Illustration by Ingrid Wu.

As we mark the 200th anniversary of the outbreak of the Seminole War, each of us in the Gainesville community has a responsibility to evaluate our relationship to this land’s history of colonialism, imperialism and ethnic cleansing.

Since I moved to Gainesville, I’ve gone down the Gainesville-Hawthorne trail to Payne’s Prairie and La Chua trail to put the concerns of my life behind me. It’s a place with a rhythm and life of its own, seemingly so far away from the city and the human world, yet right in our backyard.

There are traces of the human world at La Chua though, and a mostly forgotten human story to be told about it too.

At the entrance to the trail, past the old stables, lies a sinkhole where great blue herons wade, and alligators sunbathe on the banks. This is “a la chua,” a Spanish corruption of “chua,” an indigenous word for the sinkhole spoken by the Potano or Timucua people, who have lived here since ancient times.

Though seemingly surrounded by wilderness, this sinkhole is in fact the center of this land’s human history, including imperialism.

Exactly 200 years ago, the First Seminole War was being fought in northern Florida, a continuation of a generations-long conflict that ultimately led to the forcible removal of indigenous people from their land. This includes the land where Gainesville sits today.

This history shaped Florida as we know it. Yet it’s scarcely remembered, found only at the margins of white Gainesville’s consciousness in local names or brief mentions on historical markers.

As we mark the 200th anniversary of the outbreak of the Seminole War, each of us in the Gainesville community has a responsibility to evaluate our relationship to this land’s history. Many of us have largely forgotten the deeper history of imperialism, slavery and ethnic cleansing that is as much our own local history as it is the history of United States.

For thousands of years, people — called the “Cades Pond” and “Alachua” cultures by archaeologists — lived among the wetlands, lake and rivers in the area around today’s Payne’s Prairie, where they caught fish and gathered food. Their descendants continued this way of life, only to be disrupted in the 1500s by Spanish conquistadors, who introduced disease, slavery and the mission system.

The Spanish forced indigenous people to work as cowhands alongside enslaved African people in their hacienda system, altering their ancient way of life in the process. One of the most important haciendas was located more or less at the location of the modern stables at La Chua.

After Spain ceded Florida to Britain in the mid-1700s, many of those indigenous and African people remained on the prairie and continued ranching. When British botanist William Bartram visited them in the 1770s, they identified themselves to him as Seminoles.

In 1812 — with tacit support from the new American government — Daniel Newnan led paramilitaries from Georgia to “punish” the Seminole for harboring free African people. For these efforts, Newnan is honored locally with the name of Newnan’s Lake east of Gainesville, near where he fought with King Payne, the Seminole leader who lends his name to the prairie. The elderly Payne died as a result of the battle.

“If we’re going to start unnaming things, [Newnan] would be right at the top of the list,” said County Commissioner Robert Hutchinson, who grew up in the area around the lake.

As far as the American government was concerned, sheltering people seeking refuge from slavery made the Seminoles thieves and troublemakers — never mind that they were on their own ancestral land. Yet, six years after Newnan, Andrew Jackson would lead similar punitive raids into the panhandle to capture slaves, sparking the First Seminole War.

“When the United States achieved political independence from Great Britain, Anglo colonialism did not exit the lands claimed by the new American republic,” Susan A. Miller, a Seminole historian, wrote in “Native Historians Write Back.” “Rather, the United States assumed the role of colonizers that the British had relinquished.”

In 1821, Anglo-American colonists established a trading post in the Seminole town of Cuscowilla. As the number of settlers increased, the trading post morphed into a white town called Micanopy, which would be the setting of several battles of the Second Seminole War in the 1830s.

“You help people, and they’d turn around and try to kill you,” the Chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe Billy Cypress told Florida Public Radio.

Cypress said that settlers on indigenous lands often only survived because of existing indigenous communities.

“People took them in while they were in need of aid,” he said. “And then they turned around as the population grew, and then they tried to exterminate them out, terminated them.”

