by Eric Barton | November 26, 2018
The Men The Myths The Legends
The namesake of Fort Lauderdale, Maj. William Lauderdale, may have been largely lost to time, but his legacy lives on in Osceola, the famed leader of the Seminole tribe that the American soldier from Tennessee fought to destroy.
Billy Powell didn’t become a hero or a mass murderer—which version you hear depends on who’s telling his story—until he walked among all those dead bodies.
Almost everyone he had ever known died that Saturday, July 27, 1816. Two hundred and seventy bodies lay strewn about—soldiers, babies, mothers, kids like Billy. He was 12 years old.
The Americans had attacked the old Florida Panhandle fort that the English had abandoned a year earlier. The Americans called it the Negro Fort, since it had been taken over by escaped slaves along with Native Americans and a unit of the Colonial Marines, famed black soldiers who fought in the War of 1812. A flaming cannonball shot from an American warship on the Apalachicola River struck the fort’s weapons depot. The explosion killed nearly all of these inhabitants.
Billy and the other survivors took to the woods, a stretch of cypress swamp so inhospitable we now call it Tate’s Hell. He joined the survivors as they sloshed their way through grassland marsh and palmettos as sharp as knives. They made it all the way to South Florida, where they would soon be among those called Seminoles. Billy had Creek, black, Scottish and English blood and was indisputably handsome, with a slender sloping nose and an upturned brow that gave even his smile a sense of sadness. It is speculated that he first became a leader because he was one of the few Seminoles who spoke English and Creek, but soon he would be known for rousing speeches that rallied the survivors.
Out of the rubble of that old fort, as he rose from the piles of bodies left behind in the summer sun, Billy would become a mass murderer, by some accounts, bent on revenge for what he had seen. To be sure, others would say he was a hero, fighting for the right of his people to exist, striking back only in defense of their way of life and their land.
Billy Powell abandoned the boy he had been. He called himself Osceola. That tale of the creation of Osceola is one that’s well documented, an origin story recorded in textbooks and recounted in the oral history of the Seminoles. But what you might not know is the other part, the story about the man whose actions had helped give rise to Osceola. His name was Maj. William Lauderdale, and aside from being the namesake of the South Florida city, he has largely become lost to time, an irony that maybe ought to be explained.
Like Billy’s father, Lauderdale claimed a Scottish heritage. Lauderdale’s people had a lineage going back to King Robert I and Sir William Wallace, liberators of Scotland. His family came to America and built plantations in Virginia and Tennessee, making fortunes with the labor of slaves.
Lauderdale never intended to be a soldier. He likely would have spent his life overseeing his land. But just across Goose Creek in Hartsville, Tennessee, lived a Scotch-Irish statesman and plantation owner named Andrew Jackson.
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As colonel of the Tennessee militia, Jackson recruited his neighbor to fight in the War of 1812. Afterward, Jackson relied on Lauderdale to be one of his top officers in a campaign against the Native Americans. Lauderdale would chase the Seminole, Creek and Choctaw peoples out of Florida, outgunning their braves and overwhelming villages of families with cavalry.
After the explosion at the fort on the Apalachicola River, Jackson’s men returned the African-American survivors to slavery. The Choctaw chief was scalped. And while the Americans saw the attack as a resounding victory, it angered the Native Americans enough that they began three years of retaliatory attacks in what became the First Seminole War.
But Lauderdale was headed home by the time the Seminoles began massing armies in 1816. He returned to Sumner County, Tennessee, where he married and had seven children.
Jackson, his former neighbor, became president in 1829, touting his success against Native Americans in a landslide victory.
As the Seminoles got stronger and began to terrorize settlements in Florida, Maj. Gen. Thomas Jesup asked President Jackson for advice on how to win the Second Seminole War. According to Bob Davidsson, author of the book Indian River: A History of the Ais Indians in Spanish Florida, Jackson replied: “I know of but one man that I think can raise a battalion, and who can and will beat the whole Indian force in Florida.”
In 1837, Jackson gave Lauderdale his own command of a battalion of volunteers and mounted infantry. They would travel far south into Florida with orders to hunt and kill the most feared Native American brave: Osceola, now 33. There were no roads leading into the Seminole territory, so Lauderdale blazed his own. Starting in Jupiter, he and his men slashed and burned their way through 63 miles of native Florida scrub. It’s still there, that route, now called Military Trail, a largely suburban road of strip malls.
