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Bowlegs Town history, artifacts unearthed

At one of several Bowlegs Town excavations, an archaeology team, with tribal historian and Seminole Chief Justice Willie Johns, fourth from left, is filmed by Committee Films March 12 for a future History Channel documentary.
At one of several Bowlegs Town excavations, an archaeology team, with tribal historian and Seminole Chief Justice Willie Johns, fourth from left, is filmed by Committee Films March 12 for a future History Channel documentary.

OLD TOWN — Not far from the Suwannee River, historic Bowlegs Town rests almost like a whisper within a wide vista of North Florida high ground. The town is flanked by coastal mangroves and grassy plains with fingerlike waterways that slither west into the Gulf of Mexico and thick oak hammocks that shadow the Dixie County outback to the east.

It was here, in 1818, that Gen. Andrew Jackson, leading the largest army to invade Florida, brought guns to kill and chase away Seminole Indians, burn down their 80-acre village and stir the embers of the frontier conflict into the First Seminole War.

Today, Jackson is on the $20 bill and Bowlegs Town sits like a terrestrial ghost covered by nearly 200 years of Mother Nature’s rehab.

The property that contains the tiny town has gone through myriad owners over the years and is currently owned by realtor and rancher H. Dale Herring.

Upon discovering the history of what exists amid the 400 acres he purchased several years ago, Herring became a caretaker of Bowlegs Town and the first owner to allow professional archaeologists to undertake a thorough examination of the site.

“I don’t want any money from this. I’m a businessman, but I don’t look at this as a business opportunity,” Herring told Seminole Chief Justice Willie Johns, who visited the area March 12. “I’m not going to sell any artifacts. I want the history associated with this important site to be preserved and protected. I want to do the right thing out here. You folks tell me what I should do.”

Accompanying Justice Johns were Tribal citizens Quenton Cypress and Tucomah Robbins, Andrew Weidman from the Seminole Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO), Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Director Paul Backhouse and THPO chief data analyst Juan Cancel.

The subject of Bowlegs Town emerged on the Seminole radar three years ago when Silver River Museum Director Scott Mitchell borrowed several cases of artifacts unearthed on the Herring property to show his friend Mary Jene Koenes in Big Cypress. They brought the cases to Backhouse, who later discussed the site with retired South Florida archaeologist Brent Weisman.

Weisman, who has walked the site several times over the past 30 years, was also there to greet the Seminole visitors; he has advised SEARCH (Southeastern Archaeology Services), the Gainesville-based firm working the site.

“It is quite remarkable to find a private site this important which has an owner who is totally dedicated to historical research and preservation, who will protect the site from those who would plunder it for profit,” Weisman said. “It is no less than remarkable. I hate to say this, but more often than not, the opposite is usually the case.”

Both Weisman and Backhouse praised amateur archaeologist John Edwards, a surveyor by trade who has carefully documented the site with drawings and photographs and preserved each musket ball, tool, blade, bead, pot, etc. found on the site.

“How fortuitous it was that this man, with all of his local knowledge, was here in this area and able to connect and work with the owner so well,” said Backhouse, whose office regularly fields bad news regarding Seminole sites and artifacts on private property. “Every week we find out about people who ruin precious historical sites like this. And it is usually for greed, for personal profit.”

History is often both vague and incorrect regarding Seminoles named Bowlegs. What is known is that Bowlegs (referred to in modern times as “Billy” Bowlegs I) was a nephew of noted Seminole Chief Cowkeeper, brother of King Payne and uncle to Micanopy – all well-known to the U.S. military as important Seminole War leaders from the Alachua band situated in Paynes Prairie. In 1812, in retaliation for attacks on U.S. camps in south Georgia, a force led by Col. Daniel Newnan wiped out a Seminole camp at Paynes Prairie, killing leader Payne.

Bowlegs took over for his brother and eventually led the Seminoles 60 miles west to high ground just north of the Suwannee. There, more than 100 Seminoles settled in, building homes, hunting, farming, fishing, living life in the community eventually known to the enemy as Bowlegs Town.

