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Freedom Fightersbryant

If we can't protest this spot, we can't protect Florida, says Isa Hamm Bryant of the site near West Palm Beach where the Second Seminole War was waged against U.S. forces. [Photo: Bruce Bennett]

Along the banks of Florida's Loxahatchee River lies a spot where ghosts live: the sacred spirits of the Seminoles and former slaves who banded together to fight U.S. treachery.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 1999

LOXAHATCHEE -- Like a Florida panther hunting deer, Isa Hamm Bryant stops dead as he nears his prey. "This is the spot," he whispers. Creeping through a palmetto-dotted clearing, he points. "They camped here. It's where they ate and where they slept and where they raised their children."

They also heard cannon fire along the East Florida waterway that the ancients called the Loxahatchee, the Turtle River. They died or watched their freedom slip away.

On a hot, lazy day, Isa Hamm Bryant hears traffic roaring up Indiantown Road toward West Palm Beach. The interstate is minutes away. So is the state's most upscale shopping mall, the one with Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Then traffic fades and it's quiet except for the whine of mosquitoes. "Our warriors," Bryant says as a mosquito lights on his arm. "They kept people away for years."

Even mosquitoes failed to stall modern Florida forever. In 1838, federal troops found the Seminoles camped near the Loxahatchee River. There was a huge battle and a truce and then a sneak attack that resulted in a tragedy and a black mark against the United States.

Isa Hamm Bryant, historian, author and community activist, has studied the tragedy. He is trying to save the battlefield for posterity -- and for his people. He traces his heritage to the Seminoles and to the black people who joined them ages ago. Together they fought for their freedom.

Preserving history's tracks

The Loxahatchee is among Florida's most beautiful rivers. Cottonmouth snakes hiss from cypress knees. Alligators ambush deer that come for a drink. It's easy to imagine a Seminole warrior slipping through the trees with a musket

Instead, it's Isa Bryant, a pinepole-thin man of 53 who dresses in baggy pants and a baggy T-shirt bearing the likeness of Abraham, the late black Seminole scout. Bryant's dreadlocks fall to his shoulders. His beard and moustache are wispy like the Spanish moss hanging from the three live oaks ahead of him. The oaks sprout from a mound of grass and dirt.

"I feel a spiritual connection to this place," he says, climbing the mound.

Nobody knows how long the mound has been around. Most people believe it existed even before the Seminoles arrived in the 1700s. They came from the deep south, Creeks and other aboriginals the Spanish called "Seminoles" -- the wild people, the runaways.

Other runaways came to Florida, too. Escaped slaves, they preferred taking their chances among the snakes and alligators to remaining on the plantations. The Seminoles usually tolerated them. Eventually black people were allowed to have their own villages. They married into Seminole clans and fought alongside them.

On the banks of the Loxahatchee they fought an important battle in the longest and bloodiest Indian war in U.S. history. The Second Seminole War, as it was called, was fought between 1835 and 1842. The purpose of the fighting was to expel the Seminoles from Florida and to return escaped black people to slavery.

"Nice mound, isn't it?" Bryant says.

The mound is in Riverbend Regional Park, 700 acres of wilderness purchased by Palm Beach County three decades ago.

In 1990, an amateur archaeologist found a musket ball on the bank of the river. The word went out: Riverbend Regional Park was the site of the famous Loxahatchee battle.

An army of unscrupulous amateurs invaded the battlefield, determined to strip the ground of artifacts for private collections. Then gates went up, and fences, and "No Trespassing" signs. Guards patrol night and day.

Now the county is planning to develop the park. There likely will be a history museum. Isa Hamm Bryant likes the idea of a museum. But he wants to make sure the battlefield and the village site don't end up an RV Park or tennis courts.

The landscapes of the past

Away are the streets and memories of this plac

once a lamp of liberty in America's silence towards our plight

Now we sleep the slumber of ignorance in paradise

-- poetry by Isa Hamm Bryant, 1996.

* * *

Poverty. That's what Bryant remembers from his Ybor City childhood. He grew up malnourished and sickly from a diet that often consisted of bacon grease on a slab of bread.

His sister carried him, a worm-infested child, to West Palm Beach into the arms of a loving grandmother and an aunt. His grandmother was black-Seminole. She knew the old stories and could speak the language. She took part in the yearly Green Corn Dance to celebrate the culture.

Sometimes his father visited. A Seminole, he taught his son about the history. He instilled a sense of independence. As a teenager, Isa jumped a train and rode it to Okeechobee.

