A 19th Century Florida Woman

Copyright 1999 Theresa Ann White


This is an excerpt from a work in progress. The character of Rebeckah is based on a woman who lived in East Florida during a span crowded with violence, epidemics, fires, slavery, shenanigans and profound cultural and political shifts. Rebeckah lived among this turmoil and long stretches of isolation for 67 years, outliving three husbands and nine of her 12 siblings. She was a survivor.

Late 1803

The Spanish have let us alone. After dragging us into San Agustin and forcing us to witness a mockery of a trial for our "offense", they decided we had no money, little land and that no punishment was available to enrich the Catholic church. They opened the city gates, pushed us forward and turned their backs. Our crime was common enough for protestants: John and I married in Georgia before a justice of the peace rather than before a priest in the old city. Our life resumes, though I shall always taste my bitterness.

We are near the banks of the San Juan river at the opening of a wide creek. After a full day of unabating heat, I pray for a clap of thunder that announces a storm. The rain washes the air. The landscape is clean; the atmosphere is calm. I sit in the makeshift wraparound porch in the one good chair. My babe nestles into her cotton basket and sleeps with peace. The showers invigorate me. I begin dreaming and scheming. I look to the day when I am truly free but for now I have my responsibilities.

The trees here are immense. Towering oaks that branch out majestically. I walk beneath them and am awed. I wonder: how many human foot prints came before me? few, I surmise. The birds are wild with their noises and at almost any time of day, they are busy. The blue jays are vivid against the shady limbs and their pursuits seem sentinel, flying from post to post, keeping a blackberry eye to the ground below. The mock birds are truly gifts of these forests and I understand why the Greek collects them but do not advocate his sale of these soldiers. Their throats are full of song and entreaty, halloos and good-days to you, sung in a myriad of languages. They control the tempo of the woods. When awake and singing, it is a celebration. When absent, creature sounds ebb and flow with chirrups and strange insect noises audible.

John built us a dwelling that withstands the heavy rain and gusting winds that originate with the ocean in the summer. The storms are fearsome. I have seen turtles fly through the air during these summer disturbances. He is surprisingly resourceful if the endeavor moves him, and building our home was such a project. He fancied the Menorcan houses built of crushed shell, and entertained me with tales of their fortress-like strength and their repute for cool interiors during the hottest of days. But John scuttled the idea. He realized just how complex a problem was involved in transporting the cochina shell across the pitiful tracks leading from San Agustin which some dare to call roads. Finally, he surveyed his own acreage and made use of the resources in our backyard. We have a bark cabin crafted from native oak and pine.

I find this place so different from St. Marys. The sea is not so faraway and yet it is as if it were in another country. I miss the inhalation of brine on my palate. When the air hangs without movement, and the heat is heavy and still, clinging to vine and tree, I long for the Atlantic breeze. My heart yearns for the sight of white sands and dancing waves, the rushing of the water upon the shore, the brisk air that splits the heat. I miss my home so dreadfully much.

There are few inhabitants between St. Marys and San Agustin. This land has the feel of ghosts lingering about it. Walking through the woods, along the banks of the river San Juan, I try to imagine the sight and sound of the brave natives who decorated their bodies and drank their dark brew and smoked their long pipes. Most were slaughtered by the Spanish along with their French friends - Ribaut's colony. A chill sprinkles out along my forearm sometimes when I think too long about those tragedies. John looks sideways at me when I mention the history of the river. He was not overly educated by his father. The world through his eyes is understandable and limited. He does not question. I have noticed that about my husband; he is accepting to the point of mediocrity. He complains about his empty belly, his empty cups and his empty bed. When those are sated, John Rechart is a contented man.

My Menorcan friend who ferries the few travelers across the river tells me of the time of the British. The rich earth I daily tread once was the grounds of a considerable settlement called Johns Town. It amazes me that transfers of allegiance and removals of whole towns happened within a fortnight, at the swift signing of a treaty. Tokens of this displaced civilization rise from their terrestrial grave. Orange-corroded metal fragments from the smithy are buried at the base of a spreading lantana. Nearby, a mounded rubbish heap is prolific in its finds. My hoeing there inadvertently revealed a syringe and medicinal vials, straps of crisp leather; dented tankards with extant family crests; logging chains; broken hinges and a panoply of grimy remains. Down river at the bluff where the French fort stood guard, emerges the outlines of a large log structure. My Menorcan friend says the settlement of Johns Town included a meeting hall for freemasons and most of my neighbors today are convinced this was the lodge.