The years 1817 to 1858 were one long war, said Mary Beth Rosebrough, research coordinator at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation in South Florida who I was referred to by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Rather than three separate “Seminole wars,” Rosebrough said, “We could call those simply escalations in the conflict. This would be the history if it were written by Seminole Tribal members.”

We in this community — those who are white, who are settler colonists — should pause and dwell more on our history as it is understood by the Seminoles.

This history shaped Florida as we know it. Yet it’s scarcely remembered, found only at the margins of white Gainesville’s consciousness in local names or brief mentions on historical markers.

At least five battles were fought in Alachua County during the second war alone — none of these are commemorated. Yet Gainesville is named after Edmund Gaines, a general who fought on the U.S. side in the Seminole wars. It is telling that so many of the “heroes” of the Seminole Wars seem to be American military officers.

Why do we honor Gaines, when there were so many other genuinely honorable people in that conflict? Take John Horse, the black Seminole leader who fought alongside his indigenous allies against U.S. forces. John Horse was born at Payne’s Prairie. Where was Gaines born? Virginia.

Where is John Horse’s lake, or town or prairie? How many of us remember him?

Shortly after he was elected to the county commission in 1998, Hutchinson introduced a resolution to rename Newnan’s Lake to its Seminole name, Lake Pithlachocco.

“Some people came to county commission meetings a few times and scolded me that they couldn’t believe that the commission didn’t have more important things to do than this,” he said.

The resolution was never adopted, and most people still call it Newnan’s Lake.

“This was really the center of the Seminole civilization,” Hutchinson said. “ … They still talk about it.”

Hutchinson said it would be nice if Alachua County had a traditional Seminole village or a restoration of a Spanish mission to give people a sense of what happened here.

Yet, as evidenced by the response to Hutchinson’s efforts, most of our community doesn’t show serious interest in recognizing whose land we live on. Many of us walk past Greek revival columns at the Hippodrome and live in Queen Anne revival houses without ever wondering why these things are here.

“Americans have never relinquished their colonial posture toward the tribal nations, but continue instead to manipulate them and extract their resources,” Miller wrote.

All of the history of the invasion and ethnic cleansing of Alachua is available for anyone to read. Yet around town, the most you will find is hints, perhaps a few words on a plaque about “Indian trading posts” or “Seminole wars.” A painting of Osceola, the legendary Seminole war leader, hangs inconspicuously on a wall in the Alachua County Civil Court.

All in all, these hints don’t amount to much.

There remains no collective recognition of the bitter history of this land in proportion to the scale of the crimes that happened here. There is no public education or acknowledgement by us, the current occupiers of this land, of its great importance to the Seminole people, who once came together as a nation here before they were attacked and driven off in an unjust war.

Why do we in Gainesville relegate the indigenous people of Florida to a few reservations in the south, some stray words on a historical marker or a static diorama in the Florida Museum of Natural History, alongside fossils, as if their cultures are dead and gone? As we all know, the Seminole are still here.

Until we speak honestly about the historical legacy that we live with, some of us as descendants of the invaders, there will never be social justice in our community.

Anyone who does know the history is left with the impression that the community today, which is largely the result of white invasion and settlement, is content to relegate this past to a footnote of local lore, an interesting tidbit you might tell to a visitor to spice up their outing to La Chua trail to see an alligator, but little more than that. It is the stuff football mascots are made of, not a serious reckoning with the past.

Until we speak honestly about the historical legacy that we live with, some of us as descendants of the invaders, there will never be social justice in our community. How could there be, when the community is built on stolen land, the memories and lives of its indigenous people simply erased from our public consciousness?

“At stake is nothing less than the ecological integrity of the land base and the physical and social health of Native Americans throughout the continent,” wrote indigenous writer and environmentalist Winona LaDuke in “Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming.”

The next time you go to La Chua to escape the concerns of your daily life, remember the history that lies beneath the boardwalk or under the surface of Newnan’s Lake. As long as Gainesville refuses to deal with its status and history as a settler colony, that history is suppressed. We — especially we white settlers — must do better. •