John & Susan Simpson
Sat 18 Jun 2022 20:50
Years ago when we used to drive regularly up the M1 from the South to visit relatives in the North, we used to pass a sign somewhere near Derby proudly declaring ‘The National Forest’ and we used to laugh as there wasn’t a tree in sight! It was the dream of a group of people to restore land to nature that had previously been scarred by centuries of coal mining and heavy industry. The forest now covers 200 square miles in the Midlands and is the first forest to have been created in England for over 1,000 years.
Our drive from St Augustine to Ocala, Florida took us through the Ocala National Forest and we remarked on the contrast between the barren land that had amused us in the UK and what we were seeing all around us. The road was incredibly straight and tree-lined as far as the eye could see in all directions.
The road signs were a little different too and we eagerly looked out for bears over the next few miles. Sadly, we didn’t see any but did wonder about the preparations people must make to walk the national trails that also run through the forest!
In Ocala we visited Fort King and, although this didn’t have a direct British colonial connection and there wasn’t anything original to see, it turned out to be one of the most poignant historical sites we visited. Our first surprise was to find when we arrived at the Fort that the visitor centre is only open on Fridays and Saturdays. We were there on a Tuesday! However, there was a sign on the door saying ‘When this visitor centre is closed please feel free to walk around the fort’ and sure enough the doors were open.
The current structure is a reconstruction completed in 2017 consisting of a large square enclosed by a stockade fence and two guardhouses on opposite corners. The site is on top of the only discernible hill for miles around and had a freshwater spring so we could see why it was chosen.
Fort King, Ocala
Inside Fort King. If you look very carefully you can see John reading one of the information boards in the middle of the far wall, which gives you an idea of the scale.
The original Fort King was built in 1827 as a base for the US Army to manage relations between the native people (the Seminole) who were being relocated to a large reservation in Central Florida and the non-native settlers. The Seminole originally viewed Fort King positively as it offered them some protection in their new lands but it later became a target for attack as tensions mounted. The site was beautifully serene on the day we visited, sitting on the top of the hill surrounded by trees and with only birdsong to be heard despite its proximity to modern day Ocala. From the gates you could look out into the forest and imagine what it might have been like to be the US army regiments stationed there. The native people were able to take advantage of their superior knowledge of the land and environment in order to ambush the soldiers on the forest tracks, and the wooden forts could easily be burned. Even with the gates to the compound closed and the walls so high it was possible to see through the narrow slats between the tree trunks. It must have been terrifying to hear the Seminole warriors on the outside approaching to attack.
The saddest part of the narrative on the information boards related to the relocation of the Seminole people, who were made up of various Native American groups settled in Florida in the early 1700s. The Seminole established farms and a thriving trade network in northern Florida, later expanding the Seminole group to include slaves who had escaped from southern plantations in the late 1700s. After the newly formed United States acquired Florida from Spain the Seminole were moved out of their farmland in the north in 1823 to allow settlers to move in. Barely a decade later in 1832 another treaty required the Seminole to relocate from the central Florida reservation to present day Oklahoma. It seemed so unfair that, having been forced to leave their farmland behind once, the Seminole had little choice but to leave their new home again - either they complied or their lands were taken by force. Against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we couldn’t help but draw parallels between what is happening in the world now and the settlement of the Americas only a few hundred years ago.
After Ocala it was a short drive to Tampa Airport where we relinquished our hire car and began the next step of our US trip - the American Music tour - next stop would be Chicago for the Chicago Blues Festival 2022.