I am lonesome for my family, my brothers and sisters. I miss the chatter and the hubbub, the news from afar. Mother understands. Father dismisses my complaints and tells me in his brief way to assume womanhood and submit to life's offerings whether or not I find pleasure. Indeed, my pleasure is the least important consideration in his mind as well as my husband's. I think all men must be the same, viewing women for their value, using them for procreation, for nothing more than free labor and not much more than the vehicle of their own immortality - as if a man meant anything in these days and places!

By midday the ground was soggy wet. Thunder roared somewhere low and miles to the west. Rebeckah held the baby snugly to her bosom and rocked. This May day was bloated with wetness. From the front porch, Rebeckah listened to the repetitive splattering from eaves to leaves, the shrieks of blue jays angry at a marauding cat. She heard the peripheral melodies of frog and cricket jamming the air raucously, their voices bending the cool, clean air. The hens out back were chittering, waking from their huddled slumber. Her faithful dog, Star, statuesque and quiet, stretched her forepaws across the plank floor and yawned widely, red tongue lolling to one side of her long jaws. She busied her nostrils with fresh scents. The mongrel adopted Rebeckah when she arrived the year before. It took only the slightest show of friendliness to persuade her to accept the dog's company. Rebeckah was one of the few in the area who was inclined toward these animals. Most settlers ignored dogs to the point of starvation or worse, used them as shooting targets or for bait.

Rebeckah pumped the chair back and forth while Betsey slept pink-faced at her breast.

What peace, she thought. What beauty. Surely there can be no greater meaning to life than this perfect calm, this perfect clean earth, this quiet magnificence.

This scene of verdant tree and budding flower was a good enough for her. She worshiped the natural realm like a pagan. No one, she believed, could live amid that world and not comprehend this fundamental logic: the idea that it gave life, that its cycles were meaningful not random. She knew that the air, the rain, the soil and its fruits gave sustenance to those two-legged, pompous characters who would flee from cloud burst and bolt, who would curse lightning's flame, fear the mighty ocean currents and who would daily demand more and insist upon giving less. Her father, like most neighboring farmers, questioned the prodigiousness of each harvest as if he in some wise way were an accurate predictor of what was sufficient and what was too sparse a crop.

"Not nearly enough maize," he cried. "When will the tomatoes bud? Why is the earth so stingy, so tardy?"

The fowl were not spared. Hens must be more generous with their eggs, turkeys ought to grow fat and juicy. His oxen were never brutish enough. The fields of corn were disloyal, refraining from full harvest, somehow deftly diverting the extraordinary ration. Rebeckah wondered if her father had ever reckoned her mother with an eye to productivity: how many deliveries before her well evaporated, before her soil became barren, before her usefulness ended? Truly, he viewed her mother as significant only when her belly squirmed with embryonic life. Now that her mother no longer produced, what was her value? It was disturbing to believe a woman's worth was relegated to the nine month long task of reproducing.

Rebeckah grimaced. During 15 years of marriage, her mother had birthed a dozen heirs to the Hart clan. Two were enough for her. The thought alone of more children was undesirable. She was not a stable animal and though she loved her mother, she vowed she would not perpetuate that function. Rebeckah was not a breeder. She would be a mother - a good one, loving and strong - not some weak woman who spent her days nursing and vomiting and waiting for the next cycle of birth and death.

Her rocking continued. She selectively ignored the contradiction in her last thought. For what was more natural than the cycle of beginnings and endings? Betsey moved gently inside the quilted blanket. Rebeckah rhythmically stroked her daughter's head, shaping the soft bones into an ovate outline. In time, Betsey's body would grow. Young men would pursue her and Rebeckah would be certain that the eyes of these suitors pivoted to her daughter's perfectly rounded head. For now, her shaping motion was partly intentional and partly habit. The constant movement enticed sleepy contentment, a smile widened across her baby's face.

