Tribal elder Betty Mae Jumper recounts how in 1837, two young Seminoles 
escaped from the Trail of Tears.

In 1830, the United States began rounding up all Southeastern Indians east of the Mississippi River and marching them to what had been declared Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. Many perished on the grueling journey, which became known as the Trail of Tears. Only the Florida Seminoles offered armed resistance, setting off the Second Seminole War (1835–1842). In 1837, when a short-lived treaty led to a brief truce, members of the Snake clan made camp near what is now Jupiter, Florida, and began to resume their normal lives. In this excerpt from her autobiography, A Seminole Legend, Betty Mae Jumper (1923–2011), a beloved storyteller and the first female chief of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, tells what happened next.

Everyone was saying it was peace at last. The soldiers quit chasing the Seminoles and promised to leave them alone. The Indians began to settle down and plant things. But one day when most of the men were out hunting, soldiers surrounded [the Snake clan’s] camp, mostly old men, women and children. Some were lucky enough to run away and ran to other camps to warn them. The captives were made to walk to the west. The people were told, “The soldiers are going to put you in big boats and send you across the big water where you will never come back.” They were made to get on the boat, and they sailed off. Finally, the boat landed [perhaps in North Florida or as far away as Louisiana]. The captives were marched to a big cage that had been made for them until they were forced to walk again.

In that pen, Great-Great-Great Grandmother grew worried. She and her oldest daughter were raped, and the soldiers had begun using the younger women. She became consumed with a plan to help her two youngest daughters escape. She dug a hole under the fence and sat on it all day so the soldiers wouldn’t see. That night she pushed the two youngest daughters through the hole.

She had told them to run straight to the deep creek nearby, which ran east and west: “Get in and swim toward the east quietly.” She told them to put leaves over their heads and to drift by the place where the lookout soldier was standing. Paleface was on the bank, but he never saw them pass by, because as soon as she saw the girls disappear into darkness, she started singing loud. The other Indians joined her, making all the soldiers turn to look at them. By this time, the girls had started to swim toward the bank on the south side. They knew the singing was a sign to get out and run.

That first night, they ran most of the way, and by morning they were miles away. With sunup they rejoiced, as the sun came up on their left side and the girls knew they were going in the right direction.

Throughout the wilderness, the girls traveled night and day, trying to get back to their father and brothers. At times they were so tired they fell down and slept. Cuts and scratches on their bodies did not slow them down. They hoped they wouldn’t happen on wild animals, but at an early age they had been taught to avoid such dangers. They could climb tall trees and hide or jump in a river, and they carried a hard wood stick to hit them with.

They found small land and water turtles, which they roasted on a small fire made in a pit in the ground. They cooked in the middle of the day, so no one would see the smoke. Then they covered the fire and put dead leaves over the ground. Everything else they buried so nothing would give them away should soldiers be about. As a result, they did not cook much but lived on wild berries, fruits and palm cabbage. The cabbage they pulled from the center of the plant, the heart, where it is soft and delicious. Sometimes they found a pond where the water was low and they could catch enough fish to make a meal.

When they had to cross a wide or swift river, they hunted for logs that would float. They would hang on and paddle across. Nighttime, when they lay down to sleep, was the worst time. They couldn’t help but wonder how their mother and sister were. They cried when they thought of the suffering of their older sister, who had been raped so much she could hardly walk. The girls envisioned their mother carrying her. They could only hope they were dead.  It hurt them to think that way but they knew their mother and sister would then be at peace.

They recalled their mother saying, “Just look ahead and don’t look back or turn back. Keep running toward the sun until you see your brothers and father.”

The girls had never disobeyed their mother, but this request was the hardest to obey as they would never see her again.

Jumper, at left, at the age of 15 with one of her cousins

Their abused sister had told them, “Go like Mother says and don’t stop. See me. The soldiers will start on you two next. They have no pity on anyone, young or old. They are like wild beasts. They laugh and kick you around while raping you and make a big joke of it in front of others. They drive us like cows. You have seen when older people get too sick or too tired to walk. They fall. They get whipped and are made to get up. If they are too helpless to get up and walk the soldiers shoot them. If babies cry too much, the soldiers throw them into a creek or hit them against a rock to kill them. Every Indian that lives through this sorrowful march can never live in peace again. Leave! Run for your lives! You’ll be free!”

[One day], they saw a chickee. They saw pigs roaming around the camp but no people. Maybe they were chased off. The girls found dried meat and built a little fire and roasted it. They had been hungry for so long. They took some clothes, which they needed badly, from the chickees. But the pigs were following them around, and they knew that the pigs would give away their presence if they needed to hide. To distract the pigs, they pulled down a bag of corn and ran into the woods, where they slept hard. The sun was up high before they awoke and ran on.

The sun was going down when they heard someone yelling in the distance. They climbed a big oak tree and lay against a branch and slept. The next morning, they heard the voices of people talking. They approached cautiously and made their way into the camp. A man came to talk to them and found out that they were Mikasuki girls. The man said he had seen their father and brothers on the south side of Lake Okeechobee a few days before.

The girls had been gone two months. The people couldn’t believe that the Snake girls had been able to make it home after being taken so far away. [After young men from the camp took them on a three-day journey] they found their father and brothers. The girls cried and told their sad story and the camp mourned.

This is a true story told to me by my grandmother. Mary Tustenuggee Tiger. Because of these brave sisters, the Snake Clan did not disappear.

Jumper, at left, at the age of 15 with one of her cousins

Excerpted from “A Seminole Legend: The Life of Betty Mae Tiger Jumper” by Betty Mae Tiger Jumper and Patsy West. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001. Reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida. 

FORUM Summer issue 2022

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the Digital Commons at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg by clicking here.