I spent a few hours this week looking back over some old articles I had written for the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s publication, The Seminole Tribune. Struck by a renewed sense of adventure I recalled the places I had been and the people I had met. The mid 90’s through 2001 had been a period of my life highlighted by travel, photography, and writing. So many memories of characters, places, good luck, and near misses punctuated this period; every now and then the magic happens outside of the story.
Having spent most of 1999 poring over notes, diaries, and books I had finally arrived at one volume that tied things together. The Director of The Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Anthropology & Genealogy Department, Dr. Patricia Wickman, produced a book entitled Osceola’s Legacy. Some of the information contained in this book drew from personal notes and letters from Thomas S. Woodard. Woodard is credited with founding Tuskegee Alabama. In a letter written to Woodard’s friend, E. Hanrick Esq., December 9, 1857, Woodard had this to say.
“I often wish myself back in Alabama, and have as often regretted leaving Tuskegee. I was the founder of Tuskegee. I selected the place for the county site, or place for the court house, in 1833. I built the first house on that ridge, though James Dent built the first house on the court house square, after the lots were laid off.”
Woodard was known as a brave, rough, warm-hearted man of fine intellectual endowments. ‘A most sagacious judge of character, extensive knowledge of Creek Indian history, manners and character — with an indomitable will and a sturdy self-reliance, which spoke for itself in his tall, sinewy form and strongly-marked, expressive face.’ He was also considered a friend of the Creek Indians in the area and often commented on their mistreatment by the United States.
He wrote in another letter to his friend J. J. Hooper March 21, 1858, “And it is equally as shameful as true, that other Christian nations have followed the example of Spain, with the natives of this and other countries; wherever the Bible (which was seldom applied right) failed, the musket and bayonet were resorted to.”
Buried in Woodard’s December 9, 1857 letter to Hanrick was a description of where Ussa Yoholo (Black Drink), Billy Powell, or most famously the great Seminole war leader Osceola was born. Osceola is famous for his resistance as a war fighter as well as for being captured under a flag of truce. Osceola reached celebrity status throughout the United States as well as Europe for this dark page in U.S. History. He is memorialized throughout the United States today with places, counties, and streets that bear his name. The name Osceola, according to Woodard, became widely known after Osceola “killed General Thompson in Florida.”
Thompson had served as a military general but is more widely recognized as a Jacksonian congressman. After his service as congressman ended in 1833, he became an Indian agent to the Seminoles and was appointed in 1834 to superintend the removal of the Seminoles from Florida. Osceola ended Thompson’s brief career as Indian Agent at Fort King, Florida, on December 28, 1835.
My quest hadn’t begun as a search for where Osceola was born. It developed and evolved over the course of a year. With Woodard’s notes and Dr. Wickman’s generosity I could formulate a feel for the life of Osceola to some extent of my limited understanding and exposure of the complexity of what happened to native Americans in the Southeast after contact. Outside of his fame as a resistance fighter and as the man that killed an Indian agent sent to remove his people from Florida, Thomas S. Woodard had inadvertently handed me the address of his birthplace.
Woodard wrote, “Ned, I, in company with my family, old Aunt Betsy Kurnells, (or Connells,) Tuskeneha, and old John McQueen, dug up those cedars, when they were very small, from under a large cedar that shaded the birth-place of Ussa Yoholo, or, Black Drink, who, after the murder of General Thompson, in Florida, was known to the world as Oceola. This man was the great grand-son of James McQueen. You know his father — the little Englishman, Powell. His mother was Polly Copinger. The rail road from Montgomery to West Point runs within five feet, it not over the place, where the cabin stood in which Billy Powell, or Ussa Yoholo, was born. The old cedar was destroyed by Gen. McIver’s negroes, when grading the road. It was in an old field, between the Nufaupba (what is now called Ufaupee), and a little creek that the Indians called Catsa Bogah, which mouths just below where the rail road crosses Nufaupba; and on the Montgomery side of Nufaupba, and on a plantation owned by a Mr. Vaughn, when I left the country, rests the remains of old James McQueen, a Scotchman, who died in 1811, aged — from what Col. Hawkins and many others said he was — 128 years.”
One hundred forty two years later while visiting family in Randolph County Alabama I set off to find Osceola and the place Woodard had described. I headed out into a blisteringly cold Alabama day. My search began in earnest Dec. 28, 1999, with a phone call to Tuskegee. The second call to the Macon County Library was disheartening, I learned the library would be closed until the New Year. The unanswered phone calls and the general lack of interest in what I was trying to accomplish nearly ended the search before it began.
I drove the 100 miles from Randolph County, past historical markers stating, ‘This spot was once the meeting place of the Creek Confederacy,’ or ‘Not far from this spot was an important Creek village.’ Wheels began to turn, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be a Native American living in this part of Alabama at the beginning of the 19th century. Following the map (no GPS) to Tuskegee an uneasy feeling of not knowing for sure where to go or who to talk with began to creep in. The thought of turning around seemed reasonable. I took the exit off I-85 to Tuskegee. Signs for the Tuskegee Institute dotted the road as I made our way past what would someday be a museum to honor the Tuskegee Airman. Closer to town I passed the Police Department. Finally a place that that I could at least begin to ask questions.
