Seminole Smoke: An odyssey of power, love and blood in the Seminole Wars
Preface: Author's Notes
To know the United States, one must know the Seminole Wars.
This sprawling conflict mirrored the turmoil of a young nation struggling with expansion, slavery and identity. A costly affair for the fledgling American government, it boosted the careers of Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor. Osceola became the world's most famous Native American.
Using hit-and-run tactics and home field advantage, the Seminoles were pioneers of guerilla warfare in the Americas, routinely routing U.S. generals schooled in European tactics. After switching to such "total war" devices as torture, starvation and torched villages, the U.S. finally declared victory and left the remaining Seminole hold-outs alone in the swamp. There were massacres and brutalities by both sides; there were displays of justice and compassion by both sides. Spanning five decades, the conflict ranged from the Panhandle to the Keys, touching every part of Florida. The Seminoles never surrendered.
For years, I had mused about writing a novel set in the Seminole Wars. As a fan of Jeff Shaara's war novels, I saw the literary potential in a fictional account of military history, as well as the pitfalls. I would employ a "you-are-there" technique of putting the reader at major events on the battlefield and in Washington, D.C.
Make it a love story, too, I thought, why not... its fiction! But can I really presume to put words in the mouths of real historical figures? And can I really presume to think and speak and feel like a 19th Century Seminole? Every few months I might happen to read an article about Micanopy or Dade. I was a casual, armchair historian of this fairly obscure conflict. Writing a book would sure take a lot of work, I realized, so I kept putting it off until I had an offer I couldn't refuse.
"Distant Drums" and Dade
I was introduced to the Seminole Wars as a boy by Gary Cooper in "Distant Drums". This classic "Florida Western" was a muddled tale with iffy history. In it, Seminoles occupy the Castillo de San Marcos, magically relocated on Lake Okeechobee. After hauling a Fitzcarraldo boat across half of Florida, the Americans blow the fort sky high (a la the Negro Fort). The Seminoles are not-so-noble savages. "Distant Drums" was trailblazing, though, in dramatizing an oft-neglected slice of our history. "Distant Drums" is also notable for the "Wilhelm Scream", the bloodcurdling cry of a soldier being snatched by a gator which became a standard sound effect in countless movies. Trust me...you've heard it.
During a 1960s family road-trip, we had a pit-stop in St. Augustine, which included a high-speed tour of El Castillo de San Marcos (thankfully intact after being blown up real good by Gary Cooper.) As my grandmother tapped her watch and my sister dangled over the fort's conch wall, my history teacher uncle vividly told of Indians who once escaped by starving themselves and squeezing through a tiny window. I never forgot it, but never connected it to the Seminoles. El Castillo's history is confusing enough.
Three decades later, after getting lost off I-75, I did an unplanned tour of the Dade Battlefield Site. Whoa, these were the same Seminoles as in "Distant Drums"? Same guys who starved themselves? The college football team, too? (So, THAT's a "Nole"!) And that tiny post office in the swamp? Huh. That piqued my curiosity in the Seminole Wars and the seed of a novel was planted.
The Nanowrimo Challenge
In the summer of 2008, a co-worker told me about National Novel Writers Month, affectionately called Nanowrimo. It's an annual event designed to encourage everyday folks to exercise their writing muscle by penning a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. November 2008, specifically. My pal knew I had written a political novel and urged me to take the Nanowrimo Challenge with her. Yeah, but my 2001 opus took six years (on-and-off) to write; 30 days is a little more up-tempo. She taunted me until I figured it may be a good way to get this Seminole book out of my brain, so I signed up. Along with 125,000 others around the world.
As an early Obama supporter and lifelong Cubs fan, the autumn of 2008 offered sizzling action. The Obama juggernaut was in high gear and so were my Cubbies. Under the Nanowrimo rules, you may not start writing until 12:01 am on November 1, but advance planning, research and character development are encouraged. I spent October reading bios of Coacoochee while doing what I could for Barack and sitting in the Wrigley bleachers for the play-offs.
My first book - Currents of Power: A Modern Political Novel - had way too many characters, a wacky ensemble. This effort, I vowed, would be lean. A single protagonist. Stick to the events and chronology of the Seminole conflict...what better plot than war? I laid it out chapter-by-chapter and on November 1 began writing like a man on a mission. On Election Night, I joined my wife and a million others in Chicago's Grant Park, straining to see the new President-elect. As the throngs roared "Yes, we can", I wondered if it applied to novel-writing.
