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Mon December 2, 2013

Florida Tribe Re-Creates Daring Escape From The Trail Of Tears

Originally published on Mon December 2, 2013 6:12 pm

This week, a group of Seminole Indians in Florida is commemorating an important historical event — when a Seminole named Polly Parker organized and led an escape from federal troops more than 150 years ago.

It came at a time when Indians were being deported to the West in what became known as the Trail of Tears. Florida's Seminoles call themselves the "unconquered people" because, through three wars with federal troops, they resisted deportation to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi.

In 1858, at the end of the third Seminole War, Parker was one of a group of Indians held at a federal stockade on Egmont Key, an island in the middle of Tampa Bay.

On Sunday, a small group of Seminoles began a re-creation of Parker's journey. They went first to Egmont Key, where there's a lighthouse and Indian graves — a legacy of the years Seminoles were held there.

History from that time is sketchy, but the island is where the Seminole leader Billy Bowlegs, who led the last uprising against the federal troops, was held. Eventually, along with more than 100 warriors, women and children, he was deported to the West.

It's a story that Willie Johns says is still painful to his people.

"It's kind of like our Holocaust. Our people were held captive here because of a war that was going," says Johns, a community outreach specialist and an informal tribal historian. "It was against the law in those days after 1830 that Native people be east of the Mississippi."

Johns says when the time came for Parker to be deported, she and other Seminoles boarded a ship that would take them west. But when the boat stopped on the Panhandle, she sneaked away. Johns says she traveled through hundreds of miles of wilderness back to tribal lands near Lake Okeechobee.

"When she made her escape, there were like five or six ... other people with her who made that escape, so she's a big part of our community," he says.

At Sunday's kickoff event, Johns and the other Seminoles were greeted at Egmont Key by Florida officials who oversee the state park and nature preserve there. Along with the lighthouse, there's a small museum on the island.

Johns brought along a portrait of Parker to hang in the museum. It's one that he knows very well — a color-tinted photograph of Parker in traditional Seminole garb, wearing perhaps two dozen strings of beads.

"I've seen this picture all my life in Okeechobee on the wall at [a local] hardware store. And they always said, 'That's your great-grandma,' " he says.

Parker lived many more years in South Florida after her escape. She died in 1921. For Seminoles today, her most important legacy is her descendants.

"Her progeny became many of the leaders and medicine people and important figures in the history of the tribe ever since," says Peter Gallagher, who worked with Seminole Chief Jim Billie to organize the commemoration. "The chairman realized that one day when we were talking about it, and he said, 'What kind of tribe would we have if his lady had been either killed or deported to Oklahoma?' "

The Seminoles were continuing their re-creation of Parker's journey on Monday in St. Marks, the Panhandle town where 155 years ago, she made her escape, helping form the modern Seminole tribe.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

In Florida today, a group of Seminole Indians is commemorating an important event that occurred more than 150 years ago: an escape from federal troops organized and led by a Seminole named Polly Parker. The escape came as Indians were being deported to the West in what became known as the Trail of Tears. And today, tribal leaders say were it not for Parker, the modern Seminole tribe would look very different.

NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Florida's Seminoles call themselves the unconquered people. That's because through three wars with federal troops, Seminoles resisted deportation to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi. In 1858, at the end of the third Seminole war, Polly Parker was one of a group of Indians held at a federal stockade on Egmont Key, an island in the middle of Tampa Bay. Yesterday, a small group of Seminoles recreated Polly Parker's journey.

BOBBY HENRY: (Seminole language spoken)

ALLEN: Seminole medicine man Bobby Henry blessed the boat that would take them to Egmont Key, and then on to St. Mark's. That's the town on Florida's panhandle where Polly Parker made her escape when the boat stopped overnight.

There's a lighthouse on Egmont Key and Indian graves, a legacy of the years Seminoles were held here. History from that time is sketchy. But this is where the Seminole leader Billy Bowlegs, who led the last uprising against the federal troops, was held. Eventually, along with more than a hundred warriors, women and children, he was deported to the West.

It's a story Willie Johns says is still painful to his people.

WILLIE JOHNS: It's kind of like our Holocaust. You know, our people were held captive here because of a war that was going. Well, it was against the law in those days after 1830 that native people be east of the Mississippi.

ALLEN: Johns is a community outreach specialist and an informal tribal historian. He says when the time came for Polly Parker to be deported she boarded the ship with other Seminoles that would take them west. But when the boat stopped on the panhandle she sneaked away. Johns says she traveled through hundreds of miles of wilderness back to tribal lands near Lake Okeechobee.

JOHNS: When she made her escape, there were like five or six other people with here who made that escape. So, she's a big part of our community.

ALLEN: At the kickoff event yesterday, Johns and the other Seminoles were greeted at Egmont Key by Florida officials who oversee the state park and nature preserve there. Along with the lighthouse, there's a small museum on the island. Johns brought along a portrait of Polly Parker to hang in the museum. It's a portrait that he knows very well.

JOHNS: You know, I've seen this picture all my life in Okeechobee - on the wall at Okeechobee hardware store. And they always said: That's your great-grandma, you know.

ALLEN: It's a color-tinted photograph of Parker in traditional Seminole garb, wearing perhaps two dozen strings of beads.

EDNA BOWERS: (Seminole language spoken)

ALLEN: Before the ceremony, another of Polly Parker's descendents, Edna Bowers, looked through a book of old photos of tribal members many of whom she remembered. A younger relative, Skeeter Bowers, had a question.

SKEETER BOWERS: Why did they wear all those beads like that? Just a part of their...

ALLEN: Each year, you know, that they have their birthdays they get one necklace at a time.

BOWERS: (Unintelligible) where I had this - to me as a little kid, it was like thousands.

(LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: Polly Parker lived many more years in south Florida after her escape until she died in 1921. For Seminoles today, her most important legacy is her descendents. Peter Gallagher worked with Seminole chief Jim Billie to organize this commemoration.

PETER GALLAGHER: Her progeny became many of the leaders and medicine people and important figures in the history of the tribe ever since. And the chairman realized that one day when we were talking about it. He said, you know, what kind of tribe would we have if his lady hade been either killed or deported to Oklahoma, you know?

ALLEN: The Seminoles are continuing their recreation of Polly Parker's journey today in St. Marks, the town where 155 years ago she made her escape helping form the modern Seminole tribe.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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