tampabay.com

Uncovering the past

An expanse of land near Brooksville was home to one of the first Creek Indian settlements in Florida and holds clues to the beginning of the Seminole Tribe.

By DAN DeWITT
Published September 9, 2005


BROOKSVILLE - The native grasses have been crowded out by weedy pasture, and what should be a sheet of water is confined to a grid of drainage ditches.

But when Doug Davis points toward the horizon, to an oak-covered wedge of high ground jutting into the prairie, you can see what the Creek Indians might have seen 250 years ago.

That same ridge would have been full of game then, as well as nuts and edible roots. The Creeks probably saw speckled, semiferal cattle grazing on the prairie. If not, they would have recognized it as ideal pasture for future herds.

They saw all this and, having the whole state of Florida to choose from, dismounted from their horses and decided to stay.

"Perfect for raising cattle," said Davis, an amateur historian from Brooksville. "Cattle is what this is all about."

If Floridians are really as curious about Seminoles as the recent fight over the Florida State University mascot suggests, there is no more promising ground to study than this prairie and the surrounding hills south of Brooksville, said Toni Carrier, who recently completed an archaeological dig here.

Called Chocachatti, it is one of the first documented Creek settlements in Florida, she said. And it is the place, as much as anywhere in the state, that the Creeks became Seminoles.

Though her dig was a good start, more should be done, and soon, before the hardware of Chocachatti's history is covered by development or stolen by looters.

"Nobody's done a definitive history of Chocachatti," said Davis, 51. "It's like they had a big Easter egg hunt and they missed the prize egg."

* * *

The Seminoles would have ridden horses back and forth from their herds on the prairie to the homes on the ridge tops: away from bugs, nearer to food sources, and with views of approaching enemies.

Carrier and her small army of volunteer archaeologists, of course, drove after their hike in the prairie - traveling in convoy a couple of miles west to the site of the recently covered dig.

This is also Dave and Amy Miesch's future front yard, a shaded patch of sand with PVC stakes marking the route of the water line. About two years ago, when Davis learned of their plans to build, he told the Miesches of the possible significance of their land; they agreed to let Carrier excavate before they poured the slab.

The Miesches, moving up from Hillsborough County, are the most recent of several waves of settlers, including ancient and pre-Columbian Indians, the Seminoles and then William Hope, Hernando's first white resident, who arrived in 1842. He assumed ownership not only of the Seminoles' cattle but, probably, the conveniently precleared center of their community.

"I suspect that William Hope built his house right on the squareground," said Carrier, who recently received her master's degree in archaeology from the University of South Florida.

"The (historic) surveys show the original Chocachatti settlement was right where we're standing."

Chocachatti had been firmly established by 1767 and probably dates to a couple of decades earlier. Disease and European invaders had by that time nearly wiped out the native Florida tribes, and colonists were forcing the Creeks from their homeland in what is now Georgia and Alabama.

A branch of the tribe that spoke the Hitchiti language settled south of Gainesville around what is now Payne's Prairie. Another band, speakers of Muskogee (or Creek), came to Chocachatti.

"It is the earliest-known settlement of the Creek-speaking people in Florida. It is also one of the longest, continually occupied Seminole settlements in Florida," said Willard Steele, a historic preservation officer for the tribe.

How did the Creeks change? How did they become Seminoles?

By gradually severing communication with the Creeks for one thing, and going unrepresented at their treaty conferences.

Also, though they retained their own ceremonies - fasts, purges and a lacrosselike ball game so brutal it was called "little war" - they adopted the traditions of refugees from dozens of other tribes.

And finally, especially after the British took control of Florida in 1767 and began trading with the Seminoles, they became rich.

They rounded up cattle left by the Spanish, fattened them in natural prairies like Chocachatti, and traded them for guns, medallions, beads and china plates.

"They were big consumers," Carrier said, standing at a table in the Miesches' yard covered with her findings.

"That's why sometimes it's difficult to distinguish Seminole artifacts from white artifacts."

The rusted plowshare and glass bottles from Brooksville drug stores, obviously, were Hope's. The projectile points, some of them recycled from earlier Indians, just as clearly belonged to the Seminoles. The same is true of the grape-sized blue and purple beads and a shard of clay pottery finished with distinctive Seminole brush marks.

Of the many fragments of enameled china, one piece - decorated with a blue, feathered pattern popular in the early 1800s - probably belonged to the Seminoles; so did the bowl of a pipe, its green glaze still vibrant after nearly 200 years in the dirt.

A bit trickier to place is a garter clip about the size of a silver dollar and engraved with both the profile of a young woman and the words, "Long live Queen Victoria."

This might have commemorated her coronation in 1837, five years before the end of the Second Seminole War, Carrier said. "That absolutely could have been Seminole."

If so, this would help dispute an Army claim that troops wiped out the settlement in 1836, she said. The word Chocachatti, which translates literally as "red house," is sometimes interpreted to mean "war town."

Because of this, or because of the settlement's remoteness and abundant food sources, the battle chiefs probably reassembled here after that attack, Carrier said, a theory supported by a half-dime found here, dated 1839 and drilled so it could be worn as a decoration in the Seminole way.

"That coin is going to rewrite the history books," Davis said.

* * *

The Miesches, who were willing to hold up the construction of their house for Carrier's study, are eager to help with digs on the rest of their heavily wooded 4-acre lot.

Others have shown far less concern for the history of Chocachatti, especially looters, the scourge of archaeologists everywhere, who are especially active in Hernando County.

Carrier once came to a dig south of Chocachatti to find that looters had recently been there with a back hoe, clearing away pine trees and scooping up dirt so it could be sifted for artifacts. She has heard of looters fighting one another with shovels for the right to dig on land that neither one of them owned.

With projectile points selling for hundreds of dollars, she said, "these guys can make more money by digging during the weekend than they working a 40-hour week," she said. "And it's fun, too. It's like a treasure hunt for them."

An even greater long-term threat, unsurprisingly, is development.

On the drive to the Miesches' land, Carrier passed a new building going up on what is thought to be the site of the slave quarters of the Hope homestead.

Just beyond that, construction has begun on the 999-home Southern Hills Plantation subdivision and golf course. The city of Brooksville recently announced the entire settlement area could be developed as part of its "urban growth area."

And in July, a Tampa developer, Coastal Bay Properties LLC, proposed building a shopping center and hundreds of houses and townhouses on 464 acres that included most of the Chocachatti Prairie, also called Griffin Prairie for the farmer who ditched and drained it in the 1950s.

After residents protested the loss of wetlands and Carrier and others told the Hernando County Commission of the land's historical significance, Coastal Bay withdrew the plan, but only temporarily, said Don Lacey, who works for the engineering firm representing the developer.

"It's still percolating out there."

That's a shame, said Davis, who is related by marriage to the Hope family.

"All we ever want to preserve is their battlefields, so our kids think all these people ever did was fight," said Davis.

"This is a chance to preserve the pastoral side of the Seminoles. If you think about it, they were living here peacefully before we were a country."