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The Everglades: An enduring battleground

In 1848, Georgia-born lawyer and politician Buckingham Smith compiled a report for Congress on the feasibility and benefit of draining the Florida Everglades. The report provided the supporting information that eventually led to the passing of Senate Bill 338 in which the U.S. government officially authorized the Everglades drainage. This bill represents the first siege in a long series of assaults to the Everglades ecosystem and is just one of the many important documents linked to Seminole history preserved in the museum’s archive.

Report compiled in 1848 assessing the feasibility and benefits to the United States by draining the Florida Everglades. (Courtesy photo)

The United States government had many interests in the drainage of South Florida. The report details grand plans for the cultivation of sugar, rice, tobacco and tropical fruit trees that could only be grown in South Florida’s subtropical climate. The ability to grow these commodities in the U.S. would eliminate reliance on importing them from the West Indies, then controlled by European countries, and further U. S. independence. Drainage canals funneling water from Lake Okeechobee would also serve as an alternative to ships passing through the perilous reefs and ever-changing shallow waters surrounding the tip of Florida that were responsible for, according to the document, over $1.6 million (over 50 million dollars in today’s value) of expense due to ship wrecks in the year 1846 alone.

The drainage of the Everglades was as much about colonial strategy as it was economic gain. The report states that without the United States having full control of the Florida peninsula, it was vulnerable to attack by foreign powers and that the drainage and colonization by settlers would play a key role in the ultimate removal of the Seminole Tribe. The United States had already spent more money and lost more men in battle with the Seminole Tribe than all other wars fought for removal. Draining the Everglades would simultaneously create more land for U.S. settlers while fundamentally changing the environment the Tribe depended on for survival.

While the outright warfare between the United States and the Seminoles dwindled in the late 19th century, the battle for the Seminole Tribe to preserve their culture continued. The destruction of the Everglades ecosystem set in motion by this document fundamentally threatened their way of life. Even after the designation of reservation lands in the early 20th century, the Tribe had very limited influence on construction projects and water flow patterns that delivered impaired waters to their lands. However, Tribal sovereignty has given the Tribe the ability to enforce water rights and to take part in water regulation. The Tribe is now an active and careful steward of its natural and cultural resources. They monitor reservation water quality and have completed large-scale restoration projects on Tribal lands.

While the Seminole Tribe has clearly demonstrated its commitment to environmental stewardship and Everglades restoration, projects that could cause potentially catastrophic impacts to the Tribe’s land, their cultural resources and even their lives are still being proposed as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. Due to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires Federal Agencies to consult with Tribes on any project that would impact properties with religious or cultural significance, the Tribe’s Historic Preservation Office is often on the frontlines. Although the battlefield has changed, the Seminole Tribe’s fight to preserve their culture and the environment is still being fought 160 years after the end of the Seminole War.

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