seminolewar (seminolewar) wrote,

Chekika's Island / Hanging People

Every day, people driving along the Tamiami Trail west of Miami and east of Shark Valley unknowingly pass near the spot of one of the most brutal episodes during the 2nd Seminole War. Chekika's island hammock hideout. For military historians, this was also the location of what is considered one of the first Special Forces Operations in December 1840.

The Miccosukee stay away from there and don't visit the hammock island. According to Sturevant, in the Mikasuki language the place is called, "Yatcasaski," or "Hanging People." (Tequesta, 1953/Vol. 13, pg. 59.)

(Below) Chekika's Island can be seen in the distant right, as a fortress of trees. A hammock Island in the Everglades. It reminds me of the castle or fortress.

Chekika was known as the leader of the "Spanish Indians" fighting against the United States during the 2nd Seminole War. Much of the information that we know about him comes from John T. Sprague's "The Florida War." We don't have anything else on him other than his exploits for 18 months during the war. His physical description is only given as the tallest chief in the Seminole nation, and very strong.

For a long time, some people speculated that Chekika was a descendant of Calusa. Further investigation by Dr. John Worth seems to indicate that these Spanish Indians were a mix of Muskogee and Spanish. Miccosukee oral tradition says that Chekika was Miccosukee.

Chekika's few known exploits during the war were bold and vicious. From eyewitness accounts, he is known to have participated at the raid on the Caloosahatchee Trading Post on July 23, 1839, and the raid on Indian Key on August 7, 1840. Both were spectacular raids, brilliantly executed, killed several people, and the attackers made off with a lot of captured goods and supplies. With these two bold attacks, you would think that Chekika had experience with raids and ambushes in south Florida, like the brutal killing of the Cooley family or the attack on the Cape Florida lighthouse. We will probably never know if Chekika had any involvement with any other attacks during the war.

The attack on the Caloosahatchee trading post had among the third highest casualty rate of soldiers for all the battles during the war. Many of the 2nd Dragoon soldiers were killed before they could fire back, and those captured were tortured and killed. Lt. Col. William Harney seemed to be the target of the attack, but made his escape in his night clothes. After that, Harney was on a vendetta to track down and kill Chekika.

Lt. Col. William S. Harney was not the person you would want as an adversary. He was physically fit and would participate and win foot races out west. He was called by one of his contemporaries, "the finest specimen of manhood." His excellent skill and ability as a soldier and officer were contrasted by his quick temper and habit of carrying around a rope which he threatened to hang prisoners with if they didn't cooperate.

Below: William S. Harney later in life, as a major general. He missed out on the War Between the States and retired to Orlando. Andrew Jackson was a family friend--why are we not surprised?

After the destruction of the town on Indian Key, Lt. Col. Harney received approval from General Walker Armistead to lead an expedition in the Everglades to track down Chekika. In early December 1840, Harney left Fort Dallas with 90 soldiers of the 2nd Dragoons and 3rd Artillery in a fleet of canoes. A slave who was formerly prisoner of the Seminoles led the soldiers to the hideout of Chekika. Instead of wearing the hot & heavy wool uniforms, Harney's men dressed as Indians. General Armistead disapproved of Harney dressing his men as Seminoles, but this strategy worked. This expedition was considered one of the first Special Forces operations in U.S. Army history.

Below: Indian Key, from the photo gallery on the website for Indian Key State Park.

Within a few days the soldiers reached the island hammock hideout of Chekika. Because of the stealth and disguise, they took the hideout completely by surprise. Chekika was surrounded by the soldiers, and when he realized there was no escape, offered his hand to the nearest soldier. Chekika probably didn't realize that he was dealing with soldiers who were specifically hunting for him, and he was shot and killed instantly.

Below: I imagine that this area has not changed from what the soldiers saw in 1840, except for the modern, two lane highway about a mile away.

Chekika's death was one thing, but what happened next outraged the Seminoles. Harney hung Chekika's body from a tree, along with two other warriors who were captured and executed. This act enraged Sam Jones, who vowed to treat any white prisoners the same.

It is said that ever since this time, the Seminoles or Miccosukees refuse to visit this hammock in the Everglades.

In the book, "Batfishing in the Rainforest" by Randy Wayne White, he describes visiting the hammock with author Peter Matthiessen. Once there, they find a hunting camp occupied by the typical Everglades hunters and some pit bulls. The hunters confirm it is the correct hammock, but indicate that the hanging tree blew down in a storm a few years ago.

Below: Chekika's Island or Hanging People, in the center, background.

You can see Chekika's hammock from a distance. East of Shark Valley, in Everglades National Park. And just east of Buffalo Tiger's airboat rides on the eastern edge of the Miccosukee reservation. The Tamiami Trail crosses a bridge with a series of locks and canals.

The Valuejet memorial is on the opposite side of the highway, but I didn't even notice it because I was on my quest to look for Chekika's hammock. (Ironic that I pass up a larger memorial for the dead.)

On the southeast corner is a levee that follows along the canal. There is a locked gate here, so you have to park and walk down the levee ridge, which is identified as public access for Everglades National Park.

Seeing the hammock from a distance was enough for me. I was not about to walk through the foreboding sawgrass full of snakes and spiders.

Below: More endless areas of the Everglades, as Shark River Slough.


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