SEFFNER — Since building their home on Pemberton Creek Drive in 2014, Jean and Robert Dorazio have jokingly referred to an odd mound in their backyard as “the grave."
“It’s always been there,” Jean Dorazio said of the 10-foot-long, ankle-high mound. “We don’t know what it is."
So neither was shocked when informed that there is a chance — though just a slight one, according to one archaeologist — that the remains of two soldiers killed during the Seminole Wars are somewhere on their Seffner property.
“Figures,” Jean Dorazio said with a chuckle.
But they were surprised to learn why: Their land might be the site of a great Seminole Wars battle.
“No one ever mentioned that to us,” Jean Dorazio said.
That’s because no one knew until Jeff Hough, who uses modern-day surveying techniques to find historic sites, went looking. He believes he found it.
“I was a Marine in the Gulf War,” Hough, 52, said. “My two sons are Afghanistan veterans. It would be a shame if the history was lost."
The battle spanned the neighborhood, but he said the heaviest action occurred near a section of Baker Creek that is now home to two properties — the Dorazios’ on the 2800 block of Pemberton Creek Road and neighbor Thomas Moore’s on the 2700 block.
Moore, who has lived there for 40 years, was surprised to learn he might live on a historic site.
“What took so long?” he said with a laugh.
Near the start of the Second Seminole War, which spanned 1835 to 1842, the military commissioned Fort Alabama — called such because hundreds of men from that state’s militia were stationed there. It was located on the Hillsborough River in what is today Seffner.
In 1836, the United States decided the fort, under the command of Col. William Chisholm, should be abandoned because the Seminole presence in the area was dangerously high, Hough said.
The Fourth Infantry and several hundred other soldiers marched 19 miles from Fort Brooke, located at the mouth of the Hillsborough River in what is today downtown Tampa, to Fort Alabama. They helped those men carry the supplies and abandon the fort, according to firsthand accounts recorded in letters and journals. They then all began the journey to Fort Brooke.
“On the trip, two soldiers who were stragglers were caught by the Seminoles and killed,” Hough said. “The next day, April 27, the Seminoles set a trap by leaving the bodies in view on either side of a creek. When the soldiers stopped to look, they were ambushed.”
The battle lasted about one hour, Hough said, and between the U.S. troops and Seminoles, nearly 1,000 men fought.
The U.S. troops escaped after a bayonet charge and evacuated 25 wounded and five killed in the battle, Hough said, but left behind the bodies of the two men — David McLaughlin and William Walker — who were used as bait.
But members of the Fourth Infantry returned in December of that year to bury the bodies on the site of the battle, according to letters written by Col. William S. Foster, who fought there and then led the interment mission.
By then, the Seminoles had destroyed Fort Alabama. It was later rebuilt and named Fort Foster.
It has since been said that the fight known as “Chisolm’s Battle” vaguely occurred southeast of Lake Thonotosassa. The exact locale remained a mystery.
A Geographic Information Systems analyst with the city of Tampa, Hough said he “read how people use those techniques to find lost historic sites and was fascinated."
He first used the method to trace the original military trail that extended from Fort Brooke to Fort King in what is now Ocala. Hough’s mile-by-mile survey of the trail and its history was published in the 2009 book The Fort King Road: Then and Now.
During that research, the location of the Seffner battle caught his attention. Using clues left in historic texts and maps, Hough went looking.
In a letter, Foster wrote that the battle was 14 miles from Fort Brooke.
According to a map from the 1840s, there were two possible ways to Fort Brooke from Fort Alabama.
The westerly route along Fort King Road had no creek at the 14-mile mark, but there were three creeks on the eastern road around Lake Thonotosassa that “was probably a wagon trail or a horse path," Hough said.
Lt. Henry Prince, who participated in the battle and was a trained cartographer, sketched that the fight occurred on a creek flowing into a distant lake.
Of the three creeks, only Baker Creek fits that description. It was also 14 miles from Fort Brooke.
Prince also wrote in his diary that there was a heavily wooded area 1 mile from the battlefield. Old surveys from that time show such a spot 1 mile from Baker Creek, Hough said.
Finally, Prince’s map details that the battlefield was near a portion of the creek with three meanders. Those are no longer visible today but were in a 1938 aerial.
Hough overlaid that aerial onto a modern map and found that part of the creek behind two properties.
“It all adds up,” he said.
As for the remains of those two soldiers, the federal government worked to exhume battlefield graves in the years immediately after the Seminole Wars and moved the bodies to the St. Augustine National Cemetery.
Records indicate the soldiers are buried under one of that cemetery’s three pyramid memorials marking group interments.
Still, said Eric Prendergast, an archaeologist who helped find the lost Fort Brooke cemetery in 2018 during construction of the Water Street Project in downtown Tampa, those records weren’t created until the 1880s, years after the bodies were interred in St. Augustine.
“They generated the burial records based on the known deceased soldiers,” Prendergast said. “While they are likely there, it is possible whoever made the list just wrote down all names of those known to have died, even if the bodies were not moved.”
Hough believes the remains could still be there because the battle was “off the beaten path and the Seminoles were known to desecrate graves and remove the markers."
“So, even if someone went looking for the graves," he added, "it seems unlikely they could have found them.”
But it is also unlikely the mound that the Dorazios call “the grave” is the burial spot, Hough said. “It would not have lasted this long.”
Jean Dorazio took a 4-foot stick and jabbed it into the soil to be certain.
“I didn’t hit anything solid like a coffin," she said. Then again, “Would they have used a coffin? Could it be deeper?"