Lauderdale would never reach his destination, an army fort in Miami. The swamps would take him long before.
Billy Powell had been an equal among his peers at the fort along the Apalachicola, where most everyone had a mixed heritage. But in the swamps of South Florida, he would always be something of an outsider among the Seminoles. Even though as Osceola he had proven himself a fighter, a hunter and a leader of the army he raised, he could never be chief, not with his mixed blood.
So, instead, Osceola would become a leader among the natives who survived the attack on the fort. Most of the ones who refused to surrender were Creek Indians; they became known as the Seminoles. Legend has it that when the American government sent a treaty demanding that the Seminoles relocate to reservations in the West, Osceola returned it unsigned, a slice through the center of the document where he had stabbed it with his knife.
The tales of Osceola soon spread, and his reputation became something larger, according to Paul Backhouse, director of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, located dead center between Naples and Fort Lauderdale in the swamps north of Alligator Alley. Backhouse received a doctorate in archaeology from Bournemouth University in his native England and worked for the Museum of Texas Tech University before beginning work for the Seminole tribe in 2007.
“In many ways, Osceola was always someone more important externally than he was inside the tribe,” Backhouse says.
Osceola and the Seminoles ravaged the settlements in South Florida. The story goes that they destroyed all but one home in Miami-Dade and Broward counties during the Seminole Wars. Seminole warriors arrived at a settlement on the New River in what’s now Fort Lauderdale on the day its owner, William Cooley, was elsewhere. Cooley returned home to find his family and their teacher slaughtered, even Cooley’s infant boy. Only the tutor’s son would survive, according to lore, and later he would explain how the Seminoles shot Cooley’s wife in the back as she tried to run to the river, killing the child she clutched in her arms.
It would be difficult to defend what Osceola and the others did, slaughtering thousands in dozens of settlements. Maybe you could argue that Billy Powell had learned it that day at the fort, where American soldiers left behind hundreds of bodies to rot in the wreckage. Or, some might say, Osceola and his fighters had been surrounded, forced into swampland, and simply wanted one final place to be theirs. Perhaps a piece of young Billy Powell remained in the heart of Osceola, leading the great warrior to do what he did next, one last act of goodwill.
Osceola became so feared that Jesup offered him a truce. The general invited Osceola to St. Augustine, where a white flag of peace flew above Fort Peyton. Osceola and the others knew they might be walking into a trap, but Backhouse says they went because they wanted to believe in the idea of peace, to feel that they were doing the right thing.
On October 21, 1837, Osceola brought 72 of his men within the fort’s walls. When the doors closed behind them, Jesup’s soldiers turned their guns on them and forced the surrender of Osceola and his men. This act destroyed the reputation of Jesup, the one who had summoned Lauderdale into the war, and the press would vilify him. Two centuries later, the deceit remains “one of the most disgraceful acts in American military history,” according to Thom Hatch’s book Osceola and the Great Seminole War: A Struggle for Justice and Freedom.
“Osceola was so upset by the deception that he couldn’t even speak through his anger,” Backhouse says. “It’s a really tragic ending to Osceola’s story to have him captured by this awful deception under a false truce.”
Osceola ended up in an army prison outside Charleston, and how he spent his final days is open to some interpretation, Backhouse says. The army claims they allowed Osceola to leave prison at night to attend parties and take in shows, always wearing the regalia of the Seminole chief he could never become. The Seminoles tell a different story, claiming he rotted in a cell, tortured nightly, refusing to break. He died of an infection on January 30, 1838.
By then, Lauderdale was already on his way to fight the Seminoles again. It would be his death.
Two months after Osceola had become a martyr and his death had become a cry to war for any Seminole considering surrender, Lauderdale took his men into the interior of what’s now Broward County. Since his arrival in South Florida, Lauderdale had met nothing but failure. In wool uniforms, Lauderdale’s waterlogged men hauled guns and equipment in canoes tied behind them. They slashed their way past dense brambles and suffered through clouds of mosquitoes as thick as wet campfire smoke. They’d arrive at Seminole villages that seemed like they had just emptied.
