Digging the history of the old Army site in Fort Pierce
When I was 5 years old, my family moved from a house on 13th Street in Fort Pierce to one along the Indian River, just a few blocks south of downtown. It wasn’t long before my siblings and I began exploring the neighborhood and came upon a site just about a block south that we called the Indian mound.
It was a large stretch of land populated with oaks and sabal palms with a high mound of shell and a freshwater stream that ran through a culvert under Indian River Drive and emptied into the Indian River. There was also a derelict house on the property that had once been the home of fisherman Bill Summerlin.
That first visit began a lifelong fascination about the history of the site. And a lot of what I learned involved clearing up misconceptions about it. As kids, for example, we thought it was the site of a Seminole burial mound.
But archaeological research into the property, beginning with St. Lucie County’s purchase of it for $20,000 from James L. Paxson in 1966, confirmed that it was the site of the original Fort Pierce, a U.S. Army installation built in 1838 during the Second Seminole War. The fort was named after Col. Benjamin Pierce, brother of President Franklin Pierce and a commander of troops in Florida during that period.
The height of the mound and the panoramic view it gave of the river — along with the freshwater spring — undoubtedly are the reasons the Army made it the site of a military outpost. The fort’s barracks and fences were built from palmetto logs, with the fence running along the bluff of the river, making it difficult to attack by water. But the fort was never involved in battles and was deactivated in 1842. It was destroyed by fire in 1843.
Because settlements along the Indian River came and went after 1843, the historical connection as to the exact site of the old fort was never confirmed until 1966 when a team from the history department at Indian River Junior College and what was then known as the State Board of Antiquities began excavating it. Soon after their findings, we more often called the site the fort or the old fort instead of the Indian mound. My fascination with it prompted me to build a replica for a high school history fair.
And it was perhaps not until I began this magazine 15 years ago that I learned that the Indians associated with the mound were not the Seminoles — who arrived in Florida in the 1700s as bands of the Creek Indians from Georgia and Alabama — but instead were the native Ais, who began inhabiting the region about 1000 B.C. until they became extinct from disease and slave raids about 1760. The Ais were attracted to the spot because of the freshwater stream, building the mound, or midden, up for centuries through the shellfish they consumed at the site.
Thanks to my colleague at this magazine, Rick Crary, we now learn more about the history of the fort and the time that William Tecumseh Sherman spent there on his first assignment out of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and nearly a quarter of a century before he would become a famous Civil War general. Crary’s story begins on Page 20.
And in the interest of historical accuracy, I want to mention a word about the liberties we took on our cover. It is a photo illustration that combines the famous image of Sherman in the Civil War with a modern photo of the old fort site facing the river. We would have preferred to use an image of Sherman from the 1840s but it would not work for what we were trying to achieve. I think you get the picture.
Reach Gregory Enns or 772.940.9005.