Florida's Vanishing Trail
Historical records by eyewitnesses of the era describe a sudden trembling ground, and a rushing sound like a mighty hurricane, followed by, a phenomena that quickly starts spurting great fountains of water, rapidly covering all the available ground. Days of such a flow form a broad river and eventually a lake. Modern travelers no longer witness this magical process. Canal dredging, extensive cutting into natural aquifers for roads, drainage ditches, retention ponds and thousands of miles of irrigation culverts crisscross the entire face of Florida. Only 27 such springs remain.
Much of south Florida in the 1700s is impassable to all but the hardiest or most dedicated explorer. Views are most often available only from the decks of ships. Observers looking no further than the shore can see hundreds of deer traversing the sands and bears in abundance. Hardy souls who disembark to walk ancient Calusa footpaths easily spot otter, mink, bobcat, fox, raccoon, swamp rabbit, white tailed deer, turkey; and sometimes the elusive panther.
Move ahead into the 1800s. The remaining Seminoles are primarily remnants of the earlier Creek migration reinforced by arrivals from the Creek Confederacy including Mikasukis who group together and move south after the Creek War of 1812-1814. Over the years they are joined by runaway slaves. When Florida becomes part of the United States around 1821, most of the Indians still live in northern Florida. Their numbers have dwindled to about 5,000 and they appear unfamiliar with the southern half of the state. But new white settlers arrive and demand their lands forcing many of the Indians farther south and into the interior. Relations are tense. This period is later characterized as the beginning of the Seminole Wars. Dates assigned later in history identify three distinct phases: The First Seminole War 1817-1818, The Second Seminole War 1835-1842 and the Third Seminole War (sometimes called The Billy Bowlegs War) 1855-1858. It is likely these distinct phases are the periods of the greatest unrest and the most overt hostility.4
By 1823, two years after Florida becomes a state, a Peace Conference is held at Moultrie Creek near St. Augustine. With a number of high-ranking chiefs absent, a few lower level chiefs accept 5 million acres of reservation land south of the Withlacoochee River and north of Lake Okeechobee and agree to vacate their other settlements. The land granted to the Indians stops 15 miles from the east coast and 20 miles from the west coast effectively removing the best lands and the ports from Seminole control. The agreement seems to work until 1823 when an Indian settlement is seen near the Caloosahatchee. The next year several more towns near the Peace River are discovered. In 1835 several more “unauthorized” settlements near the Peninsula are reported along with evidence of abandoned Seminole farms seen up the St. Mary’s River to Cape Sable. The Seminoles have moved beyond the treaty boundaries. Evidence shows that manifold change has occurred since the 1700s.
The 1800s bring the era of great naturalist painters who traverse the forests of Florida, producing collections of pictures never equaled. Pictures of woodpeckers, mocking birds, limpkins, herons, owls, eagles, hawks, blue jays, spoon bills, curlews, king finch, woodcocks, pelicans, ducks, coots, and beautiful flocks of pink flamingo together with a hundred different species no longer seen are painted in their natural habitats. Some rookeries were said to have held a half a million birds. This is a time before laws are passed to preserve them. Many are soon to be hunted to extinction or near extinction by hunters eager for their decorative plumage.