HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. - In 1835, the Fort King Military Road, which linked Tampa with present-day Ocala, ran straight through the heart of the area now occupied by Hillsborough river State Park.
In December of that year, Maj. Francis Dade and 108 men marched from Fort Brooke in what is now Tampa to Fort King in present-day Ocala. The Seminoles, under the leadership of chiefs Jumper, Micanopy and Alligator, waited patiently for their chance to strike.
Three days after Christmas, when Dade and his band of cold, tired and hungry men reached an oak thicket near modern-day Bushnell, Chief Jumper emerged from the palmettos and let loose a war whoop.
Upon hearing that call to action, 180 brightly painted warriors rose from their hiding places and fired. The first volley dropped Dade and more than half of his troops. Three men survived, but two of them later died of their wounds. Only one man, Ransom Clark, lived to tell the tale.
For the next seven years, the old military road, which stretched roughly 100 miles through the wilderness, would be fought over more than once. Parts of it are still visible, in places up and down the Suncoast, if you know where to look.
You can get a glimpse of the past at several state parks that still preserve the old trail pretty much the way it looked when Dade and his men made their fateful journey.
In March 1836, federal troops, still reeling from Dade's defeat, knew they had to keep the road between Fort Brooke and Fort King open if they wanted to hold on to Florida. But the Seminoles destroyed the makeshift bridges across the river as fast as the soldiers could build them.
A blockhouse was needed to defend the bridge. Fort Alabama lasted about three months before the soldiers finally succumbed to the mosquitoes which they dubbed "swamp angels." But before the soldiers left, they booby-trapped the fort, a surprise for their Seminole enemies. The subsequent explosion destroyed the fort, but the following winter, the soldiers returned and built Fort Foster.
The fort helped protect the bridge and road for two years, but it was eventually abandoned. In the late 1830s, long before doctors understood the mosquito's role in disease, the area was deemed "unhealthy."
One hundred fifty years later, the land on which the battleworks once stood was donated to the Florida Park Service and now, after years of meticulous research, Fort Foster Historic Site has been reconstructed in amazing detail.
Now, more than a century later, visitors can tour the grounds and step back to a time when the Seminoles ruled these swamps.
If you go:
Fort Foster State Historic Site is administered through Hillsborough River State Park, 15402 U.S. 301 North, Thonotosassa, FL 33592, (813) 987-6771, www.floridastateparks.org . The historic fort offers tours on weekends and is generally closed during the week.
Fort Foster Staet Historic Site is located 9 miles north of Tampa and 6 miles south of Zephyrhills on U.S. 301. From Interstate 75, northbound from Tampa take the Fowler Avenue exit (Exit 265) east to U.S. 301, travel north for 9 miles, go past Hillsborough River State Park and Fort Foster will be about a quarter mile down on your right.
Terry Tomalin, Outdoors/Fitness Editor for the Tampa Bay Times , also published a book outlining many different adventures you can take in Florida. That can be purchased at www.seasidepublishing.com .