By Patricia Wickman
Reviewed By Austin Croup
©1991 The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 288 pages
Suppose you were to ask somebody on the street today to name the first famous Native American. In Florida, more likely than not the response would be something along the lines of, “Why, Chief Osceola of course.” Osceola is a household name for many reasons. He is a man immortalized in legends and myths. Are some of the things most commonly said about him true? Yes, but there are also a great many historical inaccuracies regarding Osceola that the general public accepts as fact, without so much as a second thought. For starters, “Chief Osceola” was never actually a chief.
Patricia R. Wickman’s 1991 book “Osceola’s Legacy” endeavors to shed some much-needed light on who he was and to analyze the historical facts and myths about this famous Native American warrior. One of the first things Wickman wrote that I was surprised to learn is that Osceola’s racial and ethnic background was complex. His bloodline did include Native Americans and African Americans, but it also included English, Scottish, and Irish roots.
Osceola was born in 1804. At birth he was named William “Billy” Powell. His father was a white trader, also named William Powell. His mother was a Native American Indian woman. Billy’s maternal grandfather was James McQueen, and he was also a white trader. Billy did not go by the name “Osceola” until later on, when he adopted it from the Native Americans whom he lived among.
Furthermore, “Osceola” is not even the original spelling of the name, but rather the spelling the neighboring whites gave the name to make it easier to spell and pronounce. There are numerous written versions of the name, but none of them is technically “official.” In fact, the discrepancy exists in the first place because the Seminole Indians did not have a written language. One of the more common interpretations of the name among Indians in the area was “Asi-Yaholo,” translating to “black drink singer.” This is in reference to a shouting/singing ritual during which the participants would drink an herbal tea (the “black drink”).
Regarding Osceola’s appearance there is much room for clarification. As I mentioned earlier, it’s quite possible that most people today see primarily as part of a sports mascot team — horse and rider — for Florida State University’s football team. The image is that of a masculine, brave, and spirited warrior astride a spirited horse. As part of his act he rides across the football field prior to every FSU home game and plants a flaming spear on the fifty-yard line.
While the real Osceola was indeed a fierce and respected warrior, his appearance was far different from what most folks nowadays perceive it to have been. Perhaps the most well-known image of Osceola (besides that of a sports mascot) is the painting of him by the artist George Catlin. In fact, it is Catlin’s painting that Wickman chose as the image to put on the front cover of her book. While Catlin’s painting certainly does capture some aspects of Osceola’s likeness, particularly his traditional garb, it is not necessarily the most accurate depiction of his physical features. Wickman writes that while Catlin’s depictions of Osceola were by far the most widely circulated, they were “not necessarily the best, from a standpoint of likeness.” In fact, according to numerous historical accounts of those who regularly saw him, Osceola stood at a height of around 5’8” and possessed various “soft” features, “bordering on effeminate at times.”
It is common knowledge that Osceola was a prominent figure in the Second Seminole War. But how did this come to be? What led Osceola to become such a staunch opponent of the U.S. government and its policies in Florida? Osceola’s dislike of the U.S. government stems back to the First Seminole War, which began around 1816 with General (and later President) Andrew Jackson’s incursions into then-Spanish Florida. During this time, Osceola was a young boy. It was then that he and the Seminoles traveling with him were temporarily detained by the U.S. Army.
Although he was approaching fighting age, he was not perceived to be a warrior at the time and was placed among the women and children. This would be the first — but certainly not the last — action taken by the U.S. government that earned Osceola’s ire. Several years later, for example, the Treaty of Moultrie Creek of 1823 required that the Seminoles of North Florida be relocated to a reservation farther south, in the central part of the peninsula. In 1832, the Treaty of Payne’s Landing mandated that the Seminoles be entirely removed from Florida. This treaty and other actions by the U.S. government led up to both the Second Seminole War and Osceola’s infamous role in it.
By the time of the Second Seminole War, Osceola had become a warrior renowned among his people. As I mentioned before, he was never actually a full Seminole chief. However, he was known to be a charismatic leader, and for his power to persuade which inspired many of the Seminoles to follow him into battle. He commanded enormous respect, more so than some of the older Seminole leaders felt he deserved. Regardless of how he was viewed by his peers and elders, it cannot be denied that Osceola rose to his highest historical prominence from his actions during the Second Seminole War.
