Many historians have presented an inaccurate version of Seminole history – sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. That is, if there was an effort to tell the history in the first place.
In addition, the histories of the 19th century that involve the U.S. government are often lopsided and paint Seminoles in an unflattering light.
But a project moving forward at Fort King in northeast Ocala is looking to change those narratives and deliver something accurate.
The 42-acre site, which is also a National Historic Landmark, is set to undergo a $14.7 million transformation after a 15-year master plan was recently approved by the city of Ocala and Marion County.
It’s not just the scope and dollar amount that’s significant; it’s also that the Seminole Tribe has been engaged in the process from the start.
The plan consists of two major parts: the development and construction of a museum and education center and the reconstruction of the entire Fort King complex – including archaeological and archival research work.
“The end goal is to provide a park that is not just passive in its education but immersive as well,” the 40-page master plan states. “[It] sets the course for interpreting the most accurate version of Seminole War history …”
Paul Backhouse, the senior director of the Seminole Tribe’s Heritage and Environmental Resource Office, said the partners on the Fort King project have been clear about their intentions.
“They came down to [Big Cypress] early in the project and have continued to engage the Tribe in absolutely every facet of what they are doing,” Backhouse said. “I would honestly say Fort King is a model of how to work collaboratively with the Tribe.”
Backhouse said Quenton Cypress, the Tribal Historic Preservation Office community engagement manager, has been consulted on the project from the beginning as well.
Fort King was considered the most important interior U.S. Army fort of its time in the first half of the 19th century. It is unique among many other sites in Florida and the U.S. because it not only represents the period associated with the Indian Removal Act, but also the resistance to it.
Led by Osceola, the Seminoles ambushed a detachment of soldiers near Tampa and Osceola killed Gen. Wiley Thompson, the U.S. agent to the Indians. The Seminoles then moved on to Ocala and waged another attack, burning down the fort.
The events are considered the spark that ignited the Second Seminole War.
Reenactments at Fort King have been held since a fort reconstruction was completed in 2017.
“We won’t burn it down again,” Cypress told The Seminole Tribune earlier this year at a reenactment. “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.”
Cypress is part of the Osceola Warrior Legacy – created by Charlie Osceola – who does demonstrations of traditional Seminole weaponry at reenactments.
Daniel Tommie, Pedro Zepeda, Tucomah Robbins and Jason Melton are also Fort King regulars, among other Tribal members.
Tommie and Osceola have also built a small hunting chickee on the site.
Prior to 2017, there was virtually nothing on the site, save a 1940s-era house that was used as a temporary visitor center. A working blacksmith shop, historically recreated, is currently being built and should be completed by the end of the year.
But it is the fort reconstruction that was finished in 2017 that laid the groundwork for the new projects in the master plan.
‘The Seminole story’
Keifer Calkins is one of the supervisors at Fort King and a main author of the master plan. He’s managed the Fort King National Historic Landmark for about five years.
“We worked very much as a team on the city side to make sure the goals are implemented and make sure we’re doing it correctly,” he said. “The project is immense.”
The site is also uncommon, Calkins said, because it has avoided private development over the years – unlike some sites in the Tampa area, for example, that have seen intrusive commercial projects.
The Fort King site is now insulated from such activity thanks to the city and county’s approval of the master plan.
“It’s very rare to have a fort site that hasn’t been developed in an urban interface area,” Calkins said. “It is a rare opportunity to reconstruct the whole fort complex.”
It was Calkins and Bill Rodriguez, head of Ocala’s parks division, who reached out to the Tribe early on about how the Seminole story should be told.
“We don’t think it’s our place to tell their story,” Calkins said. “We don’t want to control that narrative. In the plan, it’s very clear that the Seminole narrative should be spoken by the Seminole Tribe.”
The approval of the master plan also serves as the green light to begin raising funds.
Calkins said there’s no exact timeline for the groundbreaking of the 21,000-square-foot education center and museum, but both are expected to be completed by 2025. He said he’s especially excited about that part of the project because it’s where the Tribe will really come into the picture.
“There’s a perception in some museum institutions and displays where they talk about Indigenous communities as if they’ve passed,” he said. “It’s our goal to talk about history and also about how Seminoles are alive and well. We really want this place to be one that tells the Seminole story and educates people about the Seminole Tribe in general.”
The plan is expected to soon receive a final approval by the state.
“We want to make sure we are telling 100 percent of the story,” Rodriguez recently told the Ocala Gazette. “That’s been our full intention from the get-go and we won’t waver from that.”
For more, go to fortkingocala.com.