The busy dispatcher pretended to listen to my story between answering the phone and talking on his radio. Though polite, he offered little hope of locating Osceola’s birthplace. As if by providence, a woman appeared and asked if she could be of help. After she heard my story she asked why we didn’t try the library. Her response to my knowledge of the closed library was one of puzzlement. She simply turned and said, “Closed? Follow me.”
Soon I found myself at the back entrance of the Macon County Library, in a moment the door opened, I was welcomed in by Mapearl “Pearl” Clark, Assistant director of the library and recognized local historian. She listened patiently as I explained my quest. She instantly became an ally and handed over the only known copy of the History of Macon County, she suggested I read through it while she made phone calls to another local historian, retired Postmaster John Segrest. Mr. Segrest was 101 years old at the time.
The dusty pages of the history book set the tone for the balance of the day and spoke of a brutal and treacherous time for Native people throughout the region. Some direct quotes from The History of Macon County:
“Indications have been found in Macon County of a people making sand tempered pottery that lived there before the birth of Christ.”
“At the time of European contact, the Creek Indians lived in the area that is now Macon County.”
“The western part of the County, which borders along the Tallapoosa River, was thickly settled by the Creeks. The most noted Creek towns were Atassi and Talisi. About the middle of the eighteenth century a town named Nafolee was apparently situated near the mouth of Calebee Creek. Further down the river, the Amissi or Massi, a tribe of unknown ethnic origin lived. Yufalo, a Creek town on the Uphapee Creek, was the birthplace of Osceola, the famous warrior chief during the Seminole War of 1835.”
On and on I read, ever closer to the inevitable conclusion, closer and closer to what Osceola and his people saw and surely felt.
“After the Treaty of Fort Jackson in 1814 ended the Creek Indian War, the Indians and the settlers lived in relative peace for a number of years. Under the Treaty, the Creeks had surrendered much of their land to the United States Government, retaining only a section of land along the Georgia border. This land, which included the area that is now Macon County, became a part of the new State of Alabama in 1819. Friction between the growing numbers of settlers and the Indians increased. In a treaty signed on March 24, 1832, the Creek Nation finally relinquished claim to the remaining land in Alabama. On Dec. 18, 1832, the Alabama Legislature created Macon County from part of the territory acquired from the Creek Indians.”
Pearl chatted and took notes from the old postmaster who was too frail to join us. The history book beckoned, Osceola was near.
“As the tide of settlers grew, the real owners of the land, the Creeks, were slowly dispossessed. In 1836 and 1837, the final forced emigration of the Creek Indians to land west of the Mississippi River occurred.”
“In 1836, the forcible removal of the Creek was started. Fort Mitchell was the rendezvous point for the subsequent trip west. Groups of Indians would be marched to Montgomery and transported by boat down the Alabama River to Mobile Point. They were then transported up the Tombigbee River to Tuscaloosa and moved over land to the Mississippi River. In early July, sixteen hundred Creek Indians, men, women, and children, left Fort Mitchell. They followed the Old Federal Road, south of Tuskegee, across Macon County. The warriors were all handcuffed and chained together. They were followed by a long train of wagons and ponies carrying children, the old women and the sick who were unable to walk. Near Tuskegee, the group was joined by a considerable number of prisoners, including the chiefs Eneah Micco and Jim Henry. One hundred and forty five members of Micco’s party held out and were captured north of Tuskegee in the middle of July. At Montgomery, the Indians were crowded onto two little river steamboats with barges in tow and carried to Mobile.”
The Montgomery Advertiser wrote, “the spectacle exhibited by them was truly melancholy. To see the remnant of a once mighty people fettered and chained together forced to depart from the land of their fathers into a country unknown to them, is of itself enough to move the stoutest heart.”
With that backdrop, Pearl motioned for me to join her on a trek to Osceola’s birthplace. The ride was short “less than five miles” and took us past rich farmlands nestled against gentle hillsides that were bounded by mixed forests of pine and hardwoods. Before I could even comprehend what I had just read we were there.
We parked next to a railroad crossing, we crossed a trestle and walked the track to the edge of a plowed field and surveyed the expanse while referencing Dr. Wickman’s book. But something was wrong. After a time I walked to the car and drove to the highway to take in the entire field.
There, in an area far beyond the posted signs, I saw what was missing. Cedar trees, one here, one there, they began to pop into view. The trees were scarce everywhere else.
Upon closer inspection, we discovered a giant cedar tree that stood within just a few feet of the railroad and within yards of the creek. I re-read the passage from Dr. Wickman’s book:
“Tom remembered the large cedar tree which had shaded the place. . .he had moved five small cedars from beneath its branches to his own property.”
I was looking at the birthplace of one of the most famous Indians in North America. There was no historical marker or sign to mark the spot, like many of the details of Osceola’s early life, it was shrouded in mystery and speculation. But, based on available evidence, it seems likely. Perhaps I had found the birth place of Osceola.
If you would like to see this location, take I-85 west to Alabama Highway 81, turn right and travel to Macon County Road 55. If you drive past the railroad tracks you’ve gone too far. The area will be on your left from where C.R. 55 crosses the tracks.
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