MADEIRA BEACH — The medicine man planted his sneakers on the deck of the fishing boat, bowed his head and asked God in an ancient tongue to lead the way, to help them find some remnants of the woman who saved the Seminoles, if only her spirit. Tourists lined the boardwalk and watched him pray, cameras clicking.
"We will bring her back in memory," he said.
With that, the Florida Fisherman II shuddered and spit and started plugging out of John's Pass, then south, toward Egmont Key, which soon came into view through thick fog.
"There it is," said Norman "Skeeter" Bowers, 46, special assistant to Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman James Billie. "Our Alcatraz."
The bones of their ancestors are there, under little white crosses and Florida sand the color of cafe con leche. Their names are lost. A small plaque bears only biographical sketches of those who died while detained by federal troops in the 1850s, as decades of war against the white man wound down.
Chief Tommy. Seminole Child, 12 mos. Seminole Child, 6 mos. Seminole Boy. Seminole Girl
They died while waiting, and never made the journey from the lush forests of Florida to the plains of Indian Territory, modern-day Oklahoma.
But this trip, from here to the Panhandle town of St. Marks, was not about the dead. It was about the woman who did not die. Her name was Polly Parker.
They called it the Voyage of Tears, a water-bound memorial to the trip their ancestors took.
The Indians, four of them, stepped off the big boat on Dec. 1 in a haze of mist and walked toward the lighthouse, where park officials had set up chairs for a small ceremony. A clump of reporters and photographers gathered as the Seminoles flipped through old photographs and tried to imagine what it would be like to be imprisoned here 150 years ago, plucked from the swamps, shoved on a boat, driven up the Mississippi, made to march to a new home.
"It's kind of like our Holocaust," said Seminole historian Willie Johns, 60. "It was against the law in those days for an Indian to be east of the Mississippi."
They say Polly Parker rarely spoke of the amazing thing she did. Maybe that's because she didn't know it was amazing at a time when it was common for Seminole women to hide their babies under piles of leaves to avoid detection, when the reward for an Indian taken alive was $250.
Her story started on this little key at the mouth of Tampa Bay 155 years ago, in May of 1858, in the stockades, as a prisoner. It has been passed down by word of mouth for generations, but it hasn't been vetted with much authority until recently, and it has rarely been heard outside the reservations of South Florida.
Some history before the history:
In 1816, the U.S. Army attacked a fort on the Apalachicola River that was manned by Black Seminoles, former slaves who had integrated into the tribe. The second round from a gunboat cannon hit the fort's munitions dump, killing nearly 300 fighters. The First Seminole War had begun.
In 1818, under ambiguous orders from the president, General Andrew Jackson invaded Florida. In 1821, General Jackson became Governor Jackson. In 1829, Governor Jackson became President Jackson, and his administration would relocate 45,000 eastern Indians to the West. Most tribes complied. Not the Seminoles.
In 1835, warriors under Jumper and Micanopy attacked an Army column and sparked what would become the fiercest war the government waged against indigenous people.
This is where Polly Parker first enters the written record, according to research by Willard Steele, who reported his findings in a newsletter for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum at the tribe's Big Cypress Reservation. In the late 1830s, during a raid, the U.S. Army captured a Seminole couple, Emateloye (Polly Parker) and her husband, Chai. They were forced into service as scouts to help the government track Seminoles, but Steele reports that Parker "led expeditions in fruitless hunts all over the Everglades, apparently managing to traverse the whole Glades without so much as finding a sign that native people even lived there."
Despite their loyalty, Parker and Chai were outcasts after the war, settling in a camp near Bradenton. The tribe had dwindled dramatically. All but about 300 Seminoles had been killed or forced to relocate. Uneasy peace followed, but in 1855, when the government began surveying Indian land to sell to whites, Billy Bowlegs attacked a survey party and the third and last of the Seminole Wars began.
Again, Parker and Chai were asked to serve as scouts. A long-believed story has Chai committing suicide rather than help the government again, but an unearthed letter from an Army officer who knew Parker, included in Steele's report, suggests that Parker shot her husband rather than letting him lead the army to her people.
