In Florida before the War
by Greg Carter
By 1829, second generation immigrants from the New Smyrna colony had begun to spread out—even if only a few miles. Tomas Pacetty (born in New Smyrna) and Maria Catarina Bonelly (born in Saint Augustine) left the Ancient City around 1808. They settled just north in Saint Marys, Georgia, a seaport on the river that today divides the two states. Pacetty and his sons continued to find work as mariners and fishermen. The first was Andrew, who eventually married Charlotte Smith, a girl from North Carolina. They had two children in Saint Marys, named Mary and Adolphus.
Adolphus Newton Pacetty's young life was very much about pioneering. He lost his mother when he was an infant, and his father's commitment to the sea might have left the children feeling unanchored. His father remarried—a Saint Augustine girl from a Minorcan family—and the family continued to float between the two ports. Adolphus later wrote he was a permanent resident of Florida from the age of eight (1837), and he continued to explore the state: east, west, north, and south.
In 1855, Pacetty transported family members from East Florida to the Gulf Coast in a canvas-covered wagon dawn by two horses. These were descendants of Antonia Paula Bonelly (Pacetty's great aunt) that were among the earliest settlers of Tampa. In the 1850s, Tampa remained a frontier outpost with less than 200 non-military inhabitants. The journey's route was from Saint Augustine to Picolata, to Palatka, and on to Tampa. Pacetty wrote in a reminiscence that they reached their destination "unmolested by Indians."
Pacetty had been raised in a climate of perpetual war between the United States and the Seminole—a collective name given to various groups of Native Americans and blacks who allied themselves with the Spanish as enemies of American expansion. In the War of 1812, the British had also recruited Natives and fugitive slaves as allies, creating a region of anarchy along the north Florida border. General Andrew Jackson became a national hero for victories against tribes in southern Georgia and Alabama. He then provoked an attack at the Negro Fort on the Apalachicola River, deep within Spanish territory in 1816.
American squatters and outlaws raided the Seminole, killing villagers and stealing their cattle. Seminole resentment grew and they retaliated in 1817 with raids into Georgia from Spanish-held East Florida. These attacks included an infamous massacre in Camden County, Georgia—Adolphus Pacetty's hometown—of a woman and her two young children.
President James Monroe believed that Pinckney's Treaty required Spain to restrain Native incursions, but he also saw Spain as a faded colonial power vulnerable to military pressure. With Jackson advocating outright invasion of the Floridas, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams negotiated a treaty with Spanish envoy Luis de Ónis y Gonzalez and the US took possession of Florida in 1819. This marked the tentative end to the First Seminole War, but it really just set the Natives up for the next round. With European barriers to US expansion all but gone, indigenous nations were the only obstacles in the path of manifest destiny.
Born in 1829, Pacetty was a child during the Trail of Tears and the Second Seminole War, which both sought to remove Native tribes from Florida all together. The war was declared over in 1842 with the remaining Seminole (about 300 people) left to live in an informal reservation in the southwest part of the state. The Florida Militia pursued Natives who were outside the reservation boundaries, but citizens were becoming disenchanted with the militia's effectiveness. Isolated attacks against white farms and villages led to pressure for the federal government to again take action. In August 1854, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis initiated a program to force the Seminole into a final conflict. The plan included a trade embargo, the survey and sale of land in southern Florida to European-American settlers, and a stronger Army presence to protect them.
By late 1855, there were more than 700 Army troops stationed on the Florida peninsula. On December 7, First Lieutenant George Hartsuff left Fort Myers with ten men and two wagons. They found only deserted villages, and on December 19, Hartsuff told his men that they would be retreating. As they loaded the wagons and saddled their horses the next morning, forty Seminole led by Billy Bowlegs attacked the camp. Several soldiers were shot, including Lieutenant Hartsuff. The Seminoles killed and scalped four men, killed the wagon mules, looted and burned the wagons, and took several horses.
Pacetty was still in Tampa that month when he was employed as a wagon master for the United States Army at Fort Brooke. He was sent to the frontier on special service to notify settlers of the Hartsuff attack, and to urge them to stockade themselves for protection.
The Army began unveiling a strategy for the war that included a system of forts built in a line across Florida, to allow patrols to move deep into Seminole territory. The idea was to confine the Natives to the Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades where they would be unable to live during the wet season. Commanders anticipated being able to catch the Natives when they left their flooded villages seeking dry land for raising crops.
Much of the task for the US Army was simply locating its enemy, let alone engaging the Seminole in battle. For many months, it was a high stakes game of hide-and-seek, with discovery not as important as keeping the Seminole constantly on the move. This flight would demoralize the Natives and hasten surrender, which was the anticipated outcome.
In 1857, ten companies of Florida Militia were taken into federal service, totaling almost 800 men by September. One of these was led by Adolphus Pacetty, who was ordered by Colonel John Monroe to organize boatmen to serve in the Everglades. Evidently, to attain the rank of Captain, Pacetty needed to recruit his own volunteers, and on July 27, he traveled as far as Jacksonville and Fernandina with an offer of forty or forty-five dollars a month for qualified sailors who would serve. Four men accepted on Pacetty's east coast mission, and on the march back to Fort Brooke, he enlisted two more. They mustered into the service as a volunteer boat company, which was given eight metal "alligator boats" built specifically for use in Florida's swamps. Thirty feet long, pointed at both ends, and drawing two to three feet of water, the boats could carry up to sixteen men into the swamps.
