Florida Seminoles work to preserve isle where ancestors held

Sun Dec 1, 2013 9:49pm EST
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By Saundra Amrhein

EGMONT KEY, Florida (Reuters) - As a fog bank rolled in behind them on Sunday afternoon, several members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida disembarked from a double-decker catamaran onto a small island off the coast near St. Petersburg in west-central Florida.

It was part of a journey commemorating the history of their ancestors' internment, forced relocation and - for a small handful - dramatic escape.

"This is kind of like our holocaust," said Willie Johns, Seminole Tribe member and historian, after he and his travel companions made their way along a sandy pathway through the brush to speak at the foot of the island's historic lighthouse.

Johns is a descendent on his father's side of the legendary Polly Parker, one of hundreds of Seminole Tribe members imprisoned at Egmont Key near the mouth of Tampa Bay by federal officials in the 1850s during the Third Seminole War.

Those Seminoles who did not perish on the island in the harsh conditions were taken by ship to Florida's Panhandle, where they were then made to continue the journey by land into forced relocation on reservations in the West - a journey the current-day Seminoles label the "Voyage of Tears."

On Sunday, they heralded Parker's legendary 1858 escape when the Grey Cloud steamship on which she was held stopped in St. Marks in Florida's Panhandle for more lumber.

Parker persuaded federal officials to allow her to look for herbs. Instead, she fled, leading about a dozen other Seminole members into escape, eluding an extensive search by U.S. forces, and eventually returning to her family's camp hundreds of miles south near Lake Okeechobee.

"Her progeny became many of the leaders and important figures of the tribe ever since," said Peter Gallagher, a spokesman for the Seminole Tribe.   Continued...

Seminole Tribe member Edna Bowers (R), descendent of Polly Parker, looks on as fellow tribe member Willie Johns (L) and Florida Park Services Director Donald Forgione hang a photograph of Parker in a museum at Egmont Key State Park as part of a historic journey to retrace the "Voyage of Tears" in Egmont Key, Florida, December 1, 2013. REUTERS/Steve Nesius