Rebeckah had time to think today. Time away from wakeful babies, from constant care and daily fretting. My life will be different, she vowed. It's a fresh world out there. I will craft my time here. There will be joy and satisfaction and laughter and love. And quiet moments. Rebeckah was bright. She was resourceful. And she was determined. Life was just beginning. It was eighteen hundred and six in the year of her unnamed pagan god. Nothing would restrain her.

December 1841

Rebeckah walked out of the rough wooden cabin, onto Sara Murphree's porch, surveying the horizon. She thought she saw a patch of red in the distance, near a stand of pines. But the afternoon sun was bright and played tricks on the eyes. She discarded the illusion and turned to Sara.

"Well my dear, take care of yourself while Gerald is away. Calvin said to expect their return sometime New Year's Day. I am just a few moment's ride if you have a need before then."

"Thank you Rebeckah. I have provisions to last. Domingo brought salted herring and a few supplies with him." She turned toward the heavily-muscled, olive skinned man and smiled. "I am blessed by such good friends."

"Well give a holler if you need anything at all, even if you fancy company."
She hugged Sara tightly and kissed her cheek. Rebeckah could feel the chill beneath the young woman's frock. "Domingo, you will bank the fire before dusk. Sara and the babe must keep warm."

With a good-natured shake of the head, Domingo assured Rebeckah that he would keep the Murphree homestead and its valued denizens properly heated during the winter evening. Rebeckah knew her friend Sara was in good and reliable company. Domingo and Gerald Murphree were old friends, both men hailed from St. Marys, a connection that Rebeckah also treasured.

She looked again toward the pine trees. There was nothing there. She was inventing trouble. The afternoon air succumbed to the sun's steady descent, and the gentle breeze of midday became a chilly forecast of the night ahead.

"The evening will be a cold one. I need to collect kindling on my way home."

Ever the Samaritan, Sara loaned Rebeckah her spacious work basket.

"Collect some of those huge pine cones for me and the baby," she asked. "I love the way they pop in the fire. It will give you a reason to visit again before spring." Sara gave a quick laugh, and squeezed the older woman's arm. The young woman looked at Rebeckah with a smiling appeal. Sara was frail in appearance, but there was a delicate beauty to her. It was a shade of charisma, undeveloped but present. She wore simple, utilitarian clothing: a cotton dress that wore well, was easy to clean and hard to damage; plain, leather-stitched shoes that rose a few inches above her ankles. But even with an infant at her breast, she still looked like a child. Not much older than my Benjamin, thought Rebeckah. She'll have to learn quickly how to survive out here. I doubt she knows how to start a fire or prepare coonti. Thank goodness for Domingo.

"Sara, you know I do not need a reason. I would be here every day if I could. And, I'll be back sooner than you know. You must attend the New Year's fete at Isaiah's. It's such a frolic - fiddlin' and dancing - my word, I believe it's the only time I can bear to be around my brother. I reckon we each have something to offer the world," she chuckled and shook her head at the mystery.

"Mayhaps. I hate to be parted from my baby. Especially now, this is the hardest time. But surely, Rebeckah, you know my meaning. You have a brood yourself."

Rebeckah stopped her descent down the plank steps. A grimace transformed her bright smile. Oh my, she thought, me with a brood. So I'm a brood hen after all. She turned and kissed her friend, fixing the young mother with the ebullient smile that only Rebeckah could radiate. Sara smiled back, awed by the grace she felt. Of all the Mandarin folk, she loved Rebeckah the most. Perhaps it was the woman's clear green eyes, her knowing silence, the laughter that broke out like a summer shower, fast and brilliant. Sara had a crush on the woman; it was the kind of attachment that people create when they are lonely and someone is kind.

