BIG CYPRESS — Pastures in Big Cypress contain a lot more than cattle; a treasure trove of Seminole history resides there.
With some help from Ahfachkee School students, the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) found significant evidence that the U.S. Army’s Fort Shackleford once stood in Moses Jumper Jr.’s pasture.
In 2017, THPO taught Ahfachkee students about archeology and brought them out to the field for some hands-on activities. After the students found artifacts that appeared to have been from the era of the Third Seminole War, 1855-58, THPO archeologists continued excavating the site one small piece at a time. They discovered posts and charcoal from the burned fort, that was likely about 40 feet by 40 feet.
“So far we found posts in four areas, with three to four posts in each,” said Ben Bilgri, THPO field technician. “The fort burned in 1855 and was only occupied from February to June.”
The fort was built to push deeper into Seminole territory during a time of so-called peace. The military’s goal was to provoke the Seminoles and force them to go to Oklahoma.
After a few months, the soldiers left the fort and went to find the Billy Bowlegs camp. Once there, they burned his garden and banana trees and continued north, where the soldiers were attacked by Bowlegs and his warriors. Thus began the Third Seminole War.
History came to life as THPO led a second dig Dec. 14 for Ahfachkee fourth, fifth and sixth-graders. The important discovery at the site the previous year gave a heightened sense of excitement to the dig. The students rotated between activities including site mapping, artifact identification, digging and screening.
At the digging station, students carefully dug down a little at a time while examining the dirt for obvious artifacts. Then the excavated soil, which was put into buckets, was pushed through a fine mesh screen to find tiny objects.
At the mapping station, students sketched a previously excavated site which contained intact remains of posts at the bottom of the approximately 3-foot square area. At the artifact identification unit, students measured and identified previously found objects from the site and logged those details.
THPO management trainee Jack Chalfant told the students how he got interested in archeology. Raised in a camp in Brighton, he used to find flat rocks which he and his friends played with and broke all the time. Years later, in 2013, he met an archeologist there who told him those rocks were actually pottery and a part of history.
“That’s why I work at THPO now,” Chalfant said. “I wanted to find out about our tribe and how far back things go.”
Curious students asked questions throughout the day. One wanted to know how they knew the posts weren’t just tree trunks.
“Trees don’t grow in straight lines unless they are planted,” said David Scheidecker, THPO research coordinator. “These are made of pine and this was an old pine flat. The heart of a pine tree is suffused with sap, which makes it more resilient to decay.”
Students learned how to find clues to determine what an object is made of, including looking for rust and man-made shapes. The students were engaged in the activities and glad to have learned things outside of the usual classroom lessons.
“I think the posts were interesting,” said Jaleesa Hill, 12. “They had to dig far down to find them. The different colors in the sand show that there was charcoal there.”
Alice Jimmie enjoyed the screening activity the most.
“You dig and then see what’s in the dirt,” said Alice, 10. “We didn’t find any artifacts today. But it’s nice to know things we didn’t know before, like this is here on our land.”
“Maybe we can find something next time,” said Nahdea Osceola, 9.
THPO field technician Nick Butler organized the dig with a two-fold objective; to teach the students about archeology and inform them about THPO’s function for the Tribe.
“It’s important that future generations learn this history,” Butler said. “This is a large event in Seminole history.”
Chalfant urged the students to be more aware of their surroundings.
“Everywhere you walk, there’s someone who walked there before you,” he said. “As you’re walking around you need to open your eyes and notice things. We’re supposed to be the ones telling our story. You need to look around and maybe you’ll be out here teaching the kids.”