Pacetty next received an order from Colonel Gustavus Loomis, Commanding Officer at Fort Brooke, to proceed with his company to Fort Kissimmee, and take boats down the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee on a scouting mission. Beginning August 26, Pacetty's company scouted the west margin of the lake and cooperated with the cavalry in a search for Natives. The scout lasted forty-two days.
Late summer patrols in the Florida swamp were inhumane duty. Pacetty himself wrote: "And how can anyone imagine what these men suffered in this service, without tents nearby all of the time, for it was impossible to carry anything more than your ration and a tin cup to cook a little coffee at a time. On these scouts... most of the time we were wading in mud and water. At night we would have to cut saw grass and pile it up so as we could get out of mud and water to get a little rest. We were wet nearly all the time, and the men suffered from fever from their exposure. At one time, I had to stop on Observation Island ten or twelve days with fifteen of my men down with pneumonia. I had no doctor in my company but I had medicines with me, which I administered to the men with great success. It is impossible to describe the hardship and suffering that these men endured without a murmur of discontent, but ever-faithful performers of their duty."
Reaching Fort Center on Fisheating Creek, a barricade of cabbage-palm tree trunks, Pacetty found no Seminole on the lake, but signs of three burnt villages, one containing about sixty huts, and two more nearby containing about twenty huts each. These huts were east of Taylor Creek on the northeast corner of the lake.
Pacetty notified Colonel Samuel St George Rogers, who commanded the second district cavalry, that the trail suggested the Seminole had escaped toward the Big Cypress. Rogers placed five companies on the Caloosahatchee River with plans to move south as the ground between the river and the Big Cypress dried out. He ordered seventy-five to one hundred supply wagons to follow and support these companies, and sent three detachments to Lake Okeechobee to support Pacetty's boat party. He intended to penetrate the interior from the southwest coast.
Rogers arrived at Chokoloskee Island on November 18. The colonel was ill and was not able to participate in the first scouting mission. Instead, Captain John Parkhill led his men with Captain Richard Turner as his guide. They found a trail and followed it into areas not previously scouted. Parkhill discovered a large Native settlement of thirty buildings and forty acres of cultivated land including pumpkin, peas, potatoes, corn, and rice in Palm Hammock. He destroyed everything of value. On his second scout, he found two more villages of fifteen buildings and more cultivated fields. Again he destroyed everything. Then he found a large trail. Taking only six soldiers with him Parkhill walked into an ambush. The Captain died in the initial enemy salvo, and the men carried his body fifteen miles before burying him on the shore of the small lake.
In a reminiscence written many decades later, Pacetty described this action which he didn't witness: "[Rogers] took two or three of his companies, dismounted them at Fort Drum... and penetrated through the Big Cypress, enduring the most terrible hardships and suffering. They came upon Billy Bowlegs' town, which they entirely broke up, capturing several Indians and two of Billy Bowlegs' wives. In this skirmish Captain Parkhill was killed."
Despite the ambush, Rogers declared that he had found the Seminole homeland centralized in the Okaloacoochee Swamp. In Rogers' opinion, the destruction of almost two hundred acres of cultivated land left the Natives with two choices: gather for a last stand, or escape into the Everglades where they could not plant crops until the next growing season.
With many of his men's volunteer service expiring, and several others physically unable to continue, Rogers recommended mustering out his regiment and trying again with fresh troops. In January 1858, Pacetty received orders from his commanding officer to move his company from Lake Okeechobee to Fort Myers. They transported their boats and wagons from Fort Center to Fort Thompson on the Caloosahatchee River, then proceeded down river to Fort Myers. Pacetty was ordered to Fort Brooke, and there the company was mustered out on January 30.
Francis J Sweeny was one of the four sailors Pacetty recruited in Fernandina. He recorded that upon returning to Tampa, they were paid at a settler's store in Tampa by a man "of the name of Mr McKay, who kept the store. The captain was present at the same time." This contradicts Pacetty's own reminiscence that they were to be paid by the quartermaster. More importantly, it is an early reference to James McKay Sr, who played a mysterious role later in Pacetty's life. (see Under a Flag of Truce)
During all his years in Tampa, Pacetty engaged in an active civic. In February, 1856, he served as marshal for Tampa's first election under the city charter. He was employed later that spring as an expressman to carry dispatches from Fort Brooke on the Gulf Coast to Fort King in the central part of the state near Ocala. Natives had attacked this route and deterred the US mail. Pacetty later was a civilian foreman of a group repairing bridges from Fort Brooke to Fort Meade, which was possibly an aspect of the dispatch assignment.
Adolphus Pacetty was a member of the six-man Tampa City Council from February 1858-February 1859. A year later, he had moved—long enough to be counted in the 1860 Federal Census as a resident of Key West, Florida, where he was a painter. Again, he didn't settle in the keys, but he built up a community of friends there that would serve him in a future adventure.