St. Johns County

There has been much history written about the Spanish town of St. Augustine, founded in 1565, and the long trading history with the Indians. Since there are many sources that you can easily find, I will mainly concentrate on history during the Second Seminole War. The city presented quite a contrast from the rest of Florida to soldiers serving in the war, with all-night parties, beautiful Minorcan and Spanish women, and European style amenities.

During the war, the white residents in the town were very afraid of Indian attacks or an Indian incited slave rebellion, but there are no indications to think that these were serious threats. Even during the war the Indians traded and kept friendly relations around the town.

South of St. Augustine is Moultrie Creek, which runs into the Matanzas River. It was along this creek that negotiations were held between the United States and the Florida Indians in 1823. This was the largest representation of Florida Indians ever assembled to meet with the United States government, with Tallahassees, Miccosukees, Muskogee Seminoles, and a few other Creek Indians.

From this talk resulted the Treaty of Moultrie Creek; which although it was broken like all other treaties, was the most lasting and most recognized by the Indians in Florida. It established a large reservation in the interior of Florida, provided an Indian agency and blacksmith, and provided the Indians with annuities of livestock, food, supplies, and cash for the next 20 years. Of course the government never paid everything that it promised.

One reason that the government did not pay the Indians was that any plantation owner in northeast Florida that filed a depredation claim against the Indians, would receive compensation from the government paid out of the Indian annuities. Since an Indian did not have the right to testify or defend himself in a court of law, the claims could be false with only the plantation owners word if they were true or not.

When the Indians were forced into treaty talks to move them out west 10 years later, many of them complained that they should not be forced into negotiation since the government failed to deliver, and the 20 years worth of annuities still had several years to go.

Southwest of St. Augustine was Fort Peyton, established in 1837. After General Thomas S. Jesup had failed to bring in the Indians by negotiations in the summer of 1837, he changed tactics and used force and betrayal instead. Jesup had captured several of the Indian leaders in September 1837, and had sent Coacoochee with a message to Osceola to come in for a peace talk. It was to be held about a mile south of Fort Peyton, and Osceola would carry a white flag to show that he meant only peace.

Osceola showed up with Coa-Hadjo, another important war chief, and about 80 other Indians and Negroes under a white flag as agreed. Most all warriors, with only a small number of women and children. General Hernandez from St. Augustine was there with 200 dragoon soldiers, while Jesup waited at Fort Peyton. It is obvious from the letters written by the eyewitnesses that Jesup and Hernandez never intended any serious negotiations, but only Osceola's capture.

General Hernandez read a letter from Jesup to Osceola while Coa-Hadjo translated. The general started by demanding that Osceola turn over all escaped slaves, and that all Indians give themselves up and leave Florida. Osceola was shocked because he thought that he had come only to talk about peace and to stop the fighting. The general was not hearing any answer that pleased him, so on a prearranged signal, the troops quickly surrounded Osceola and his group and seized their rifles without a shot fired. The Indians showed no emotion, as if they expected this type of response.

Osceola was taken to Fort Marion in St. Augustine, the former Castillo de San Marcos. The prisoners became quite a crew of celebrities, and were sometimes even invited into town at fancy parties. Newspaper reporters wrote many embellished stories about Osceola and the prisoners, gaining much sympathy up north. These sympathetic newspaper articles offended many Floridians who had fought against the Seminoles.

After the dramatic prison break in November, and when many of the Indians started to die from illness inside the fort, the prisoners were moved to Fort Moultrie at Charleston, South Carolina. When Osceola went up there, his two wives, at least two children, and a few other relatives also went with him. There is no documented basis to the story that Osceola had a black wife whom was captured by slave hunters; that is believed to have been a story concocted by abolitionists.

From Fort Moultrie, the Indians were eventually sent to the western territories, but Osceola did not join them. On 31 January 1838, he died of the ravages of sickness and malaria. (Some even believe poisoning.) The attending doctor, Dr. Frederick Weedon, secretly removed Osceola's head. Weedon may have even made under-the-table arrangements or pay-off to the officers in charge, to help him sneak out the head.

Back then many people falsely believed that character and intellect were determined by the shape and size of one's head. The doctor could not pass up such a prized piece of this celebrity: the Caesar of the Seminoles. Museums around the world would pay big money for it. The head was put on display in a museum in New York. But Osceola was considered a patriot in the northern states because of all the newspaper accounts, and a mob threatened to burn down the museum. Dr. Weedon returned to St. Augustine and put the head in a jar on the counter of his drugstore, where the Floridians would appreciate it more to see the head of their foe. When Dr. Weedon's children misbehaved, he would tie the head on their bedpost as punishment. It is believed that the head perished in a fire at a New York medical school around 1866, but the evidence is sketchy at best. We may never know; it could even be locked away in a cupboard in some museum storeroom.

The rest of Osceola was buried at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina. You can still see his tombstone there. Some people have told me about how Osceola's remains from Fort Moultrie were secretly exhumed and deposited in a bank safe deposit box in Dunnellon, Florida for several years. Years later the Seminoles received the remains and conducted a proper burial deep in the Everglades. But this is just another story from a war that is full of as much fiction as fact, so it will remain just a story.

Other Second Seminole War Forts: Fort Brown, Searle, Harney, & Hanson.

An important crossing on the St. Johns River was Picolata. The Spanish built a blockhouse here. During the Patriot War of 1812-1815, the Americans established an armed camp here that was burned by the Indians."Picalata" during the time of the British.

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, St. Augustine:

The Castillo was built by the Spanish as a defense of the town. The first structure on this location was a log fort, and the present stone walls were built between 1672 to 1695. Once it was finished, the fort was one of the most impenetrable fortresses in the Western Hemisphere during its time. The Spanish used slave labor from the local Indian tribes that they subjugated to build the fort. (Apalachee and Timuquan Indians.) The remnant of these Indians left for Cuba with the Spanish when Britain acquired Florida in 1763.

