A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Close encounters with a famed Seminole chief
More than 160 years after his death in 1838, the famed Seminole chief Osceola still generates attention, not to mention some bizarre scams by people hoping to profit from his reputation. Like saints' bones or rock stars' autographs, relics of Osceola--pieces of his clothing, locks of his hair, personal possessions, and even his head--have been held by individuals and institutions across the country who value their association with this native leader. Crudely put, parts of Osceola are everywhere.
The Seminole chief's fame derives from his capture under a flag of truce by federal troops in Florida in 1837. Osceola's subsequent imprisonment was seen by the American public as a black mark on the country's honor. Following Osceola's death in prison, his popularity soared. Towns, counties, steamboats, schools, hotels, and children were all named after him.
Recently, as I rounded a corner in the New-York Historical Society's galleries, I came nose to nose with Osceola. There in a glass case was a cast of his head. Throughout my career as a museum curator and archaeologist, I've continued to bump into the great Seminole leader, his possessions, and even one of his encampments in a remote wetland in west-central Florida. My encounters with him are not the result of any special scholarly prowess on my part. Rather, they are the result of the rich and often strange legacy Osceola left behind.
Jerald T. Milanich is curator in archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History and author of a number of books on Florida archaeology.