This is where the “Dade” in Miami-Dade comes from: A pretty, peaceful plot in Bushnell, four hours north of Miami, shaded by the arched limbs of ancient live oaks draped in Spanish moss.
Some of these trees were here when Major Francis L. Dade and all but three of his 106 men were killed in an ambush by Seminole Indians in 1835.
He was Florida’s first hero, so when a name was needed the following year for a new county, honoring Major Dade was natural.
But if you’re expecting this state park to tell a simple story of heroism, you’d be wrong. As they say, it’s complicated, and that’s one reason this is a fascinating visit.
Never miss a local story.
Dade Battlefield Historic State Park is located three minutes off I-75 an hour north of Tampa. It makes a terrific stop for a picnic or a leg-stretcher on a road trip. It is also located in one of Florida’s most beautiful rural areas near the excellent paved Withlacoochee bike trail and Withlacoochee River paddling trail.
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. The park has a playground plus a picnic area with covered shelters.
Don’t miss the small museum and short video, which tells the story of the battle, the trigger for what became the costliest Indian war in U.S. history.
In the Second Seminole War, native Americans were resisting U.S. government attempts to move them to Oklahoma. A big source of conflict was that Seminoles welcomed former slaves as brothers, much to the chagrin of Southern slaveholders.
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 fell Major Dade.”
Visitors are often surprised that the park doesn’t tell the story only from the soldier’s point of view. said Park Manager Bill Gruber. “Most people don’t know anything about this war, which at the time was called the Florida War,” he 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.”
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.
Today, the battle is still taught at West Point and the Joint Forces Staff College, which prepares top officers destined to become generals and admirals, brings new students to the park four times a year to study the battle.
If you visit, Gruber urges you to talk to rangers in the museum, who can share stories of the battle – how Major Dade was singularly brave, for example, and about the life of the soldiers, many of whom were foreign-born and had “no axe to grind” with the Seminoles.
Dade Battlefield Historic Park, 7200 CountyRoad 603, Bushnell; 352-793-4781; floridastateparks.org/park/Dade-Battlefield. Visitor Center: open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.Admission: $3 per car.
Tip: The Dade Battlefield Society sponsors an annual reenactment of the battle. The event is Jan 2-3 in 2016. It includes period soldier, Seminole and civilian camps; a Sutler Trade Fair; historic arts and crafts demonstrations; full-scale cannon firing; musket shooting; tomahawk throwing and primitive archery. www.dadebattlefield.com.
Bonnie Gross gives tips on visiting the natural and authentic Florida at FloridaRambler.com.