On March 22, 1838, though, Lauderdale believed he had discovered the location of Seminoles on a spot the soldiers named Pine Island. The leader of the Seminoles’ encampment was Sam Jones, also known as Abiaki or sometimes simply “The Devil.” James E. Billie, a former Seminole chairman, wrote about the origin of the nickname in a 2014 article in the tribe’s newspaper. “You might say Abiaki brought that nickname upon himself,” Billie wrote. “I’m not sure the soldiers really knew what he looked like. There are stories of him walking right into the forts to sell fish directly to the soldiers. He’d walk around and see where everything was and then get his band together to attack the same fort that night. The legend grew, and so did the name. The soldiers knew The Devil was in his Garden, but they could never find him.”
LAUDERDALE VS. OSCEOLA
At the time, U.S. military strategy involved lining up in columns to fight soldiers across a field of fire. Osceola and Jones, on the other hand, had taught their men using their hunting skills, passing quieter than a breeze through sawgrass. Jones had picked an ideal spot for his encampment. Pine Island was the tallest spot around, at 26 feet. Lauderdale’s men slogged through a knee-deep swamp during their noisy approach.
As some tell it, Pine Island stood as empty as the other encampments when Lauderdale walked up on the ridge. From that spot, he could have looked out on land so flat it seemed ironed, wondering how The Devil could have escaped into it again. Lauderdale had helped create a scourge on his own people by attacking the Creek Indians, turning them into the fighters who became the Seminoles. Perhaps he stopped to wonder if The Devil was actually the ghost of Osceola, one fading after the other into the Glades like a sun shower.
All that time Lauderdale spent trudging through muck is likely the reason that fever set in not long after. By the time he evacuated to Tampa two months later, he was coughing up blood from an illness nobody could diagnose.
The Army called his expedition a victory just the same. The wooden stockade erected by the marching soldiers along the New River was named Fort Lauderdale. The soldiers abandoned it three months later. They built two more by the same name, and all three would be lost to history.
On his way home, Lauderdale and his men spent the night in a Baton Rouge army barracks. Still suffering from his mysterious illness, Lauderdale died on May 11, 1838. He left his widow the plantation and 40 slaves.
In the old movies, it was always the cowboy or the army soldier who was the good guy. And so you might think it was Lauderdale who would be remembered. Aside from the city that bears his name, Maj. William Lauderdale has largely been forgotten, and it’s not easy to find references to him. The Library of Congress has more than 20,000 of Jackson’s documents, but few of them mention Lauderdale. Between those and others kept by The Tennessee State Library and Archives, just three letters Lauderdale wrote survive; hastily scribbled and near impossible to read, they appear to be about troop movements. It seems there has never been a textbook to mention Lauderdale’s name.
In his hometown of Hartsville, there was no remembrance of Lauderdale until just recently. Earlier this year, local historian John Oliver requested that officials name a street or park or something after Lauderdale. They settled on a room in the county courthouse.
“There’s just no one to keep the name alive here,” Oliver says. Perhaps it’s because of Lauderdale’s history as a slave owner and hunter of Native Americans, Oliver says. “It’s probably debatable whether he’s a hero or not.”
In Fort Lauderdale, there’s little to mark the city’s namesake. Maj. William Lauderdale Park occupies seven-tenths of an acre in a neighborhood behind the police station.
A historical plaque in Jupiter recognizes the trail Lauderdale’s men blazed on their way south. And there is just one monument to Lauderdale, in the town of Davie, inside a development where shades of khaki differentiate otherwise identical houses. A semicircle of hedges surrounds a statue that represents Lauderdale upon a horse, clutching a kepi-style hat with an ornate bauble. He’s bending down, his face near the horse’s neck, as if looking for something. The work stands on Pine Island Ridge, the very place where Lauderdale failed to find the Seminoles.
Meanwhile, the death of Osceola turned him into a folk hero overnight. The story became a national source of shame, a symbol of how the United States had used trickery and savagery to fight Native Americans. Even those who had nothing to do with the treachery wanted to forget the shame by honoring Osceola, Backhouse says. “Americans wanted to expunge their own guilty conscience for what happened, so they named places and built statues for Osceola.” Though Osceola never rose to the rank of chief, he would still become one of the most widely known Native American leaders.
Cities, counties and mountains from New Hampshire to Arkansas are named for Osceola. There is an outcrop on Mars bearing his name. Statues of him stand in Marion County, Florida; Osceola, Iowa; and Osceola, Wisconsin.
Not far from where Billy Powell spent years of his life, a three-story statue in front of Florida State University’s football stadium depicts the warrior he would become. Osceola holds a feathered spear above his head, riding a horse rearing beneath him, with one word inscribed: “UNCONQUERED.”