by Homer Jack Moore
What does a Dollar General convenience store planned for the scenic Tuscawilla Road into Micanopy have to do with systemic racism?
Plenty, it turns out. Understanding how racial exploitation now achieves a crowning moment in the form of a Dollar General convenience store lies in the history of Florida itself. And the history of Florida is a long one.
The Spanish came in the 1500s bringing smallpox, measles, Christianity, and slavery. Disease decimated the Timacua Native population. Spaniards later established cattle ranches on emptied lands in the interior. A large one was headquartered by the Chua, so-named in Timacuan dialect, a swallet on the north rim of, now, Paynes Prairie. By 1700 the Hacienda de la Chua failed. Abandoned Spanish cattle ran off into the impenetrable savannah. Attracted by feral cattle, splinter groups of Creeks started to move in. The Spaniards called them “Cimarrones,” wild ones.
In 1774, a Quaker explorer and naturalist named Bartram traveled to the Florida interior to the village of Cuscawilla on the northern rim of what we now call Tuscawilla Prairie. The Natives there were by this time called “Seminoles.” Bartram was hosted by Cowkeeper, a Chief revered today as Father of the Seminoles. Cowkeeper’s son was Payne. The trail Bartram traveled along is now Tuscawilla Road, the place where Dollar General wants to put a convenience store.
In those days nothing was ever well in Florida. Georgia’s ban on black slavery had been lifted and plantation slaves soon outnumbered their white owners. Escaped slaves often made it to Florida to become vassals under the Seminoles. Georgia slave owners were paranoid about a slave revolt. Spanish Florida, as a magnet for runaways—and the Seminoles in particular as their protectors—fueled unrelenting Georgia anxiety. Constant raiding by Georgia slavers earned the enmity of Natives. It was a violent lawless land. Still, settlers from the US did continue to trickle in, looking for a foothold and a new start. Like the Natives before them they took advantage of feral cattle. They cracked whips to move herds; they were called Crackers.
In 1812 a bunch of adventurers from Georgia invaded Spanish Florida with hopes of starting a settler uprising as a pretext for a US takeover. This was the so-called Patriot’s War. A Georgian named Newnan imagined he would just go in and take over the Seminole Alachua territory. He was met head on by Chief Payne not too far from the lake now bearing his name (Newnan). Payne was killed. Newnan got his comeuppance. The Patriot War fizzled out. Payne was succeeded by his brother Bolek. Bolek died in 1819 and Payne’s grandson, Micanopy, became principal Chief.
1812 was also the year that the US declared war on England for infringements by the Royal Navy. The Brits and the French had been duking it out for years. Both sides, and the US as well, had recruited Natives to their causes. Brits sided with Red Stick Creeks who, under the influence of Tecumseh, were resisting US settler expansionism. Andrew Jackson, a charismatic and violent man, led Tennessee militiamen against the Red Sticks. Remnants of defeated Red Sticks including a mixed-race boy and his mother fled to the Seminoles in Florida. The boy’s name was Osceola.
Trouble in Florida continued with constant raids and skirmishes against Natives and their Black Seminole allies. Jackson, himself a slave owner, hated Seminoles as much as he hated Red Sticks. In 1817 he invaded Spanish Florida from the west, uprooting a Seminole settlement on the Suwanee along the way. A young Seminole-Black mixed race boy fled south with his mother. That boy’s name was John Horse; his nickname was Gopher John.
In the meantime Spain granted a large tract of land in the Alachua territory to a man named Arredondo and his son on condition that they bring in settlers and pacify the place. The Arredondos made a deal with a man named Edward Wanton to set up a trading post at Cuscawilla to service settlers and interface with Natives. The trading post was named Micanopy to curry favor with the Seminole Chief. It opened for business in 1821.
Spain finally ceded Florida to the US since they couldn’t control it, and it was a hell house to boot. In 1823 the new US regime met with the Seminoles at Moultrie Creek on the St. Johns River and presented a deal the Seminoles couldn’t refuse: Abandon the Alachua territory entirely and move south, confining themselves to the interior of the Florida peninsula, and be let alone. Or else. With the Patriot War and the Jackson experience behind them, the Seminoles assented. US forts were built in the Alachua Territory for its defense including one at Micanopy called Fort Defiance.
But the Treaty of Moultrie Creek was a crooked deal. Slaver raids continued. Then in 1830 the US Congress passed the Indian Removal Act to effect an ethnic cleansing of the entire southeast United States.
Black Seminoles were hardly thrilled about a return to US slavery and they were instrumental in inspiring a Seminole resistance. Fighting broke out in the Alachua Territory in 1835 and settlers from burned out plantations fled to Fort Defiance for shelter. In June 1836 Osceola, Gopher John, and a force of 250 warriors challenged the fort. US troops garrisoned there were ravaged by malaria and only 70 troopers and dragoons were in any fighting condition. A running battle under a sweltering sun took place along the length of Tuscawilla Road culminating at the very place where we are now to have a Dollar General. The Seminoles were repulsed by the inferior US force. The US press picked up the story as a great victory, spinning it as indicative of Native cultural inferiority. US resolve was bolstered in what up to that point had been a dismal and discouraging experience. The US persisted for seven more grueling years at enormous cost including the loss of a full ten percent of its fighting force. Osceola, Gopher John, Micanopy, and other Seminole chiefs were treacherously taken prisoner under a flag of truce and imprisoned at St. Augustine. Gopher John and Chiefs Wild Cat and Alligator pulled off an incredible escape. Osceola was too ill to go. He died in prison and his head was stolen as a trophy.
Many Seminoles including Micanopy were banished, ultimately to become the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. But the Seminoles in Florida never surrendered. The Second Seminole War finally fizzled out. The Native residual is now the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
The racist impulses that are the historical facts in the founding of the United States and the state of Florida are what they are. They cannot be changed. But the greatest racist impulse is to pave them over with asphalt and concrete, sell beer and cigarettes to the Cracker descendants, and erase all memory of what actually happened.