Finding Osceola's Prison Cell

A couple of years ago I visited the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, formerly known as Fort Marion during the Second Seminole War, and inquired which room was Osceola's prison cell. I was informed by one of the park rangers that they are unsure, and that several theories have risen over the years on which was the correct room. Most old books and descriptions show the cell in the southwest corner of the fort. There was once a display on the eastern side, and many people thought that was it. A local schoolteacher got into the craze and proposed his own theory about it being on the south side. Years ago the fort used to have a life-size Osceola figure standing behind prison bars, but fortunately that was removed.

I invited Earl DeBary, his wife Betty, and their son Jeremy to come along in search of the cell. Earl has studied Osceola for almost 40 years and is quite knowledgeable on the famous Tustennuggee. We were armed with a copy of "Ponce de Leon Land and Florida War Record", written by Sergeant George M. Brown. This is an important book, because Sergeant Brown was caretaker and tour guide of the fort from 1885 to 1903. Brown can be considered as a credible writer when telling about the fort during the 2nd Seminole War, because he would no doubt meet people who were there as eyewitnesses during the war. Using Brown's book, the Debary's and I took off for our own informal investigation.

Entering the fort by the main gate on the south wall, we turn right and pass through two rooms that served as station for the guards on duty. The third room down is a small, dark room that has no window on the outside wall. This was where Coacoochee and Medicine Maker Talums Hadjo were kept prisoner after a large number of the Seminole & Miccosukee were captured in October 1837. They faked sickness and were moved to the room where Osceola was kept; much healthier quarters. They were also allowed to gather plants and herbs for medicine outside the fort to help overcome their faked illness. These medicine plants helped them to lose weight but keep their strength for the plan ahead.

From these new quarters 20 Seminoles starved themselves and made their daring escape on November 29, 1837. It should be known that the fort was used for a prison for the first time during the 2nd Seminole War. The original purpose of the Castillo was to defend the Spanish colony, and the Americans were the first ones to use it as a full time prison. Instead of escaping, Osceola may have remained here not because he was captured under a flag of truce, but that he was ill from the effects of malaria. He may have just been too sick to escape. After the escape, Osceola and the remaining prisoners were shipped up to Fort Moultrie near Charleston, where Osceola died four weeks later.

Osceola was probably given his own special room from the start. He was already a celebrity at the time of his capture, and the government hoped that the capture of so many important Seminole leaders would put an end to the war. Osceola had frequent, curious visitors, and may have been in this room for the convenience of the visitors as well as his poor health.

To see Osceola's room, turn left as you come through the main entrance of the fort and into the courtyard. The first room on the left is the gift shop. The third door down is in the corner, and there is also a well nearby. This corner room is where it all happened, and here is why we believe it is this room where Osceola was kept.

Sergeant Brown says that this room was at one time a courtroom, which is why there is a raised platform about three feet high and made out of coquina stone in the rear of the room. Sgt. Brown points the platform out as a unique feature, indicated that it was different from the other rooms even when Brown published his book in 1902. Another unique feature is a ledge before the outside window. From the court platform to the window ledge is a distance of about 12 feet. This would confirm a height of two Seminoles plus a little distance for pulling up, which agrees with the distance described by Coacoochee. The other rooms with windows on the outside wall do not have a raised platform, and would make the height greater than Coacoochee's account.

Sgt. Brown described the bars on the window as being horizontal and eight inches apart at the time of the escape. Some accounts say one of the bars had been worked loose. The window on the outside wall looks no more than 12 inches wide. Those who escaped would have to do an incredible job of twisting their bodies. The Seminole folklore says that they used powerful medicine and shrank. After looking at how they would have to twist their bodies to escape, I can believe this story. The bars on the window today are vertical, and we could not get up on the window to see evidence of bars that may have once been there that were horizontal.

This window is also the best one in the fort to facilitate an escape. Since it is at an inside corner of the wall, there are only a few places where the window can be seen from the roof, and we found out that it was not easy getting a good view of it. The city was to the south, and did not look onto this wall. The only view from this window was the palmettos and hammocks outside the city. An escape from this window would mean that the escapee would be visible only from the time they climbed out of the moat and into the surrounding palmettos; probably only a few seconds.

Next to the door are three niches on the wall identified by Sgt. Brown as cut by Osceola. You can see two of them are covered up today, and a third is still visible near the top of the doorway. These are crudely cut notches, and obviously not made deep enough to support any beam or other device. The top notch almost looks as if you can see finger marks made from several days of Osceola pulling himself up to the window above the doorway. This window looks at the inside of the courtyard, and Osceola would sit on a ledge over the door and could easily watch for hours what was going on. There are only a few rooms with this ledge at the top window. Earl got chills putting his hand where Osceola would have placed his so many times to pull himself up. Earl also mentioned that Osceola himself told about sitting on this window ledge and looking into the courtyard. This is the only room that has these notches. Also the only room that has both the door window ledge facing the courtyard, along with the window in the back on the outer wall.

Not wanting to leave one stone unturned, our next clue of the location of the correct room is also listed in Sgt. Brown's book. Brown describes the room next door as having the only remaining Spanish door. Even today you can see that this door is the only one like it, and fits Brown's description. The door is strapped with iron bars, so that if the door were burned, the bars would remain in place and prevent anyone from entering this room. A payroll, ammunition, or other treasures could be stored in this room for safekeeping. St. Augustine would have to stock up on supplies during long periods with no contact from Cuba, so they needed a secure storage area.

All our clues point to the corner room as Osceola's prison cell. There are many features in this room that are unique and seen nowhere else in the fort. The room is empty today, which gives you the feeling of a desolate prison cell. Maybe the ghost of Osceola made sure that this room would remain barren as a memorial to the former Seminole prisoners.

Latest news: Because of sinking and settling of the fort walls, I have been told that this room is now closed to the public. Large cracks are plainly visible on the outside of the walls. Like the early 1830's, the fort is once again in danger of succumbing to time and elements. Major work is needed to save the fort and prevent it from sinking further.

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