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Dade Battlefield Historic State Park: A lovely spot to rethink ‘the Florida War’

Five minutes off I-75; bet you’ll learn something

The scenery at Dade Battlefield is so pretty and peaceful that it’s worth walking around just to soak it up.

If you take the time to go through the visitor center and walk the battlefield, though, you’ll find it also tells a thought-provoking story.

Some of the trees at Dade Battlefield Historic State Park are so old they were here when Major Francis L. Dade was killed in an ambush by Seminole Indians in 1835. (Photos: Bonnie Gross)
The Dade Battlefield Historic State Park is full of gorgeous century-old live oak trees that are a joy to behold, but the landscape at the time was probably most pine trees . (Photos: Bonnie Gross)
The Dade Battlefield Historic State Park is full of gorgeous century-old live oak trees that are a joy to behold, but the landscape at the time was probably mostly pine trees. (Photos: Bonnie Gross)

Dade Battlefield Historic State Park is the place that the fellow after whom Miami-Dade County is named died a hero. Now a state park just off I-75 north of Tampa, it tells a complex story. It also is a beautiful spot for a picnic or leg-stretcher on a road trip.

The battlefield marks the place where the United States began what was known then as “the Florida War,” but which we call the Second Seminole War. Most people today know little about this war, but this site tells the story in an accessible and interesting way.

At this site, Maj. Francis L. Dade and all but three of his 106 men were killed in an ambush by Seminole Indians in 1835.

That makes him a hero, right? Well, today, it’s not so simple.

Obelisks mark the exact locations where the officers fell at the Dade Battlefield site. The first bullet killed Army Maj. Francis Langhorne Dade, fired by Chief Micanopy, after whom the Old Florida town is named. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The Dade Battlefield Historic State Park is full of gorgeous century-old live oak trees that are a joy to behold, but the landscape at the time was probably mostly pine trees. (Photos: Bonnie Gross)

In the Second Seminole War, the native Americans were resisting the U.S. government’s attempts to move them to Oklahoma. The Seminoles had welcomed former slaves as brothers, much to the chagrin of white Southerners trying to force them from their land.

Without telling you what to think, the park’s video and exhibits tell a nuanced story of the people and that war. We are left to think about which side was right and which was wrong as we walk past the historic monument that says:  “Here Major Dade fell.”

Marker in peaceful Dade Battlefield Historic State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Marker in peaceful Dade Battlefield Historic State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

People are often surprised when they visit, according to Park Manager Bill Gruber, that the park doesn’t tell the story only from the soldier’s point of view.

“Most people don’t know anything about this war, which at the time was called the Florida War,” Gruber said. After the news hit, the “Dade Massacre” was “on the lips of every American… It was huge national news and sent shockwaves through the country.”

Seminole Indian depicted in visitor center at Dade Battlefield Historic State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Seminole Indian depicted in visitor center at Dade Battlefield Historic State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The fact that U.S. Army soldiers led by West Point officers could be wiped out by “what people thought was a ragtag band” stunned people, Gruber said.

TToday, the battle is still taught at West Point and the Joint Forces Staff College, which prepares top officers destined to become generals and admirals, comes to the park four times a year to study the battle.

The war was not popular with Americans and even among many of the soldiers, who faced a daunting task. You had to be pretty desperate to join the U.S. Army in 1835, he said. “It was not the most popular table at the career fair,” he said. “A soldier’s life was terribly hard.”

When visitors say the soldiers were the bad guys, protecting slavery and working to push Indians off their lands, Gruber is quick to point out the other side of the story: Most were immigrants, doing their jobs, not strategists or politicians.

History is never simple.

The entrance to Dade Battlefield Historic State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The entrance to Dade Battlefield Historic State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The 80-acre park preserves the land to look the way it did when the battle occurred. There’s a lovely half-mile trail through pine flatwoods, where you have a good chance of spotting gopher tortoises, woodpeckers, songbirds and hawks. Dade Battlefield Historic State Park has a playground plus a picnic area with covered shelters.

Special event: Annual Dade Battlefield Re-enactment & other programs

Florida history: Re-enactors at Dade Battlefield Park, Bushnell, Florida
Re-enactors at Dade Battlefield Park

Each year, on a weekend shortly after Christmas, the Dade Battlefield Society sponsors a re-enactment of the battle. Check the Dade Battlefield Society site for the exact date this year.

If you plan to attend, arrive early on re-enactment weekend.  The park manager says Sunday is usually less crowded than Saturday. The actual battle is at 2 p.m. each day, although there are activities all day.

The event includes period soldier, Seminole and Civilian camps; a Sutler Trade Fair; historic arts and crafts demonstrations; full scale cannon firing; tree cutting and barricade building; musket shooting; tomahawk throwing and primitive archery.

Admission to the re-enactment is $5 per person, children under 6 free, parking $2 per vehicle.

On Saturdays during the cooler months, a ranger offers a history program and live firing demonstration of a traditional black-powder firearm like those used in the battle. Learn more about events at the park.

Check the calendar for other programs.

Azaleas add beauty to the lovely grounds of Dade Battlefield Historic State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Azaleas, in bloom in winter and spring, add beauty to the lovely grounds of Dade Battlefield Historic State Park. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Planning your visit to Dade Battlefield Historic State Park:

Dade Battlefield Historic State Park
7200 Co Rd 603, Bushnell, FL 33513
Phone: (352) 793-4781

Directions: Ten minutes offI-75. Take exit 314 east on SR 48. Go five east and turn right on County Road 603. The road dead ends in the park in two miles.

This video shows scenes from the re-enactment of the battle:

Dade Massacre | Dade Battlefield Historic State Park | Bushnell, FL from Dustin Seltzer(Seltzer Films) on Vimeo.

Things to do near Dade Battlefield Historic State Park:

Places in the region Florida Rambler has written about:

Notes from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning visits.

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