Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Battle of Peace River

In this article we will examine the events that led to the ambush by Seminole Indian, Chief Oscen Tustenuggee and a group of 15 Indians on the Willoughby Tillis Homestead 1 ½ miles south of Fort Meade. In 1854, the US government instituted laws to break the morale of the remaining Indians to facilitate their emigration to, what was then, Arkansas. Trade between the Indians was banned and white settlers were encouraged to move further into Indian Territory.

By the fall of 1855, a general council of nearly all Florida Indians was held near the site of the 1837 battle of Okeechobee. Concerns, tension, and resentment over the white settlers ran ramped and all favored war except Tallahassee Chief Echo Emathla Chopco, which resulted in his banishment from the Indian Nation.

On December 1855, Lieutenant George L. Hartsuff and a group of six men led a survey company in the Big Cypress Swamp to assess the lands. Hartsuff found Seminole Chief Billy Bowlegs’ most cherished banana grove and destroyed it. Billy Bowlegs demanded compensation from Hartsuff and was physically accosted by the Lieutenant. The following morning, Bowlegs and thirty warriors ambushed Hartsuff’s camp, killing four soldiers and wounding Hartsuff. This was catalyst of the Third Seminole Indian War.

Within days, the Indians had ravaged and plundered many plantations on the Manatee River including the Braden Castle owned by Dr. Joseph Addison Braden. A wagon train was attacked in what is now Hillsborough County, as well as the Willoughby Tillis Homestead near Fort Meade. On June 14th, Mrs. Tillis, along with her two sons and a Negro servant named Line, discovered a band of Indians near their cow pen crouching behind the fence. While the Indians shot their rifles, missing their human targets in a shuffle of agitated cows, luckily, the Tillis family was able to escape.

Thomas Underhill, Mr. Tillis’ neighbor, along with Tillis himself and his eldest son, Lafeyette, fired at the attacking Indians through small openings in the wall near the brick chimney, while the heavy logs gave protection from the oncoming gunfire. Nearby, a boy heard the shots and quickly ran towards Fort Meade to report the incident. Lt. Alderman Carlton swiftly ordered six volunteers to immediately mount their horses and aid the family. On this quest was his son Daniel Carlton as well as John C Oats, William Parker, William McCullough, Henry Hollingsworth, and Lott Whidden.

Mr. Tillis had warned the soldiers they were outnumbered by the Indians. By this point, the Indians had reorganized and fled, but the soldiers relentlessly pursued them. Within minutes, Lieutenants Carlton, William Parker and Lott Whidden were killed. Hollingsworth was severely injured. An Indian perished after McCullough and (Daniel) Carlton cut his throat with his own knife (the Indian had killed Lieutenant Alderman Carlton).

Daniel Carlton, wounded in the right arm, journeyed off to get help in Fort Fraser, 15 miles to the north, situated between modern-day Bartow and Lakeland. Capitan F.M. Durrance, Mrs. Tillis’ brother, left Fort Fraser along with fifty men to help the Tillis family. By the time they arrived, the Indians had already fled the scene.

A second skirmish occurred two days later at the banks of the Peace River. Two solders were killed and many others were injured. Captain W.B. Hooker, Commander of Company M (a group of Florida volunteers at Horse Creek), estimated that twenty Indians were killed and six wounded.

Reactions among settlers were exceedingly bitter over this encounter and a bounty on Indians was consequently announced in a Tampa newspaper. Louise K. Fresbie noted in her book Peace River Pioneers: “On being delivered captive to Fort Brooke or Fort Myers, a [an Indian] warrior would be worth $250 to $500; a woman, $150-$200; a child, $100 to $200.”

The following year, Indian resistance was deflated when a company commanded by Capitan John Parkhill attacked their main defense sector near Ten Thousand Islands. Parkhill was killed; however, Colonel George Rogers along with 300 men defeated the Indians and the war was over. On May 7, 1858, a steamer departed from Egmont Key with 175 Indians aboard bound for Oklahoma and the reservations they struggled so vehemently to avoid.

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