Painting of Polly Parker by Robert Butler, Brighton Reservation, 1989

Seminoles Retrace Polly Parker’s Escape, Fight to Preserve History


The year was 1858. It was the end of the third Seminole War and federal troops were trying to relocate Florida’s Seminoles to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi.

But Polly Parker led an escape. She and the dozen others who escaped had been on a steamer called Grey Cloud headed for Arkansas from Egmont Key, an island in the middle of Tampa Bay. The ship stopped to restock lumber for its boilers in St. Marks and Parker asked permission to gather herbs for medicine. That’s when they made their move. Some of the dozen who tried to escape were recaptured, but most slipped away and made their way back to their former camp on the northeast side of Lake Okeechobee.

This is why the Seminole call themselves the “unconquered people,” because they resisted such relocations.

Beginning December 1, a group of today’s Seminole Indians recreated Parker’s journey. They began at Egmont Key, where Parker and many others were held at a federal stockade.

“It’s kind of like our Holocaust. Our people were held captive here because of a war that was going,” said Willie 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.”

Ben Montgomery posted this image on Twitter with the caption: First sign of land in 22 hours. We’re following the epic voyage of Seminole heroine Polly Parker. (Ben Montgomery/Twitter)

Johns, a descendant on his father’s side of Parker, was at Egmont Key on December 1. He brought a portrait of Parker with him to hang at the museum on the island. An island that is in danger of disappearing due to rapid erosion—it’s less than half the size it was 100 years ago. While the island is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a popular tourist spot for snorkelers, tribal members fear losing part of their history. Mostly because there are burial plots there that could be washed away with the erosion.

An aerial image shows Egmont Key at the mouth of Tampa Bay. The island has been part of the state park system since 1989. (Jim Damaske/Tampa Bay Times, 2007)

“From this day on we can help each other in all we do to preserve this place,” Johns said after presenting the framed photo of Parker to Donald Forgione, the director of the Florida Park Service, which oversees Egmont Key.

Parker was over 100 years old when she walked on in 1921. For members of the Seminole tribe today, her descendants are her legacy.

Willie Johns holds up a photo of Polly Parker, his great grandmother. (Greg Allen/NPR)

“Her progeny became many of the leaders and medicine people and important figures in the history of the tribe ever since,” said 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?’”

Information for this story came from NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and the Orlando Sentinel.

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