“Sorry to tell you that you may not have ghosts of pretty ladies and dapper plantation owners in handsome horse-drawn carriages rolling past your backyard every night, along with the quiet footsteps of Seminole moccasins. But that can be a bit of a nuisance, sometimes. Too much giggling and laughing and horses whinnying and all that, you know,” local historian John Ayer wrote to me.
Some years back I moved into a house on the south end of town. The area, Wildwood Drive, was appropriately named because patches of woods were tangled up by muscadine vines and scattered with palmettos throughout my new neighborhood. There could be no clearer image of a wild wood.
I got a bit wrapped up in idea that the couple of miles surrounding my house were entrenched in Florida history — the stuff I read about in school, but never before related to. History was speaking to me from the melancholy sound of a train whistle at midnight, and the sight of quaint Moultrie Church with its weary looking gravestones. I got a little overzealous and began to think that my property lined up with the first road fit for traveling through this part of the country — Old Kings Road.
The Ghostly Remains of Old Kings Road
The woods behind my house slope down to a cool, slow moving creek bed. I could visualize that land once having a dirt road cut through it. It was easy to imagine rickety carriages traveling through the trees, barely visible and mindlessly moving without notice of the changes surrounding them, just ghostly wisps. But it was not meant to be that I owned a chunk of the remains of an ancient road. John corrected me. I was off by a half a mile or so.
Built in the 1770’s by hand through the wilderness, Old Kings Road was a tremendous undertaking. Financed by the government during Florida’s brief British period, it was likely constructed by slave labor. A quote from an article written by my friend John states: “It required the removal of thousands of trees, roots, and millions of palmetto trunks.” I have attempted to remove a palmetto trunk — it is a job made for a gardener more ambitious than me.
Old Kings Road might not sound that interesting to your average person. It was just a road after all, even if it may have pre-dated British construction as a Native American trail. The fort that was attached to Old Kings Road was a bit more interesting, and its former location has been sitting under my nose for quite some time. Some big names in Florida history knew Fort Peyton well.
Osceola’s Famous Trip
Osceola is a name all Florida children learn sometime in elementary school. Osceola was born a member of the Creek, but upon loss of their land, was forced to move to Florida and join the Seminole tribe as a child. In 1821 Florida became a part of the United States, and settlers were pushing farther south. They were encroaching on Seminole land, and after some military skirmishes and a treaty, some Seminole lands were seized. Tensions were mounting. A few Seminole chiefs agreed to sign away their land in exchange for land west of the Mississippi. Those that did not were the enemy of the state. In 1835, Osceola organized an ambush that jump-started the Second Seminole War.
In 1837, Osceola and his 95 followers were on their way to the fort, traveling no doubt on Old Kings Road, to discuss peace talks. Under a white flag they were captured by the US army. It caused a national uproar, and tainted the commanding general’s reputation for life. Osceola was captured a mile from the fort so very near me, and held captive there before being shipped off to South Carolina.
Modern Day Old Kings Road
We made a trip down to the remaining strip of Old Kings Road that is still passable in these parts, which leads to the old site of the fort. It looks unfriendly to a stranger with its dirt pathway more like a driveway than a public thoroughfare. Surrounding the road is the growth that must have looked very much the same 180 years ago. Scattered throughout is a mixture of short-needled pines with their bodies leaning diagonally, and wise old Live Oaks. Muscadine grapevines tangle around everything, ensuring there is a connection between all plant species.
The sun was getting low in the sky, casting gold light on everything. The muscadines helped to filter out that gold light in all the darker spaces, where all the mystery to a woods hides. Somewhere in those shadows was some sleepy mammal, or a cold reptile, or maybe an arrowhead knocked back to the surface from a fallen tree.
Abruptly, the dirt road ended in a small round clearing. Two historical markers acknowledge the existence of what was once a wooden fort composed for four buildings connected together in the shape of a square, according to John. I was a little disappointed, because somehow I was expecting to feel something in that abandoned place. When I didn’t know that the woods on my land was nothing but a creek for the last 200+ years, I could still imagine the activities that must have been going on there. But where there had been plenty of human activity and the makings of history, it was just desolate.
The Seminole War ended soon after Osceola’s capture, and the fort was abandoned. It burned a few years later. I get the feeling the place always had an empty, cold, desolate feel to it.
A Wisp of Energy Just Beyond Those Trees
There is something a little heartbreaking about how we remember Osceola’s cause by a cement and metal marker in a patch of sand, and houses encroach even on this in every direction. My husband pointed out that now the deer are in the position of the Native Americans, as they watch their land eaten up by more and more new construction.
Unfortunately my friend John passed away a few years ago. I failed to seize the day when he was still alive, and now I won’t ever have him as a tour guide to discover all the local wonders. “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today” is a hard won lesson for me. I am going to see what I can pick up from the hints he left me. His energy is out there somewhere, mixed in with all those historical figures, just out of my grasp — a wisp of energy just beyond those trees.