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Conflict brews over historic site

A historical society rushes to protect the Battle of Lake Okeechobee field from creeping urban development.

By ROBIN MITCHELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 27, 2000


Battle has come, once again, to a sawgrass plain and hardwood hammock on Lake Okeechobee, where the Army fought hand-to-hand with determined Seminoles and Miccosukees on Christmas Day 1837.

Marching toward the 640-acre Battle of Lake Okeechobee field this time is development.

So desperate is the fight that the National Trust of Historic Preservation on Monday put the battlefield on its list of America's 11 most-endangered historic sites.

On one side is commerce and homes in the growing city of Okeechobee, the latest a 300-home subdivision called Rowland Estates, which is being developed from the Rowland Trust, created in the 1960s to benefit a foundation to "help orphanages and religious organization." A sign marking the battle sits in the Old Habits tavern parking lot. Mobile homes are nearby; power lines cut across it. On the other side are, among others, descendents of the first battle, the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

"Seminoles know and have been told that from time to time the Earth needs to drink blood," said Patricia R. Wickman, director of the tribe's Department of Anthropology and Genealogy. "This battle was part of a much longer determination to destroy the Seminole people."

"(Seminoles) look back on this with very profound memories of the whole wars to this day, not just as an individual battle," she said. "They still recall the need to be vigilant and to protect their heritage. Every single thing the tribe does is to protect its culture and heritage."

The battle of the seven-year Second Seminole War -- though far costlier to the Army than the Indians -- catapulted Col. Zachary Taylor to national prominence.

He would become "Ol' Rough and Ready" and go on to be president. Taylor's 1,100-man force, after a march from Tampa, suffered 26 killed and 112 wounded; the Indians, numbering about 400, suffered 11 dead and 14 wounded.

A great victory, it was called in Washington, because the outnumbered Indians were driven from the field. It assured the removal of thousands of Florida Indians to states west of the Mississippi River.

"The blood of Indians and Americans soaked its ground during that terrible fight," said National Trust President Richard Moe. "We owe it to those fallen men and their descendants to save it for future generations. The Seminole Wars deserve their rightful place in history."

Wickman said: "I think every little bit helps . . . but there's so little actual weight (to the designation); it doesn't have much teeth. It doesn't protect it from the very state that has encouraged development."

"When the Seminoles leave a sacred site, they leave it. They don't expect to change it," she said. "In the times before concrete buildings and asphalt, you could do this. But the people who settled this state -- the Euro-Americans -- have chosen to develop the state to such a point that now you have to have these conversations. To the Seminoles, it's a non-argument."

The Army Corps of Engineers, which must review the development because the battlefield is a National Historic Landmark, held a public hearing on the developer's application in January.

Other sites on the National Trust's most endangered list this year are the Hudson Valley, Valley Forge and Santa Anita Racetrack. St. Augustine's Bridge of Lions was on the 1997 list.

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