The act that is considered to have really launched his historical celebrity status is his killing of the U.S. government-appointed “Indian agent” Wiley Thompson. Thompson’s assigned task was to establish relations with the local Native Americans and convince them to adhere to and abide by government policies such as the aforementioned treaties. Osceola was among the Native Americans with whom Thompson had established a relationship. During the summer of 1835, Thompson had Osceola arrested and brought to see him, on the grounds that Osceola had repeatedly “used violent and insulting language” with him regarding the tribe’s subjugation by the government. After several days, Osceola appeared to have calmed down, acknowledging that he had acted foolishly and stating that if Thompson would release him, he would sign the desired treaty.
Upon his release, Osceola did follow through with his promise. Following these events, Osceola visited Thompson’s fort many times and the relations appeared to be friendly. Thompson even gave Osceola a gift: an ornate rifle. However, in December of 1835, Osceola led an attack on Fort King. When the attack came,Thompson was outside of the fort, taking an after-dinner stroll. Thompson was killed in the attack, with most accounts attributing the act to Osceola himself — ironically, with the rifle that Thompson had given to him. Thompson’s body was found outside the fort following the attack, riddled with musket shot and scalped.
Wiley Thompson’s death was one of the first of the numerous casualties that Osceola inflicted upon the U.S. Government throughout the course of the Second Seminole war. Unable to adapt well enough to his guerrilla-style tactics, the U.S. Army suffered a high casualty count. Indeed, the official recorded count of U.S. Army deaths alone is 1,466, and that does not even take into account the wounded, of which there were also many.
Because the Army was unable to definitively defeat Osceola on the battlefield and completely rout his forces, a controversial decision was made. In October of 1837, General Thomas Jesup captured Osceola under the guise of a white flag of truce. When Osceola arrived for peace talks, he was taken into custody by Jesup’s men. He was first taken and held at Fort Marion, but was later moved to Fort Moultrie just outside of Charleston, South Carolina. It is here that Osceola would take ill and eventually die, about three months after his arrival there. General Jesup’s decision to arrest Osceola under a white flag was decidedly unpopular among the general population, and he would find himself defending his actions to others long after the fact. Even today, it is considered by most people who know the story to be a low point in U.S. military history.
Prior to his death at Fort Moultrie, Osceola was visited by a large portion of the area townsfolk and by others who traveled from afar to see him. Visitors included various artists (like George Catlin) who wished to capture his likeness with the paintbrush. It was at Fort Moultrie that Osceola also met Dr. Fredrick Weedon, the man who would serve as his physician during his last few months. According to Weedon, the primary cause of Osceola’s rapidly deteriorating health and his ultimate death at the fort was a disease known as quinsy, which is an advanced form of tonsil inflammation and infection.
The quinsy was brought about, as it was later discovered, by a type of head louse that was found in Osceola’s hair. The louse they found had not gotten to Osceola as a result of his “savage” or “outdoor” lifestyle, as many of his white captors believed, but rather because of the relatively poor, cramped conditions in which he and his fellow prisoners were kept. It did not help that although Osceola was for the most part free to roam the fort, he spent most of his time in his room entertaining those who came to see him, posing for portraits, conducting interviews, and the like. When exhaustion and the poor conditions finally caught up with him in late January of 1838, he was brought his traditional garb and items to be buried with him, upon his request. Following his death, he was buried on-location.
Some of the more bizarre legends concerning Osceola sprang up following his burial. For instance, there was a common misconception that somebody had dug into Osceola’s grave and stolen his head from the coffin. There was another false report that his head had been removed while he was still alive.
While neither of these things is true, Osceola’s head is indeed missing from his coffin. However, the truth is that after Osceola’s death, Dr. Weedon is recorded as having removed and preserved his head. The body was interred shortly thereafter, minus the head. While this seems like a macabre thing to do, it was not uncommon for phrenologists and other medical professionals at the time to keep specimens they considered to be rare or of value, and this would certainly have been true in the case of Osceola. The location of Osceola’s head is currently unknown, but the head is presumed to have been destroyed in a fire that consumed the estate of its last known owner. The head was not officially listed as one of the recovered artifacts in the collection that burned.
With her book “Osceola’s Legacy,” Patricia Wickman has given readers the most comprehensive and informative account thus far of Osceola’s life. I imagine that if Osceola had a choice, he would want his true story told. It has been said that the truth is often stranger than fiction, and such is the case for Osceola. While legends are sometimes an important part of the legacies of great historical figures, it is important that we know who they really were, and that is what Wickman has achieved with this book.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Editor’s Note: This Florida Verve article was originally published on November 6, 20016.