By Shawn Keyte, Field Technician
In July 2019, myself and Ben Bilgri from the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) went to the National Archives in Washington D.C. to find information on the Seminole Wars. The majority of historical records identify three Seminole Wars spanning between 1816‐1858, but for the Seminoles, it was one long war that lasted for 42 years. On this trip, we specifically focused on the Third Seminole War (1855‐1858) as this occurred primarily in the area surrounding what is now the Big Cypress Indian Reservation. We were in hopes of finding written correspondence, maps, or any other documents that would help us better understand how far the United States Government went in trying to remove the Seminoles from Florida.
The U.S. Military keeps extensive records of all the conflicts they are involved in, even as far back as the Seminole Wars. The records we were interested in are called “post returns”. These are basically letters from soldiers and officers that were sent to and from commanders that contained information such as supply routes, fort locations, weather conditions, troop movements, troop morale, and many other topics that paint a picture of what it was actually like at that time during this conflict. Other than oral histories from Tribal Members, this is the only way for us to get an idea what it was like for the Seminoles during this time period. The Seminoles did not keep a written history of the Seminole Wars, but by studying the U.S. Military’s records, we can better understand what happened first hand by some of those who were actually there. Although these records are from the perspective of the military personnel operating in south Florida, they can still help us to learn about the Seminole effort to defend their homeland.
In preparation for our research trip, we had identified the names of several soldiers, officers, military units, and military forts located in south Florida that were operational during the time period of 1855‐1858. Much of this information was gathered using previous research that had been performed by Ben and I, other members of the THPO, as well as books, documents, and Tribal Member oral histories. We used these names like keywords when searching the Archives’ record database, and by the end of the first day, we had several carts full of documents to begin looking through.
We found a plethora of new information on forts, such as a map from 1855 showing the locations of two prominent U.S. Forts, Fort Simon Drum and Fort Shackelford (Figure 1), as well as how and when they were built, and the materials used to build them. We also discovered a lot of new information about the skirmish that renewed hostilities between the Seminoles and the U.S. Military in December 1855. Tribal Member oral histories and previous literature is abundant in reference to this skirmish, but reading a document written by one of the soldiers involved in the fight really gave us insight into what happened.
We hope to make future trips to the Archives and get even more information surrounding the Seminole War period that may not available to us by any other means. Having the confidence that the material we are presenting to the Tribal Community and the public is as accurate as possible is very important to us as we continue to help the Seminoles tell their story.