By: Marian Rizzo
OCALA — The fourth annual “A Fight For Freedom: Attack on Fort King” event drew 1,000 visitors to the Fort King National Historic Landmark on the weekend of Dec. 7-8.
Hosted by the city of Ocala and the Fort King Heritage Association, the activities set the stage for a reenactment of the 1835 conflict that set off the Second Seminole War.
Seminole Indians in traditional Native attire faced off against U.S. soldiers wearing light blue uniforms.
Tepees and lean-tos, also known as “chickees,” housed blacksmiths, woodworkers, potters, spinners and other demonstrators. Canon blasts erupted amidst the staccato of rifle shots.
The aroma of fried bread offered a taste of a classic Indian staple, and a steady thump-thump rose from a corner of the property where folks tried their hand at tomahawk throwing.
The reenactment focused on a series of events that led to the Second Seminole War, which began when the Indians rebelled against President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, which required them to leave Florida.
Led by Osceola, a popular warrior, the Seminoles ambushed a detachment of soldiers under the command of Major Francis Dade near Tampa.
Osceola killed General Wiley Thompson, the U.S. agent to the Indians. Then the Seminoles proceeded to Ocala, waged another attack, and burned down the fort.
Quenton Cypress, community engagement manager for the Seminole Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO), stood proudly before the reconstruction, which was completed in 2017.
“We won’t burn it down again,” Cypress said. “The fact that the fort was rebuilt creates a more accurate reenactment that allows us to tell the full story. We’re keeping a legacy going by coming up here and doing our demonstrations. We can spread our message and let people know about us.”
This is an educational effort, said Keifer Calkins, outdoor historic resource program supervisor for the city of Ocala and organizer of the event.
“These days, a lot of families are coming because they want their kids to know what life was like before cell phones,” Calkins said. “They can see how dramatically different our lives were 200 years ago. I hope in the end they will leave knowing how Florida was created and it was not an easy thing. It’s not a happy story, but it’s important for us to tell. Though I tend to side with the Seminoles, we like to have representation from all the groups who participated in this history. I think it can be a healing thing at this point, rather than a wound.”
Daniel Tommie came from the Big Cypress Reservation where he is a traditional interpretive coordinator at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.
Tommie played the part of Osceola in the reenactments. He said he wanted to be as authentic as possible.
“I have to take off my Fitbit watch and get rid of the water bottle,” he said with a chuckle. “But I can keep my contacts in. Otherwise I’ll be shootin’ some of our own.”
Matt Griffin, a descendent of the Black Seminole contingent, spoke to visitors about the integration of the escaped African-American slaves.
“As my uncle would always say, ‘Here we have two distinct groups that formed a bond that helped them face a common enemy’,” Griffin said. “They helped each other out in many ways.”
U.S. soldier reenactor Eric Tindle, 30, participated in the Ocala event with his brother, William.
“My parents were with the artillery in Dade for as long as I’ve been alive,” Tindle said. “We’ve been going to Dade a bunch of times since I was a little kid. This was my first time in Ocala.”
Andrew Wallin, 29, “died” in the reenactments and also in hand-to-hand combat demonstrations, losing several bouts to Seminole reenactor Jason Melton and, at the conclusion, getting decked by two female Seminoles, Charlie Osceola, 15, and her sister, Alyssa, 18.
“Those soldiers were at a big disadvantage because of the clothing and tools they were given,” Wallin said. “Their rifles were 15 years old, while the Seminoles had way more modern weapons. Plus, the Seminoles knew the land really well and were good at ambush, so they were able to outnumber the soldiers—usually three against one.”
Among the visitors, Geraldine Holly came with her daughter and grandchildren.
“I wanted them to learn a little history,” she said. “I’m into a lot of history, and I always wanted to stop here. I read a flyer that came with my electric bill, and I said, ‘I’ve gotta get over there.’ ”
Also touring the grounds were Summerfield residents Ray and Bonnie Peterson. The Petersons said they have lived in the area for 25 years but have never been to the fort.
“We didn’t even know the fort was here and we drive by it two or three times a week,” Ray Peterson said.
Marian Rizzo is a freelance writer from Ocala.