'My peace has come, I will pass this way no more forever,’ Oklahoma Seminoles in South Florida say
DEEP INSIDE A lush South Florida hardwood hammock, leaders of the Great Seminole Nation of Oklahoma gathered Sunday morning for an emotional journey.
As some washed their heads in the smoke of burning sage, others wandered through a patch of cypress knees off the main trail at Jupiter’s Loxahatchee River Battlefield Park.
Standing at the edge of the Loxahatchee River, they soaked in the scenery, a view that must have been similar to what their ancestors saw 184 years ago when U.S. soldiers drove them off their homeland.
Minutes later, they bowed their heads in prayer and began walking through the mud and sawgrass, retracing the initial footsteps their ancestors took on the Trail of Tears.
“We know this is a hollow and sacred place amongst our people,’’ Chief Lewis Johnson said later to 100 people who gathered beneath the branches of a majestic oak after watching the Oklahoma Seminoles march along a roughly mile-long route.
“Even though this was a short walk for us,’’ he said, “we realize what took place upon these grounds.’’
A handful of bronze signs, fastened to rocks throughout the park, offer a cursory account of what happened there in 1838 when the Battle of the Loxahatchee forced the end of organized resistance in the Second Seminole War.
Those who eluded capture fled into the Everglades. Today, more than 2,000 members of the “unconquered” Florida Seminoles, as many refer to themselves, live in reservations in Hollywood, Big Cypress, Brighton, Immokalee, Tampa and Fort Pierce.
Those who did not were forced to leave their Florida homelands.
On March 20, 1838, after the Battle of Loxahatchee, 693 captives were marched west from Jupiter to Fort Brooke in Tampa where they were chained into boats and ferried to New Orleans and then to Fort Gibson in Oklahoma.
In the early 1990s, the discovery of musket balls, buttons, hand-forged iron spikes and other military artifacts around Indiantown Road in Jupiter sent historians on a mission to preserve Palm Beach County’s rich history with the Second Seminole War.
Those historians, made up of amateurs, scholars and a former police detective, would form the Loxahatchee Battlefield Preservationists. They would unearth iron shackles on Jupiter's Pennock Point, the site of Fort Jupiter (above far right). They would find in state archives 1838 documents (above left and center) about prisoners in Fort Jupiter.
More important, members have protected the site over the years by steering a road-widening project clear of the historical grounds and convincing county leaders in 2010 to carve Loxahatchee River Battlefield Park from 64 acres in the northwest corner of Riverbend Park.
Their latest mission is to enhance the historical record, which for more than 180 years has come from one main source, the U.S. military. Missing were the oral histories of the defeated Seminoles who were driven to Oklahoma.
That changed this past weekend when the Great Seminole Nation of Oklahoma participated in the Convocation of Seminole War Historians, held every two years in Florida since 2017.
On April 2 at the Jupiter Community Center, Johnson and other leaders offered convocation lectures, the first time the Oklahoma Seminole Nation shared its side of that history on Florida soil.
The following morning came another historical first when they visited the old battlefield.
“This was the most historic event in this area in decades,’’ said LBP founder Glenn Bakels. “Estranged from their Seminole and Miccosukee brothers and sisters for almost 200 years Florida's Native American community turned out to reunite with their lost kin.’’
But the reunion didn’t happen easily.
The invitation, extended by LBP more than three years ago, was a sensitive topic both for Seminoles in Oklahoma, whose ancestors were captured, and in Florida, whose tribes came from ancestors “unconquered.’’
“We did not immediately say that indeed we would take part in the event,’’ Johnson said.
“There are protocols that take place to travel and intercourse with other nations, especially into their land. We definitely wanted those things to be in place.’’
Joined by a documentary film crew, a handful of journalists and members of Florida Seminoles and Miccosukees, eight members of the Oklahoma Seminoles gathered on a path near the river’s edge just after 8 a.m. and bowed their heads.
“We thank you, lord, for giving us the opportunity to come down here and share with our ancestors, Lord,’’ Seminole Nation Honor Commander Rex Hailey said as he held the nation’s flag with Vice Commander Phillip Coon.
After Johnson nodded in approval, Coon took the first step in leading the procession along a mile-long route.
As they walked, Hailey sang “I Have Won My Peace” and other native songs, his rich baritone carrying through the trees, audible before the approaching procession could be seen.
Some walked around large puddles, created by overnight storms that gave way to clear morning skies. Others just sloshed through the water as their ancestors did.
Along the route, other marchers joined. Bicyclists and hikers who happened upon the procession stopped to watch.
Some marchers weeped.
“I’ll never apologize for shedding tears. That’s our strength,’’ Oklahoma Nation council member Desiray Emerton said after the ceremony.
“We just walked the Trail of Tears where our ancestors were taken from Florida. That's how we got to Oklahoma. Otherwise we would have been here. It was emotional to come back and feel the strength of our people in our homeland.’’
Accompanying Emerton arm-in-arm along the march was Betty Osceola of the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida.
“There are many feelings of sadness and sorrow and tears that were shed back then and today,’’ she said. “Creator, we haven't forgotten the path that you gave us to walk. And we are still walking that path to be here.’’
Leading the way were the two Honor Guard members, Coon and Hailey, Seminoles who fought for the United States in Vietnam.
“I realized it’s kind of ironic in a way that people who had served this country with great valor are members of the Seminole Nation,’’ Johnson said. “At the time in history when (the Battle of Loxahatchee) was happening, there was no peace among the Seminole or the United States government.
“But we do know this, that when the well-being, when the safety of our children and elders are threatened, any man regardless of where you call your home will rise to be able to protect it.’’
Johnson pointed at the Oklahoma Nation’s flag and explained the origins of the seal, which shows a tribesman in a canoe paddling on a lake, a scene from Florida.
“As you can see it represents a time when before hostilities ever broke out, before they ever came against the freedoms of the people who were indigenous to this land … without any kind of resistance or oppression placed upon us,’’ he said.
In February, the state of Florida filed a petition to have the Loxahatchee River Battlefield Park listed in the National Register of Historic Places, said Assistant Parks Director Jennifer Cirillo.
The county plans to build an educational center in the park that will help tell the story of the battles. Cirillo said $5 million will become available in 2027 for the construction and the county hopes to get matching money from other sources.
As the ceremony wound down, Johnson offered a special thanks to the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
“Even though it's the land of our ancestors as well, it is the land of the Seminole Tribe of Florida,’’ he said.
“And I know, just like that last song, my peace has come and I will pass this way no more forever.’’
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.