one of several Bowlegs Town excavations, an archaeology team,
with tribal historian and Seminole Chief Justice Willie Johns,
fourth from left, is filmed by Committee Films March 12 for
a future History Channel documentary.
OLD TOWN Not far from the Suwannee River, historic Bowlegs
Town rests almost like a whisper within a wide vista of North Florida
high ground. The town is flanked by coastal mangroves and grassy
plains with fingerlike waterways that slither west into the Gulf
of Mexico and thick oak hammocks that shadow the Dixie County outback
to the east.
It was here, in 1818, that Gen. Andrew Jackson, leading the
largest army to invade Florida, brought guns to kill and chase away
Seminole Indians, burn down their 80-acre village and stir the embers
of the frontier conflict into the First Seminole War.
Today, Jackson is on the $20 bill and Bowlegs Town sits like
a terrestrial ghost covered by nearly 200 years of Mother Nature's
The property that contains the tiny town has gone through myriad
owners over the years and is currently owned by realtor and rancher
H. Dale Herring.
Map of Florida, Displaying Seminole Reservations and Major
Boyd's Map of Jackson's Eastern Route in Northern Florida
Provided by STOFTHPO - Archaeometry Section
Upon discovering the history of what exists amid the 400 acres
he purchased several years ago, Herring became a caretaker of Bowlegs
Town and the first owner to allow professional archaeologists to
undertake a thorough examination of the site.
"I don't want any money from this. I'm a businessman, but I
don't look at this as a business opportunity," Herring told Seminole
Chief Justice Willie Johns, who visited the area March 12. "I'm
not going to sell any artifacts. I want the history associated with
this important site to be preserved and protected. I want to do
the right thing out here. You folks tell me what I should do."
Accompanying Justice Johns were Tribal citizens Question Cypress
and Tucomah Robbins, Andrew Weidman from the Seminole Tribal Historic
Preservation Office (THPO), Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Director Paul Backhouse
and THPO chief data analyst Juan Cancel.
The subject of Bowlegs Town emerged on the Seminole radar three
years ago when Silver River Museum Director Scott Mitchell borrowed
several cases of artifacts unearthed on the Herring property to
show his friend Mary Jene Koenes in Big Cypress. They brought the
cases to Backhouse, who later discussed the site with retired South
Florida archaeologist Brent Weisman.
Weisman, who has walked the site several times over the past
30 years, was also there to greet the Seminole visitors; he has
advised SEARCH (Southeastern Archaeology Services), the Gainesville
based firm working the site.
"It is quite remarkable to find a private site this important
which has an owner who is totally dedicated to historical research
and preservation, who will protect the site from those who would
plunder it for profit," Weisman said. "It is no less than remarkable.
I hate to say this, but more often than not, the opposite is usually
Both Weisman and Backhouse praised amateur archaeologist John
Edwards, a surveyor by trade who has carefully documented the site
with drawings and photographs and preserved each musket ball, tool,
blade, bead, pot, etc. found on the site.
"How fortuitous it was that this man, with all of his local
knowledge, was here in this area and able to connect and work with
the owner so well," said Backhouse, whose office regularly fields
bad news regarding Seminole sites and artifacts on private property.
"Every week we find out about people who ruin precious historical
sites like this. And it is usually for greed, for personal profit."
History is often both vague and incorrect regarding Seminoles
named Bowlegs. What is known is that Bowlegs (referred to in modern
times as "Billy" Bowlegs I) was a nephew of noted Seminole Chief
Cowkeeper, brother of King Payne and uncle to Micanopy all
well-known to the US military as important Seminole War leaders
from the Alachua band situated in Paynes Prairie. In 1812, in retaliation
for attacks on US camps in south Georgia, a force led by Col. Daniel
Newnan wiped out a Seminole camp at Paynes Prairie, killing leader
Bowlegs took over for his brother and eventually led the Seminoles
60 miles west to high ground just north of the Suwannee. There,
more than 100 Seminoles settled in, building homes, hunting, farming,
fishing, living life in the community eventually known to the enemy
as Bowlegs Town.
Border conflicts between the United States and Spanish Florida
and pressure from settlers moving south into Alabama, North Carolina
and Georgia pushed more and more Southeastern Indians to join their
brother Indians native to North Florida.
These migrations brought settlers and Indians to the brink of
outright war. Jackson also stepped into the quarrel with a "cleansing"
goal: to push Indians out of areas the whites wanted, recover runaway
slaves and bring escaped criminals to justice. He roared into Spanish
Florida, without congressional permission.
