- Eliot Kleinberg Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Readers: Christmas Day marks the 180th anniversary of the 1837 Battle of Okeechobee, a moment this column has visited over the year.
The battle was the largest and last great clash of the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842, which was the longest and most expensive of those the white man waged against Native Americans, and draws parallels to Vietnam. Soldiers were sent far away to an inhospitable swamp to fight locals familiar with the territory, and it was a war of attrition in which three died of disease for every one killed in battle.
Organizers have at times conducted reenactments of the 1837 Okeechobee battle, at which a large band of Seminoles was routed by a brigade of about 800 federal troops led by a future president, Col. Zachary Taylor.
In November, this writer attended a lecture at the historic Stranahan House in downtown Fort Lauderdale — disclosure: a relative is on the Stranahan foundation’s board — and learned a remarkable modern-day sequel to the great Okeechobee battle.
The lecture was by Kate Macuen, assistant director of the Seminole Tribe’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki museum, deep in the interior of South Florida, and mentioned the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in November 1990, which requires institutions to inventory, and make efforts to return, remains in their possession.
NAGPRA helps Native Americans recover bones collected over the decades by people who saw them more as artifacts than people.
By the most recent estimates, from September 2016, the program has returned 57,847 individuals, nearly 1.75 million funerary objects, and about 15,000 objects that are either sacred or of profound cultural significance, or both.
One of those repositories is the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania.
On Oct. 12, 2015, representatives of the Seminoles’ Tribal Historic Preservation Office traveled to Philadelphia to formally receive remains of 21 individuals collected between 1830 and 1895 in three debilitating Florida wars between the tribe and the U.S. government that dragged from 1817 to 1858.
According to the Seminole Tribune, the remains were the skulls of three children, two women and 16 men.
Two men were warriors killed at the Okeechobee battle.
Another had been shot to death in 1836 at a plantation near St. Augustine. And a third one had been decapitated in the Dec. 28, 1835, Seminole ambush of Major Francis Dade. The incident got the poor military leader a county posthumously named for him. And it precipitated the Second Seminole War.
In late October 2015, the 21 recovered sets of remains were buried at “an undisclosed location” near the Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park.