FORT PIERCE – A small, unassuming 6-acre park sits along South Indian River Drive, just south of the Citrus Avenue Bridge. It’s easy enough to miss it as you’re driving along the scenic Indian River Lagoon.
Once home to the Ais people, one of the largest groups of indigenous peoples in Florida, the land holds a sacred and historically important burial mound dating back perhaps a thousand years. The Ais populated this part of the state, hunting and gathering from Central Florida to as far south as Jupiter. They collected oysters and, hunted deer and small game, and gathered sea oats, sabal palm berries, cocoplums, and sea grapes for their subsistence. They caught turtles, made fish traps, and fished with hooks made from deer bones. They built dugout canoes from the abundant pine trees that grew all around them. Small dome-shaped huts provided families with shelter from the elements.
And, as was the fate of so many indigenous cultures in that time, the Ais were all but erased by disease, enslavement and genocide following their contact and interactions with early European explorers. But the land never forgets, holding their bones and memories through all time.
This little piece of land also holds a great deal of our own local history. Called the Fort Park, it marks the location of a former military installation, built by the US Army around 1838 at the start of the Second Seminole War. Its primary purpose was to serve as a supply station for the Army, and the small fort never saw battle. It was named after its first commanding officer, Benjamin Kendrick Pierce, brother to future US President Franklin Pierce.
A passage from “Our Worthy Commander – The Life and Times of Benjamin K. Pierce, in whose honor Fort Pierce Was Named”, compiled by the Indian River Community College (now IRSC) Historical Data Center, describes the selection of the Fort Park site:
“On Dec. 28, Lt. Powell, commander of a naval detachment, sailed south on the Indian River (from the Haulover) to select eligible sites for depots. On the eve of Dec. 29, Col. Pierce issued orders that the regiment should be in readiness to embark at 2 in the morning. By daylight we were all aboard,” quoting the journal of Dr. Jacob R. Motte, army surgeon accompanying the expedition… “After quietly gliding all night down the river, they joined Lt. Powell at the Indian River Inlet on the afternoon of Dec. 31. On Jan. 2, the blockhouse of palmetto logs was erected and dubbed Fort Pierce.”
The fort was also the winter quarters of Brigadier General Thomas Jesup, known in military circles as the father of the modern-day quartermaster corps. An otherwise stellar career was blemished by his capture of Seminole leaders Osceola and Micanopy under a false flag of truce provoking international controversy, though calls for an inquiry and his firing went unheeded.
Jesup was responsible for the forcible removal of the Seminole people west of the Mississippi on the infamous ‘Trail of Tears’, though many Seminoles escaped deep into the Everglades to avoid this fate.
The Fort stood from 1838 until it was abandoned at the end of the Second Seminole War in 1842. It burned to the ground in 1843.
Now a City of Fort Pierce Park, it is also a site on the National Register of Historic Places, encompassing two significant periods of Native American history as well as the very beginnings of Fort Pierce itself.
The Park is located at 800 S Indian River Dr, Fort Pierce, FL 34950, and is open dawn till sunset every day. Take the time to visit this small, peaceful place abounding with history and nature, a place where the past is ever present.