By Rick Schwertfeger
Captain, Frontier Partisans Southern Command
“In The Guise of Manifest Destiny”
Author Tim Robinson’s Manifest Destiny phrase in A Tropical Frontier: The Indian Fighter encapsulates it: Anglo-Americans saw dominance of the continent as their right and destiny. Through disease, subterfuge, and warfare, the Indigenous peoples would be annihilated, or removed to reservations, by a technologically more-advanced people with such overwhelming numbers that the heroic resistance of the natives could not hold them off.
By the early 19th Century Anglo-Americans had their eyes on Florida, especially to establish agriculture on that ecologically rich peninsula. Some native Seminoles accepted removal to reservations. Armed resistance by others led the United States to wage two lesser-known wars of empire to clear them out. And the Second Seminole War – 1836-1842 – recently had light shined on it by two historical novelists. For along with Robinson’s 2017 Florida Historical Society award–winning novel, in 2020 James Chapin published “Ride South Until the Sawgrass”, set before and during that war, and into the early years of Florida statehood.
The land was tremendously rich. But it was fraught with dangers for Anglo-Americans: native fighters with wetlands living and survival skills that few Anglos possessed; extremely dangerous wildlife; and deadly tropical diseases. Florida was a foreign frontier of the first order.
These authors know their terrain. Third-generation Floridian Robinson’s grandfather established a one-hundred acre homestead on Cape Canaveral in 1924. After a youth spent in the woods and on the beaches, he lives on a small farm in Indiantown. Chapin grew up in north Florida, and is studying natural resources and forestry in Georgia. So the lands play a large part in these novels, with both writers skilled in describing the terrain, the wetlands, the flora and fauna, and the steamy atmosphere.
Four cultures were both mixing and colliding on the Florida frontier. The Seminoles – numerous clans with shared Creek ancestry – were there, both in the wooded north and the wetlands around the Everglades and the Big Swamp. Vital Spanish communities survived in places such as Saint Augustine even after the Spanish ceded Florida to the United States in 1819. Aligned with the Seminoles was a mix of free Blacks and escaped slaves from the U.S., called Black Seminoles. And white Americans were moving in, seeking land and economic opportunities. These cultures and their clashing intentions created a pot that boiled over.
Lack of trust, mendacity, and deceit play major roles in both novels – as they seem to on frontiers whenever powerful empires invade Indigenous peoples. A core character in Chapin’s novel, Jake Primrose, becomes “the biggest grandest cowman in Floridy,” with the wealth his herds provided. But Pete Smith, one of Primrose’s oldest friends, reports late in the story that:
“I know how he got his start of cows and I know the Seminole that gave it to him. He owes that Indin his life, his whole livelihood. I know what he did, though. Ran them off the land as soon as he was able.”
Likewise, the character who becomes the Indian Fighter of Robinson’s novel — the good-hearted, originally naive ex-U.S. Army soldier Jubal Prescott — is victimized tragically by his Seminole companions. Prescott established a mill off Biscayne Bay, employing local natives fairly and to their benefit. But when firebrands in the clan go on the warpath, Prescott’s family becomes their first target for destruction and murder.
Then in 1837, when Seminole Chief King Phillip’s son Wildcat arrived to parlay with U.S. Army General Thomas Jesup “under a flag of truce, Jesup placed him under arrest. A few weeks later, chief Coa Hadjo and the firebrand Osceola requested a meeting with Jesup. When they arrived under a white flag they and their families were summarily arrested.
Tim Robinson has Seminole Billy Tiger -—a close friend of the Prescotts who didn’t want war — ponder, however, that war..,.
“had been a long time coming. The hatred runs deep. They had been lied to and mistreated. It would be weak, a crime against his people, to simply stand by while one treaty after another was broken and their once expansive lands continued to shrink. He well understood why Osceola hated the white man and encouraged others to resist him.”
While both novels take place on the Florida frontier during the 1830s and 1840s, and share the commonalities already mentioned, they are quite different otherwise. A Tropical Frontier: The Indian Fighter is more a traditional historical novel. Robinson provides well-fleshed out characters on both sides; and describes battles and massacres — especially the massacre at Indian Key — with narrative that allows the reader “to be there.” The Army resorted to search and destroy tactics in the Everglades. It took Jubal Prescott to lead them by canoe via unmapped waterways through the otherwise impenetrable sawgrass. Surgeons spent hours patching up cuts from the grass each evening. The Seminoles employed “elude and evade” tactics to great effect. But the soldiers surprised them on small islands they’d retreated to. Death or capture resulted for the Seminoles.
Chapin’s Ride South Until the Sawgrass is more a creative, literary novel. In Part II, “Burnt Fort Bluff,” settler families suffered, trapped for months in Army forts they’d fled to when Seminoles began burning their homes. And an irregular militia hammered the Seminoles with classic hit and run attacks. But throughout, Chapin interweaves tales of the Nat and Lucy Quinto family with that of Jake Primrose’s. They inhabit the same area of north Florida; and Nat punched cows for Primrose early on. But each man moved on to their separate successes. That is, until they have a mighty clash post-statehood. The resulting Part IV, “The Devil’s Wedding,” is a raucous, entertaining crescendo to the Quinto-Primrose tale. The talented Chapin knew how to tie his novel together at the end!
Postscript: An unrelated article by James Chapin from 2021 is a must read. As a natural resources guy, he tells us that, “Florida Is Full of Invasive Species. They’re Coming for the Rest of Us”!
© Rick Schwertfeger firstname.lastname@example.org Austin, TX