Nanowrimo offers writing tips and local meet-ups, and is also a social networking site. This was my first foray into this e-world. Soon, I was chatting with other Nanowrimos in my area ("Chiwrimos"). I discovered 13 other Nanowrimos who love Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast, and found a fellow Dengue Fever fan - a Seattle-area grad student living in Tokyo - who became a terrific online source of encouragement and a friend. Nanowrimos watch their word-count grow on a bar chart with daily updates. By mid-November, I was on track to hit 50,000 words by Thanksgiving, no sweat. The tale was solid, research was done, characters were compelling (well, to me.)
Then my world was turned upside down when my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given days to live. I grabbed a flight to Tampa and was able to have one good chat with her in hospice. A colorful writer herself (she dropped out of Northwestern University's School of Journalism in the 1950s to have little Claudie), she was proud of my "Currents of Power" and asked about "Seminole Smoke". She soon slipped into a morphine haze and quietly left us. I stayed in Tampa to help with arrangements. I forgot about Seminoles and Nanowrimo.
On Thanksgiving Night, though, I sat down at my mom's word processor and started pecking away at the text. Might be therapeutic, I figured. I was at the point in the story when the hero learns of his own mother's death. Later, he wanders alone, disenchanted with the struggle, worn out by people. He builds a Dream Canoe, explores tropical islands and paints nature. I was in the right mind to convey such emotions. Words began to flow. On November 30, I filed the book with the Nanowrimo robots who affirmed my 50,000+ word-count. Mom's funeral was the next morning.
Nanowrimo provided me with a healthy catharsis in a time of crushing grief. And if it wasn't for Nanowrimo, this tale would still be rattling around my head, maybe trapped forever. Nanowrimo forced my hand. And having explored the genre of Seminole War fiction, I know this book is unique in its scope; Nanowrimo enabled it.
"Seminole Road Trip '09": Negro Fort spirits, Egmont Key pier, my freezing chickee
Nanowrimo suggested we meet the 50,000-word deadline, then beef it up and clean it up later if you really hope to publish. Hence my "Seminole Road Trip '09".
In February 2009, I set off on a 3,636-mile road trip to visit Seminole sites I had never seen (Negro Fort, Egmont Key) and some I hadn't seen in awhile (Dade Battlefield, Castillo de San Marcos). Part of the story is set in Florida's Alachua region and another in Islamorada, places I had passed through many times but never stopped to explore.
After battling ice storms for two days in my 2-seater, I crossed the Alabama-Florida border, exited the Interstate and began searching for the Apalachicola River. "Seminole Road Trip 2009" was kicking into higher gear! That was the first of many times I would get terribly lost on Florida back roads in the next few weeks. GPS? Ha! I don't even have cruise control.
I finally stumbled across the river in the general area of a scene in the book where Andrew Jackson's invasion whips through. I was parked on the riverbank in the exact spot where Jackson must have marched. It was also the first of several stops on my tour that I realized I had the foliage all wrong.
My visit to the Negro Fort - now Fort Gadsden Historical Site - was unexpectedly moving. The only person there, I crossed the moat to the spot where the U.S. Navy cannonball hit the powder magazine, vaporizing hundreds instantly. A family was barbecuing in the campground nearby, boom-box blaring. Do they even know of the carnage that occurred on this very spot? Do the residents down the road? I envisioned the people cowering inside this fort, the glowing cannonball, the gory aftermath. In this serene spot along the river, Spanish moss undulating in the breeze.
I recalled an eerie feeling I had on the 50th anniversary of the infamous Lady of Angels School fire in Chicago. I visited the disaster's site at the precise hour the fire had broken out a half-century before. I knew the exact location of the two 2nd-floor classrooms where the most fatalities took place, now a space hovering 20' above a parking lot. Did anyone in the neighborhood now know what happened here then? I watched a drug deal on the corner, and thought of the students and nuns who perished on this very spot.
One can study history through classes, books, film and even Wikipedia, but sometimes the chills only come when you're standing on the exact spot where it went down.
