A Quick Stop at Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park

Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park chickee hut picnic pavilion with Ellie standing in front of it

On my drive home from West Palm Beach, I decided to make a quick stop at Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park.

Florida’s State Park system is one of the best in the country. It’s extensive, it’s varied, and it protects so much land that is environmentally or historically significant. Overall, my experience with the Florida State Park service has been nothing short of phenomenal. I want to say all of that here, because my thoughts on this particular state park are relatively negative.

At the time, this was the 3rd Florida state park I’d visited, but I’ve since been to 24 state parks here, so I know that this bad experience was an outlier.

On this visit, I saw everything in 30 minutes, and the only reason it even took that long is because I ate a picnic lunch there.

Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park is very small, and honestly pretty underwhelming.

Here are my impressions from the park. (Keep in mind that this visit was a year ago. I’m not sure if any improvements have been made in the time since!)

Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park entry sign

Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park

The Okeechobee Battlefield is small (or at least the part of it that is preserved as a state park). You can easily see most of the property from the parking lot.

There are 2 structures on property, both right next to the parking lot.

Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park chickee hut picnic pavilion

The first is the picnic pavilion, which is a Seminole chickee hut made from cypress logs and palmetto fronds.

The second structure is the bathroom. It seems silly to highlight this as a main feature of Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park, but it was nice, new, and clean!

Nature of Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park

Wildlife is scarce. 

The ground cover is mowed grass (probably non-native), and although their website states that the park is home to many species of birds (black-bellied whistling ducks, pileated woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, wood storks, ibis, osprey, bald eagles and crested caracara), I don’t think sightings would be particularly common, given the lack of plant biodiversity. 

Black vulture at Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park

I did see some black vultures in the grass at the edge of the property on my visit.

This is definitely a site that is protected because of its historical value more than anything.

History of Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park

Despite the small size of this park, Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park is located on a portion of land that was the site of a huge historical event.

The historical messaging at the park is relatively scarce and only exists on bulletin boards.

  • Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park
  • Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park
  • Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park
  • Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park
  • Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park
  • Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park
  • Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park
  • Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park

However, a visitor can gather some of these main points:

  • The battle that took place here on December 25th, 1837, was the biggest and most brutal of the battles that took place during the Second Seminole War.
  • About 800 men fought under Colonel Zachary Taylor, 25 of whom were killed and 111 of whom were wounded. A brochure lists the names of officers who were killed. Their goal was to “drive all Indians from Florida.”
  • The Seminoles were led by Chiefs Wildcat, Alligator, and Sam Jones, and their army’s losses are unknown; however, they did suffer fewer casualties.
  • Zachary Taylor claimed victory after the Seminoles fled near the end of the bloody battle, but the Seminole soldiers had successfully stopped Taylor’s army long enough for the rest of their tribe to escape to safety in the Everglades.
  • The coontie plant—Florida’s only native cycad—can be found around the site markers. This plant is the host plant for the rare atala butterfly larvae and was also used by the Seminoles, who were able to process the toxins out of it to make it edible.
Coontie plant at Dr Phillips Community Park in Orlando
  • Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park was established as a state park in 2006 and opened to the public in 2015.
  • The park seeks to “educate the public on National, Florida, and Seminole history.”

Based on the sparse signage, my guess is that the primary education that comes from this park occurs around the battle reenactment that takes place each February. On my visit, I did not feel like the educational component was very strong.

