One Month At Fort Moultrie
The brief, tragic visit of the great Seminole warrior Osceola to Sullivan’s. By Anne Hassold Harris Photos by Steve Rosamilia
There is a tomb on Sullivan’s Island, just o Middle Street, that represents the final resting place of a great Seminole warrior. Osceola was an influential and fiery leader, known for spearheading his tribe’s resistance against the U.S. Government’s orders to vacate Florida and live on a reservation west of the Mississippi River. Despite his e orts, his final resting place is Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina.
Born Billy Powell in 1804, Osceola was of mixed race; black, Native American and English/Scots-Irish. He was raised in his mother’s tribe, which eventually became the Seminole Indian Nation. e name Osceola means “black drink singer,” a reference to a purification rite a Seminole warrior must undergo in young adulthood.
Osceola and 95 of his followers were captured during the Second Seminole War, in October 1837. Scandalously, the army took them while preparing for truce talks near St. Augustine, Florida. is deceit prompted condemnation of General Thomas Jesup, who ordered their capture. Osceola’s biographer om Hatch described it as “one of the most disgraceful acts in American military history.”
Following a brief stay at Fort Marion (Castillo de San Marcos) in St. Augustine, Osceola was transferred to South Carolina in December of 1837. He arrived at Fort Moultrie on January 1, 1838.
Little is known about Osceola’s time on the island, but it is thought he was not treated as a typical prisoner. His arrival caused much excitement within the social elite in Charleston and he was given liberty of the fort and allowed to receive visitors. However, while inhabitants of Charleston were excited by Osceola’s arrival, the residents of Sullivan’s Island were not. Many islanders requested that all the captured Seminole Indians be transferred to another location.
Celebrated artist George Catlin, known for his work on Native American culture, sought permission to visit Osceola during his stay in Fort Moultrie. Catlin’s portrait of Osceola in full Seminole attire was said to be Osceola’s favorite. He was, “a most extraordinary man… of cunning and restless spirit,” Catlin said of Osceola.
On January 8, 1838, Osceola and several other Seminole chiefs were taken to a theater in Charleston to see the play Honey Moon, and local poet James B. Ransom wrote an account of the evening, which was published in the Charleston Courier. It was said to be an accurate account of the evening and the man himself. Perhaps the most telling stanza reads:
The softest strains of music fell unheard,
And every sound seemed lost upon his ear,
While songs that spoke of love in every word
Nor made him sigh, nor smile, nor drop a tear;
For his wild thoughts, like some unfettered bird,
Flew swift as lightening to that home so dear,
Where his undaunted heart still longed to go,
To raise the savage yell and fight the treacherous foe.
While his heart may have longed to continue the fight, Osceola’s body gave up on January 30, 1838. A bout of tonsillitis led to an infection that killed him less than a month after his arrival at Fort Moultrie. A marble stone was placed over Osceola’s burial site and inscribed with the words “Patriot and Warrior.”
In 1969, following vandalism, a new gravestone was installed. e original stone is still on exhibit at the Fort Moultrie Visitor Center. In years past, members of the Seminole Tribe have come to Fort Moultrie to commemorate the day of the Great Warrior’s death.