Chief Billy Bowlegs
During the 19th and 20th centuries, Seminole men from three different generations were known as "Billy Bowlegs" by the white settlers living in Florida. The Seminoles, of course, have their own Indian names which signify a family or personal characteristic, and also contain the root word of the clan to which they belong. But the "white man's" historical records rarely mention the proper Indian name for any of the Florida Seminoles.
The earliest "Billy Bowlegs" was O-lac-to-mi-co or "Holato Mico" (circa 1810-circa 1864), a Seminole chief who was part of a ruling Seminole family. Bowlegs met up with Andrew Jackson during the Indian uprisings of the early 1800's. In the 1850's, when the few remaining Florida Seminoles were living peacefully on their own lands in south Florida, 'the old Chieftain' was provoked into war by Colonel Harney's surveying corps. One night Harney's men slipped into Bowleg's thriving banana plantation and hacked the plants to bits. When confronted by the outraged chieftain, the surveyors brazenly admitted to ruining the plantation because they wanted "to see old Billy cut up". The incident led to the Third Seminole War (1855-1858), bringing federal troops and bloodhounds into South Florida. Chief Bowlegs and his war-weary band surrendered on May 7, 1858. Thirty-eight warriors and eighty-five women and children, including Billy's wife, boarded the steamer, Grey Cloud, at Egmont Key to begin their journey to Oklahoma. Bowlegs died soon after his arrival, on April 27, 1859.
Following the Third Seminole War, the U.S. government abandoned efforts to remove all Seminoles. At that time, a few hundred Seminoles remained in Big Cypress and other isolated parts of Florida. Among the descendant of this 'remnant' was another Billy Bowlegs, a tall, soft-spoken man who was befriended by James and Minnie Moore Willson, of Kissimmee. Writing in The Seminoles of Florida, Minnie Moore Willson recalls a visit from "Cho-fee-hat-cho (Billy Bowlegs), a warrier of more than usual intelligence."
"Knowing that the information we sought was for the purpose of putting it into a book, so that "the people could read about the good Indians of Florida," he showed the greatest interest in the questions, making his answers direct and truthful. An air of deepest solemnity would rest upon his face until he was assured his meaning was thoroughly understood. During his visit he expressed an eagerness to learn to read and write, and followed a copy with remarkable exactness. With the desire to read and write, however, ended all ambition to be like the white man." [Excerpted from Minnie Moore-Willson, 1896, The Seminoles of Florida, Philadelphia : American, p. 85-86.]
Biography prepared by Gail Clement, Florida International University
Painted Portrait of Chief Billy Bowlegs, ca. 1858.
Photograph of Billy Bowlegs, February 7, 1916.
Photo courtesy of University of Miami Libraries, University Archives