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Coacoochee’s journey

Willie Johns to lead road trip of Wild Cat’s path

BRIGHTON — Osceola (Billy Powell) is an undeniably influential leader in Seminole history and one who also became a household name outside the Tribe.

But there are many other Seminole leaders that aren’t as commonly thought of by outsiders, but are well known by Tribal members.

Two of those leaders, who are also seen as enduring Seminole heroes, are Abiaki (Sam Jones) and Coacoochee (Wild Cat).

The life of Wild Cat has long intrigued Willie Johns.

Johns, of the Brighton Reservation and the Tribe’s Tribal Court Chief Justice, is also a member of the Wild Cat Clan.

This sketch of Wild Cat was reproduced from “The Exiles of Florida” by Joshua R. Giddings (Follet, Foster & Co., 1858).

“They marched them in,” Johns said. “There’s a great painting that’s called ‘[The Captive Osceola]’ that shows it.”

He has a copy of the painting by Florida artist Jackson Walker hanging in his home.

Wild Cat, Osceola and others would famously escape Fort Marion; although how they did it is still up for debate.

“I don’t think [historians] really know. But there are three trains of thought,” Johns said.

He said they either crawled through an opening in the cell after losing enough weight by fasting; they were never held at Fort Marion in the first place; or the cell was accidentally left open and they walked out.

Johns leans more toward the “cell was left open” scenario.

Nevertheless, after Wild Cat fled Florida, he spent time in New Orleans before he was forced to relocate to Fort Gibson in Oklahoma. Many of his followers had been previously captured and were already at the site.

Willie Johns at the Tribal Court swearing-in event in 2015. (Photo Eileen Soler)

“They had been getting rations and money from the federal government, but as long as the war was continuing and [Indians] were being hostile in Florida they would cut their rations,” Johns said. “So they were upset with [Wild Cat] over it. They even plotted to kill him.”

Johns is also a historian. He said Wild Cat’s forced surrender and deportation to Fort Gibson made him depressed.

“They finally beat him down where he had to go. Or hang,” he said. “He’s the only one that was ever offered the rope. He left.”

Johns said Wild Cat left Oklahoma with his followers and about 120 slaves.

“When I do these [lectures], I always tell them at the end: ‘Every morning I get up, I kiss the ground and thank my ancestors that I didn’t wake up in Oklahoma. That I woke up in paradise,’” Johns said.

Johns said U.S. military records show that Wild Cat was considered a fierce warrior leader.

“If they knew it was him on the run, they always stopped. They didn’t chase him. Your platoon [wouldn’t] come back. They’d go in riding horses but when they came back they’d had to eat them to get home,” Johns said.

After Oklahoma, Wild Cat would end up in Texas at the Mexico border. At the time, the Mexican government had been having problems with the Apache.

He is scheduled to embark on a nine-day road trip in March that will stop at many of the significant locations in Wild Cat’s life from his birth to his death.

The journey will be filmed by members of Seminole Media Productions and a documentary will be produced after the trip’s conclusion.

The goal of the documentary is to better inform Wild Cat’s descendants and the Seminole Tribe as a whole of his life.

“The Captive Osceola” is a painting by Florida artist Jackson Walker. (Courtesy Jackson Walker)

Tumultuous times

A leader, warrior and diplomat, Wild Cat led the Seminole resistance against the U.S. Army in Florida during the latter stages of the Second Seminole War.

He gained prominence when he was just 19-years-old as the leader of a band of Seminole and Black Seminole, until his father was captured in 1837 and imprisoned at Fort Marion (the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine).

Wild Cat would eventually be held at Fort Marion, too, along with Osceola and others.

“The Apache would berate [the Mexicans] and take their livestock and women and children,” Johns said. “So [Mexican military leader] Santa Anna hired a group of Seminole [including Wild Cat] and the black slaves to control that borderline. Wild Cat did that for a long time.”

Wild Cat’s band eventually established a new community in Mexico.

He is thought to have died of smallpox in 1857. Johns said there is possibly a cemetery in Mexico City with a plaque recognizing him.

“We won’t go that far in [on the trip],” he said. “We’re going to go as far as the village he lived at and hopefully his grave is nearby.”

On the road

Johns will lead a handful of Tribal members and representatives from the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the March trip. They are hoping to uncover new historical information about Wild Cat’s life along the way.

The first stop is at the Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park in Okeechobee, before heading to Tampa for a visit at Cotanchobee Park and the Tampa Bay History Center.

The group will then visit Magnolia Park at Lake Apopka in Apopka, Florida, before heading to St. Augustine.

St. Augustine is the last stop in Florida before a drive to Fort Gibson. From there, the journey takes them to Mobile, Alabama, and the Jackson Barracks in New Orleans.

The later days of the trip include stops in Texas, with a visit to the Seminole Indian Scouts Cemetery and Museum in Brackettville.

Then it’s on to the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas in Eagle Pass on the Mexico border.

In Mexico, the group will visit the Mascogos, a community of descendants of Black Seminoles, before heading back home to South Florida.

Johns, 68, also has a book coming out soon: “We Survived.” He said it’s largely about the life of his great grandmother who died in 1930 at an age surpassing 100. (Johns doesn’t know exactly how old she was when she died).

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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