By Tara Backhouse, Museum Collections Manager
One seemingly ordinary day in mid-September, I sat down to check my email as I do every morning, expecting not to find anything out of the ordinary. Imagine my surprise when I got a wonderful email from a couple who were in possession of a 19th century beaded sash with an amazing story.
It was in an old brown envelope that read: “J. Bryan Grimes, Secretary of State, Raleigh, N.C.”. Handwritten upon the envelope was “Osceola’s Sash.”
A separate typed tag attached to the belt:
The end of the email expressed kind and gracious sentiments:
We would like to return this precious artifact to its rightful owner, the Seminole Tribe of Florida. We feel it should be displayed for all to admire. May it help bring the reality of Osceola’s life and accomplishments as a war hero and First Nations chief into the forefront of public awareness.
Not Everything is as it Appears
As the Collections Manager for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, part of my job is to acquire historic objects for the museum collection. I’ve been involved in this process for over 10 years, so I’ve seen quite a few offers presented to the Tribe. Some have been great pieces of Seminole history that we’re proud to accept, and many have come at little or no cost to the Tribe. But there have also been many disappointments: Art and artifacts that aren’t what they were advertised to be; priceless pieces that come with too high of a price; and people who aren’t what they claim to be! When someone offers to donate something valuable to the Museum, they often change their tune during the process, and we end up not being able to seal the deal. Not only that, but a historical claim like the one on the tag is very hard to prove. Osceola is a great Seminole War hero, and many people claim they have something that belonged to him. Only a fraction of these things turn out to be real possibilities. So, I had all that in the back of my mind when I started to converse with Joseph and Laralyn Riverwind, as well as Melba Checote-Eads, who sent me the email. Imagine how thrilled I was to learn that the Riverwinds are kind and honest people, who would never mislead the Seminole Tribe or anyone else. They had been themselves surprised to be given the sash by an acquaintance who had purchased the belt during an estate sale. They were entrusted to do the right thing, and to make sure the belt got the appreciation and care that it deserved.
While waiting for the donation to arrive, the staff at the Museum set about researching the information on the tag, and the style and colors of the belt, in order to tie it to Osceola’s history. We found out that Francis T. Bryan was a soldier under Zachary Taylor, and that J. Bryan Grimes Jr. was the Secretary of State of North Carolina for the first couple decades of the 20th century. So, it was a good first step to verify the history of those men. We also researched the objects that are known to have belonged to Osceola, when he was captured under a white flag of truce near St. Augustine, FL in October 1837, and then when he was imprisoned by the U.S. Army later that year in South Carolina at Fort Moultrie. While in prison, Osceola sat for three artists. They painted and drew several portraits, and that’s why we have a realistic idea of what he looked like and what he wore at that time. In this 1838 George Catlin painting of the warrior, the tassels of a dark green or blue belt are visible around his waist. The belt in this painting bears a striking resemblance to the belt that was gifted.
Osceola owned a range of clothing and accessories when he was imprisoned. Sadly, he passed away in 1838, shortly after he met with the artists. However, other scholars have done a lot to research his possessions that were documented at that time. As the most knowledgeable researcher says on this subject, “the subject of the belts, sashes, pouches, and garters which may have belonged to Osceola is a very confusing one.” (Wickman 1991:176) In “Osceola’s Legacy,” Pat Wickman reports that five belts of Osceola were mentioned in written works or appear in his portraits. Wickman was only able to find the history of three of those belts, and of those three, only one is currently verified to exist. (As it happens, that particular beaded and finger woven belt is already part of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki’s collection).
The Belt Arrives at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum
We were finally able to see the belt in person when the donors brought it to Big Cypress and unveiled in in front of Council and Board representatives, interested community members, and Museum and Tribal Historic Preservation Office staff. We were all stunned and left speechless by what we saw.
The belt is olive and dark brown in color, and is tightly woven in a diamond pattern. Its tassels are covered with extremely small white seed beads. The belt is undeniably old, and is very fragile. There was no doubt that the belt carries with it much history and power. Our leaders, advisors, and visitors all spoke about the deep emotions that came with this donation. Humility, gratefulness, poignancy and happiness were shared by all. We noted with amazement that next week will be the 180th anniversary of Osceola’s capture. What a fitting time to welcome his belt home!
At the viewing, we displayed a copy of Catlin’s painting. We shared our thoughts and research. Historical research is not an exact science. We’ll continue to research this belt and its story, and hopefully we’ll find more evidence to connect it with Osceola. We’re happy to say at this time that the belt appears to date to the early 1800’s. It looks likely that Osceola owned a belt of this style and color. We at the Museum vow to take steps to preserve this priceless object and to make it accessible to our community. Please contact us if you would like to see it. We only ask for your patience with our preservation process. We are here to bring Seminole history to you and future generations, and we’d love to explain how we do that in person.
1991 Wickman, Patricia R. Osceola’s Legacy. The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa