Walking the Fort King Military Road

BUSHNELL — It took a little more than an hour for this amateur historian and three boys to make the 65-mile trek from downtown Tampa to this oak hammock just off Interstate 75 now known as Dade Battlefield Historic State Park.

In 1835, a similar journey to this spot on the old Fort King Military Road would have taken soldiers hauling a cannon nearly a week, but that's if nobody was shooting at them.

I told the youngsters to consider themselves lucky, for if they had been traveling this trail on Dec. 28 of that fateful year they most likely would not have returned home with their scalps.

"You mean men died here?" 9-year-old R.J. Waley asked.

"More than 100," I said.

Most Florida school books don't talk much about this chapter of American history. But this battle, some called it a "massacre," started the Second Seminole War, the longest and costliest Indian conflict in U.S. history.

Maj. Francis Dade and 108 men marched from Fort Brooke in what is now Tampa to Fort King in present-day Ocala. The Seminoles, under the leadership of chiefs Jumper, Micanopy and Alligator, waited patiently for their chance to strike.

Three days after Christmas, when Dade and his band of cold, tired and hungry men reached this point in the trail, Chief Jumper emerged from the palmettos and let loose a war whoop. Upon hearing that call to action, 180 brightly painted warriors rose from their hiding places and fired.

The first volley dropped Dade and more than half of his troops. Three men survived, but two of them later died of their wounds. Only one man, Ransom Clark, lived to tell the tale.

For the next seven years, the old military road, which stretched roughly 100 miles through the wilderness, would be fought over more than once. Parts of it are still visible, in places up and down the Suncoast, if you know where to look. You can get a glimpse of the past at one of three state parks that still preserve the old trail pretty much the way it looked when Dade and his men made their fateful journey.

Fort Cooper

In the spring of 1836, Gen. Winfield Scott led a beleaguered band of Georgia volunteers to the area that is now called Inverness to rest and recover from their wounds alongside Lake Holathlikaha. The soldiers built a stockade out of rough-hewn logs, fearing another attack like the one that had wiped out Dade's command.

Scott left a young major named Mark Cooper to protect the position. The Seminole native Osceola quickly set up camp on the opposite side of the lake, but despite several skirmishes, Cooper held his own, and the fort continued to serve as an observation station and supply depot throughout the rest of the war. Farther south along the old Fort King Military Road, hidden away on the banks of the Hillsborough River near present-day Thonotosassa, you'll find another reconstructed Seminole War-era fort.

Fort Foster

In March 1836, federal troops, still reeling from Dade's defeat, knew they had to keep the road between Fort Brooke and Fort King open if they wanted to hold on to Florida. But the Seminoles destroyed the makeshift bridges across the river as fast as the soldiers could build them.

A blockhouse was needed to defend the bridge. Fort Alabama lasted about three months before the Indians burned that, too. The soldiers returned the following winter, rebuilding the structure and calling it Fort Foster.

The fort helped protect the bridge and road for two years, but it was eventually abandoned. In the late 1830s, long before doctors understood the mosquito's role in disease, the area was deemed "unhealthy."

One hundred fifty years later, the land on which the battleworks once stood was donated to the Florida Park Service and now, after years of meticulous research, Fort Foster Historic Site has been reconstructed in amazing detail.

All three of these historic sites host re-enactments of the battles that took place on what is now state land.

.If you go

176th anniversary of Dade's Battle

When: Saturday-Sunday

Where: Dade Battlefield Historic State Park, 7200 Battlefield Parkway, Bushnell

Notable: The grounds for the 32nd re-enactment of the battle that changed Florida history open at 9 a.m. The re-enactment starts at 2 p.m. Admission is $5 per person; children under 6 get in free. Festivities include period soldier, Seminole and civilian camps, historic arts and craft demonstrations, cannon firing, tree cutting, barricade building, musket shooting, tomahawk throwing and primitive archery. Call (352) 793-4781 or visit dadebattlefield.com.

To follow the march of Maj. Francis Dade, get a copy of the The Fort King Road: Then and Now by Jerry C. Morris and Jeffrey A. Hough, published by the Seminole Wars Foundation of Dade City. Go to SeminoleWars.us.

Fort Cooper State Park

3100 South Old Floral City Road; Inverness, Florida; (352) 726-0315

Fort Foster State Historic Site

15402 U.S. 301 N; Thonotosassa; (813) 987-6771

For more park information, visit FloridaStateParks.org

Walking the Fort King Military Road 01/05/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 5, 2012 7:56pm]

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