Seminole War broke out in December 1835 when Seminole and Black warriors raided and destroyed sugar plantations along the St. John’s River. On December 28th, the Seminole warrior Osceola murdered Indian Agent Wiley Thompson outside Fort King near present-day Ocala. Just to the south a column of 108 US solders under Major Francis Dade was marching from Ft. Brooke in Tampa along the King Military Road to reinforce Ft. King. As they approached the area of present-day Dade City, a large force of Seminoles ambushed and annihilated the column. Only three soldiers survived by playing dead.
The Second Seminole War proved to be the longest, costliest, and deadliest war fought by the United States against Indians. Despite rushing massive numbers of troops to the campaign, the United States forces suffered repeated and costly defeats as the Seminoles withdrew into the swamps of the Everglades. Harsh heat and rampant disease forced the Army to routinely suspend active campaigning during the summer months. A potential peace treaty broke down in March 1837 when Seminoles withdrew back into the swamps. Following the break-down of the peace treaty, the Army adopted a policy of taking into custody Seminole leaders when they came in under a flag of truce for negotiations. This policy resulted in the capture of numerous Seminole leaders including Osceola.
For the autumn campaign of 1837, the Army brought in over 9,000 troops. The Navy assisted by patrolling coasts and rivers, as well as providing sailors and Marines to garrison the large network of forts. The culmination of the campaign occurred on December 25, 1837, with the largest engagement of the conflict at the Battle of Okeechobee. Despite horrific casualties, the American forces under Colonel Zachary Taylor declared victory. Taylor was promoted to general and hailed as an American hero. In reality, the fight ended as a draw and allowed the Seminoles time to regroup in the safety of the Everglades.
By January 1838, only about one thousand Seminoles remained hidden in the dense Everglades. The commanding general of the American forces, General Thomas Jesup, recognized the futility of attempting to round of these few remaining Indians. However political pressure, particularly from the southern states, caused President Van Buren to refuse Jesup’s request to end the fighting. General Jesup prophetically warned the administration’s decision would result in “a continual waste of blood and treasure.”
Jesup was replaced with Zachary Taylor and the war continued to drag on with almost no real progress in capturing the remaining Seminoles. As public and congressional opposition to the war began to build, the administration ordered the Army to negotiate a peace with the Seminoles in 1839. Due to Seminole mistrust of the United States government, no agreement was reached. For the next three years, the Army used small boats and canoes to penetrate the Everglades in search of the remaining Seminoles, guided by captured Seminoles and blacks. Faced with increasing pressure, small groups of Seminoles were captured or turned themselves in. The United States finally declared the war over in August 1842. The seven years of fighting cost the United States 1,500 casualties (most due to disease), tens of thousands more casualties among militia, and approximately $30 million (for comparison, the Federal budget in 1836 was $25 million), all for the forcible removal of just over 4,000 Seminoles to the Indian Territory.
The final chapter of the Seminole Wars began on December 20, 1855, when Chief Holata Micco, known as Billy Bowlegs, led a force comprised of some of the 350 Seminoles remaining in the Everglades in an attack on a US military camp. Chief Bowlegs and his force of Seminole warriors fought a guerrilla war for the next two and a half years. The fighting ended in May 1858 when Chief Bowlegs, feeling his cause was lost, agreed to relocate to the Indian Territory along with 165 of his warriors in exchange for $8,000. The remaining few Seminoles refused surrender and continued hiding in the Everglades. Having never signed a peace treaty with the United States, the Seminoles remain technically at war with the United States.
Most people don’t realize it, yet reminders of the Seminole Wars exist throughout Florida to this day. Every town and city in Florida named “Fort,” such as Fort Lauderdale and Fort Meade, started as Seminole War forts. Very few of the actual forts remain, most long since dismantled, paved over and forgotten.
One Seminole Wars fort, while forgotten, fortunately escaped becoming a parking lot thanks to its location. The Fort King Military Road crossed the Hillsborough River at a spot just outside Tampa. Major Dade’s column passed this spot on their ill-fated march towards Fort King. The Army established Fort Alabama in March 1836 to guard the river crossing, but it was abandoned a few months later and Seminole warriors later burned the fort and the bridge. The bridge was rebuilt and another fort, Fort Foster, was established at the same location in the winter of 1836. The new fort, while primarily an Army fort, was garrisoned for a time by a company of US Navy sailors. Fort Foster remained in use until 1838 when it was abandoned for the final time due to health concerns.
Like so many other Seminole Wars forts, Fort Foster quickly fell into ruin and was soon lost from memory. Fort Foster might have remained forgotten if not for the establishment of the Hillsborough River State Park. In the 1970s, the remains of Fort Foster were discovered on land just across from the State Park on US 301. The landowner agreed to deed the land to the state for inclusion as part of Hillsborough River State Park. Following archaeological excavations, the state constructed a replica of the fort and the bridge it once guarded on the site.
Today, visitors can tour an interpretive center containing displays about the fort’s history and the Seminole Wars, as well as view artifacts recovered from the site. Fort Foster is open for ranger-led tours on weekends. Additionally, a group of dedicated reenactors provides living history demonstrations once a month. More information about the fort and upcoming events can be found at: http://www.floridastateparks.org/fortfoster/default.cfm.