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Weaving Fort Marion into Florida’s Native history

The Museum’s historic collection consists of many types of things, from 19th century newspapers to patchwork clothing,

A large group of Kiowa, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Arapaho chiefs and warriors were detained by the United States Army as prisoners of war at Fort Marion from 1875 to 1878. (Courtesy photo)

to sculpture and paintings. However, the majority of the objects we care for are photographs. We estimate we have 150,000 photographs that range from the early 20th century to the present day. You’ve no doubt seen some of our photographs in other articles, at community events, or at the Museum. We often publish articles to ask for help in gathering information about them. We’ll echo that request here, but we also want to share a stunning comparison.

Some of the most interesting things we discover in the collection involve comparisons of objects separated by decades of time. For example, by comparing an early 20th century wooden doll to a brightly colored palmetto doll from the late 20th century, one can see how styles and materials changed, as well as how Seminole artistry developed over 100 years. Another type of comparison often happens in our library. Our 19th century newspapers usually tell a deplorable and terribly sad story of an expansionist war, genocide and racist propaganda. However a 20th century newspaper such as this one tells stories of success and highlights happy occasions.

We recently ran across one such pair of photographs. Both show Native American people at the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, AKA Fort Marion. The fort has a long history, as it was completed in 1695, and used by Spanish, British and United States forces throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, as each tried to wrestle control of Florida away from each other and the native populations who lived here. During the 19th century, many groups of Native people, including Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa and Seminole found themselves imprisoned in the fort during various conflicts with the presiding government. The years from 1886 to 1887 saw nearly 500 Apache prisoners living there. The living conditions were not good, and many did not survive. Others were taken and forcibly removed even further away from their homeland. The heartbreaking photograph below, which is a copy obtained from the Florida State Photographic Archives, shows one such group at the fort in 1875. This strong and resolute group of people look determined to survive this unjust imprisonment, so far from their western homes.

A group of modern-day visitors to the Castillo de San Marcos find a park ranger and historical interpreter dressed as a Spanish soldier happy to pose with them within the walls that once imprisoned their ancestors. (Courtesy photo)

In contrast, this next picture shows a very different group of visitors to the fort. No longer are the Seminole people or any other tribal groups subject to abuse and imprisonment there, and war no longer darkens its walls. As part of the National Park System, Castillo de San Marcos welcomes thousands of people every year to learn about its history, including the part it played in the Indian conflicts. The Seminole Tribe took a trip to Fort Marion on January 31, 1998 in order to trace the path of Osceola, one of the great heroes of the Seminole War. He was first imprisoned there before being moved to another prison in Charleston, SC where he died. In 1998, the STOF trip continued to Charleston to experience and honor Osceola’s journey. It’s possible that this picture was taken on that trip. However there may have been other organized trips to St. Augustine. Do any of our readers know about this or any other trip? Were you perhaps there?

This group of Seminole visitors probably found it hard to learn about the darker days of the fort. Nonetheless such a visit illustrates how much has changed since the conflicts of the 19th century. Endurance, adaptability and acumen have formed the 20th century Seminole story. It’s a good thing to see the smiles and prosperity in the modern photo, but many people think it’s also good to remember the injustices and suffering of the past so they are not repeated.

These two photographs share the same stone wall backgrounds, and that presents both a haunting memory of the past and an optimistic view of the future. Part of the Museum’s purpose is to find these stories and share them with the community. We welcome questions, conversation and information. If you would like to help shine a light on history, come and work with us, there are volunteer and employment options here for you. Just contact the Museum at 863-902-1113, or stop by and see us anytime!

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