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From Contemporary Narratives and Letters
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Seminole prisoners
Indian prisoners in the courtyard at Fort Marion about 1875. From an undated stereograph in the library of the St. Augustine Historical Society.


Florida was now on the verge of new development as part of the United States. But expansion by white men meant only sacrifice for the Seminole Indian, who fiercely resented the preemption of his hunting grounds. There were a multitude of issues, economic and racial, which seemed impossible of solution except by war.

The second Seminole War, bloodiest of the Indian wars, began in 1835. Two years later, after other attempts to end the conflict had failed, a number of Seminoles were captured a few miles south of St. Augustine under a flag of truce. Osceola, famous Seminole leader, Prince Coacoochee (Wildcat), and medicine man Talmus Hadjo were among the prisoners brought to Fort Marion, as the Americans had renamed the castle. In one of the southwest rooms of the fort, Coacoochee and Talmus were imprisoned together. The story of their efforts to escape is told by Coacoochee in the following selection.

The war did not end until Coacoochee was recaptured near Tampa Bay in 1842, and taken with a large number of his nation to the lands west of the Mississippi.

* * * we had been growing sickly from day to day, and we resolved to make our escape, or die in the attempt. We were in a small room, eighteen or twenty feet square. All the light admitted, was through a hole (embrasure) about eighteen feet from the floor. Through this we must effect our escape, or remain and die with sickness. A sentinel was constantly posted at the door. As we looked at it from our bed, we thought it small, but believed that, could we get out heads through, we should have no further or serious difficulty. To reach the hole was the first object. In order to effect this, we from time to time cut up the forage-bags allowed us to sleep on, and made them into ropes. The hole I could not reach when upon the shoulder of my companion; but while standing upon his shoulder, I worked a knife into a crevice of the stonework, as far up as I could reach, and upon this I raised myself to the aperture, when I found, that with some reduction of person, I could get through.

In order to reduce ourselves as much as possible, we took medicine five days. Under the pretext of being very sick, we were permitted to obtain the roots we required. For some weeks we watched the moon, in order that the night of our attempt it should be as dark as possible. At the proper time we commenced the medicine, calculating upon the entire disappearance of the moon. The keeper of this prison, on the night determined upon to make the effort, annoyed us by frequently coming into the room, and talking and singing. At first we thought of tying him and putting his head in a bag; so that, should he call for assistance, he could not be heard. We first, however, tried the experiment of pretending to be asleep, and when he returned to pay no regard to him. This accomplished our object. He came in, and went immediately out; and we could hear him snore in the immediate vicinity of the door. I took the rope, which we had secreted under our bed, and mounting upon the shoulder of my comrade, raised myself upon the knife worked into the crevices of the stone, and succeeded in reaching the embrasure. Here I made fast the rope, that my friend might follow me. I then passed through the hole a sufficient length of it to reach the ground upon the outside * * * in the ditch. I had calculated the distance when going for roots. With much difficulty I succeeded in getting my head through; for the sharp stones took the skin off my breast and back. Putting my head through first, I was obliged to go down head-foremost, until my feet were through, fearing every moment the rope would break, At last, safely on the ground, I awaited with anxiety the arrival of my comrade. I had passed another rope through the hole, which, in the event of discovery, Talmus Hadjo was to pull, as a signal to me upon the outside, that he was discovered, and could not come. As soon as I struck the ground, I took hold of the signal, for intelligence from my friend. The night was very dark. Two men passed near me, talking earnestly, and I could see them distinctly. Soon I heard the struggle of my companion far above me. He had succeeded in getting his head through, but his body would come no farther. In the lowest tone of voice, I urged him to throw out his breath, and then try; soon after, he came tumbling down the whole distance. For a few moments I thought him dead. I dragged him to some water close by, which restored him; but his leg was so lame, he was unable to walk. I took him upon my shoulder to a scrub near the town. Daylight was just breaking; it was evident we must move rapidly. I caught a mule in the adjoining field, and making a bridle out of my sash, mounted my companion and started for the St. John's river. The mule we used one day, but fearing the whites would track us, we felt more secure on foot in the hammock, though moving very slow. Thus we continued our journey five days, subsisting upon roots and berries, when I joined my band, then assembled on the head waters of the Tomoka river, near the Atlantic coast. I gave my warriors the history of my capture and escape, and assured them that my capture was no trick of my own, and that I would not deceive them.

Coacoochee's Account of the Escape from Fort Marion, November 1837.


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