History and the people who make it: Wilton Russell

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler

This is the 36th in a series of transcript excerpts from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection at the University of Florida.

Wilton Russell [R] was interviewed by Ryan Morini [M] in 2012.

M: Your date and place of birth?

R: Red Bay Andros, the Bahamas. 22nd of December 1956 and I am 56. I born in a house about the size of this room and that house was two rooms, “the hall” where you to eat, sit down and talk and pray. The other is a bedroom, so that’s the first house that my grandmother did own. We built outta pine and made those lumbers themselves and my grandfather, something used to call axe, like a pickaxe and no prong on the back.

M: The adze.

R: That’s how they build their sailing sloops too. That’s how they carve the canoes too, that same thing. Axe. And that’s how the house was built. With an axe, wooden pin. Not even nails. There wasn’t a shop around to buy no nails. So they take wood from Old Ridge or the bush or the jungle — and sharpen up we axe and use that for pin. But I don’t know how they get those hole bore. My grandfather pretty smart. Where he put that house together, our house is still standing today.

It was there, my grandmother told me fifteen years before I was born. Before, they were living in a thatched roof. That thatched roof is over sixty years old and it’s still there to show how strong a straw .. building is.

All we does is repaired. As soon as it started leaking Mama said, Puna my camp leaking man, please go try get some straws. I said Mama let’s do it completely over, make it look new.

I cut the leaves, we call these types of leaves house-rich leaves. I go and I get like three, four bundles of them, as much as she can possibly tie up, put it up your head, you gotta walk through the jungle with it on your head, even if a wild boar behind you, you gotta run with your leaves on your head. Or drop your leaves and go up the trees till the wild boars go then pick up your leaves and you start taking off again, till you get home to mama.

You go ahead and you thatch the building over again. That’s how I was brought up and that’s what I did to help out.

M: What do you consider your ethnic or racial background to be?

R: My grandmother, she taught me all of her legacies and all her things so I only can relate what she taught me, and whatever I discovered myself through the jungles.

Both grandfathers have taught me certain things. I have lot of stories and maybe I’ll be telling stories all day. [Laughter]

My grandfather, my grandmother, they both told me that we are Seminole Indians descended from Florida. They said, there was a bad storm came down one time ago in 1926 and also another earlier year — I can’t really remember which year it is.

This strong brave young man left town to go fishing. They couldn’t turn back because the breeze was in back of them, in the west. The hurricane came from the west. They were fishing in their sloops, and a wave kept pushing them in. They couldn’t make it back to the U.S., so they keep on going forward.

They landed on a space called McQueen Well. They gone up to this place called Sammy Lewis. A high, high ground with a big, big trees over it called wild mangoes. The land is not too big now, I’d say approximately 400 meters diameter.

After the storm, they jumped in their canoes and they went to this place called McQueen Well. That’s the safest place because it was kind of high. Only God knows where they got those plants from to put in the ground, but Indians are wise people. Every time they travel, they travel with food, or seeds. They planted these corn, bean, potatoes, cassavas, pumpkins, yams, and stuff like that. Another storm came down. That kills a lot of them.

That’s the legend place where many Seminoles have died. The storm killed them because they had time to build no houses. They were living in little tents. We had very little time to secure themselves.

And from there those left behind, they moved to another place called Cedar Coppice. That’s another higher piece of ground. That’s approximately about a mile from McQueen Well. And they stayed.

My daddy’s daddy, was one of those guys. He was one of the survivors. Shaddy Russell. My grandfather, Pa Nelson, got swept away. In those days storms were coming pretty fast. No one died at the Cedar Coppice, but they still on the storm path. They ran deep into the pine yard on higher ground. They find shelter there because many of them went in caves. God bless those caves.

So after the weather was over, they came out of the caves and they came back to their canoes and they paddled — keep paddling on, with their seeds and everything — til they reached to this place called Lewis Coppice which is known to be Red Bay right now. Where I born.

And they stayed there for about five, six years. Growing their seeds, trying to build their tents and stuff. Another storm came there too. It killed a lot of them again. The older ones always be the ones that get killed out. They can’t run for their life.

The stronger ones who have more strength, they can’t stay there to lift a guy weighing maybe two hundred pounds. To run with him. Then you’ve got your little brother. Perhaps your sister to run with, or your mummy. You don’t want to leave your mummy behind.

That’s how it was. Sometimes when I speak stories it make me cry.

