Digging history

Treasure Coast History Festival

Visitors to the Treasure Coast History Festival enjoyed the exhibits, re-creations and historical presentations in downtown Fort Pierce. ANTHONY INSWASTY PHOTO

Annual festival highlighted beginnings of the city at the old fort site


About a mile south of Downtown Fort Pierce, the Old Fort Park on South Indian River Drive sits peacefully while offering volumes of fascinating revelations of the city’s past.

The park was once the site of a military post built by the Army in 1838 during the Second Seminole War. It was named after Lt. Col. Benjamin K. Pierce, the regiment’s commander and brother of future President Franklin Pierce. Although Benjamin was there only briefly, he provided Fort Pierce with its everlasting name.

More than 1,000 troops were stationed there until 1842 in an attempt to force Florida’s Seminole Indians out for relocation west of the Mississippi. The unoccupied fort burned down a year later.

Ironically, the spot used to keep Indians out is home to sacred burial grounds and artifacts that tell the history of the area’s first inhabitants, the Ais (or Ays) Indians.

The park is “more than just history; it is prehistory,” noted Lucille Rights at a special event during the Treasure Coast History Festival downtown on Jan. 13. More than 200 people packed the Black Box Theatre in the Sunrise Theatre complex to hear from local history experts about the origins of the Fort Pierce site.

Rights, who taught for 25 years at the old Fort Pierce Elementary School (now the renovated Fort Pierce Magnet School of the Arts), enjoyed teaching local history to students. “We would go there (to the park) and we picked up black stuff. It turned out to be pottery shards.” They were pieces of history left by the Ais, who died out some 250 years ago following invasions by the Spanish and other European explorers.

“The Ais were hunters, gatherers, but they lived on the fish,” plentiful in the Indian River. There were so many fish, oysters, crabs and other creatures, the Indians “could walk on them across the river.”

It later proved beneficial to soldiers at the fort. “There was so much fish, the soldiers gained weight,” Rights said.

The Ais once dominated the east coast of Florida from Cape Canaveral to Jupiter. They did not have a written language, so much of the information on them comes from the accounts of the Spanish and the writings of Englishman Jonathan Dickinson, who was captured by a tribe in the late 1600s.

Early inhabitants of the Treasure Coast area may date back thousands of years. Researchers found evidence in Vero Beach that humans could have lived here some 16,000 years ago, pointed out Indian River Magazine publisher Gregory Enns.

Archaeologists, who began discovering artifacts at the old park, also realized an 18-foot-tall mound in the area was an ancient Indian burial ground, making the grounds sacred. The military post is believed to have been just north of there.

Before it was illegal to dig the sacred grounds, local resident John Durham collected many artifacts later acquired from the family by the county, said Harry Quatraro, registrar at the St. Lucie County Regional History Center where they are on display.

Beautification of the park with markers and kiosks for information was made possible with a $30,000 grant from the Lions Club awarded to the city, said member Matt Samuels. The Second Seminole War on the Treasure Coast was the longest and costliest Indian war in American history, according to Rick Crary, local historian and contributor to Indian River Magazine.

There was a huge effort to make Florida Indian-free under the administrations of Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren, but many critics sympathized with the Indians, who were being forced southward by American settlers. “The area was a swamp; ‘the Indians can have it,’ many people thought,” Crary said. Even Maj. Gen. Thomas S. Jesup, in charge of the Florida War, was critical. Nevertheless, he arrived at Fort Pierce, which was built first as a blockhouse. Other blockhouses followed, and a wall was built around the fort. Logs made from sabal palms were used for construction.

The war ended up being too much of a struggle against an unyielding Seminole Nation, and the government decided to let hundreds of surviving Indians roam the area. Unlike the Ais, the Seminoles remain in Florida. Legends have been made of Seminole leaders Osceola and Wildcat (Coacoochee) for their resistance against Indian removal.

Guests at the speaking engagement included Lt. Col. Pierce played by Jim Odell and Maj. Gen. Jesup (Dick Kazmar), dressed in authentic military uniforms of the day. Odell grew up in Fort Pierce and couldn’t believe how little people knew of Pierce, the man who gave the city its name. A reenactor in other military events, Odell told of the difficult life Pierce faced. His three wives died and only one of his 10 children made it to adulthood.

Seminole War reenactors were part of the all-day festival, which included military dress parades, ghost tours, historical trolley rides, and “Authors Alley,” a display of books by local authors on Treasure Coast history. Booth exhibits and a fish fry by the Summerlin family were also featured for the hundreds of visitors who strolled downtown or attended historical presentations.

Shows at the Black Box Theatre included a history of the Adams Ranch since it began in 1937 and excerpts from “American Jazz,” a musical based on letters written between author Zora Neale Hurston and Vero Beach pioneer and entrepreneur Waldo Sexton.

The annual history festival was produced by Indian River Magazine. Co-sponsors included Sunrise Theatre, Main Street Fort Pierce, East Coast Lumber & Supply Co., Southern Eagle Distributing, CenterState Bank, and the Emerson Center in Vero Beach.