The fort proved to be a tough defense, and successfully defended against English invasions in 1702, 1740, and 1743. The shell or coquina walls actually absorbed impact of cannon fire, so the walls could not be breached. The fort could easily contain 1000 inhabitants from the surrounding town. Although the town was burned by the English on a number of occasions, the fort never fell to the invading forces.

When the Americans gained the city along with the rest of Florida in 1821, the fort was in a very bad state of disrepair. One of the walls facing the water was in danger of collapse. Money from the governments was slow in coming to make repairs, and it took years to reinforce and save the old fort. The fort was renamed Fort Marion, and used as a prison to house Seminoles during the Second Seminole War. Kiowa and Apache Indians from out west were also held here as prisoners in the 1880's. The Americans were the only ones to use the fortress as a prison instead of a defense of the town.

In October 1837, the fort was crowded with a couple hundred prisoners. Many of the important Seminole chiefs had been captured and were now behind the walls, like King Philip, Coacoochee (Wildcat), Coa-Hadjo, Osceola, Yuchi Billy and Yuchi Jack. Living in crowded conditions was very unhealthy, and one sick person would mean that an epidemic could break out. One time a stomp dance was held inside the fort, and the white residents of St. Augustine went into a panic thinking that the Seminoles were attacking the city in order to release Osceola and the prisoners.

One of the most dramatic incidents during the Second Seminole War was when Coacoochee escaped with 19 other Seminoles, on the night of November 29, 1837. The Indians starved themselves until they were able to slip out of the window bars high above the room. Coacoochee used a knife blade to help climb the wall, and once up to the window, used blankets to pull everyone up to the window ledge. Once out, the Seminoles escaped to the woods. Osceola refused to go because he was sick and claimed that he had done no wrong to end up in prison. Yuchi Billy died a few days before the escape, and it is not known if it was caused by starvation in a weakened state or from sickness. Coacoochee remained in Florida for about four more years until he was captured and sent out to Arkansas territory.

The room that Coacoochee and the 19 Seminoles escaped from is now closed off. The fort is once again in danger of collapsing, and severe settling has occurred in this corner.

During the war against the Apache, the final remaining Chiricahua Apaches were moved here as prisoners of war in 1886. The people of Arizona wanted to move them as far away from Arizona as they could. Geronimo was kept at Fort Pickens in Pensacola, while the rest of his people were kept at Fort Marion. Once here, the Apache started to die in alarming numbers. They had never lived in a tropical climate; many had never seen an ocean before. After two years, they were moved to Alabama. The Indians who died in the fort are believed to be buried on the site of the Spanish mission to the north, but more research needs to be done to confirm this.

Today the fort is the best known landmark in St. Augustine. There is a small admission charge, but it is worth the visit. The bookstore inside is very good. See if you can find the former courtroom where the Seminoles made their escape.

Military Cemetery at St. Francis Barracks, St. Augustine:

While the old fort is on the north side of the old town, the military barracks are on the south side. St. Francis Barracks might also be the oldest military structure still used by the armed forces today; it is the headquarters of the Florida National Guard. Originally it was a monastery, which is where the name comes from. Further south is the "officer's row", which is some very scenic and historic houses that are still used as officer's quarters.

Continuing south along the waterfront is the military cemetery. Look in the back or south side of the grounds, and you will see three pyramids. This is where the soldiers of the Second Seminole War were buried. You can see some gravestones in the back that have very detailed inscriptions, while others are just the standard military white tombstone. Look at the elaborate inscriptions on the stones of Lieutenant McNeil, killed in battle at Mosquito Inlet; or Lieutenant Woodruff. See if you can find the simple marker of First Sergeant John Williams, who was shot and killed by Private Wright at Fort Marion in 1836. All of these individual grave markers were put up before the war ended.

Until the 20th century, it was not unusual for families of soldiers to be buried in the military cemeteries. On the left is Margaret Stafford Worth (1799-1869), who was wife of General William J. Worth. Worth was the last commander of forces in Florida during the 2nd Seminole War. Lake Worth in southeast Florida, and Fort Worth, Texas, are named after General Worth. On the right photo to the left is the grave of Mary Worth Sprague (1822-1876), daughter of the Worths who married John T. Sprague, adjutant of Col. Wm. Worth and first one who wrote a comprehensive history of the 2nd Seminole War. To the right of Mary Worth Sprague is Stafford Sprague Hubbell (1882-1899), a descendent of the Worths & Spragues.

At the end of the Second Seminole War, military orders were issued to find and transport all the remains of the soldiers who had died during the war to this cemetery in St. Augustine. A fund was established, and all the soldiers serving in Florida at that time donated one day's pay to erect a memorial to these fallen soldiers. This memorial is the three pyramids that are here. A big military ceremony was held on 15 August 1842, the day after the war was declared over, and the remains were placed in the vault under the pyramids. Half-hour guns were fired until sunset.

All the regular Army soldiers who died in Florida were suppose to be placed in this cemetery, but it is understandable if a few were missed. Bodies of soldiers were all over the large Florida territory, some in remote locations that could not be found again. I have even heard a few stories of some that are still buried in quiet, remote locations, sometimes unmarked, or sometimes with simple markers in private family lots.

Not to take any credit away from these brave veterans who died during the war; I am a veteran myself and will always feel very emotional over a fallen soldier's grave. The Seminoles had no ceremony for their dead. There are no veterans' memorials to the Indians. The Indians also suffered great casualties, and nobody marks where they are buried. It is unknown how many died, but the numbers had to have been high.


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