November 1, 2014

Collier's Living History

It was Gertrude Stein who said, "History takes time.History makes memory." But for many Floridians, the state's history doesn't start until sometime after the introduction of air conditioning. That's why, more than a decade ago, the Collier County Museum launched a program to help create a memory of earlier times-the Old Florida Festival. It's a living history program designed to bring the past to life through the words and deeds of the people who lived it.

This year's event, scheduled for Nov. 3-4 on the museum grounds in Naples, will find dozens of reenactors involved in lively role-playing. Some will portray famous characters from the past, while others will take on the personas of composite characters representing slices of Florida history. In any case, these men, women and, quite often, children will use the vocabulary and regional dialects from the period they represent as they transport festival-goers to earlier times.

Gulfshore Life asked five of the Old Florida Festival participants to share a few words about their "past lives."

White Turtle Woman: an original Marco Islander

Southwest Florida was once the domain of the Calusa Indians, a culturally advanced people who built sophisticated villages and left behind the shell mounds that mark their time here. White Turtle Woman is a daughter of the powerful Chief Carlos. She is portrayed by Wynne Tatman, director of the Heritage of the Ancient Ones Museum in Ruskin. "

'Ha He Ya, Ha Ha.' That is the way to say hello to Chief Carlos in my language. This is always repeated three times while we kneel before the chief. Chief Carlos answers by saying 'Ha Ha,' then touches us on the palms of our outstretched hands.

"I live in the village of Muspa, which you call Marco Island, on Caxambas Bay. My people have been here for thousands of years, living in small villages of thatched huts. The houses are on tall legs to raise them above the level of the tides and to keep us safe from our enemies and the wild animals.

"We fish the waters of the Gulf, the bays and the rivers with our nets and weirs. Using our dugout canoes, we collect many shellfish, such as oysters, clams, conchs and crabs. We make a canoe by hollowing out a pine or cypress log with fire and then scraping away the charcoal with a shell. Sometimes we even tie two of our canoes together with a small platform in between. This way we can sail to faraway places like Cuba to trade with the natives of that island.

"The people of my clan specialize in making the clay pots that we use for cooking our food and for brewing the warrior's drink made from the leaves and berries of the yaupon holly. Your people call it the 'black drink' because of its color. It helps us to protect and to feed our families by making our warriors more alert when going to war or when hunting. It contains far more caffeine than does your drink, coffee. Only the chief can decide who gets to drink it.

"When you come to visit my village, you may find me making cordage, or rope, from plants such as the moss that you call 'Spanish moss,' or from sabal palm fibers or the inner bark of the cypress tree. We use this cordage to weave our cloth for clothing, to tie together our houses, to make baskets, and hundreds of other uses. I can teach you how to do this. It is fun and easy. Soon, you will be able to make something very 'hachia.' In my language, this means 'cool!'"

Juan de Santo Domingo: Conquistador on a mission

The first Europeans to have contact with the Calusa were the Spaniards, who arrived in large expeditions to plunder riches from the Americas. In all but a few cases, they were sorely disappointed. Tim Burke, of North Port, formed a living history company called "La Compania de Calderon," which performs throughout Florida. When not a conquistador, Burke works as a land surveyor. "It is not as exciting as carrying a sword through a swamp," he says. "But it is a living."

"They say I was born on the Isle of Hispanola in the same year that Hernando Cortes conquered the Indians of Montezuma in New Spain [Mexico 1521]. When I was of age, I was placed in service as ship's boy to Roberto de Alvarado, master of the Santa Catarina. He was a good man who did not beat me very much and who taught me to read and write and to do mathematics. I learned the sailor's arts, too, as we plied our trade yearly across the Ocean Sea [Atlantic Ocean]. I heard many tales from the gentleman adventurers who were returning to Spain and I saw the quantity of gold and silver which we were unloading in San Lucar. At a young age I became determined to join these Conquistadores myself.

"It chanced that one day our ship was attacked by French Corsairs in the vicinity of the island of Cuba. Half our ship's complement was killed, but we overcame our attackers. There being few of our compadres left, a greater share of spoils was distributed amongst the survivors. I was able to equip myself with a sword, a steel helmet, a coat of mail and an arquebus [matchlock musket].

"In Havana I was able to join Hernando de Soto's entrada [expedition] to La Florida. I was assigned to the company of Captain Pedro Calderón, a gentleman of some note from Badajoz. Our army left in May of 1539 in a fleet of some nine ships, 600 soldiers and over 200 horses.

"After a few days travel, we arrived at a bay and unloaded the men, horses and supplies. No gold was found during the first month after landfall, but there were reports of a rich province to the north. For three years and a thousand leagues we marched. Our hardships were many. We fought many battles. Often we were hungry and cold. Gold was always across the next river or over the next mountain. The land was fertile, but the plunder we came for was not to be found. On the banks of the great river, the governor died and we buried him there. With our clothing more hole than cloth, our armor rusty and the prospect of riches but a dream, we resolved to make our way to New Spain by way of the sea. After many perilous weeks of travel we at last arrived in New Spain and were greeted most generously by the inhabitants there. If God is merciful and I work hard, perhaps I shall one day return to the land of La Florida to settle."

