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Osceola's Wife?

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The recent issue of the magazine for the National Museum of the American Indian has an article that will probably generate speculation and discussion for years to come. In the Summer 2013 issue on page 38, is an article about a portrait that is proposed to be Osceola’s wife and son. Below is an image of the front cover of the magazine, and the page with the article.

NMAI cover - Copy

painting article - Copy

William Ryan from Flagler County has written several novels on the Seminole War. The past few years he wrote a novel of the capture of Osceola, “Osceola, His Capture and Seminole Legends.” (See below.)

osceola ryan book - Copy

The Osceola book is more in the style of a novel and has some historical inaccuracies. One thing that I think he does well is portray the attitude and feelings in 1837. But he is certainly commended for finding and trying to preserve the Osceola capture site near Moultrie Creek, Florida. I have heard that unfortunately the land has recently been purchased by a developer. If you want a copy of the book, you can order a copy of it at http://www.oldkingsroadpress.com .

While researching his Osceola Novel, Bill Ryan found in an 1848 issue of Illustrated London News, a lithograph or drawing of the copy of the painting in questions. The painting was supposed to be of Pocahontas, but the Illustrated sketch identifies it as Osceola’s wife Pe-O-ka, and son.

osceola wife newspaper - Copy

I am not really excited about this, and here is why.

The provenance of the painting is sketchy at best. We do not know who painted it or when. Art experts claim that it is in the style of the American school from the early 1800s, and that the painting might have been acquired in the U.S. and brought to England. Unfortunately there is still no way to verify this information; who painted it, when, where, or any information on the origin and where the painting came from.

osceola wife painting - Copy

In the early 1800s there were not many rules or copyright laws. Images were plagiarized and copied. Was the image in the Illustrated London News copying this image because they knew beyond a doubt that the painting was of Osceola’s wife? The information in the article is suspect for accuracy, especially since Osceola is called, “the last of the Seminole Indian Chiefs,” when this is certainly false.

So the shaky provenance, and the Illustrated article giving what we know is incorrect or embellished, casts doubt on the image.

Whoever were Osceola’s wives, their names, identities, or anything about them, has been lost to written history.

The next thing that casts suspicion is the style of clothing. It appears to be more of a style and time (with trade pins or broaches) that was more common about 60 years earlier than Osceola’s capture. The boy’s shirt is also an earlier style. This could still be a painting of a southeastern woman and child, but from an earlier time. From the few images we do have of Seminole women from the 1830s, and there are not many, their clothing is a totally different style, with a more Victorian style fashion covering up to the neck, and long sleeves. Seminole dress of the 1880s to early 1900s seems to be almost unchanged from the 1830s. The subject identified as Pe-O-ka does not wear a clothing style that is seen on any other Seminole woman appearing in images from the early 1800s to the early 1900s.

Below, plate F image, from "The Seminole Wars, 1818-58" by Osprey Publishing, Men at Arms Series, shows typical Seminole women's clothing from the Seminole War period to the early 1900s.

3sw capture osprey_0001 - Copy

So for the lack of information and the difference in style, I cannot get very excited about this painting. Unless more information surfaces to validate the authenticity, it will just remain a curiosity.

Of all that was written about Osceola around the time of his death and afterwards, there has been more folklore and fables written than actual fact. Osceola was a folk hero in the newspapers from the time of his capture. For any historical fact, I would only trust first-hand sources of actual eyewitnesses. Anything less that cannot be verified will only perpetuate myth. Newspapers have Osceola fighting in the 1836 Creek War or credited with other deeds that he could not have possibly done.

Now I know that this is not exactly hard historical research and more along the lines of soft science, but there are oral histories from Seminoles and descendants of Osceola. One story is that the women and children that artist George Catlin says were at Osceola’s deathbed were not actually Osceola’s wives, but they were his sisters or clan sisters. In a matrilineal culture, the families and relations are different than what we are familiar with. Saying that they were Osceola’s wives when they were really his sisters was an accepted cultural practice within this culture. Osceola’s children would not be counted as his direct descendants--The children of Osceola’s sisters would be considered as Osceola’s direct descendants. Even recently in Seminole society, the aunts and uncles had the responsibility of teaching or disciplining the children.