The object of her devotion mounted her mare and adjusted herself in the side saddle. Wings accepted her familiar weight and motions. She clicked the horse into a slow trot. She turned to wave at Sara and Domingo before guiding Wings toward the dense pine forest. As she rode the narrow trail leading from the Murphree hut toward the village, Rebeckah calculated the few hours of sunlight remaining. She steadied the basket and then directed Wings off the track of pine needles and into the woods. Like most East Florida forests, this one was composed of sky high, skinny and straight as an arrow pines. A few oaks, wider than the breadth of two men's arms, stood alone and distinct, lining its fringe of the woodland . But in all compass points, the pine rose out of the flat, sandy soil surrounded by the rush and bramble of undergrowth. Not more than a few yards away from the trail stood an ancient Eastern white pine and around its perimeter a trove of pine cones lay where they had dropped. Rebeckah laughed, her eyes sparkled a lighter hue. "Sara will love these."

She dismounted. Her sorrel horse shook its mane and swished its tail. Wings steadied its weight and then padded toward a ring of palmettos. Rebeckah retrieved a few cones, bending and edging further into the woods. She reached for one oversized cone, grasping it firmly. Suddenly, she recoiled with pain. Her index finger was bleeding. Instinctively, Rebeckah jabbed the finger first to her apron, where she rubbed away the blood, and then into her mouth, holding it with the secure and soft suction of her lips. Relieved by her ministrations, she sat near the circle of palm fronds. Wings breathed softly on the back of her neck. Inhaling deeply, the woman paused to relax in the moment. Bird songs weaved through the trees, shadows glanced and bounced. Rebeckah thought of the picnic on the riverbank with Catalina and the children. It was a day like today; a good twenty years ago. Perhaps even the same month. What a glory to enjoy the out of doors with the fall harvest behind and ahead, vibrant spring. This place is intoxicating. I could live in the woods, were it not for my responsibilities.

A high pitched wail disturbed her attention. Looking for its origin, Rebeckah saw a gang of men, one wearing a red head band. As they ran toward the Murphree cabin, she heard her friend scream for Domingo. He stood near the wood pile, axe held in his strong arms. Swinging with true aim at a single attacker, Domingo struck him in the neck. Blood spurted. Red spots stained the front of Domingo's white shirt. The Indian dropped and lay still. Thirty feet behind him, a second Indian stopped and aimed his musket at Domingo.

Rebeckah ran forward and screamed Domingo's name. He looked up, saw the poised Indian and half turned to run toward the cabin. But neither the sound of her voice or the speed of his movement was enough. The buckshot left the gun and reached its target. Domingo clutched his left breast, his eyes widened, he fell to his knees, colliding with the stack of kindling. Rebeckah saw red spreading across the man's tunic. Without pausing, the Indian raced forward. He leaned over Domingo, who held his arm in front of his face. The Indian wielded a wide trader's knife in his outstretched hand. In horror, Rebeckah watched him knock away Domingo's hand and then pull at the man's hair. With ragged, brutal force, the Indian parted Domingo's scalp from his skull. He spun around, raising the pulp in the air. His victim slumped forward. There was a momentary silence.The heavy front door of Sara's cabin banged shut, shattering the lull.

The swiftness and ferocity of the aggression horrified Rebeckah. She had rushed from the woods, down the trail toward the Murphree cabin at the start of the attack and was now visible. What could she do? She had no weapon. The village was within yelling distance. She could ride there in a few moments. But what of Sara and the baby? Surely, someone has heard the musket fire. As her options rushed through her mind, Rebeckah saw a black man. He trotted across the clearing toward Murphree's with three more Indians.

It was Sampson, her brother's slave. Rebeckah was startled to see his face among the Indians, but that quickly passed. Could she blame him from running away? Already, hundreds of slaves had left plantations to join the Seminolies in their battle against the white man. Revenge motivated some. Others wanted a peaceful life free from the lasso of their white master. Isaiah pretended aristocratic concern for his slaves but he scoffed at the idea of their humanity - to him they had no more emotions than a log. She had argued with her younger brother till her voice was raw. He kept a rigid view, mostly repeating the words of that British slave holder, Bethune. Isaiah galled her with his stubbornness. Now, in the moment that she saw Sampson, her exasperation with Isaiah boiled up into a dark anger. Isaiah's compassionless attitude was the catalyst moving Sampson. He was out for revenge.

