Lake Worth: The Seminole’s ‘Breadbasket’ in 1841

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When the first pioneers settled along the shores of Lake Worth in the late 1870s, they found a pristine wilderness and assumed it had always been uncultivated marshes and pine barrens. They were wrong.

Forty years prior to their arrival, Lake Worth was a center of agricultural production and the breadbasket of the Seminole tribe. In fact, their fields and gardens were so vast along the freshwater lake that it took four U.S. Army expeditions to destroy and thus deny this valuable resource to local native Americans.

Brevet Major Thomas Childs (1796 - 1853), the new commander assigned to Fort Lauderdale, was the first Army officer to observe the “luxuriant fields” of native Seminole crops during his expedition from Fort Pierce to his new base in September 1841.

Major Childs was one of the few Army officers to serve the entire seven-year duration of the Second Seminole War (1835-42). His mission was to reactivate Fort Lauderdale as a base of operations against hostile Seminoles south of the Jupiter Inlet.

Major Childs, with five officers and 85 soldiers of the U.S. Third Artillery, rowed 13 boats down the Indian and St. Lucie rivers to the Jupiter Inlet on Sept. 6. He then divided his command with half sailing south along the barrier island, while a second force marched in unison along the shore.

To his surprise, Major Childs discovered a coastal freshwater lake (Lake Worth) described as “13 miles long and one to one and one-half miles wide.” Inexplicably, the garrison at Fort Jupiter failed to explore and chart the lake in 1838.

A few historians have credited Major Childs with the naming of the waterway as “Lake Worth” in honor of his commanding officer, Colonel William Jenkins Worth, though the origin of the place name is still a topic of debate. The Seminoles called the lake “Hypoluxo”. It was known as “Rio Jeaga” - river of the Jeaga Indians - during the Spanish colonial period.

Along the eastern shore of the lake, Major Childs noted “extensive fields of corn, pumpkins, potatoes, Indian peas, melons, tobacco, rice and sugar cane in a high state of cultivation.” The cultivated fields were interconnected by a trail used by the Seminoles between the stands of sawgrass and mangroves.

The major ordered the fields destroyed so the harvest could not be used by “hostile” Indians. It was not an easy task. The expediton camped along the shore of Lake Worth for five days. It required two days for the 85 soldiers to uproot and destroy the fields they discovered.

Major Childs estimated the fields contained 2,000 bushels of potatoes and several hundred bushels of corn. He failed to capture any Indians, but reported his command delivered a heavy blow to the Seminole’s source of food.

In a letter written on Sept. 18, 1841, Major Childs reported, “My opinon is these fields belonged to Sam Jones (Miccosukee medicine chief Abiaka) and his party, and that Indians were sent from (Lake) Okeechobee to tend these.”

Search and destroy missions

The elusive medicine chief Sam Jones became the nemesis of the U.S. Third Artillery, based at Fort Lauderdale, from September 1841 until Colonel Worth brought the war to a close in August 1842. Search and destroy expeditions were dispatched by Major Childs to Lake Worth, Lake Okeechobee, the Loxahatchee River and as far south as the Shark River valley in the Everglades.

Sam Jones and his followers eluded all of these Army and Naval expeditions, but his village sites and agricultural food sources did not. It became a war of attrition and slow starvation within the Everglades and coastal waterways in South Florida.

Captain Martin J. Burke of Company I of the Third Artillery left Fort Lauderdale Sept. 3, 1841 with 119 enlisted men and five officers. They rowed up the New River and dragged their boats across the Everglades with the goal of surprising Seminole camps on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee.

Rowing past the future sites of Belle Glade and Canal Point, the Burke expedition reached the deserted outpost of Fort McRae, described by the officer as an “old palmetto fortification”. (Fort McRae was built by Colonel Zachary Taylor following the Battle of Okeechobee in 1837.) They used the old supply depot as their base of operations for three days while searching for Seminole villages.

Only two Indians were spotted along the shore of Lake Okeechobee and none were captured. The net result of the expedition was the destruction of one small Seminole camp site, hidden within an Everglades hammock east of the big lake, and destroying their supply of “coontie” or Florida arrowroot.

While the Burke mission failed to locate hostile Indians, his expedition gave notice to Seminole leaders that the shores of Lake Okeechobee and the hammocks of the east Everglades were no longer safe places of refuge.