Could this painting still be Osceola’s wife? It could be. There is just no way to say for certain, and there are conflicting things surrounding it.
Current Location:
the hammock
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On June 18th, 2013 11:50 pm (UTC), Bill Ryan commented:
Osceola Portrait from Bill Ryan
Did much research on Col. John H. Sherburne who had been sent by the Secretary of War - to contact Osceola and settle the dispute. Sadly he arrived too late. Later he wrote a play about the event which appeared in several theatres in the U.S. He certainly did travel to England as reported in the English newspaper. The museum people had connections to the Royal Galleries and could find no record of such a painting being submitted. They never secured dating on the work, which they believed was from the 19th century sort of ruling out Pocahontas era. Same basic time period young boy Osceola Nickanochee was being presented on English stage as nephew of Osceola by a Dr. Andrew Welsh. Since artist Catlin was exhibiting around same time period I asked if it could be his. Several art experts told me no. So still a mystery. News story existed, Col. Sherburne definately had connect with Osceola, he was also a writer and a bit of a promoter too. I tried with no success to obtain copy of his play.
So it makes a great story, and I love stories! Bill Ryan
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On June 19th, 2013 12:49 am (UTC), Bill Ryan commented:
Seminole Dress and other things
Your illustration of attire is dated 1856 - if you look at Mr. Catlin's book of Indian portraits from time of Osceola capture, the dress does not resemble the traditional Seminole clothing of today. (it appears that many wore "white man's" clothing of the period.) Would be happy to share the old Catlin book.

"Osceola Capture Site" is sad affair. I have large amount of information and research plus actual period maps drawn by Mr. Masters who was "a chainman" and surveyer and who was present at the event. Mr. Held, the son of the original property owner, shared much of his information with me. The location in on three important Indian trails "Moccasin Branch"
Trail to Palatka and intersection with Old Kings Road. We have information as to location of Seminole camp, and then where Osceola met the army which was about 500 yards north of the camp site. Sadly after many many tries we could not get the attention of any "historians" to look at what we had. As you reported I do believe the land was sold for unpaid taxes and most definately is at risk of vanishing.

The book "Osceola" was mainly written to protect and gain recogition of the site. I worked from original documents and maps but of course it may have some errors. Would love to know which ones so as to correct. I found that many documents of the time did conflict, and I entered what I believed to be true.
Thank you for the mention
Bill Ryan
p.s. books are available at http://www.oldkingsroad.com
whereby there is also much video.
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On June 19th, 2013 01:10 am (UTC), Bill Ryan commented:
Osceola portrait and capture site
Osceola "capture site" south of St. Augustine is sad affair. Thanks to Mr. Held, son of original land owner, I acquired much data and maps. One is survey done by Mr. Masters who was "chainman" and also present at capture. It shows several important Indian trails intersecting at two fresh water lakes where we believe Osceola party camped (also much supporting data from letters of the time). About 500 yards north on Old Kings Road is a stone marker, probably about 1916 era and identical to stone marker at Fort Peyton further north on Old Kings. "Osceola" was written primarily to gain attention to this historical location, and perhaps save it as you mentioned. Sadly we could not have "historians" look or examine what we had and the latest information I have is the site was sold on a tax sale (per Mr. Held) and is at great risk. The "Osceola family portrait" mysteriously appeared while I was doing the book. I did work from original documents and maps which often conflict so if anyone finds inaccuracies I am sure they are there, and would love to have them to make corrections.
The original portrait appeared on the Front Page of the St. Augustine newspaper and also in the British Museum newsletter. Artist Catlin also wrote about seeing "Osceola's wife and young son." After publishing the story and picture, Col. Sherburne certainly was an eye witness to Osceola in St. Augustine. We did much searching for his play and book which was supposed to be written, but never could find it.
As you mention Osceola was never "A Chief" of the Seminoles but was of course a great War Leader.
p.s. books are available at http://www.oldkingsroad.com
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On June 20th, 2013 09:32 pm (UTC), seminolewar replied:
Re: Osceola portrait and capture site
Thanks; I did put the link above. I think that one thing the book hits the mark is the attitude of how the Seminoles think about Osceola's betrayal and capture.
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On June 20th, 2013 09:43 pm (UTC), seminolewar replied:
Re: Osceola portrait and capture site
The biggest disagreement among descendants of Osceola (descended from his sisters, and therefore considered direct descendants of Osceola in a matrilineal society.) have mentioned to me about Catlin saying that those were Osceola's wives and sons. They say that they were really Osceola's sisters or clan sisters, and it was the social custom to refer to them as his wives. There is more about his family and descendants that I will not mention, because some things just need to be laid to rest. When I get as much information as I do, it is not always what people want to hear.
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