THE HISTORY OF
FORT COOPER STATE PARK
With the 1823 Treaty of Moultrie Creek, the U.S. Government granted 20 years of protection and care for the Indians who were then required to occupy certain reservation lands in what is now known as central Florida. Confrontation occurred when the promises outlined in this 1823 Treaty, the 1832 Paynes Landing and 1833 Fort Gibson Treaties were broken.
In December of 1835
Florida’s Seminoles, smouldering with resentment, frustration, anger and finally full-blown hatred because they felt that they had been deceived, manipulated and that treaties had been broken with them, resorted to warfare against the military forces of the U.S. Government.
On December 28, 1836
Under the leadership of Chiefs Micanopy, Alligator, and Jumper, the Seminoles ambushed and massacred a detachment of U.S. Regulars commanded by Brevat Major Francis Dade as they were marching north from Fort Brooke (Tampa) to Fort King (Ocala). There were 108 men in the detachment, of which only 2 survived. On the same day, Osceola and his warriors attacked and killed U.S. Indian Agent Wiley Thompson at Fort King (Ocala).
On January 1, 1836
Shocked at the Seminole’s successes, President Andrew Jackson put his most experienced officer, Major General Winfield Scott, in charge of the war. Jackson gave him everything he requested – even the navy and marines were brought in. Nearby states were called upon to raise volunteer armies. By the time Scott was ready to begin his campaign, he had over 5,000 men at his disposal. Scott had an ambitious plan to capture the Seminoles in a three-way vice grip and eliminate them from their stronghold known then and now as the Cove of the Withlacoochee (100 plus square miles of pine forest, hardened hammock, lakes, swamp and river). Over the course of the next few months, General Clinch, Gaines and Scott, as well as territorial governor Richard Call, led a large number of troops in pursuits of the Seminoles, which soon proved futile. In the meantime, the Seminoles struck throughout the state, attacking isolated farms, settlements, plantations and Army forts and even burning the Cape Florida lighthouse!
On April 2, 1836
Major Mark Anthony Cooper commanded approximately 300-380 men. They included five companies of the First Georgia Volunteers, plus an artillery company of a few Regulars and a cannon. He was ordered to set up defenses, erect a block house and picketing, establish a post of observation and hold his position until relieved. The fortification was built on the west bluff of Lake Holathlikaha – an historic spring-fed lake used as a source of water and a site to camp dating back to the pre-Columbian era. Such relief was not forthcoming until April 18th. In the interim, under constant daily Indian attack, by Major Cooper’s order, alternate Companies “sallied forth” outside the picket “to detect and dispel Osceola and his warriors” who were attempting to get the battalion to fire its cannon and thereby expend its powder supply.
Major Cooper’s command held its position of defense and attack under heavy fire from the Indians during what turned out to be the longest single, continual battle of General Scott’s Second Seminole War Campaign. Due to Major Cooper’s vigilant leadership during the two week siege, the Georgia Battalion sustained about 20 men wounded with but one man lost, Coronet Zadoc Cook, of the Morgan Guards Company. In his report to the U.S. War Department concerning his Campaign, General Scott recorded that “Major Cooper’s command was the only command that sallied outside their breastworks to attack and drive the enemy”.
Fort Cooper was utilized as a reconnaissance, observation and dispatch post until 1842 by various U.S. Army detachments directed by the U.S. War Department with “positive orders given to penetrate the strongholds of the Withlacoochee Cove to capture and destroy everything calculated to give strength or sustenance to the enemy”.
The Unconquered Seminoles
The Battle of Fort Cooper was of significant military importance. It impressed Chief Osceola (the most famous Seminole who lived in the Cove of the Withlacooche) and tribal chiefs that the Cove of the Withlacoochee was not invincible or defensible from effective military tactics. Nevertheless, due to the continued inefficiency of the U.S. Command, it took almost six years of indecisive encounters before the Indians finally vacated the Cove area and joined their resistance down the Southern Florida peninsula.
The Seminole’s effort to expend the powder supply of Fort Cooper had failed. When the relief column arrived they found the garrison extremely short of provisions. The men had “subsisted for some time on two and a half ounces of meat per diem with flour in proportion” but they had ample gun powder supply remaining
The U.S. War Department and the Florida Command erroneously thought the War would be short. However, it lasted over seven years. In terms of lives lost and money expended the Seminole Wars were the costliest of all American Indian War conflicts.
Measurements of the Fort’s Walls:
South Wall 213.25 feet with 326 recorded posts
West Wall 201.8 feet with 132 recorded posts
North Wall 255.9 feet with 177 recorded posts
East Wall 223.1 feet with 16 recorded posts
Construction utilized small white pine and laurel oak logs 5-10 inches in diameter which were irregularly staggered to chink the gaps of the vertical picketing.
Extensive archaeological work has been done in the recent past at Fort Cooper State Park. Archaeological excavation work was done in September of 1971 by the Bureau of Historic Sites and Properties, under the direction of Frank B. Fryman Jr., with the assistance of John H. Eden, Jr., previous owner of this land before State acquisition. During this excavation period, the outside perimeters of the Fort were located and defined as being of native woods, hand hewn from timbers in the immediate area. Post molds and stains were observed and photographed at a level of 18 inches from the present surface ground level. Artifacts found included a metal cup, handforged nails, twists of wire, and numerous rifle balls of .50 caliber smooth bore and .31 caliber rifled bore types. As part of the preparations for establishing a state park on this 704 acres of preserved land, a second archaeological excavation took place in 1975, supported by federal and state funds of $20,000. The Fort itself was found to occupy a space of approximately one acre and located approximately fifty yards from the west shore of Holathlikaha Lake.
During the latter half of the 19th century, turpentine operations took place in this area and on this property. Clay and metal pots used in the extraction of sap from timber are still found today.
The remnants of an “Old Millitary Road” can still be seen here as well as at Fort Foster, Dade Battlefield, and other areas under State ownership. The trail was utilized by Indians, settlers, soldiers, and turpentiners for many years, as well as by cattlemen of later periods. This trail is of scenic as well as historical value and should be kept in mind during any development of this area.
AN HISTORICAL ACQUISITION
The Florida State Park Service acquired ancestral property from the Betty and John Eden, Jr. family in 1970. John (1921 – 2009) and Betty, along with their family and friends, were the unofficial “volunteers” in the early days of creating the Park. Thanks to them and their continued support we are able to enjoy the preservation of this historical site.
Fort Cooper State Park officially opened to the public in 1977. The Friends of Fort Cooper were formed and incorporated March 17, 1989. The Friends of Fort Cooper, Inc. supports the Florida State Park Service Mission, “to provide resource-based recreation while preserving, interpreting and restoring natural and cultural resources”.