Border conflicts between the United States and Spanish Florida and pressure from settlers moving south into Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia pushed more and more Southeastern Indians to join their brother Indians native to North Florida.

These migrations brought settlers and Indians to the brink of outright war. Jackson also stepped into the quarrel with a “cleansing” goal: to push Indians out of areas the whites wanted, recover runaway slaves and bring escaped criminals to justice. He roared into Spanish Florida, without congressional permission.

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams defended Jackson’s actions, describing Florida as “a derelict open to the occupancy of every enemy, civilized or savage, of the United States, and serving no other earthly purpose than as a post of annoyance to them.”

Leading a force of more than 3,000 troops, Jackson stormed across North Florida from Atlantic to Gulf, taking the “Seminole problem” head on. He burned all in his path, summarily executing captured Seminoles and plundering everything from tiny Negro camps to Bowlegs Town, the largest Seminole community in Florida, starting the first of three Seminole Wars.

“To the Seminoles, it was all just one big, long war stretching over 40 years. There were no beginnings or endings of one war to another for the Seminoles,” Justice Johns said.

By the time Jackson reached Bowlegs Town, he found it already abandoned and ordered it looted for food and supplies.

“There wasn’t much there for 3,000 men,” Weisman said. “The Seminoles had taken their cows with them.”

Jackson torched the place, then left to search for the runaways.

The Indians who escaped were tracked down and captured and held at either Egmont Key (west of St. Petersburg) or Cat Island (south of Mississippi) until steamboats took the prisoners up the Mississippi River to join Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks and other Southeastern Indians walking the “Trail of Tears” to Indian lands out west.

The Adams-Onis Treaty (signed in 1819 and ratified two years later) ceded Spain’s Florida territory to the United States. Further treaties cemented the deportation of Southeastern Indians.

Jackson’s attack on Bowlegs Town severed ancestral connections with indigenous people living to the north, separating off an enemy that the Americans would describe as “Seminole.”

Bowlegs eluded capture, doubled back from the coast and disappeared into the Central Florida jungles, where historians surmise he died in 1821.

Another Billy Bowlegs, who was 8 years old when Bowlegs Town was burned, emerged as a precocious leader alongside Osceola, Jumper, Wildcat and Sam Jones during the latter years of the Second Seminole War (1828-1842). Bowlegs’ 1855 ambush on 1st Lt. George L. Hartsuff’s Army detachment began the Third Seminole War, the unruly chief’s eventual “arranged” surrender and deportation fast-tracked the end of military conflicts between the few remaining Seminoles (hiding in the Big Cypress and Everglades swamps) and the U.S.

“There is so much history out here. This is a very special place to us Seminoles,” said Justice Johns, who was interviewed on camera for a Committee Films television documentary. “We hope this place and everything they find will always be protected and treated with proper respect, as they have been doing. This is a very good situation for historic preservation out here. Believe me, you don’t see this every day.”

Teams of archaeologists shoveled and sifted through small squared-off areas of land for historical items. Inside a nearby office building, display cases filled with artifacts found at the site cover desks and maps adorn walls.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Backhouse, who expressed the hope that someday the “amazingly well-preserved” artifacts would be housed in a public institution that can tell the significance of the Seminole story throughout Florida history.

Herring said that while the site “just fell into my lap … it’s my responsibility to make the most of it. I want to make this site as good as it can be and shine a good light on the Seminoles, a people almost exterminated from their native lands.”

Herring hopes to oversee a complete archaeological project, an undertaking that could take years and cost a lot of money, said Weisman, who described a painstaking ordeal which may include the boring of test holes a few meters apart across the entire 80-acre site. “Don’t get me wrong. It can be done. And it can be done right.”

Herring hopes to form public-private partnerships in the creation of what he calls an “archaeology mitigation bank.” He described an infrastructure similar to current wetlands mitigation banks: a historic area of archaeological significance that finances restoration and/or preservation by using compensation provided by developers in other parts of Florida for unavoidable impacts to archaeologic resources, including those permitted by government authority.

“Other states have this, but Florida does not,” Herring said. “This is something Florida really needs. How many other sites like Bowlegs Town are there out there, threatened with destruction?”