"Never knew such a sense of freedom," he says, "until I was arrested."

The judge told him to value religion and education. He also said he was going to let Isa go -- because he was a good n---. Emmet Till had just been murdered by racists in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. Isa knew it was a bad time to be black and living in the South.

He studied technical illustration in the U.S. Air Force and attended Arizona State and San Francisco State. In California, he became an activist in the black community. He also was a radio DJ, plumber, carpenter, lifeguard, ditch digger and drug counselor. He married twice. He has four sons.

* * *

He returned to West Palm Beach in 1994 to take care of his terminally ill father. "I promised him I'd keep our Seminole history alive," he says. His dad died before his son published We FloRida, an account of Seminole life in Palm Beach County.

In 1995 he started the Florida Black Historical Research Project. With a small grant he has established his office in an old warehouse in downtown West Palm. He has a computer and a desk and a couch. There is no running water. When nature calls, he uses an old paint bucket.

He has become a hero in the black community.

He is teaching people how to grow their own food.

He started a sailing club for inner-city kids, naming it after Leonne Trainor, a black man who taught him to sail when he was a teen.

"Most of these kids today, all they know about their history is blacks chained in the bottom of a ship," Bryant says. "But there's another side."

Black people were mariners and pirates. Some former slaves escaped, by boat, to the Bahamas. Black Seminoles poled their canoes through the Everglades, erected sails and cruised along the Atlantic coast.

"When I was a kid, the ocean was my babysitter," Bryant says. "I fished, I snorkeled, I'd spear something to take home to eat. Lots of kids today know nothing about nature. They don't know the real world."

Sometimes, when he takes kids sailing, they insult each other and use their fists.

"Enough!" Bryant bellows. "You're sailors right now. You've got to work together."

A disgraceful chapter

Nov. 29, 1837. John Cavallo, a black Seminole, escapes from Fort Marion near Ocala and joins Chief Coacoochee. They head south toward the Everglades and rally their people. At Lake Okeechobee, they engage Gen. Zachary Taylor, inflicting 38 casualties. Then they flee to the Loxahatchee

General Thomas Jessup tracks them. He marches his troops so hard they wear out their shoes. With machetes they cut their way through brush and swamp and woods.

The battle commences. Jessup has brought 1,700 troops. The Seminoles have 600. Seminoles, ultimate guerrillas, camouflage themselves with Spanish moss. They fire, then roll their bodies to the side to avoid the returning gunfire. It's Jan. 24, 1838.

Dozens of people from both sides are dead. Jessup is wounded in the face.


Jessup calls for a truce. He meets with the warriors. All they want is to be left alone. They swear they will cause no trouble. Jessup says he will consider it.

Soon Jessup gets word from superiors. Under no circumstances are Seminoles to be allowed to stay in Florida. They have to go west like other Indians to a reservation in Arkansas (now Oklahoma).

At night, still under the flag of truce, Jessup attacks. He captures all but a few of the warriors, who escape south into the Everglades.

Jessup marches his grieving captives west to Tampa. They are boarded on ships and taken to New Orleans. From there they're marched to Arkansas. On the way, slavers attack, stealing black adults and children. They're sold as slaves.

The trip to Arkansas is now known as "The Trail of Tears."

Artifacts and real life

"If we can't protect this spot," Isa Hamm Bryant announces to the trees, "we can't protect Florida.

John Street is listening. He directs Riverbend Regional Park. He's 57, white haired, an old-time Florida cracker who speaks with a buttered grits southern accent. If you believe in stereotypes, he and Isa -- a black Indian -- shouldn't get along.

But Street, like Bryant, is a history buff, and an expert on Seminole lore. He even knows how to build Seminole canoes.

"This is an amazing place," Street says. There are 42 archaeological sites in his park. No place in Florida has more. Some sites contain 6,000 year-old artifacts.

He drives his friend Isa into the woods. They admire a huge cypress tree, what the Seminoles might call a "grandfather" because it is so old. Street leans against his vehicle and imitates the cry of an osprey. A real osprey answers.

"What happened here was epic," Bryant whispers. "People know about slavery. But they don't know what the native people did to survive. The story of the Seminoles is a story about survival. I'm in awe."

A produce truck roars down Indiantown Road and a jet airliner descends toward the airport in crowded West Palm. Palm Beach is popular with the jet set during winter.

Along the river the afternoon breeze rustles the cabbage palms. Underfoot is sand and dirt and loam and the bones of the old ones, sacred bones.


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