Notes from the Past

Fort Myers, Florida, and the Civil War

The Seminole War, the War of Indian Removal, had been going on for a number of years in 1841.  President Andrew Jackson issued an ultimatum to the Seminoles to either move to a reservation in Florida or go west.  The Indians refused and resisted.  The army pursued  and forced them further south in the state.  In the fall of 1841, the army reestablished and enlarged Fort Dulaney at Punta Rassa at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee (Caloosa River).  Shortly after the fort was reoccupied and resupplied, a hurricane wiped it out.  The army ordered the garrison to move up the river to a safer location.  The site of present day Fort Myers was selected.

The new outpost was named Fort Harvie.  The fort was a half-circle covering roughly three blocks along the river and was about two blocks deep by modern city measurements.  Semi-circular breastworks of dirt and logs, six feet high and fifteen feet wide at the base surrounded the fort.  The army built storehouses, pitched tents for soldiers' quarters, and erected a long dock to accommodate boats bringing in men and supplies.

Soldiers from Fort Harvie made sorties up and down the river and into the Everglades while capturing 230 Seminoles.  In February, 1842, headquarters ordered that the pursuit be abandoned and in March the army abandoned Fort Harvie.

The river continued to be a route for traders including the remaining Seminoles and Spanish fishermen from Cuba.  The struggle was destined to begin again when Florida became the 27th state in 1845.  In 1848, Florida was given "all lands, lakes and water courses south of the established survey."  These actions began anew the conflict over the land between settlers, ranchers, and the Seminoles. 

The Indians protested the invasion of lands which the United States had given them.  They were only offered up to $250 gold for each indian who moved west to Indian Territory (Oklahoma).  As soon as the state had official title to the land, Governor Brown requested the Secretary of War to remove the Seminoles.  The Indian Agent, Captain John Casey, embarked on a long-range plan to move steadily further and further south with surveys, roads, patrols, moving troops in, and scouting the Everglades.  The final step was to cut off trade with the Seminoles.

On February 15, 1850, two companies of artillery were directed to establish a post to be named Fort Myers at a suitable spot on the Caloosa River.  The site of Fort Harvie was selected.  The new fort was larger and more elaborate.  Completed, there were 57 buildings including a $30,000 hospital (which, incidentally, became the subject of inquiry in Washington, but nothing illegal was found).  The fort was a first rate facility for the times.

The army continued to encroach on the indians.  Inland forts and camps were built.  In December, 1855, a detail was sent into the Big Cypress Swamp to "survey the Indian Lands."  This was the spark which started the war anew.  The conflict continued until May 8, 1858, when Billy Bowlegs, the last Seminole chief, and his people left on the steamer Grey Cloud for relocation.  This ended the war and within a month the forts along the river and the interior, including Fort Myers, were abandoned.

In 1859, the government sent surveying teams to get the fort sites ready for public sale.  One of the surveyors, Major James S. Evans, was so taken with the area that he bought the Fort Myers site "at public outcry" at army headquarters in Tampa.  Major Evans brought slaves from his Virginia plantation to cultivate tropical trees and plants.  After just one year, the Civil War erupted and the major returned to his native Virginia.   Fort Myers was again all but abandoned.

Florida was on the outskirts of the Civil War.  Southern Florida was almost unaffected.  Union troops held Key West but paid little attention to the southwest coast and the interior.  The principal activity involved rounding up wild cattle left from the Spanish explorers and driving them north to supply the Confederates.  In 1863, the Confederate connection began to sour and the cattlemen looked south to sell cattle to the Spanish from Cuba.

Jacob Summerlin, a cattleman, and a ship's captain, James McKay, began running the Federal blockade to ship cattle to Cuba.  Return trips brought goods in short supply - flour, sugar, and other commodities.  News traveled fast, and the scattered settlers would come to buy the commodities right off the ship.  The remaining Seminoles also traded wild hogs bound for the Confederates in return for ammunition, cloth, needles, thread, and tobacco.

When the Union forces became aware of this activity, they dispatched a naval force from Key West to enforce the blockade.  Camps were established at the mouth of the river on the mainland and on the barrier islands.  Union troops were moved into Fort Myers which was still in good condition.  The interior remained in Confederate hands.

Union troops began to make raids for beef.  This led to conflict with the Cattle Guard Battalion, a home guard of Confederate cowmen left to protect the homes, families, and possessions in Florida.  Before the end of the war, the Cattle Guard captured Fort Myers, and the Union army retreated to Punta Rassa at the mouth of the Caloosa River, only a few miles away.  After the war's end in April, 1865, Fort Myers was again abandoned.  The Fort became a source of materials for construction.
Paraphrased from Yesterday's Fort Myers, Marian Bailey Godown & Alberta Colcord Rawchuck, 1975 Press Printing, Fort Myers, Florida.


 Posted December 16, 2003

Index of 507 Notes from the Past

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