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Landmark signs point to Seminole past

A bronze monument sign on Brighton Reservation marks the location of the Micco Camp, which dates back to the early 1940s when the cattle boss and his wife, Emma, moved to the site just yards from the Red Barn.
A bronze monument sign on Brighton Reservation marks the location of the Micco Camp, which dates back to the early 1940s when the cattle boss and his wife, Emma, moved to the site just yards from the Red Barn.

When Jack Chalfant visits the Micco Camp on Brighton Reservation he does not need a newly erected 6-foot monument sign to tell him the place is important.

For the Tribal citizen and Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) management trainee, every inch of the 1.5-acre area reminds him of his family history.

A dilapidated, rustic, wood-frame home built in the early 1960s by Jack Smith Sr. stands in front of a now abandoned block home constructed by Kody Micco in the 1980s. The camp’s original cook chickee stood nearby where Charlie Micco and his wife, Emma, settled in Brighton circa 1940 after Micco was made one of the reservation’s first cattle bosses.

A bench where Chalfant rested during carefree childhood days more than four decades ago is still wedged between the trunks of two of the largest and possibly oldest eucalyptus trees on the reservation. Family reunions are still held on the property.

“This was once a very busy place,” Chalfant said. “Some younger people know that, some don’t. We’re here to teach them and everyone else what value is here on this land.”

Called a heritage marker, the sign at Micco Camp brings to six the number of identified historical locations on Seminole land. The others are Brown’s Trading Post in Big Cypress, the Council Oak tree in Hollywood, and the Red Barn, Billy Bowlegs III Camp and Tom Smith Camp in Brighton. All plus nine unmarked locations are listed in the Tribal Register of Historic Places. The Red Barn and Council Oak are also listed in the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service, under the Department of the Interior.

Established in 2011, the tribal registry protects and preserves the Tribe’s unique history while maintaining control over how much information is shared with outsiders, said THPO Director Paul Backhouse, who also serves as director of Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. More than 90,000 properties are currently listed in the national directory, which is available to the public.

“On one hand, the Tribe’s heritage and history is incredibly important but gets muted when listed at the national level,” Backhouse said. “On the other hand, the tribal registry honors the specific history without jumping through hoops or sharing information with the entire nation.”

Backhouse said the landmarked sites will not become tourist attractions. Tribal and federal laws are in place to prohibit people, including curiosity seekers and archaeology buffs, from disrespecting the properties by entering uninvited to steal artifacts.

“It is a felony to excavate or tamper at all with the sites and the Tribe has cultural laws in place to keep it safe,” Backhouse said. “This is something for the Tribe, not the outside world. It’s for the community to go and celebrate and learn about culture and history and to remember the important contributions of their own families.”

To protect the Micco Camp and Tom Smith Camp further, Tribal Council voted on Jan. 15 to set aside the land for preservation. Construction or development of any kind on the properties is now against tribal law.

Currently, THPO is standing with the United South & Eastern Tribes (USET) organization, comprised of 26 Tribes, to thwart the passage of Florida Senate Bill 1054 and House Bill 803 under consideration during this legislative session.

If passed, the bills will clear the way for anyone to obtain a permit for excavation and collection of artifacts found at historically sensitive sites.

All sites in the tribal registry are approved for designation by family members. Some sites are purposefully kept from outsider knowledge because of cultural sensitivity. Others are landmarked to be visited and used for teaching culture and history.

Each recently marked location, like the Micco Camp, is somewhat different.

The vast Billy Bowlegs III Camp includes old water pumps and locations where chickees likely stood. From a distance, viewers can spy neat lines of various shades of green where vegetables, herbs and fruits were grown. Today, orange and grapefruit trees continue to yield though the fruit is tart and bees have taken over tree trunks.

Brighton became a reservation in 1937, but Chalfant said Billy Bowlegs III planted his garden long before that. Bowlegs is best known to outsiders for crisscrossing the state on missions with government officials to advance Native causes.

“I look at his land and think someday we will rebuild the camp to show what it was like then,” Chalfant said.

At the Tom Smith Camp, nestled in a cypress dome, the rusted shell of an antique car circa 1943 rests under a canopy of overgrown trees. Plywood benches surround a fire pit in the former center of the camp and bottles that date back to 1929 still lay where they were tossed.

“He (Smith) worked with his hands, mostly with metals – he made his own bullets, in fact. But he was also a healer, a medicine man,” Chalfant said.

Tribal archaeologist Maureen Mahoney said a handful of other sites are being studied to eventually list on the tribal registry and landmark with bronze signs. They include: the Josie Billie, Morgan Cypress and Morgan Smith camps in Big Cypress, the Betty Mae Jumper Camp in Hollywood and the Buster Twins Camp in Brighton.

“Each site is treated differently according to what the family wants. Some families might even want the camp listed but the stories never told,” Mahoney said. “Some sites are relevant for who lived there, what they did or what happened there.”

In the case of Betty Mae Jumper’s camp, the location that once housed the Tribe’s first Chairwoman are now under concrete and dirt at the Tribe’s Seminole Estates property off State Road 7. Backhouse said a marker with historic photographs that depict the site in its earliest state would likely be used mainly for educational purposes should the Tribe chooses to use the land for buildings.

Chalfant said he views education as one of the most important reasons for marking important sites.

“Basically our job is to show the young generations and generations later that we have places that are so important to our culture and history,” Chalfant said. “If we preserve the past we will always have something to look back on.”