Willie Johns holds a photo of Polly Parker, his great-grandmother.
Willie Johns holds a photo of Polly Parker, his great-grandmother. Greg Allen/NPR
This week, a group of Seminole Indians in Florida is commemorating an important historical event — when a Seminole named Polly Parker organized and led an escape from federal troops more than 150 years ago.
It came at a time when Indians were being deported to the West in what became known as the Trail of Tears. Florida's Seminoles call themselves the "unconquered people" because, through three wars with federal troops, they resisted deportation to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi.
In 1858, at the end of the third Seminole War, Parker was one of a group of Indians held at a federal stockade on Egmont Key, an island in the middle of Tampa Bay.
On Sunday, a small group of Seminoles began a re-creation of Parker's journey. They went first to Egmont Key, where there's a lighthouse and Indian graves — a legacy of the years Seminoles were held there.
History from that time is sketchy, but the island is where the Seminole leader Billy Bowlegs, who led the last uprising against the federal troops, was held. Eventually, along with more than 100 warriors, women and children, he was deported to the West.
It's a story that Willie Johns says is still painful to his people.
"It's kind of like our Holocaust. Our people were held captive here because of a war that was going," says Johns, a community outreach specialist and an informal tribal historian. "It was against the law in those days after 1830 that Native people be east of the Mississippi."
Johns says when the time came for Parker to be deported, she and other Seminoles boarded a ship that would take them west. But when the boat stopped on the Panhandle, she sneaked away. Johns says she traveled through hundreds of miles of wilderness back to tribal lands near Lake Okeechobee.
"When she made her escape, there were like five or six ... other people with her who made that escape, so she's a big part of our community," he says.
At Sunday's kickoff event, Johns and the other Seminoles were greeted at Egmont Key by Florida officials who oversee the state park and nature preserve there. Along with the lighthouse, there's a small museum on the island.
Johns brought along a portrait of Parker to hang in the museum. It's one that he knows very well — a color-tinted photograph of Parker in traditional Seminole garb, wearing perhaps two dozen strings of beads.
"I've seen this picture all my life in Okeechobee on the wall at [a local] hardware store. And they always said, 'That's your great-grandma,' " he says.
Parker lived many more years in South Florida after her escape. She died in 1921. For Seminoles today, her most important legacy is her descendants.
"Her progeny became many of the leaders and medicine people and important figures in the history of the tribe ever since," says Peter Gallagher, who worked with Seminole Chief Jim Billie to organize the commemoration. "The chairman realized that one day when we were talking about it, and he said, 'What kind of tribe would we have if his lady had been either killed or deported to Oklahoma?' "
The Seminoles were continuing their re-creation of Parker's journey on Monday in St. Marks, the Panhandle town where 155 years ago, she made her escape, helping form the modern Seminole tribe.