The site had been lost to researchers for nearly a century. Tony Pernas had been looking for a decade. His team had logged nearly 100 search hours just this year.
But last Monday, deep in the Everglades, miles from any sign of people, Pernas and two other amateur historians found it: the exact location of Fort Harrell, a long-lost Army encampment used by U.S. forces during the second Seminole War. "We're really excited," Pernas tells New Times.
"It was a good moment, just realizing that we had found a piece of Big Cypress history."
Fort Harrell was constructed in 1837 by the military in the second Seminole War, which raged from Gainesville to the Keys and was the longest and bloodiest conflict between U.S. forces and Native Americans. Seeking to bring the fight closer to the Indians, the Army constructed a series of high-ground camps deep in the Everglades, says Paul George, a historian at HistoryMiami.
That strategy didn't work so well. "They knew how to use a swamp," George says of the Seminole warriors. "American forces didn't."
After the war, Fort Harrell avoided discovery because it was in an area that had never been developed. The ruins were last spotted by Tamiami Trail engineers in 1917.
Pernas, who works for the National Park Service, became increasingly fascinated by the missing fort. Using 1940s aerial photos and old engineering surveys and war maps, his team narrowed down the location to a clearing near the headwaters of the New River, several miles from Monroe Station in the heart of Big Cypress National Preserve.
In late June, Pernas and the two other team members, Shawn Beightol and Chris Harris, set out from the station. After biking six miles on trails and hiking a few more, they set up camp; on June 26 the team made what it called a "final, late-season overnight push" toward the clearing. They found an area of hardwood hammock, which indicated higher ground, and there Pernas noticed several holes in the limestone. He called out to his teammates, who began looking for more and marking the spots with flags. They noticed the flags were in a straight line. "We realized we had actually found the location of the fort," Pernas says.
They found at least 30 holes, which they think were used to support the fort's wooden beams. Pernas notified NPS of the discovery so a more formal survey can be done.
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The discovery is significant, George says, because it contributes to our knowledge of the time period.
"It just gives a broader look at that war. It adds a small piece to that puzzle."