Abraham: runaway slave turned Miccosukee war chief

The bravery and defiance of the Seminoles in Florida attracted other decimated Indian tribes as well as runaway slaves. Ralph Smith, a ranger at Myakka River State Park in Sarasota County, is a descendant of freed slaves. "I want people to understand that many kinds of people settled in Florida," says Smith. "Florida had the first free area for blacks in St. Augustine. This is a state with a richer history than most people realize."

"I was born on the Anderson Plantation near Pensacola. My life was one of misery and pain. Master Anderson was a mean old cuss. He beat me often and for no reason. I was starved. I don't know how old I was when I ran away. I met up with the Miccosukee people. Today you might also call them the Seminoles.

"My life changed completely. The Miccosukee people accepted me as a brother. I learned to speak the language. Soon I began to act as an interpreter, speaking English, Spanish and Miccosukee. I eventually became the interpreter for Chief Micanopy.

"During the war with my people, I was asked by the United States government to go to what you call Oklahoma. They wanted me to convince my people to leave Florida and settle there. But I knew what a horrible country it was. The Indians lived on reservations controlled by the white man. The Indians there were drunkards. You could not grow even rocks in their soil. The soldiers wanted me to tell my people to move. But I told my people the truth. The soldiers could not speak Miccosukee and never knew that I told the people to stay in Florida.

"I continued to work for the chief and translated the Payne's Creek Treaty in the 1820s. It set up Indian land from the Tampa to the Gainesville area. As treaty after treaty was broken, I recruited runaway slaves to fight the soldiers. I implored them: 'You are hiding. When the soldiers find you, you will be taken back to the plantations to sweat and toil until you are dead. Come with me and you will find brothers. You will find friends. You will find freedom.' Many did. When I became a war chief, I had 500 warriors, many of them freed slaves."

Ralph West: cowhunter, not cowboy

Ralph West, of Miami, uses his own name to tell the history of the Florida cattle industry. He is quick to distinguish between Florida's cowhunters and the cowboys of the West, who came along much later. "Although the Western cowboy got all of the attention and stories in dime novels, Florida cowhunters were performing the same duties as Western cowboys with the same Spanish cattle long before the cattle drives of Texas began," says West. "No self-respecting cowman in Florida would call himself a cowboy."

"When the Spanish arrived in Florida, they brought cattle. Since then, the men who run the cattle trade have been called cowhunters, or 'crackers.' Some say cracker comes from the sound of our whips.

"The cattle around here roam free. When it's time to take them to market, I gather them up. It's harder than it sounds. They like to run into the oak hammocks, palmetto thickets and cypress swamps. I usually have two or three dogs with me. Sometimes we have a devil of a time getting them out.

"On a cow hunt I use my braided whip to herd the cattle to holding pens. Once they're gathered up we brand them and ear mark them by making a special mark on the ear, like a brand, to show who owns the cow. Then I drive them to market. In order to get them to Cuba, I have to drive them from my home in central Florida to Punta Gorda, not too far from here, or to Fort Pierce. From there they'll be loaded onto steamships.

"Either way involves hundreds of miles of travel and there are few real roads. I have to watch for panthers, bears and alligators. Sometimes the local Indians don't appreciate me going through their areas, either. If that weren't enough, creeks get flooded, poisonous snakes abound and the mosquitoes are downright ravenous. It's a hard trip, for man and beast."

Teddy Roosevelt: From Florida to glory

The Spanish-American War lasted only a few months, but it won the United States an overseas empire and helped catapult an obscure New York politician to prominence. Alex Solera, of Tampa, a former history teacher, has a personal link to the Spanish-American War. His grandmother was a close friend of Jose Martí, the liberator of Cuba.

"I am here in Florida as part of a group called the Rough Riders. We are a varied group: the finest riders and frontiersmen from Yale to Yuma, Western deadshots, Ivy League athletes, Manhattan dudes, polo players, lawmen and Indians. We are the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, and we are readying our fearless fighting men to do battle for the ultimate liberation of Cuba. We shall drive the Spaniard from the New World!

"We have trained hard in Texas and, after a grueling journey by train, have come here to muster and secure transport ships to Cuba. This collection of America's finest represents so much more than just an army. This is the first time since our great Civil War that Georgian and New Yorker-Johnny Reb and Billy Yank of days gone by-will put aside the old wounds and don new uniforms to fight side by side against a foreign enemy.

"Our job will be difficult. We will face heat that will drop a man in his tracks. The mosquitoes will be as vexing an enemy as the Spaniards, with their weapon of choice being yellow fever. We will face an enemy descended from one of the greatest colonial powers the world has ever seen, but we shall defeat him. We shall defeat him because we fight for a noble cause! The time has arrived for this great nation of ours to step out upon the world stage. We shall do just that upon our valiant steeds, with Krag and Colt in hand, and we shall bring freedom to Cuba!"

The Old Florida Festival will take place Nov. 3-4 at the Collier County Museum in the Collier County government complex, at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Airport-Pulling Road. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for students and free for children eight and younger.