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Overlooked chapter of history gets its due

Renva Penton’ back yard overlooks a part of a rich and little recognized history of settlement by native Americans of what is now the Chocachatti Prairie area. 

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Renva Penton’ back yard overlooks a part of a rich and little recognized history of settlement by native Americans of what is now the Chocachatti Prairie area. 

Renva Penton, 70, a retired Realtor from Pinellas County, calls her backyard view of lake-pocked, forest-rimmed Chocachatti Prairie "just gorgeous."

Bernard Romans, in his 1775 book A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida, described a settlement there as being "in a beautiful and fertile plain."

Displaced Creek Indians put down roots here, according to a 1987 report by historian Barry Wharton, because the land offered "extensive hardwood forests and numerous lakes ... (and) several large prairies ideal for cattle or other livestock grazing."

The lesson being that early Americans valued choice real estate just as much as modern ones — and that this land on the southeast edge of Brooksville was so desirable that the Creeks, having all of Florida from which to choose, picked this spot and two others: the Red Hills outside of what is now Tallahassee and Paynes Prairie, near present-day Gainesville.

It's true: Chocachatti was one of three centers of the Seminole tribe, which is what the Creeks and other black and Indian refugees called themselves after fleeing to Florida.

Their settlement here has to be one of the most significant events in our local history — certainly far more so than the non-event we make a huge fuss over every year, the Brooksville Raid.

And at last, a local group has started to make at least some fuss about this, the county's Seminole past.

The Historic Hernando Preservation Society — hernandopreservation.bravehost.com — is trying to raise about $4,000 for two markers on the State Road 50 truck bypass, on the northern edge of the prairie.

One will tell the history of the Chocachatti settlement, which lasted nearly 70 years, from the late 1760s, when the Creeks were driven from their homeland in Georgia and Alabama, until the late 1830s.

The other marker will identify the nearby homestead of Hernando's first white settlers, the Hope family, which — judging from artifacts that have been unearthed there — probably claimed a recently abandoned Seminole homestead.

Some historians have even argued that the Hope land, about 2 miles west of the prairie, was once the town center of Chocachatti.

No, said Wharton, of HDR Environmental, Operations and Construction in Tampa, who wrote his 1987 report for county planners and is helping the preservation society get recognition for Chocachatti: Every document he's seen places the town center north of the prairie, near the current site of Brooksville Cemetery.

"This was a political, ceremonial and social center and not necessarily a huge population center," Wharton said.

That's because the Seminoles were hunters and farmers who tended to spread out.

They raised cattle that they probably rounded up from large herds left by the Spanish — "a windfall on the hoof," Wharton said — which is why they were attracted to the naturally open, intermittently flooded Chocachatti Prairie.

They would have fished in its spring-fed basins and in other nearby lakes. They gathered nuts and roots in the surrounding hammock — the hardwood forests that covered the nearby hills — which is also where most of them lived.

Their log houses were a lot like those built by early white settlers, as were the crops they raised on cleared patches of fertile hammock land: corn, peas, watermelons and oranges.

In fact, the hills seemed as important to the Seminoles as the prairie. As many as several hundred of them lived in small settlements all along the Brooksville Ridge, which stretches between Citrus and Pasco counties.

And because this was far enough south to escape the conflict that sometimes consumed the northern Seminole settlements, and far enough west to allow trade with Spanish sailors, it was unusually prosperous.

"Individuals were showing signs of amassing some wealth, in terms of large numbers of cattle and pigs," Wharton said.

The good times started to end when conflicts drove more of the northern Seminoles south and were long gone by 1836, just before the start of the Second Seminole War, when a large number of Chocachatti Seminoles were removed to the Oklahoma Territory.

Did some stay behind to fight? And if so, how many?

Those are just a couple of the questions that could be answered with more research and more archaeology, Wharton said.

So the historical markers, hopefully, are just a beginning. Maybe, in the future, some of the prairie will preserved. Ideally, there would be a visitors center.

And its name, still listed as Griffin Prairie on many maps, should definitely be changed, in all references, to Chocachatti Prairie.

I talked with the one person most likely to object to this, Frances Griffin, 80, the widow of the prairie's namesake, former County Commissioner James Griffin, who farmed cattle and sod there for decades.

No, she said, she didn't mind if the name was changed, not at all.

"It's always been Chocachatti Prairie," she said. "Everybody knows that."

Or at least they should.

Overlooked chapter of history gets its due 03/07/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 7, 2013 8:21pm]
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