Additional history

The website does contain more detailed information. Here are a few things that I think would have been worth including somewhere in the park’s signage about the battle:

  • There were 380-480 Seminole and Miccosukee Indians, whose leaders included Holata Micco (aka Billy Bowlegs), Arpiucki (Sam Jones), Halpatter Tustenuggee (Alligator), and Coacoochee (Wildcat).
  • The Seminoles were extremely well-versed in using the land to their advantage before and during the battle, while Zachary Taylor’s army didn’t know how best to work within this habitat.
  • Varying from the in-park signage, the website states that “Twenty-eight soldiers were killed and 112 wounded, and many of the wounded died of injuries soon after,” although it doesn’t clarify if this is only from the one side or if it includes the Seminole losses as well.
  • The Seminoles had few losses, whereas Taylor lost 1/3 of the first reserve of soldiers he sent in. Taylor’s men were able to capture 100 horses and 600 cattle that the Seminoles left behind.
Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park open field
  • “It’s unknown if the warriors dragged bodies off when they escaped but there were only 12 Seminole bodies found in the hammock. From interviews and stories many years later, some of the native participants of the battle stated that another 11 warriors were wounded. The Seminoles and Miccosukees drove their families and meager belongings deeper into the Everglades, where an estimated 300 of the original 3,000 would hide on remote islands for the next decade or longer.”
  • This battle is what gave Zachary Taylor the status as an American hero and led to him becoming president.
  • Years after the battle, Holata Micco (Billy Bowlegs) visited Washington and on being escorted through the buildings of the Capitol and viewing many statues and paintings, he suddenly halted before a portrait of Zachary Taylor, grinned and exclaimed, “Me whip!”

Furthermore, there was some interesting information on the chickee hut that stood as a picnic pavilion at the park. The website mentioned some of the details about the history of the huts as well as the fact that the structure itself will last about a decade but needs to be re-thatched every 5 years.

“Several Seminole tribal members make a living building custom chickees for both commercial and private interests. Seminoles of Florida designed and manufactured the chickee hut at the battlefield.” 

My qualms

I personally took issue with some of the phrasing on the signage that did (and did not) exist at Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park. 

A brochure about the fortification of Florida described the state as “an unexplored wilderness” at the time of the Seminole Wars; that is incorrect because it erases the fact that the Seminoles would have explored the wilderness and known it well.

Several places heaped praise on the fighters, and it is unclear if they are talking about a specific side or about the fighters on both sides. One sign said, “The Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park is truly hallowed ground on which the great patriots and warriors who so valiantly fought in this battle are honored and memorialized with the dignity they so richly deserve.” To me, this reads as praising the soldiers fighting under Zachary Taylor as much as—if not more than—the Seminole soldiers. 

There is no suggestion anywhere that it was wrong of anybody to be trying to force the Seminoles off their land, so I personally feel like this site has not “honored and memorialized” the Seminoles “with the dignity they so richly deserve.”

The signage that existed at this park really seemed to place a lot of emphasis on the white army and left out a lot of information about the Seminoles.

Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park chickee hut picnic pavilion

Another addition to the bulletin board signage that might be beneficial is the contact information for the Seminole members who make the chickee hut, as a way to potentially steer interested parties in the direction of spending their money in a way that benefits the descendants of the Seminoles who were kicked off their ancestral lands.

Perhaps I’m being overly critical. The signage did briefly indicate that the Seminole Tribe of Florida is involved in preserving the history at Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park.

On a lighter note, another critique I have of this park is that it doesn’t feel like it provides much value on a standalone visit outside of the annual reenactment. It would be great to see events such as a weekly ranger-led presentation on the history.

The takeaway

Ultimately, I’m really glad that I didn’t go out of my way to visit this state park and was able to easily cross it off my list on a road trip that had me in the area anyway.

Would I recommend others visit this place? Not unless you have a strong interest in this piece of history (or are like me and are trying to visit every state park in Florida). I would recommend reading up on the Seminole Wars, though, if this post is the first time you’re hearing about it in any detail.

The one exception to my recommendation would be the annual reenactment. Since I haven’t attended, I don’t know for sure whether it’s recommendation-worthy, but I do think it would leave more of an impression than simply showing up at the park on any other day, reading information on the bulletin board, and looking around the property for a few minutes. If you go, let me know how it is!

Did you know about the Seminole Wars? Would you want to visit a site like this?

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