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Remember Florida’s Cracker Culture at Fort Christmas

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Central Florida is a tourist hotspot that offers theme parks, outlet malls, restaurants and other attractions to delight all ages and senses. Our area is an exciting, high-energy place, but if you want to take a break and get away from it all, visit Fort Christmas Historic Park, a mere twenty miles east of Orlando. The historical park attracts more than 150,000 visitors each year and is ranked one of the top ten by 10Best.com.

Fort Christmas Historic Park is a family friendly locale that offers indoor and outdoor exploration with museums, exhibits, hiking trails and something no other park has; a full-scale replica of a Seminole Indian War fort that was constructed in 1837 on Christmas Day.

“It’s an exact replica of the original fort,” says Clarence Canada, president of the Fort Christmas Historical Society. “It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like being here in the middle of the wilderness fighting Indians.”

The park is also home to several annual activities such as a Blue Grass and Craft Festival in March and a Militia Encampment in April. But the event that garners most recognition is the Annual Cracker Christmas.

Christmas of Old

“Cracker Christmas started as a small gathering in the community,” says Site Supervisor Trudi Trask, who has worked at the park for 32 years and is a sixth-generation descendent from early Florida pioneers. “They made cane syrup and played music and as the years went by it grew.”

And grow it did. “The two-day event attracted 60,000 visitors last year,” Trask says, and she expects this year’s Cracker Christmas, held on December 3rd and 4th to meet or exceed that number. Orange County Parks and Recreation reconstructed the fort as part of a Bicentennial Project in 1976. After its completion, Cracker Christmas was relocated there. As the event grew, so did the venue, which now includes vendors, pioneer demonstrations, a confederate encampment and a tractor exhibit. The goal is to provide a fun opportunity to see and experience Florida’s rich history.

For example, Dutch ovens can be seen nestled in the glowing embers of open fires, slowly baking cornbread. Above, cast iron pots hang from metal tripods with homemade soup steaming while pioneer cooks tend to them. There are blacksmith demonstrations working iron into items necessary for pioneer life. Musicians are scattered throughout the area under the shade of the tall trees stomping feet and playing various period instruments.

There’s lace tatting, wool spinning, quilting, soap and candle making, and perhaps the most popular attraction of all sugar cane being made into syrup; an early sweetener. Altogether there are more than 60 demonstrations showcasing how different life was during that period of time from what it is like now.

“It’s hard to describe,” Canada said. “I talked to my dad about coming here and settling. He said our ancestors literally had to carve their way down here because there were few paths and no roads. They came on an oxcart, bringing what little belongings they had with them.”

Like Trask, Canada’s heritage is deeply rooted in the area. His father’s ancestors were early settlers who came in the 1800s and his great, great grandmother was the sister of Osceola, the Seminole leader during the Second Seminole War.

In addition to the demonstrations, 150 to 175 vendors offer hand-made crafts and novelty items like locally made honey with walnuts. Oh, and if you have your holiday cards ready for mailing, bring them and get them postmarked from Christmas, FL.

Cracker Construction

See how life was lived by visiting the seven restored Florida Cracker homes. “Cracker” is a term reflecting a particular architecture of Florida. The characteristic metal roofs are resistant to the humid environment are rain proof and deflect heat. The raised floors, large porches that often wrap around the entire house and straight narrow hallways that run from front to back are examples of how the design enhances air flow in the absence of air conditioning. Cracker architecture continues to have an influence today, with many of its elements being incorporated into modern home designs.

Battlement at the Fort

A video presentation replays for visitors every thirty minutes dialoguing the history of the Seminole Indian Wars. The three Seminole Wars raged on and off from 1816 to 1858 and combined are thought to be the costliest of all the Indian wars in both human and monetary costs in United States history. The Second Seminole War is considered to have been the most important. It began in 1835 when Chief Micanopy ambushed and killed General Dade and all but three of his soldiers, now known as Dade’s Massacre.

In an effort to avoid additional ambushes, the US Army launched a plan to build a series of more than 200 forts, each a day’s hike from one another. This would mean soldiers could march from one fort to another during daylight and have a safe place to stay at night, as well as a place to resupply.

Fort Christmas was one of those forts. On December 25, 1837 about 2,000 US Army soldiers and Alabama volunteers arrived and set to work building a typical Seminole Indian war fort constructed of tall pine pickets, with two blockhouses, a storehouse and a powder.

It was completed two days later, as noted in the journal of Captain N.S. Jarvis, a surgeon in the US Army. “Today we finished our fort,” he writes, “which we called Fort Christmas, having commenced it on that day.” It’s hard to imagine what that first Cracker Christmas at the fort must have been like, far from home, in the middle of a wilderness, fighting a war.

“The forts were always located near a water supply,” Canada says. “But they had to grub out a living and they were basically hunter gatherers, living off of the earth.” About a year after it was built, the fort was abandoned. The Seminoles had moved further into south Florida, seeking sanctuary in the swamps of the Everglades.

Under the leadership of Osceola, Clarence Canada’s distant relative, the Seminoles refused to abide by the Treaty of Payne’s Landing, which required that they relocate from Florida to the Arkansas Territory.

This was understandable. Florida had been their home since the early 1700s when Native Americans from various tribes sought refuge from the pressures of expanding colonialism in sparsely populated Florida. Collectively, they were called Seminoles – a Spanish word meaning “wild.”

Soon runaway slaves seeking safe-haven from the Southern plantation system joined the Seminoles. Eventually the lush environment appealed to settlers from America and immigrants from other countries seeking land, which caused conflicts and eventually war.

The Second Seminole War ended in 1842 with more than 3,500 Seminoles transported to what would become the state of Oklahoma. But about 200 to 300 Seminoles remained out of the Army’s reach in the Everglades.

Eventually, there was a third Seminole Indian War in 1858, which led to the relocation of 160 additional Seminoles Indians. The Seminoles never signed a treaty, however, and today more than 1,400 reside in south Florida.

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Yesterday’s Forts; Today’ Cities

Many Florida towns grew-up around those early forts. For example, Orlando was built around Fort Gatlin, Sanford near Fort Mellon, Ocala by Fort King and Tampa close to Fort Brooke.

Several noteworthy Florida cities were named for the forts for which they were collocated, such as Fort Lauderdale, Fort Pierce and Fort Myers. Fort Christmas is a link to an important period of American and Florida history. Hopefully, visitors young and old will find a trip to the fort a thoughtful reminder of another time, a glimpse into the rich heritage of our country as well as a good time. Trask agrees.

“Often, when I am out in one of the building someone comes to visit and you can see it takes them back to another time,” she says. “There’s an instant realization and they begin reminiscing back to how things used to be.”