On this day in 1858, Seminole Chief Billy Bowlegs came to Fort Myers under truce to meet with Arkansas Superintendent of Indian Affairs Colonel Alias Rector to discuss ending the two-year war that Bowlegs and his tribe has waged from the Big Cypress against the federal soldiers stationed in Fort Myers, a frontier fort built on the Caloosahatchee River beginning in 1850. That meeting would lead to the forced deportation of Bowlegs and 124 of his tribe to a reservation in what is now Oklahoma.
The United States had attempted to persuade Bowlegs to leave Florida voluntarily seven years earlier. In fact, Chief Bowlegs and three of his people accompanied an Indian agent by the name of Luther Blake to Washington in 1851 to meet with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and they even signed an agreement consenting to be relocated, after which Blake treated the Seminoles to an all-expenses-paid celebratory trip to Manhattan, where Billy and his party bought expensive clothes, dined in the finest restaurants and drank copious amounts of French champagne and cognac. But nothing came of the "treaty" after Bowlegs returned to Florida. So in 1856, the soldiers in Fort Myers instigated a war intended to capture or kill the recalcitrant Indians.
“A shrewd bargainer," reports muralist Barbara Jo Revelle, "Billy Bowlegs received $7,500 for himself and generous amounts for his tribe.” In total, Bowlegs negotiated a relocation fee of $175,000 and the promise that Bowlegs and his tribe would be settled on land that was set apart from the territory occupied by their sworn enemies, the Creeks. To underscore the latter point, Rector brought 20 Seminoles and six Creek with him from Arkansas to provide assurances to Billy about the living conditions in the resettlement area out west. The deal struck, small groups of Indians began arriving at the fort toward the end of March. They set up camp on a creek about a mile north of the fort close to where the Fort Myers Cemetery is located today. Because this was the spot where Billy’s people surrendered, the creek has ever after been called Billy’s Creek, writes historian Karl Grismer.
Billy and 124 of his tribe boarded a steamer on May 4, 1858 bound for Egmont Key and then Arkansas. It is this event that muralist Barbara Jo Revelle captures in the ceramic tile mural that she installed on the east face of the federal courthouse in the downtown Fort Myers River District. Tucked away in the courtyard shared by the courthouse, Hotel Indigo and Starbucks, the mural is one of downtown Fort Myers' best kept secrets, an artistic landmark that even people who work downtown are unfamiliar with.
Bowlegs was reputed to have had an exceptionally good time during a stopover in New Orleans, but he and his people arrived in Indian territory just in time for the latest small pox epidemic to sweep the western territories. Billy contracted the disease and died on April 27, 1859, thus ending a rather ignominious chapter in the birth and early history of the town that would become Fort Myers.
The full story of the government's war on Billy Bowlegs and the Florida Seminoles is told on True Tours' Public Art Walking Tour, which leaves at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday afternoons from the Franklin Shops on First and Broadway. For more information or to make reservations, please telephone 239-945-0405 or visit www.TrueTours.net. For more information about the Barbara Jo Revelle ceramic tile mural, please visit Art Southwest Florida, cultureNOW or the Public Art Archive.