Freedom’s Just Another Word
for Nothing Left to Lose
–Kris Kristofferson, Me and Bobby McGee
(Note: Throughout this account, reference is made to “the Seminole tribe” for purposes of simplicity and convenience. Seminole is less a tribal identity traditionally recognized as such by Native Americans, than a grouping made by white people for practical purposes, describing an alliance formed by members of a variety of traditional Native American tribes, joined by a miscellany of those of African descent, all seeking refuge and the promise of safety in Florida’s wilderness during the same or overlapping time frames.)
IT WAS July of 1874. Mary Brickell, heart beating like a drum as she stepped mindfully upon the uneven and rocky ground and tree roots below, cradled infant daughter Maude in her arms as she made her way along a nearly forgotten old jungle trail deeper into the ancient, thickly forested hammock. She was only a few minutes distant from the family home, at Brickell Point, within the vast and unbroken span of ancient green forest that followed the bay’s shoreline all the way down to Cocoanut Grove from the river’s south bank, but might as well have been in another world.
She walked alone, and her intended destination was a nearby encampment of hostile and angry Seminole Indians, some well known to her and others come there from all over the State, in a common spirit of defiance and desperation. They had endured a great deal and were near the end of their rope, and there was no place further to run.
They were preparing for all-out war.
She could not have known exactly what to expect, and had certainly been given no guarantees as to safety, her own or the little life for which she was responsible. And neither had any promise of safe return been made. She was perfectly aware that some might call her actions “insane,” or even suicidal. But she had to go, even if she herself could not be completely sure as to the reasons. (She had certainly not been foolish enough, for one second, to ask for anyone’s permission.)
The deep woods surrounding were quiet and still, in fact unusually so, yet the Native people were almost certainly aware of her approach, having been alerted far in advance by the watchful scouts that moved through the deep woods so soundlessly, nearly invisible. They had reported the unusual sight, and the group awaited quietly and patiently her arrival. Some of those who had come may have glanced at one another, questioningly. “Did they say, ‘a white woman and her baby daughter?’” “Yes, that is what they said.” “Humh.”
“We know her. She is our friend. She is called Mary Brickell.” They knew her given name, of course, but had long since taken to addressing her with affection and respect as “Sister,” in much the same spirit as they knew her husband as “Chief.” Yet they must have all remained quite puzzled. A grim battalion of armed troops, the stink of mortal fear in their sweat, they might have expected, and been prepared for.
But why on Earth would Mary Brickell be coming here today, with Maude?
THAT summer, a near panic among the white settlers had seemed to fill the very air, a crescendo of heart-stopping anxiety as close and smothering as the heat. It had been only 16 years since the last of the dreadful guerilla attacks in the “Third Seminole War,” when no one had been safe, and the awful experience remained indelibly etched in the settlers’ memory. [To put the timeline in perspective, if Mary Brickell and her infant Maude were taking their walk today, the last attacks would have come in 1999.] The wily Indians kept appearing suddenly and from out-of-nowhere, uncannily when least expected, like vengeful ghosts that meant business, bearing weapons all-too real. When they materialized they had come only to kill, and in mere minutes, their awful mission accomplished, they’d disappear back into the Godforsaken jungle as completely as if they’d never come at all. The terrifying scenes of carnage and bloody mayhem left behind would forever haunt the unfortunates who first found them.
Both the killing and the surreal, sputtering militaristic responses to follow had all finally wound down, and a fair number of the Indians been either placed in rusty shackles and chained, or bribed for small amounts of cash to allow themselves to be taken away to “Indian Territory,” in “O-kla-ho-ma” or some other dismal place which they knew only was far, far away. They had learned also that the faces of any who had gone, would never be looked upon again.
But no treaty had been signed, and the most stubborn and willful Indians were still very much “out there.” And of that the settlers of the time were certain, because they saw them all with some frequency: heading up the Miami River toward town, in their dugout canoes laden with hides, pelts, and plumes to trade, or walking about on the streets, and sometimes even in the proper stores, exactly like white people!
They were hard to miss, in fact, a tall, stately, and dignified people, garbed in their distinctive clothing so brilliantly colorful. The women often wore strings of colorful beads around their necks, high enough to fix their heads stiffly upright, and on their dresses hung decorative hammered silver coins. And every single one of the men, it might be noted, always carried their rifles with them wherever they went. Loaded.
That summer, it had been 2 ½ years since Mary and the children had made their unforgettable first approach in from the Bay, on a schooner chartered in New York, toward that most picturesque spot where William had had a spacious house built for them by two fine carpenters brought down from back home, in Ohio, using building materials also shipped in. (Brickell and fellow traveler Ephraim Sturtevant, an acquaintance also living in Ohio (and the father of one Julia Tuttle) had first made the journey together down to the wilderness of “Bay Biscayne” in 1870, to have a look. They both liked what they saw, and, after considerable maneuvers clearing title, bought. Brickell acquired the entire bay front, and much of the land from the south bank of the Miami River on down through to Coconut Grove. He also picked up an additional 640 acres on either bank of the New River 30 miles to the north, at Fort Lauderdale. In all, he paid $3,500. for over 2,500 acres.)
That schooner had carried William and Mary, ages 46 and 35, respectively, children Alice, 14, Emma, 8, William, Jr., 6, Edith, 5, Charles, 3, and Belle, 2, a governess hired to help with the children, and a housekeeper.
