Florida's Vanishing Trail
By 1830, because of settler protests, the United States Congress declares that all Indians in Florida will be removed to reservations west of the Mississippi River. Within two years, the Federal government dispatches Colonel James Gadsden to negotiate a trade for the 5 million acres for land in the West. By spring, Gadsden is ready to bargain. He entreats seven chiefs and eight sub chiefs to sign the new treaty negotiated at Payne’s Landing near Fort King on the Oklawaha River. They agree to sign on the condition that within three years, (later extended one more year), a delegation of chiefs will examine the new land and if they are satisfied, the treaty will become binding.
In March of 1833, a supplementary treaty is signed at Fort Gibson, Arkansas. This treaty infuriates chiefs who were not present at the signing. In response, the Indian leaders declare that all the nations of the tribes must agree in the final decision. The situation rapidly deteriorates. One of the leading chiefs, John Hicks, dies suddenly. Charley Emathla, another chief and strong supporter of the treaty, is assassinated.
Leadership of the Seminoles passes to warriors and chiefs who first resist and then refuse to abide by the treaty. By December of 1835, tensions escalate and overt hostilities ensue. The U.S. Government prepares to enforce the treaty. On Christmas Day in 1837 at Lake Okeechobee, a fierce battle breaks out. 200 Indians fight. Soon after, the Seminoles break up into small groups and quietly disperse into the Big Cypress area (now Collier County and Cape Sable).
After the battle at Lake Okeechobee in 1837, the US Army establishes its first fort in Collier County. Called “Old Fort Foster”, it is often confused with Fort Foster established farther north which was later renamed Fort Alabama.5 Camp Keais and Camp Foster soon follow. These are busy army installations during the Second and Third Seminole Wars. Altogether, eight major army forts are built in what is now geographically Collier County. They are, in order of development, Old Fort Foster, Fort Poinsett, Fort Harrell, Fort Keais, Fort Doane, Fort Keys, Fort Simon Drum, and Fort Cross. All are built between the Second and Third Seminole Wars. Five are built on land and three - Fort Poinsett, Fort Cross and Fort Harrell - are accessible primarily by water. It was the search for these eight forts that eventually led to the writing of this book.
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Historical information about the placement of these forts is sketchy at best. Putative locations in many cases were based on anecdotal information that proved false. Although Southwest Florida (Collier County) had established more U.S. Army forts than any other county in Florida during the Seminole Wars, to date not one location has been accurately located. Sites that have had monuments placed there earlier in the century have had them removed, either by vandals, owners, or managers of the properties.
As of this writing, there are no accessible markers present in Collier County identifying these sites and massive land clearing to accommodate development is approaching the very borders of historical sites. Recent articles underscore the problem. One about Fort Keais states “no one is certain how long the fort was in operation” and places it “somewhere south of Lake Trafford.”
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