Yeah. There were about thirty odd people at Red Bay, after the storm was over. It’s Red Bay now, but I like the word Lewis Coppice because that’s what it was called. And then there’s a place in Red Bay called Lost Man Coppice.

This place was so thick with bush — one single guy, his name was Sammy Lewis, he was the chief of the Seminoles. He went so deep into the jungle he got lost. It took the rest of the Indians three days to find this guy. And he wasn’t far away from the camp. He screamed. He yelled. He shoot his musket. Nobody could hear it. That’s how thick this bush and high, high, high the thicket is.

He keep on traveling and traveling until he gets back out to a thinner part of the Coppice, and he heard some noises so he followed where he hear the sound of the people. When they saw him, and he saw his family, he fell down. Few days no food, no water. He’s weak and tired and exhausted. They give him some arrowroot.

Riding along the road you see that little plant in the water in the ditch on the side of the road — they all bunch together, in the water going down there by the bank. Arrowroot, wow, that’s the Indian food, what we used to do when we get that hungry, and we hunting wild boars.

We go and we dig it up, take off the little leaves off it, the little stuff off it and we build a fire — because in that town there wasn’t no match, we had to use a stick, we had to do that so much, sometimes till our shoulders hurt us, we tried to make fire with the stick, rubbing the stick, rubbing the stick, [makes blowing noises] And you look fire comes, so we put arrowroot in the fire and here it goes, we got something to eat.

We use our Bay Rush for flour bread because there wasn’t no flour. No rice. No grits. No salt. No oil to fry nothing with. Everything in the bush is partly poisonous. But you manufacture it to make it become edible.

My grandmother called me, say, “Wilton, come here. See these plants here? They are called Bay Rush.” They say “Go bring that piece of wood here.” Say “bring the cutlass.” Old piece of cutlass. It rusty, it red, red, red. We had to sharpen it on a rock. I chipped one out of that piece of wood. It’s called Bullet Wood. It so hard when you chop on it you get “ting”. It’s harder than the mahogany wood.

And my grandmother, she said, “This thing what I want you to dig up this poison, you can’t eat.” That’s how she speaks. I’m going to speak like here. “This is not cassava. This is not potato.” This is Bay Rush. She’s called it bear-ish.

But the proper name, scientific name, is Bay Rush. It’s edible and it saves baby lives. It gives strength to the whole family if you know how to manufacture it.

The arrowroot don’t need no manufacturing. All the arrowroot need is to dig up, put in the fire, or grill it or boil it, and you can eat it. Or you can grater it, get the starch from it, ohh. Best porridge you can ever eat in your life is arrowroot porridge. When you take the first spoonful you can feel the come on start. Arrowroot.

Now, it was hard in them times, during their times. We had a little better, in my times coming up, but it’s still hard in Red Bay still now. That’s why I always try to teach the culture of the Red Bay Seminoles to those who don’t know. They are Seminole descendants, but they don’t know that culture.

The area where — my grandmother and my grandfather and them, were farming, these area are called the Hall Coppice. Billy Coppice. This is rich, rich ground.

You put anything in the ground and a couple of days and it’s up. Couple of months, you can eat. Two, three months, you can dig your potato. You can eat your cassava. You can pick your peas and your beans or whatever. Nowadays, nobody farming them areas no more. Everybody looking to catch some crabs and some fish to sell and so they can feed the family and pay the bills off. It’s kind of awful on me back in the Bahamas with my family.

Sometimes I wish that I could come to the United States and find a good job or find a record producer company and cut some record or something like that. Try to change my life a little bit because all my lifetime I had it hard, very hard. I mean other people have it harder than I do.

That’s why I’m so thankful to God that I live long enough to come to America for the first time, at the age of 56. So far as I can see, it seems like I find more love in American with strangers than my own family and friends and neighbors.

Well my Grammy died about two months before here. I’m still feeling the sorrows. We used an “OK” flour bag for shirt. For pants. You know what was my bed? I used to sleep in the cocoa sack. You know, thick links one, look like a net almost. Until the age of sixteen I was sleeping in cocoa sack.

Search for “Wilton Russell” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu/collection/ for the full transcript of this interview; look for a second segment in the next issue of the Iguana.

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy. SPOHP needs the public’s help to sustain and build upon its research, teaching, and service missions: even small donations can make a big difference in SPOHP’s ability to gather, preserve, and promote history for future generations. 

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