I zipped through Apalachicola, following Jackson's invasion route to St. Mark's Fort (closed the day I arrived due to budget cuts). I kayaked 16 miles down the scenic Santa Fe River (setting for a chase scene in the book) and watched the heads of turtles periscoping above the water. I visited the Dade Battlefield Site and its terrific little museum. I saw where Major Dade went down, and hiked through the palmettos and cypresses, enjoying the shafts of light, hint of turpentine and brazen woodpeckers. This may be how it looked, smelled and sounded to both the concealed Seminole ambushers and unsuspecting U.S. troops who had minutes to live.
My trip out to Egmont Key with my sister, niece and nephew was also a triumph. The book's final scene occurs here (oops, spoiler alert!) so I was delighted to be told by a park ranger that the remnants of a stone dock was the actual spot from which the Seminoles were deported to New Orleans. I tried to imagine the thoughts of Billy Bowlegs, Paul Turtle and thousands of others standing right here, staring across the turquoise water to the lush mainland before heading to a cold, barren reservation.
Then off to the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation. The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum had a superb exhibit on Osceola (more chills seeing his actual garb and bronze pipe) and a life-size diorama that helped me finally grasp Seminole stickball. For more "author immersion", I spent a night outside in a chickee on stilts over the swamp. Nice by chickee standards, it had a thatched roof, metal cot, kerosene lamp and porch to watch the airboats go by. Gator for dinner, a humbling night sky and the haunting sounds of the pre-dawn swamp gave me a good Seminole vibe. It was also the coldest night in the Everglades in years, I was told, and all I had was a scratchy blanket and my Chicago leather. I checked under the cot for snakes each time I entered and outside for panthers every time I left, but it was splendid.
After kayaking in Lower Matecumbe Key (I did some editing while bobbing around inside a mangrove tunnel) and a glimpse of historic Indian Key, I was disappointed as I headed north. The drive along Lake Okeechobee's shoreline was not what I expected (think severe "water management") and I had a hard time finding battle sites.
But I would not be denied in finding Moultrie Creek, just south of St. Augustine. I knew the infamous treaty had been signed where Moultrie Creek shoots west from the Matanzas River. It took some exploring and even - gulp - asking locals for directions, but I finally found a tiny riverfront trail that led to the confluence. The Treaty must have been signed here. The first of many times the Seminoles were hustled, bamboozled or outright duped by the Americans. In the book, this is also were Paul Turtle meets his first love...romance on the shore ensues.
The last stop on "Seminole Road Trip '09" was Castillo de San Marcos, as noted a family road-trip pit-stop in my youth. Again, an eerie feeling as I entered the room which served as Osceola's cell and from which - legend has it - the emaciated Seminoles escaped. A ranger told me it's all bunk, that the escape took place from a wooden stockade in town, but who knows? I spent hours at the fort, trying figure how to engineer a prison break from a joint like this.
I left St. Augustine, the tour complete, with a parting glance of the Suwannee River (another key scene in the book) as I careened through the Florida countryside. I crossed the Suwannee just as a fiery sun dipped below the piney horizon, a sweet punctuation mark on this journey.
Putting the fiction into historical fiction
The book covers the entire span of the Seminole Wars and I used a range of sources for the history side. To get a true historian's take on the conflict, I recommend The Seminole Wars by Mary Lou and John Missall, History of the Second Seminole War by John Mahon, In Bitterness and in Tears: Jackson's Destruction of the Creeks and Seminoles by Sean Michael O'Brien, Coacoochee's Bones by Susan Miller, and Hunted Like a Wolf by Milton Meltzer.
For the fiction part, I used my fertile imagination. It is unlikely that Jackson slapped a Seminole boy (a wink to history buffs who know that as a lad, Jackson was famously sword-slapped by a British officer.) No female Black Seminoles were at Dade. The hero's fantastic weapons - Sugar Cane Tornado, Lightning Spears, purple haze - never existed. And no human could be as smokin' fast as Paul Turtle. Nor could any human be present at so many key events in a five-decade saga, unless he was Forrest Gump. But it was a useful device to capture the grand sweep of this dramatic conflict.
My hope is to take readers into this colorful, tragic and provocative period of our history. And to tell a decent political yarn and love story while I'm at it.
Chicago Illinois, 2009