The Warrior Chief
TAMPA - The Seminole leader Wild Cat, captured with Osceola under a flag of truce during a meeting with U.S. Army officers, became one of the most feared leaders of the Second Seminole War. He and 18 warriors managed to escape from the prison at Fort Marion - the old Spanish fort in St. Augustine. They reportedly squeezed through the bars in a window after fasting for days, but a Seminole Indian historian doubts that story. A month later, Christmas Day 1837, Wild Cat and 400 Seminoles fought a force more than twice as large, led by Col. Zachary Taylor, in the Battle of Lake Okeechobee. Both sides claimed victory in the battle on the north side of the lake. Eleven Seminoles died and 14 were wounded. The Army lost 26 men, and 112 were wounded. Wild Cat, called Coacoochee by his people, is a central figure in the Seminole Wars exhibit at the Tampa Bay History Center, scheduled to open in December in the Channel District. The museum aims to entertain and educate visitors by telling the story of the Tampa Bay area from prehistory through the Spanish exploration, U.S. settlement, the arrival of Henry B. Plant's railroad, Ybor City's heyday and the modern-day metropolis.Coacoochee and Army officer John T. Sprague, who wrote about his experiences in Florida, tell the story of the Second Seminole War in a film by Boston Productions. The presentation includes scenes from re-enactments of the Okeechobee battle and the earlier ambush of Maj. Francis Dade's troops in what became known as the Dade Massacre. Dozens of local re-enactors - soldiers, Seminoles and villagers - are featured, says producer Beth Chambers. Artifacts of the era, among them an Army-issued 1832 sword carried by artillery soldiers, will also be on display. Though it has an American eagle stamped in the hilt, the weapon looks like a Roman short sword. It was used for hand-to-hand combat in case the soldiers' positions were overrun, says history center curator Rodney Kite-Powell. The sword's history, or how it came to be part of the old Hillsborough County collection, is unknown. But a companion piece, a Kentucky rifle that's missing its hammer mechanism, was carried in the 1850s by Leroy Lesley, a local militia captain during the Third Seminole War. His descendents donated the weapon to the county. Artifacts from 20th century Seminoles include leggings, moccasins, wooden spoons and a stick for playing ball, similar to a lacrosse stick. Most of the later goods were crafted just as they were in the days of Wild Cat. The celebrated warrior's role during the Battle of Okeechobee is unclear, but Willie Johns, a Seminole Indian historian at the tribe's Brighton Reservation and an adviser on the Boston Productions film, believes that Wild Cat was one of the battle's main architects. As a strategist and war leader, Johns says, "he was equal to or even better than Osceola." Johns, who has inspected the bars at Fort Marion prison, questions whether Wild Cat and his fellow inmates could really have squeezed between them. He thinks a sympathetic soldier may have left the door unlocked. There was a lot of sentiment for the prisoners among whites, who disapproved of the Army's trickery during the peace meeting. In 1841, Wild Cat surrendered and agreed to bring in his followers. All were transported to Arkansas territory under the military's Indian removal plan. "I think he was just tired. He was dismayed that his children were starving and dying and his women were suffering. It was just time to go do something else." In 1849, he led about 100 followers to Mexico, where they were given territory by the Mexican government for helping fight raiding Comanche and Apache Indians. He died of small pox in 1857.
Reporter Philip Morgan can be reached at (813) 259-7609 or [email protected]
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