BIG CYPRESS — The Ah-Tah- Thi-Ki Museum received a generous and significant donation Oct. 15 when an antique sash claimed to have been worn by heroic Seminole warrior Osceola at the time of his capture was given to the museum.
The timing of the donation came nearly 181 years to the day of the U.S. Army’s deceitful capture of Osceola under a flag of truce on Oct. 21, 1837.
There are of course the obvious questions that come along with such an item and its claim of historical value.
Did the sash, which is also referred to as a scarf or belt, really belong to Osceola? What evidence is there
to support this claim? One reason why this donation has made museum officials ecstatic is because of the supporting evidence that accompanied the sash in the form of an old envelope and a small tag attached to the sash itself.
“Imagine my surprise when I got a wonderful email from a couple who were in possession of a 19th-century beaded sash with an amazing story. It was in an old brown envelope that read: ‘J. Bryan Grimes, Secretary of State, Raleigh, N.C.’ Handwritten upon the envelope was “Osceola’s Sash,” said Tara Backhouse, who has been Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki’s collections manager for more than 10 years.
The tag on the sash is a typed memo in capital letters that reads:
SCARF OF OSCEOLA, THE SEMINOLE INDIAN CHIEF OF FLORIDA, WORN AT THE TIME OF HIS CAPTURE BY UNITED STATES SOLDIERS. SCARF WAS SENT TO RALEIGH BY CAPT. FRANCIS T. BRYAN, U. S. A., DURING THE SEMINOLE WAR. PRESENTED BY J. BRYAN GRIMES, JR.
The museum researched the names on the tag and found out that Francis T. Bryan was a soldier under Zachary Taylor, and that J. Bryan Grimes Jr. was the Secretary of State of North Carolina for two decades in
the early 20th century.
The couple Backhouse refers to that contacted the museum is Joseph and Laralyn RiverWind from Blountville, Tennessee, and the Northern Arawak Tribal Nation. How they happened to come in possession of the
sash is an interesting story.
For the past 16 years a commemorative event called the “Trail of Tears Walk” is held in Woodbury and Mt. Juliet, Tennessee.
The walk honors the Native American men, women, and children who lost their lives during an array of imposed relocations as a result of the Indian Removal Act passed by Congress in 1830.
During this year’s walk, Joseph and Laralyn engaged in a conversation about the history of Florida with their longtime friend Melba Checote-Eads, a Woodbury local and coordinator of the walk.
They were also joined by an acquaintance of Checote-Eads. The acquaintance, who for unspecified reasons has asked to remain anonymous, is the person who informed the RiverWinds of a sash which possibly could
have belonged to Osceola.
According to Joseph RiverWind, the anonymous person purchased the sash at an estate sale earlier this year.
Due to the wishes of that person, the details of the estate sale are being kept confidential. The
RiverWinds were asked if they knew what would be the best solution for finding a place where the sash could be appreciated.
The first thought that came to the RiverWinds was the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The sash was bestowed on the RiverWinds by the anonymous person.
Eager to get the sash into the proper hands, Joseph and Laralyn RiverWind reached out to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.
“We would like to return this precious artifact to its rightful owner, the Seminole Tribe of Florida. We feel it should be displayed for all to admire. May it help bring the reality of Osceola’s life and accomplishments as a war hero and First Nations chief into the forefront of public awareness,” the RiverWinds wrote in an email to the museum.
After arrangements were made with Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki, the garment made its way to the Big Cypress Reservation for the donation at the museum in October.
The sash was presented by the RiverWinds and Checote-Eads to the museum with Big Cypress Councilman Mondo Tiger, Big Cypress Board Rep. Joe Frank, Brighton council special events coordinator Lewis Gopher,
a few other Tribal members, and Museum and Tribal Historic Preservation staff in attendance.
“We were all stunned and left speechless by what we saw,” Backhouse said while describing the moment the sash was unveiled. “The belt is olive and dark brown in color, and is tightly woven in a diamond pattern. Its tassels are covered with extremely small white seed beads. The belt is undeniably old, and is very fragile. There was no doubt that the belt carries with it much history and power. Our leaders, advisors, and visitors
all spoke about the deep emotions that came with this donation. Humility, gratefulness, poignancy and happiness were all shared by all.”
The sash was placed next to a portrait of Osceola painted by George Catlin, one of three artists to paint Osceola while he was imprisoned at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina.
“In this 1838 George Catlin painting of the warrior, the tassels of a dark green or blue belt are visible around his waist. The belt in this painting bears a striking resemblance to the belt that was gifted,” Backhouse said. “It
looks likely that Osceola owned a belt of this style and color.”
The amount of evidence makes a strong case to support that the sash could have belonged to Osceola, although further research will have to be done as there are not nearly enough historical records to accurately
provide a definitive answer. The sash will go through an isolation process to determine if any bugs, mold or other problems arise.
Osceola, one of the most prominent leaders in the history of the Seminoles, orchestrated battles and successfully defeated U.S. generals during the height of the Seminole Wars. He is also noted for his
defiance of refusing to sign a peace treaty.
“In ‘Osceola’s Legacy,’ Pat Wickman reports that five belts of Osceola were mentioned in written works or appear in his portraits,” Backhouse said. “Wickman was only able to find the history of three of those belts, and of those three, only one is currently verified to exist. As it happens, that particular beaded and fingerwoven
belt is already part of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki’s collection.”
Seminole community members who would like to see the sash should contact the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.