Rebeckah looked the African squarely in the face. Their eyes settled for a second; there was an acknowledgment. She saw his rage. My life is going to end, she thought. She was white and the whites were his enemy. Perhaps even more damning, she was the sister of Isaiah. Her throat tightened. She could not swallow. A barrage of thoughts assaulted her. Escape was the loudest. Run away from the runaway, flee from the red men with the long knives. But like a possum paralyzed with fright, she stood motionless. Rebeckah saw a puff of white smoke and heard a pop. Flakes of pine bark from the nearby tree spun in the air.

"He's fired at me." A young man wearing the warrior's red streaks across both cheeks, dropped his musket, spit a bullet out of his mouth and hurriedly began repacking gunpowder. Horror had frozen Rebeckah. But anger moved her. Like Sampson, rage was the fuel which powered her body into an extraordinary act. She grabbed a pine cone - a tightly spun, heavy oval cone - and hurled it. The Indian grunted as the sharp projectile hit him. The outrageousness of her attack stunned him. He relaxed his grip on the gun, put a hand to his chest in disbelief. His companions began laughing at him, pointing their fingers with derision. The warrior became the object of ridicule. He glared at Rebeckah, who stood rooted at the edge of the Murphree's clearing. And then, in that circuitous way that fate shapes the world, the rage which possessed Sampson and infected Rebeckah now incited the young warrior.

As if from a long distance, silent as a dream, Rebeckah watched as the Indian moved, one moccasin in front of another, steadily, quickly, all the while staring with a hypnotic hold into Rebeckah's eyes. She heard a crashing sound. It was the basket of pine cones dropping to the ground. From the periphery, she saw Sara's hens scattering and heard their frantic babble. In the background, somewhere behind her, Sara was calling her name. She came to with the sound of her own voice, a loud, "No." She turned slowly and attempted to move her long legs in stride. She saw Wings waiting on the trail. "Go!," she yelled at the mare. "Home. Go home." She knew she would could not escape. But her riderless horse would alert the villagers. The eerie cry of an Indian rose behind her. The downy hair on her arms rose in terrified unison.

"Was this to be it, then? My body filled with shot like the sad little rabbits, my scalp hung on an Indian's saddle like a pelt?"

Rebeckah wanted to accept death. Death was an everyday occasion. It was in her life before she was born. Her thoughts were crystalline. "I will see my brothers and sisters again - Charlotte, Jesse, Asa, Pamelia, Ely. The innocent ones." Tears rolled down her face. Her breath came out hard and jerky. Why can't I scream? Wings was in front of her, running down the path toward home. The hem of her dress caught on a a fallen tree. Rebeckah jerked at it wildly and it ripped free. She looked up and saw the man's eyes.

"O Mother. Help me. Pray for me."

She ran forward, stumbling. She grabbed out at a narrow sapling to steady herself. Her hand was stripped by a thorny vine of wild ivy wrapped around the tree trunk. Rebeckah felt nothing. But she heard his tread, the sound of rapid breathing.

At that moment, her body spun around. The young Indian held her right wrist. She looked at him with a vision as clear as spring water. Rebeckah saw a human as near perfect as possible. Full aquiline nose, fleshy lips, strong white teeth and eyes black as the night. His blue calico shirt was ripped opened and revealed a hairless chest, which bore the bloodied mark of the woody projectile. Long, shiny black hair was restrained slightly by a tattered scarlet turban. He stood at least six feet, reckoned Rebeckah, an intimidating figure but not repulsive. The man wore the gaunt look of the hungry. But even in the heat of the chase, a composed expression marked his countenance.

He stared at her, waiting for a scream, the pitiful mutterings, the squirming belittlement that many whites displayed at the point of death. He lifted his knife. She withdrew instinctively, flinching at the motion. But she held his eye and did not beg. He decided to spare her. But the reprieve would be costly. With quick movements, the Indian tethered Rebeckah's hands together with a lasso of braided palmetto strands and then dragged her behind him as he ran up the trail to the Murphree's cabin.

This excerpt gives a fictionalized account of a tragedy that struck near Mandarin, Florida toward the end of the Second Seminole War. Keep in mind that the excerpt is incomplete. -TAW


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