Seminoles: the unconquered ones in the Big Cypress Shootout
The reenactment of a battle from the Second Seminole War called Big Cypress Shootout recently took place at Billie Swamp Safari, a fine place to visit on the Seminole reservation in the middle of the Everglades. This past weekend (March 1-3, 2013) was the second annual Big Cypress Shootout reenactment. Next year is tentatively set for the end of February.
For three days you could step back in history by stepping through a gate and putting on a wristband. There were vendors (though honestly much of what they were offering was Southwestern and had little to do with South Florida) and plenty of food including Spam with Tomato Gravy over Rice, Hamburger Grits Soup (that is what it said on the menu board) and that local favorite the Indian Taco which I had for lunch at the nearby Swamp Water Café. It does stay with you.
But better than the trinkets and the food (oh wait, I forgot the ubiquitous fry bread, yum) were the more historic elements. Off to one side was a tomahawk throw that kids and adults both approached with serious faces and an archery range where everybody learned how to shoot the bow and arrow mostly toward the target.
Further down a trail to one side was the Seminole Camp, a series of canvas tents and lean-tos filled with period tools and reenactors who were solidly into the characters they portrayed. They were cooking on their fires, tending their babies and just going about day-to-day life but as the afternoon wore on the men began the ready themselves for battle. They had heard the soldiers coming and they were setting an ambush.
On the opposite side of the large reeneactment area the soldiers and their women were in camp, feeling safe with their superior armaments and ways. The surveyor gathered his instruments ready to delineate the new land for the government and the captain saddled his horse for the day’s march.
Read more about the reenacters here.
And smack in the middle of the two camps a large natural amphitheater formed from a crescent-shaped mound of grassed-over dirt. It created a perfect place for people to stand or loll on the ground to watch the war. A large oak stood in the center of the field and the other side of the circle was rimmed with dense swamp brush but not so thick that one couldn’t see the Indians in their bright clothes tucked back in for the attack.
At the very beginning of the reenactment we were told by Moses Jumper, a tribal member in period costume on horseback and flanked by his son and grandson, that there would be no John Wayne arriving at the last minute with the cavalry to save the day (clear spoiler message, these white men are going down hard).
(Moses belongs to the Seminole Tribe and is a rancher. He breeds Seminole horses including those directly descended from the horses brought to America by the Spanish explorers. He is a descendent of one the of the Seminole commanders that led the notorious ambush on Major Dade in 1835.)
“The soldiers,” Moses told us, “think they are sneaking up on the village but they are not.”
“For many years we have been pursued by the white man… They took our cattle, they took our horses, they took our Black brothers and say we stole them. I don’t know why they won’t stop or leave us alone… We hear them coming through the woods. We may die today. Many of their soldiers may die today. We know where they are we can smell them. We will make another stand today.”
The soldiers marched in dragging their cannon, the surveyor started setting up his tripod and suddenly the Seminoles began firing from cover. Whoops, yells, Indians on horseback charged. The soldiers got in formation, the cannon roared but one by one the soldiers fell. At the end, smoke from the rifles and cannon drifted over the field of battle turning all the fallen soldiers into a ghostly tableau.
Silence lasted for a minute and then the soldiers began to get up and the Indians came toward them, now smiling and ready to shake hands. For the soldier reenactors it was a good day to die. For the Indians it was a sweet victory in a war that ultimately could not be won.
As the only tribe never to surrender to the US government the Seminoles can and do still rightly call themselves the unconquered ones.
For more information about future reenactments around the state click on “links” at www.alligatorfest.org.
© Copyright 2013: text Sue Harrison; photos Sue Harrison & Lee Brock for MyOldFlorida.com.