Words by Mahala Billie Osceola and Carmello Shenandoah
Photos by Jason Matthew Walker
This story was originally published by The Marjorie. This series was supported by the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines Initiative and the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund at The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida.
On August 16, 2022, The Marjorie joined members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and Tribal staff on a boat trip to Egmont Key. Two young Tribal members, Mahala Billie Osceola and Carmello Shenandoah, joined as well. This was their first visit to Egmont Key. After the trip, Mahala and Carmello wrote a few words on what they learned about Seminole history and their experiences on the island.
Mahala Billie Osceola
There is a lot of heavy history held by the beautiful island of Egmont Key, which is slowly being eroded away because of many reasons. One of the darkest histories of this island is shared with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Towards the end of the Third Seminole War, the government used this island as an internment camp for the captured Seminoles before shipping them out west on the Grey Cloud.
In 1858, in an effort to remove the captured Seminoles, they had to board them all on the steamer Grey Cloud, which would bring them out west. This is where the story gets complicated because, depending on who you speak to, they will say Polly Parker had either planned this escape with five others or they will share a different story.
When I asked my mother Mariann Billie, she said, “I learned later on she [Parker] was told to just go. Don’t worry about the people who she was collecting medicine for — the sick on the boat — because they said she needed to warn the Seminole people they were going to die eventually. So she saved herself to warn as many as she could.”
What we do know for fact is that around that time in St. Marks, a coastal city south of Tallahassee, Parker escaped and traveled all the way back down to her homelands near Lake Okeechobee.
When you talk to a few of the Tribal members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, most will say that this island was a dark part of history for the Seminole people. Eroding away is a part of Mother Nature’s plan so why interfere and try to preserve it.
Polly Parker’s legacy continues to live on through her family, which continues to grow bigger throughout the years. My mother, who is one of Polly Parker’s many descendants, decided to create a family tree for a family reunion in honor of Polly Parker.
When asked how they were related, she said, “Polly Parker is my third great grandma. She is my grandpa’s great grandma. She is my mom’s dad’s great grandma.”
“I am a visual person, so I wanted to see my grandpa’s side visually,” Billie said. “So although they tell us [some Tribal members] don’t want this information written down, I made it for me and other family members who wanted it to show how we are all related.”
Mahala Billie Osceola is 19 years old. She has lived in Florida her whole life and continues to enjoy learning more about Florida’s vast history. She is grateful for this opportunity.
With time, Florida’s history with the Seminole Tribe of Florida is being forgotten, for better or worse. The Seminole Tribe has a long history in Florida, and everyone should be able to learn about it.
Whether or not it is appropriate to conserve places like Egmont Key is a subject of debate. Even though it will be controversial, the historic property does not need to be physically protected. Because of the great advancements in technology, it is now possible to make a virtual duplicate of the place. The real location is still being claimed by nature.
The University of South Florida has been working on a 3D lab of the key with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and it is skillfully done. Learning in the 3D lab made it easier to see the environment and comprehend how climate change is affecting Egmont Key.
Egmont Key is a difficult place to preserve because it is expected to be almost completely submerged by 2080. The work done at the USF 3D lab educates many people about the island’s history, heritage, and climate change impacts. With almost everyone having a phone in their pocket, they have access to all of this information, allowing people to be so in tune with other cultures, religions, and history.
My people’s culture and history have always been important to me in the way we were raised, so learning about other people’s histories is something I will always do.
Carmello Shenandoah is glad to have been given this chance to be able to learn new things and share what he learned with others. Knowing that people, as well as himself, will get to learn more and grow is why he enjoys doing anything.