FORT PIERCE, Fla. – The ancient fort this central Florida city is named for burned down more than a century ago. And in a considerable irony, since Fort Pierce was built to keep American Indians out, its site is now watched over by a mound containing the remains of some of the area’s original inhabitants.
The burial mound, used by the Ais tribe before they died out around 250 years ago, rises about twenty feet above the base of Old Fort Park, a peaceful place which marks the site of Fort Pierce, built during the Seminole Wars and named after the brother of a future President – Franklin Pierce.
It is several hundred feet around, and a series of stone steps takes visitors to the top of the mound, which is close enough to the railroad tracks that they can hear the trains that take Florida citrus north. The Indian River, named after the Ais, flows by within sight, and the park is reached from Indian River Drive.
And although the Ais died out before the fort was built, and before the Seminoles migrated south from Alabama and Georgia, the survival of their structure compared to the vanishing of the soldiers’ fort seems a silent testimony to true permanence.
According to the St. Lucie County Historical Museum, the Ais were one of many tribes, consisting of several hundred thousand people, that lived in Florida prior to first contact with Ponce de Leon and the Spanish in 1513.
This was the southernmost point of their territory, which ranged north to Cape Canaveral and west to St. John’s River.
They were not farmers, but hunter/gatherers. They collected food like sea grapes, coco plums, sea oats and palm berries. They hunted deer and other game, and fished with hooks they made out of the toe bones of the deer.
Like the rest of Florida’s tribes, such as the Timucua, the Apalachee and the Pensacola, the Ais were decimated by foreign contact. Although the Spanish Governor of Florida in 1597 described them as the most populous tribe he had seen, they were gone by the 1740s according to the museum’s exhibit on the First Floridians and its Web site. Aboriginal people had lived in the state for 12,000 years.
Ais artifacts that survive include pottery shards, projectile points, and stone and shell implements, plus some written accounts and drawings of them made by Europeans.
Englishman Jonathan Dickinson, captured by the tribe in 1696 after a shipwreck, wrote about “the Indian town, being little wigwams made of small poles stuck in the ground, which they bended one to another making an arch, and covered them with thatch of small palmetto leaves.” Their town was said to be on an island four or five miles north of Fort Pierce Inlet, possibly North Hutchinson Island.
After the Ais died out, Seminole Indians of Creek ancestry populated this area, fighting three wars with the United States before being resettled in Oklahoma. Fort Pierce, according to the museum, was built in 1838 and was abandoned in 1842 at the end of the second Seminole War, burning down the following year. Besides Commander Benjamin Pierce, brother of the president, a young William Tecumseh Sherman served there.
The museum also has an exhibit on the Seminoles, who now have six reservations in the state, including a tiny, 50-acre one in Fort Pierce. Today’s Seminoles, recognized as a tribe in 1957, are the descendants of those that retreated into the Everglades to avoid the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma.
Their women were noted seamstresses, using hand-cranked sewing machines as early as the late 1800s to develop the famous appliqu? and later patchwork style of clothing. The women wore patchwork skirts, capes, and multiple layers of beads around their necks, while men’s clothing evolved from the old-style “long shirt” to the classic big shirt style.
Their ceremonials included a Green Corn dance, which included a stickball game and dancing with dance regalia featuring rattles that could be made out of turtle shells
The famous Seminole “chickee” style of house was thatched against the rain, made of sturdy cypress raised from the ground against snake intrusion, and featured open walls for ventilation. Sofkee, a soup-like liquid, was eaten with a communal spoon.
According to the exhibit clans today that live on the 90,000 acres under Seminole control include the Panther, Bear, Deer, Bird, Snake, Wind and Big Town.