One of the best experiences on a trip is discovering special, unexpected places. So it was, as I was driving on a quiet highway, U.S. 301, near Bushnell, which is in Central Florida. It was a beautiful morning and, after driving an hour or so, I began to feel the urge to stop. Then, almost simultaneously, I spied a sign at County Road 603 announcing that somewhere nearby was Dade Battlefield Historical Park. I had heard the name Dade before and knew that Miami, which was hundreds of miles away, was in Dade County. So I asked myself who was Dade and, as I was about to put this question in Notepad on my phone to remind me to look up the answer later, I decided to follow the arrow and explore the park. I considered momentarily I would find myself at some obscure, insignificant Civil War site. As I drove up to the entrance and its ticket booth, I had hoped that there would be no money-taker to collect the $4.00 entry fee because all I wanted to do was drive in, cruise around, satisfy my curiosity, and resume my trek north. Unfortunately, a portly uniformed guard peering down at me suspiciously sat inside, informed me of the cost in a most unpleasant accent, and thrust a brochure in my hand. As I handed him the money, I found myself tongue-tied and drove off still unclear about what lay before me. The short gravel road ended at small empty parking lot nestled in a grove of magnificent trees shading a block building which appeared to possibly be a visitors center.
Near the door, a stone monument with a bronze plaque explained that this luxurious, peaceful, forested spot was, in 1835, the site of a well-calculated ambush by Seminole Indians against a column of American cavalry as it was crossing tribal lands. The massive defeat of the soldiers marked the beginning of what is called the 2nd Seminole War. Recently I had read a book about Andrew Jackson, who was president at the time, and I had learned something of the tragic story of the Seminoles. White settlers had coveted the lush timber and the wildlife-rich tribal lands after Florida had been purchased from the Spanish and had become an American territory. They were also piqued by the Seminole tradition of harboring and then integrating runaway black slaves into their culture. In addition, the Indians had shown disdain for Christianity and had resisted conversion. The visitors center chronicled the salient events of the entire conflict with the Seminoles on signboards and also with a movie which showed reenactments of the pivotal battle that took place several hundred yards away. I learned how Major Francis Dade had been ordered to march two companies of men on an established path from a fort in Tampa through the Indian lands in order to supply an outpost, Fort King, near present day Ocala. He had been attacked here and 108 men, including Dade, had been "massacred." The Natives lost only three braves in the conflict.
I then chose to walk the original military trail and reflect on the Seminole Wars which had transpired 177 years ago. It was not hard to feel the appalling disrespect and reprehensible immorality perpetrated against the Indians in the name of progress. The war ended in the utter defeat, enslavement, and relocation of the local population to Oklahoma. Even though the tone at the visitors center was to report the sad, complicated history in a matter-of-fact manner and to avoid any critical point of view, I couldn't help being struck by the feeling that this park was no lasting memorial to the Native horror, but was established solely to commemorate the only place in this war where the aggressors had been handily defeated. I had experienced a similar park years ago when visiting the Alamo, where a minor loss for American conquerors had been heralded as a great tragedy of the time. The repercussion was enormous. It stimulated increased brutality against the Mexicans and fostered further justification for seizing their land. Similarly, every American history book focuses on the story of the atrocity perpetrated by the Seminoles on the Americans that took place here, and thereby gives a distorted impression of equivalent suffering. It portrays the eventual victorious invaders as victims who had a justifiable excuse for revenge.
As I walked quietly across a stone bridge, the trail jogged slightly and turned into a small glen. There placed in the leaves were two large grave markers. The songbirds in the canopy above became aware of my presence in this idyllic setting and ceased chirping as I came nearer. I read the description on the stones and learned that before me were the remains of Francis Dade and one of his soldiers. I felt strangely placid and in touch with the desire to accept the sad facts without judgement. I know that questions of historical choices are important to ask, especially when events are recent. It is worth debating about what should have been or could have been, or what behavior was right or wrong. Yet the day and circumstances of the battle played out here seemed to me now like a drop of rain which had fallen long ago, had mixed with volumes of water from subsequent showers to join a river and was now far downstream into the present, bobbing as an idealized memory of the past.
I continued walking on the well-maintained path until it ended at a fence, marking the boundary of the park. I stood there for a moment, let my eyes travel across a marsh and imagined the continuation of the route, now long overgrown, a length the soldiers never reached. Beyond the marsh I knew the trail had been covered with concrete. I could hear the traffic from it on Hwy 301 and then from I-75. Soon I would be back on that trail getting gas for my car, also perhaps buying a sandwich at Subway, and then taking my turn to complete the soldiers' journey to Ocala.