In a sense, the Brickells brought culture to this beautiful but utterly removed region. The children received a fine education from the governess hired by the family in part for that purpose, and any children of school age within practicable distance were invited to attend “classes” without charge. In fairly short order, Brickell saw to the construction of a simple wooden building, to serve as a store vending to fellow settlers to the basic staples needed by truest pioneers for their kitchens and homes, and as a trading post for the Seminole.
William Brickell’s trading post was of huge importance to the entire history of the region, to follow. He was the first white man to establish commercial dealings with the Seminole, creating an invaluable new context for non-threatening, positive interaction. He conducted his business affairs with integrity and
respect, and in his dealings endeavored to pay fairly, and kept his promises. This alone was an extraordinary thing, but perhaps his greater contribution was something more simple. He was the first white man that many of the Seminole encountered who was not hell-bent on their destruction, and/or prone to employing any form of trickery available to achieve an unstated agenda of their utter displacement, and removal to God-only-knows where, cut off from the very roots they had put down in a strange and wonderful part of the Earth they had come to call “Home.” He gained in return their trust, always hard-earned, and staunch loyalty. The Brickells consistently remained good friends to, and effective advocates for, the tribe.
THE months before Mary Brickell’s quest had been very hard on her family. Tragically, young Emma had quite suddenly taken ill with spinal meningitis, and died on April 4, 1874, at the age of 10. Both father and mother were devastated, but William was hit especially hard. For reasons known only to the heart, he had always felt a special affinity for the child and adored her unreasonably, as she had him. When she took her last breath and her little soul flown heavenward, so had part of his. On the surface, he’d become bitter, with much of his anger focused (and understandably enough) on Henry Flagler. Yet in deeper truth he had suffered wounds more grievous by far, and closer to the very heart of him. Now, nothing else really mattered. William Brickell was known to laugh at times, and carry on with his legendary tall tales much like before, but in truth would never again feel “at home” on the Earth, despite its occasional comforts and endless intrigue. He would not rest until he might once again hold his Emma’s beautiful face between his large hands, and make her giggle as only he could, before covering her face with tiny kisses.
When he got the awful letter bearing the news, reported by his wife as best she could, in shaky hand, he happened to be away on business in Key West. As he read on, a nail was driven further into his heart, already shattered, as he learned that a feverish Emma had called out for him only moments before her little heart had taken its last beat. The fact had been intended to comfort him, but he was far beyond comforting. He immediately penned a reply, giving stern instruction that little Emma’s body was under no circumstances to be buried before his return. He had to say his own goodbyes, forever.
In the same letter, he was also informed of the surprising news that his wife had again given birth, on the very day of Emma’s death. He had known of Mary’s latest pregnancy, but fully expected to be there for the birth. Maude arrived prematurely, but both she and her Mother were pronounced healthy and well. The attending physician opined that the early onset of birth might likely have been triggered by the mother’s shock and grief.
SO, though the matter can be only the subject of speculation, it is possible that Mary Brickell had indeed been “mad with grief” upon setting out just after that noon hour to find the war party. And considering the timing of the event, little Maude might be seen as less a fragile burden, Mary’s responsibility to safeguard against an overwhelming Universe, than anchor keeping her spirit from simply floating out of her body, and forever elsewhere and away, for the sadness. If Emma’s loss had been catastrophe, Maude’s birth on the same day might at least be seen as a promise.
Years after the event, an adult Maude Brickell chronicled what she had learned of it. In an excellent book by Beth Brickell (no known relation), William and Mary Brickell: Founders of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, the author outlines the prelude to the meeting, and Maude’s account thereof:
Dr. Harry A. Kersey, Jr., who did extensive research about the relationship between the Seminoles and settlers for his book Pelts, Plumes, and Hides, noted that in 1872 the federal government considered sending a special agent to Florida to check on reports of unrest among the Seminoles. A year later, in 1873, word spread that the Seminoles were planning a revolt and were going to kill the whites. Panic spread among the settlers, and they prepared to abandon their homes and leave the area. Although the report turned out to be false, unease continued between settlers and Indians.
“Then, according to Maude’s sketch, soon after her birth in 1874, “the Indians were expected to go on a rampage… Indians from all over Florida met… south of the Brickell home… Mrs. Brickell, with Maude, a tiny infant in her arms, went out and met the Indian Chief Big Tom Tiger and talked to him and explained to them [that] Mr. Brickell was away and she was alone with the children. After a lengthy conversation, the chief promised Mrs. B. to go away and never return in a war against the whites. They never fought again.”
“Maude Brickell was rocked and petted by all the important Indians of her time. She was the first white baby that many of the Indians had ever seen. The Indians became staunch friends of the Brickells, coming to their home for food, medical attention and advice.”
No more is spelled out in Maude’s sketch, and in any event, she had been at the time but an infant. But the Seminole make their promises only with extreme care and in a spirit of greatest solemnity, because they always keep them. Exactly why their unusual meeting with Mary Brickell that day affected them so deeply as to promise an end of war, forever, is not at all clear. Yet it is certainly a wonderful question, and rich with possibilities.
But that Mary Brickell had stepped far beyond the realm of the known, or safe, and done so for the benefit of others, and thus in the truest and greatest sense played the part of hero, there may be no doubt.