On Nov. 8, 1841, Captain Richard Wade with 80 soldiers of the Third Artillery raided Cha-Chi’s Village, located within the freshwater chain of lakes 1.5 miles west of Lake Worth in the future city of West Palm Beach. Cha-chi’s hunting camp on the Hillsboro River was attacked the day before *

He later reported, “Here we were conducted to another village which we surrounded and surprised and captured 27 Indians, took six rifles and one shotgun, and destroyed a large quantity of provisions and four canoes. The next morning we set out on our return to the boats.”

In early December 1841, Major Childs ordered Lt. Francis Wyse to return to Lake Worth and destroy any remaining agricultural fields on the western shore that his earlier expedition in September missed. The Wyse “scout mission” produced “no prisoners nor enemy casualties,” only the destruction of crops.

Two more expeditions were sent to Lake Worth in mid-December. Captain John Rogers Vinton left Fort Lauderdale on Dec.15 with 120 soldiers in 19 boats. They paddled north along the entire length of Lake Worth, then portaged their boats and entered the Loxahatchee River.

Captain Vinton was responding to reports that Sam Jones was camped along the Loxahatchee. They failed to locate him. Only one Indian, named Kata Micco, was captured, whom Vinton described as “a wild and eccentric character associated with no party - though an actual relative of Sam Jones himself.”

Captain Vinton was ordered to wait for the arrival of a second expedition led Captain Wade at the site of Fort Jupiter. When Wade failed to arrive, Vinton’s force rowed north to the St. Lucie River and the Army base at Fort Pierce.

Captain Wade’s second expedition to Lake Worth, following the destruction of Cha-chi’s Village in November, set off from Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 19 with 17 canoes and 80 soldiers. He followed Vinton’s route to the south end of Lake Worth.

Assigned to the expedition was Lt. Andrew A. Humphreys, a topographical engineer sent to chart the waterway. His 1841 journal was edited and reprinted as an official U.S. Department of War “Memoir” with maps in April 1856 for use in the Third Seminole War (1855-58).

The 1856 “Memoir” was one of first military documents to use the place name “Lake Worth” and was subtitled “Inland Routes from Fort Jupiter to Fort Lauderdale.”

Lt. Humphreys reported, “Lake Worth is a pretty sheet of water, about 20 miles long and three-quarter of a mile in width; bounded on the west by pine barrens, and on the east by sand hills of the beach, which are sometimes 12 to 15 feet in height and covered with cabbage trees, wild figs, mangroves, saw palmettos, with here and there a variety of cactus.”

Most of the cultivated fields along the shores of Lake Worth were already destroyed by earlier expeditions by Childs, Wyse and Vinton when the second Wade expedition reached the waterway.

Lt. Humphreys observed “Along the eastern shore of the lake are long strips of cultivable ground about 200 yards wide, separated from the beach by ponds and wet prairies. These were formerly tilled by the Indians, who had large villages in the neighborhood. The soil is light but very rich, being almost entirely vegetable mould.”

By the time Captain Wade reached the rendezvous site of Fort Jupiter, the Vinton expedition had already departed for Fort Pierce. Wade returned to Fort Lauderdale by way of the Atlantic coastal ridge which extended north to south and passed just east of the ruins of Cha-Chi’s Village and the freshwater chain of lakes in central Palm Beach County.

The search and destroy missions by Childs, Wyse, Wade and Vinton effectively eliminated Lake Worth as a supply base for the Seminoles of southeast Florida by the end of 1841.

Before he was deported to Oklahoma in 1842, one Seminole chieftain named Nethlock-a-mathlar told his captors: “Our crops last summer were entirely destroyed, which never occurred before, and the approach of troops from all quarters scattered our people, separating husbands and wives, parents and children for safety.”

“From moon to moon” he said, “we thought the soldiers would retire, but they continued their destruction as fast as we could plant. There was no alternative but to improve the first opportunity to surrender.”

In a letter sent to General Winfield Scott in February 1842, Colonel Worth estimated the strength of the remaining Seminoles as 300 persons, of which 112 were warriors. He recommended an end to the war.

Sam Jones, Billy Bowlegs, Chipco and their followers remained undefeated and hidden in the “Locha Hatchee” (Loxahatchee River basin), the Everglades and swamps north of Lake Okeechobee until the stalemated war ended on Aug. 14, 1842 by a unilateral decree of the U.S. War Department.

(c.) Davidsson. 2021 Reprinted with permission.

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