Secretary of State John Quincy Adams defended Jackson's actions,
describing Florida as "a derelict open to the occupancy of every
enemy, civilized or savage, of the United States, and serving no
other earthly purpose than as a post of annoyance to them."
Leading a force of more than 3,000 troops, Jackson stormed
across North Florida from Atlantic to Gulf, taking the "Seminole
problem" head on. He burned all in his path, summarily executing
captured Seminoles and plundering everything from tiny Negro camps
to Bowlegs Town, the largest Seminole community in Florida, starting
the first of three Seminole Wars.
"To the Seminoles, it was all just one big, long war stretching
over 40 years. There were no beginnings or endings of one war to
another for the Seminoles," Justice Johns said.
By the time Jackson reached Bowlegs Town, he found it already
abandoned and ordered it looted for food and supplies.
"There wasn't much there for 3,000 men," Weisman said. "The
Seminoles had taken their cows with them."
Jackson torched the place, then left to search for the runaways.
The Indians who escaped were tracked down and captured and held
at either Egmont Key (west of St. Petersburg) or Cat Island (south
of Mississippi) until steamboats took the prisoners up the Mississippi
River to join Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks and other Southeastern
Indians walking the "Trail of Tears" to Indian lands out west.
archaeologist John Edwards, right, explains his artifact labeling
system to Tribal citizens Quenton Cypress, Tucomah Robbins
and Chief Justice Willie Johns.
The Adams-Onis Treaty (signed in 1819 and ratified two years
later) ceded Spain's Florida territory to the United States. Further
treaties cemented the deportation of Southeastern Indians.
Jackson's attack on Bowlegs Town severed ancestral connections
with indigenous people living to the north, separating off an enemy
that the Americans would describe as "Seminole."
Bowlegs eluded capture, doubled back from the coast and disappeared
into the Central Florida jungles, where historians surmise he died
Another Billy Bowlegs, who was 8 years old when Bowlegs Town
was burned, emerged as a precocious leader alongside Osceola, Jumper,
Wildcat and Sam Jones during the latter years of the Second Seminole
War (1828-1842). Bowlegs' 1855 ambush on 1st Lt. George L. Hartsuff's
Army detachment began the Third Seminole War, the unruly chief's
eventual "arranged" surrender and deportation fast-tracked the end
of military conflicts between the few remaining Seminoles (hiding
in the Big Cypress and Everglades swamps) and the US
of several display cases shows artifacts unearthed by archaeologist
John Edwards at Bowlegs Town in the past few years.
"There is so much history out here. This is a very special place
to us Seminoles," said Justice Johns, who was interviewed on camera
for a Committee Films television documentary. "We hope this place
and everything they find will always be protected and treated with
proper respect, as they have been doing. This is a very good situation
for historic preservation out here. Believe me, you don't see this
Teams of archaeologists shoveled and sifted through small squared-off
areas of land for historical items. Inside a nearby office building,
display cases filled with artifacts found at the site cover desks
and maps adorn walls.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Backhouse, who expressed
the hope that someday the "amazingly well-preserved" artifacts would
be housed in a public institution that can tell the significance
of the Seminole story throughout Florida history.
Herring said that while the site "just fell into my lap ...
it's my responsibility to make the most of it. I want to make this
site as good as it can be and shine a good light on the Seminoles,
a people almost exterminated from their native lands."
site at Bowlegs Town, archaeologist Brent Weisman, left, answers
questions from landowner Dale Herring, THPO chief data analyst
Juan Cancel, AhTah-Thi-Ki Museum Director Paul Backhouse and
Chief Justice Willie Johns.
Herring hopes to oversee a complete archaeological project,
an undertaking that could take years and cost a lot of money, said
Weisman, who described a painstaking ordeal which may include the
boring of test holes a few meters apart across the entire 80-acre
site. "Don't get me wrong. It can be done. And it can be done right."
Herring hopes to form public-private partnerships in the creation
of what he calls an "archaeology mitigation bank." He described
an infrastructure similar to current wetlands mitigation banks:
a historic area of archaeological significance that finances
restoration and/or preservation by using compensation provided by
developers in other parts of Florida for unavoidable impacts to
archaeologic resources, including those permitted by government
"Other states have this, but Florida does not," Herring said.
"This is something Florida really needs. How many other sites like
Bowlegs Town are there out there, threatened with destruction?"