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Patsy West

from A Place To Remember

Patsy West, WGBH

Artifacts, Pine Island, Abiaka, orchids.

Archaeologists do not know how long the Seminole have inhabited the Everglades. The Seminole say forever, and there is no evidence to the contrary. There is, in fact, no evidence at all, no ancient shreds or scraps to be catalogued and carbon-dated. The historian Patsy West has a theory about this material lacuna. The Seminole swept their camps each morning, religiously; in so doing, West believes that they inadvertently swept away all traces of their ancient tenure in the swamp.

West’s own family has been in Florida since 1887. Her great-grandfather was William Freeman of Little River, a homesteader from Illinois. He made friends with the Seminoles who came up Little River in their canoes; they hunted and spent Christmases together. Patsy lives in Fort Lauderdale, 20 miles away from the original homestead, in a house her father built by hand in 1948. The small pool where she learned to swim has been converted into a fish pond — a bird recently stole her favorite koi. The property is on the North Fork of New River, surrounded by native oaks and non-native mango trees. Around their branches grow forty different varieties of orchid.

West’s home is also the location of the Seminole/Miccosukee Photographic Archive, a repository of 14,000 photos from 1852-present, as well as Seminole-related newspaper clippings, government documents, oral history interviews, and other assorted ephemera. The collection, stored carefully in acid-free boxes, occupies a former bedroom. West created the archive in 1972, when she was Curator of the Historical Association of Southern Florida in Miami. She had three large files of unidentified photos, and knew that there were many more spread across public and private collections. Her grandmother provided the first identifications from pictures on glass negatives found in the attic of the family home in Little River.

Her grandmother was also the one to tell West about Pine Island, which hadn’t been an island since the first canal was built in 1906. The drainage effort had been successful, and the land had been turned into farms. You couldn’t see the island where the Indians had lived. All West knew was that there was some spot of some importance, hidden away in the fields.

In the late ‘70s, West was in Tallahassee to see about some maps relating to her many projects, when she found one of Pine Island. It was very distinctive; it looked like an upside-down T. No other island West had seen looked quite like that. She rolled it up and put it in her suitcase.

She would see it in person soon enough. On the flight back home to Fort Lauderdale, West was looking out the window when she noticed a now-familiar shape. She gave a shout. It was all rather dramatic.

A short time later, West gave a talk about her work on Pine Island and its significance to the Seminoles. She had learned that the Island had been a stronghold for a chief named Abiaka during the Second Seminole war. It was there that he’d kept his people safe from the military, escaping when he needed to on a canoe.

Afterwards, a man who worked at city planning told her that developers were trying to build a golf course on the land. Patsy gathered some Seminole friends and prepared to lobby in Tallahassee. It was hard to get signatures. The elders who knew about Pine Island were wary. They had learned over the years that it was better not to sign for anything. But James Bille, the champion alligator wrestler and newly-elected chairman of the Seminole Tribe, threw his support behind the effort. In the end, the developers were kept out to the dripline. In 1980, the historic site would become part of Tree Tops Park, a green enclave of live oaks surrounded by swamp lilies and sawgrass.

But Pine Island wasn’t done with Patsy West. James Billie, who would spend 27 years as chairman, wanted to know more about the chief called Abiaka, also known as Sam Jones, who showed up with some frequency in the military records of the Seminole Wars. West dug deeper, scouring the reports of generals, accounts of explorers, and journals of bystanders for mention of the man. She began to piece together the remarkable life of a chief whose strength and resolve paved the way for a permanent Indian presence in Florida. Today on Pine Island, there is a statue of Abiaka pointing the way for a woman and her child. 

He was a wholly original character — at once ancient and modern, cunning and honest. His was a story cinematic in its scope, and West, along with Billie began to dream about making a movie. West has considered going to the police department with her documents and descriptions, and asking their best sketch artist to give it a go. In the meantime, she has written several articles about Abiaka, and is currently at work on a book. It will be her sixth.

But it is unlikely that the Abiaka book will be completed at the house on North Fork, where West has lived for 70 years. The hurricanes are getting worse; Irma brought the water up higher than ever before. Then, last May, volcanoes erupted on the Big Island in Hawaii. West has contacts there, fellow orchid enthusiasts, who lost everything. She has too much to save. So she is leaving, moving north to Gainesville. It breaks her heart.

She will take the archive. She will take the remnants of shipwrecks that her father found out on the beach. She will take the 10-foot alligator that is buried outside the cottage where her son and daughter-in-law live. The orchids will be fine. Orchids, after all, carry the imprint of their birthplace. You can take them from one country, move them to another, and they will still bloom at the same time of year — almost to the day.

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