By 1858, Bowlegs and most of his followers had been captured and taken to Egmont Key to wait transport to Indian Territory. On May 4, soldiers loaded Bowlegs and 163 other Seminoles, including Parker, onto a steamer called Grey Cloud, which then set off for the Mississippi River.
It would make one fateful stop to refuel, at St. Marks, south of Tallahassee.
• • •
Willie Johns carried a framed photograph of Polly Parker into the small museum at Egmont Key. Norman Bowers, his cousin Edna Bowers, and Bobby Henry, the medicine man, followed.
"No wonder she left," Johns said. "Just taking that little boat ride, I was thinking I might haul a--."
State officials have finally begun to acknowledge the darker side of Florida's history and the Seminoles have played a big role in that. Johns hung the photograph of Polly Parker on the wall of the museum, another flag from the past.
"While many events at our state parks are not a proud part of our history, they are our history," said Donald Forgione, director of the Florida Park Service. "Of our people, all Floridians."
The fog was growing thicker as the Seminoles boarded the boat. You could barely see 20 feet when the ship started churning north, toward St. Marks.
"First sea fog of the year," the captain said.
It seemed symbolic, a gray cloud hanging over a memorial voyage of the Grey Cloud.
• • •
As the Florida Fisherman II pushed north, the Seminoles talked about family and friends and old times.
They talked about how some of the elders are still more comfortable under the thatch roof of a chickee hut than they are in a minimansion. They talked about how there's still a little bad blood between the Seminole Nation in Oklahoma and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. How they felt like some sold out. They talked about growing up in poverty, and how the casinos have improved the lives of tribal members. They talked about how important it is that their children, with access to the spoils of gambling for education and business, know where they came from.
"Even though we were unconquered, we lost a lot of lives," said Norman Bowers. "If it wasn't for Polly Parker making it back to Okeechobee, we wouldn't be here."
Johns remembered how he always saw a photograph of Polly Parker hanging on the wall at the hardware store in Okeechobee, and how people would tell him, That's your grandmother.
Who knows how she got back? There's no written record of her journey, only hand-me-down dispatches by word of mouth.
What the Seminoles know is that the tribe was greatly decimated, and when the Grey Cloud docked at St. Marks, for wood or fuel, Parker persuaded her captors to let her go in search of herbs for medicine. A guard accompanied about 12 Seminoles on land, but Parker had told the others to listen for her signal. They walked into the woods, Parker sang out, and they scattered.
About half were recaptured, but not Parker.
She traveled by night, ate what she could find, and made it back to Fisheating Creek near Lake Okeechobee, more than 300 miles away, in less than a week.
"I don't know what word you would use to describe it," said Bowers, "but that's something."
"That's impossible," said a documentary filmmaker along for the trip.
"Through our history, that's what they always tell us, that it's impossible," Bowers said. "Seminoles knew this land like the back of their hands. So when they say she made it back in four or five days, I believe it."
• • •
The medicine man stood on the bow as land came into view, 22 hours into the trip. That's where Parker liked to stand, according to historian James W. Covington.
"Polly … usually mounted herself at the bow of a boat as it moved through the waterways" when she was a guide, he wrote in The Seminoles of Florida.
Pelicans flew low across the water. The only sound was the hum of the engines and the slap of waves on the hull.
"Which way did she go from here?" Johns asked. "How did she even know where she was?"
The medicine man pointed to the sky.
"She followed the stars," he said.
• • •
Polly Parker had one daughter, Lucy Tiger. Tiger had one daughter, Lena Morgan. Morgan had seven children, five boys and two girls, who in turn had 17 children of their own.
Parker's progeny includes a tribal chairman, tribal president, tribal board representative, tribal secretary-treasurer, health director, cultural director, gaming commissioner, governor's council liaison, general counsel, director of community planning. The list goes on.
She repopulated the tribe.
"We wouldn't be here if she didn't," Bowers said.
Polly Parker lived long enough to see Florida name a county after her people. She was more than 100 years old when she died in 1921. They put her in the ground near a live oak in a cabbage hammock between Brighton and the Kissimmee River, unconquered.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.