Okeechobee Battlefield memorial honors sacred ground

Both the soldiers and the warriors who fought in the Battle of Okeechobee on Christmas Day in 1837 were honored Saturday, Nov. 18, at the dedication of two battlefield markers on property considered by both the Seminoles and the U.S. military to be sacred ground.

The Okeechobee Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution hosted the event.
“Part of DAR’s mission is to preserve history,” said Florida State DAR Historian Cindy Addison. “It is heartwarming to see both sides coming together to honor those who gave their lives on this sacred ground.”

In the battle, each side was fighting for what they thought was right, she said. The U.S. Army soldiers and the Missouri Volunteers led by Col. Zachary Taylor thought they were fighting for their country. The Seminoles were fighting to protect their families. Although vastly outnumbered, the Seminole warriors managed to hold off Taylor’s army long enough for the Seminole women, children and elderly to escape into the Everglades.

Shawn Henderson, president of Okeechobee Battlefield Friends, said over the years there have been many historic events to “preserve these hallowed grounds.”

In 2000, the Okeechobee Battlefield was ranked as the most “at risk” historic site in the state. In April 2006, the land was acquired by the State of Florida. Since 2008, annual re-enactments of the Battle of Okeechobee have taken place on the site, which is now designated as a state park. In 2015, the park opened to the public.

The battlefield was preserved in “the cause of bringing honor and dignity to the warriors and soldiers who fought in this historic battle,” she said.

A Seminole Tribe representative from Brighton, Andy Bowers, thanked the DAR for their efforts “to keep doing what needs to be done to keep this park what it should be.”
Okeechobee County Commissioner Kelly Owens said that nearly 20 years ago she read a headline, “Sacred land in jeopardy,” in reference to the battlefield.

“We are humbled by the sacrifices of the warriors and soldiers 180 years ago,” she said. “We are honored to pay tribute.

“The future of this sacred ground is no longer in danger,” she added.

“It is very important that we preserve our history,” said Okeechobee Mayor Dowling Watford, who takes part in the annual re-enactment.

“I think the soldiers and warriors who fought here, they all did their duty. I think if they could speak to us today, they would thank us very much not only for preserving this piece of property but also for remembering and honoring them and their service to their country and their tribe.”

Historian John Missall, who wrote the text for the new markers, said they represent cooperation between the descendants of those who fought the Battle of Okeechobee.

He said historic presentations can be a difficult subject, but that each side has a right to its own truth and the right to be respected.

“This battlefield could be seen as nothing but a plot of land,” Mr. Missall said. He said ignoring history is a mistake.

“The past always shapes the present even if we don’t know about it,” he added. “History isn’t predetermined. One small change at just the right time and the future is something different.”

He said when people don’t know anything about the history of a place, “a marker is a starting point. It reveals something hidden and takes the reader anywhere.

“The people who have worked hard to develop the Okeechobee Battlefield State Park are looking to the future,” he said. “The good people of Okeechobee and the Seminole Tribe of Florida want a better future,” he said.

Mistress of Ceremonies Letta Jordan said the Okeechobee DAR places a wreath on the memorial each year in December, because the battle was fought on Dec. 25. She said last year at the wreath ceremony, Seminole Chief Judge Moses Osceola said something that she will always remember. “He said we are moving forward together. We are one people.”

The two new markers dedicated on Nov. 18 flank the battlefield memorial, which was first placed near U.S. 441 Southeast in 1939 moved to the new state park at 3500 S.E. 38th Ave. in 2011.

The dedication was attended by city, county and state officials, Seminole Tribe representatives, DAR members from all over the state, members of the Okeechobee Battlefield Friends and others interested in local history.

T.L. Gopher, a fifth-grader from Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School in Glades County, wore traditional Seminole clothing to the event. He said he wears the traditional garb to honor the memory of his “Nana,” Lorene Gopher.

Mrs. Gopher, who died in 2014, was the cultural program director for Brighton Reservation. She helped establish a written form of the Creek language and helped to develop the curriculum used to teach students to speak and write Creek. She was also a driving force behind the opening of the charter school in 2007 at Brighton Reservation.

“She was a really important person,” said T.L.

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