At an exhibit at the Dunedin Historical Museum, kids are asked to decide what items are essential and which items should be left behind when a campaign against the Seminoles is waged.
DUNEDIN – To most people, the term “Indian Wars” conjures up images, from old western movies, of dashing cavalrymen engaging in epic battles against the Apaches in the Southwest or the Sioux in the hills of the Dakotas.
But America’s longest and costliest series of Indian Wars took place right here in Florida, against the Seminoles, and a new exhibit at the Dunedin Museum of History tells the story of those three guerrilla wars.
The Seminoles weren’t a native Florida tribe; they were descended from Creeks who had fled southward to escape the fighting in Georgia in the second half of the 18th century. Their name comes either from a Creek word meaning “runaways” or a Spanish word meaning “wild.” From the beginning, they took in runaway slaves, many of whom joined the tribe and were called Black Seminoles.
It was that propensity to shelter fugitive slaves that led to the First Seminole War. In 1817, U.S. troops under Gen. Andrew Jackson invaded Spanish Florida to bring back the escaped slaves, destroy the “Negro forts” on the Apalachicola and Suwannee rivers and stop the skirmishes between the Seminoles and white settlers on the Georgia border. The fighting lasted two years.
In 1832, with Florida in U.S. hands, the Seminoles signed a treaty under which the government would pay them to relocate to present-day Oklahoma. By 1834, 3,824 of them had been sent west, but those who remained opposed relocation and were spoiling for a fight.
Three days after Christmas in 1835, near today’s Bushnell, they ambushed a column of 110 soldiers under the command of Maj. Francis Dade and killed all but three of them. The Second Seminole War was on, and before it was over, in 1842, two-thirds of the U.S. Army, plus sailors and Marines, would be involved; the government would spend millions of dollars and nearly 2,000 American soldiers would die.
The Third Seminole War, or “Billy Bowlegs War,” started in 1855, when a team of Army surveyors and engineers stumbled upon the home of Billy Bowlegs, chief of the few hundred Seminoles remaining in Florida, deep in the Everglades, trashed the place and cut down Bowlegs’ beloved banana trees. It ended in 1858, when Bowlegs accepted the government’s offer of $10,000 to move to the Indian Territories west of Texas, and 123 of his followers made the same deal at $1,000 each.
Out West, Bowlegs became a respected chief, prosperous landowner and unapologetic slaveholder.
“Our displays give viewpoints of the wars from the perspective of both the Seminoles and the soldiers,” said Vinnie Luisi, the museum’s executive director.
“I really believe that this is the largest collection of Seminole War material that can be seen by the public in the Tampa Bay area. Some of it has never been seen by the public before.”
The nucleus of the exhibit was rented from the Orlando Regional Historical Museum, but it was heavily augmented with original artifacts borrowed from Don Ball, a collector and dealer of antique weaponry from Largo, and Dan Marshall, a volunteer at the National Armed Services and Law Enforcement Memorial Museum in Dunedin.
The artifacts include a flintlock Springfield musket, a Hall’s breech-loading rifle, several swords and a rare “bell crown” dragoon hat.
There are also interactive displays where visitors can try on reproduction uniforms, feel the weight of a soldier’s 40-pound pack or drill with a wooden musket while listening to recorded readings of soldiers’ letters home. Kids can decide what to bring and what to leave behind when packing an Army wagon for a campaign against the Seminoles.
“The Tampa Bay area played a major part in the Seminole Wars,” Luisi said, adding that Fort Brooke in Tampa was a major base of operations. “Our exhibit illustrates the ‘get it at any cost’ mindset of America’s expansion, and the resilience of the Seminole tribe. They’re the only tribe that never officially signed a peace treaty with the U.S. Army.”
The exhibit runs from now through the end of this year, when it will be replaced by a nine-month exhibit on the 1940 and 1941 “honeymoon years” when Honeymoon Island was actually a destination for newlyweds. A minimum donation of $2 a person is suggested.
The museum is in the old railroad station at 349 Main St. It is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call 736-1176.