On the far western side of the Loxahatchee River Battlefield Park, in Jupiter, Florida, stands what arborists say is an oak tree that is roughly 300 years old. It is a living reminder of the tragedy encountered by members of the Seminole Tribe who died during the last battle of the Second Seminole War on January 24, 1838.
The tree that grows on top of an ancient Indian midden, believed to be the burial ground of Seminole Tribe warriors who fought during the war, was discovered and named “Tree of Tears” by Richard Procyk, 91, book author and former Miami homicide detective who retired in Jupiter 30 years ago. Procyk believes that in 1838 Seminole warriors dragged the bodies of their fellow warriors from the swamp to the dry land under the tree.
“I found the tree by myself ten years ago,” he told ICMN. He said he learned about the ancient tree while reading Journey Into Wilderness, the journal of U.S. Army Surgeon Jacob Rhett Motte. When he found the tree, Procyk said he and his group called on a naturalist and the expert confirmed it was probably the oldest tree in the park. The tree was very close to what was once a swamp.
“He [Motte] described vividly a very large oak tree. The soldiers gathered the wounded and the dead around the huge oak tree,” said Procyk, author of Guns Across the Loxahatchee. “I called the tree the Tree of Tears after the Trail of Tears.” The Southern portion of the Trail of Tears starts in Jupiter he said.
The tree and the 64-acre Battlefield Park could have been lost to history if not for Procyk and a group of historians and preservationists who lobbied Palm Beach County to recognize the site of the last battle of the Second Seminole War. In 1994, archaeologists confirmed in a report to the county that they found artifacts from the war in the area.
Palm Beach County unveiled the first of the three markers to commemorate the battle in 2009. One marker, Jesup’s Battle, recounted the history: “On January 24, 1838, Major General Thomas S. Jesup, commanding 1,500 men, the largest army of Second Seminole War [1835-42], marched to the headwaters of the Loxahatchee River, where he defeated approximately 300 Red and Black Seminoles in the last standing battle of the war.”
It added: “The battle ended when Colonel William Harney’s Dragoons outflanked the Seminoles, who fled into the Everglades. Seven soldiers were killed and thirty-one wounded. The Seminole casualties are unknown.”
The Loxahatchee Battlefield Preservationists, a non-profit group dedicated to protecting the historic battlefield, on its website, said the battle was a turning point: “If defeated, the Seminoles would be forced to head west to Oklahoma reservation on the Trail of Tears. Their black allies, who joined the Seminoles after escaping from Southern plantation, could be sold back to slavery.”
“Historically, the Battlefield Park is new. People don’t know about the park and the tree,” said Procyk. The preservationists said the Battlefield Park became its own entity in 2010. It was carved out of the larger Riverbend Park.
Guy Bachmann, president of LBP, said their organization has reached out to members of the Seminole Tribe, based in Hollywood, Florida, to talk about their efforts to preserve the tree and the battlefield. “They are friendly. We invited them but they didn’t show.” He believes the Seminole Tribe is not interested in their organization as they have oral history.
“Things are getting better now,” he said. “Our group invited Elgin Jumper. He came out one day and painted the Tree of Tears.” Jumper, Seminole, is an artist, poet, essayist and short story writer. Bachmann said he is hoping that Jumper can open communications between their group and the Seminole Tribe. LBP has made Jumper an honorary member.
The Seminole Tribe makes no mention of the battle at the Loxahatchee River on their website. There is reference to the Second Seminole War, from 1835 to 1842, on their recorded Timeline and a narrative on Indian Resistance and Removal.
Procyk said when he talks about the Tree of Tears to Battlefield Park visitors he describes the area around the tree as where the Seminoles shot at General Jesup’s men. He talks about the Seminoles who carried their wounded under the outstretched arms of the tree. Then, he proceeds to talk about the Trail of Tears. “The Tree of Tears serves as a kickoff to talk about the Trail of Tears.”
“It [Tree of Tears] is very spiritual because it is on a burial mound,” said Bachmann. Sadly, the tree, which is currently fenced in to protect visitors from the falling branches, is dying in sections. “We were told by arborists that there is nothing we can do.” He said there was discussion on sapling, which might be a good project for school kids but not a good solution. He said at the end of the day, they do not want to do anything that will hurt the burial mound.
“We are not allowed to walk around it. It could fall tomorrow or it could live for another 50 years,” said Bachmann, citing the peeling of the bark and the mushrooms growing around it as signs of the tree’s imminent death. Natural occurrences, such as lightning and hurricanes, have also had an unfavorable impact on the life of the tree.