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Fisheating Creek - History

Painting of Fort Center
Florida Museum of Natural History

The name Fisheating Creek is derived from the Creek Thlothlopopka-hatchee meaning "the creek where fish are eaten."

The first known settlement occurred along the banks of Fisheating Creek between 1000 and 500 BC. The early inhabitants, known as the Belle Glade people, began building mounds and other earthworks and subsisted by netting fish and harvesting turtles, snakes, and alligators. According to University of Florida archeologist Jerald Milanich, who worked on the area as a student in the 1960s, perforations found on turtle shells indicate turtles were tethered to be eaten as needed. The creek was more than a source of food and water. It was also a canoe highway leading to Lake Okeechobee and its resources to the east and other settlements to the west.

The Fort Center site consists of mounds, ponds, circular ditches, and linear embankments built over at least 2000 years. William Sears, director of the excavation and author of Fort Center: An Archeological Site in the Lake Okeechobee Basin, believes that corn pollen found in one of the three overlapping basins indicates that the Belle Glade people grew corn. If true, Fort Center would be one of the earliest, if not the earliest, example of agriculture in the pre-Columbian Eastern United States. Sears theorizes that people dug ditches to drain the soil for corn, which will not grow in wet soils, and that this practice may have spread across the Caribbean or around the Gulf from the lowlands of Mexico.

At the site, bundles of human remains were found along with the remnants of a wooden platform decorated with wooden carvings of wildlife including life-size cats, a bear, foxes, eagles, and wading birds. Other objects were preserved in the muck at the bottom of the pond including a wooden carving of an otter running with a fish in its mouth. The site, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was still occupied, although there was no evidence of agriculture, when the Europeans arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries.

During the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), a cabbage palm palisade at the site was named Fort Center for Lieutenant J.P. Center. Oscen Tustenuggee, who had organized many war parties, and his two bothers Micco Tustenuggee and Old Tustenuggee and their wives lived in villages along the creek. In 1842, George Henry Preble of the U.S. Navy described the difficulties of a trip up Fisheating Creek in a 30-foot cypress dugout canoe named "Susan" after his sweetheart: "This stream is very tortuous, and sometimes swells into a river, and then dwindles into a brook."

The fort was reactivated at the start of the Third Seminole War in 1855. Lieutenant Henry Benson described Fort Center upon his arrival in April 1855 as "more disagreeable, unhealthy and devoid of interest than I had expected….Mosquitos awful. 1,000,000,000 of them….Hot-hot as fire all day." His diary concludes with "the same in the same. Killed two snakes." At the conclusion of the Third Seminole War in 1858, many Indians had been removed from Florida. In 1881, Clay MacCauley at the direction of the federal government found 37 extended families living in 22 campsites in five areas, one of which was Fisheating Creek. By 1930, cultivation of sugar cane, cattle ranching, and establishment of a refinery at Moore Haven forced the remaining Seminoles to move from Fisheating Creek. Some Seminoles went to work for cattle barron Jacob Summerlin.

Much of the land surrounding the creek came to be owned by the Lykes Brothers. The Lykes Empire began in the 1880s when Dr. Howell Tyson Lykes began exporting cattle to Cuba. All seven of his sons went into the family cattle or shipping business, and today Lykes Brothers Inc. is the largest producer of cattle and the biggest meat packer in Florida.

Over the years the creek has been the focal point in the lives of the local people. They courted, married, honeymooned, and baptized their children there. Along the banks they colored and hid Easter eggs and celebrated Thanksgiving. They depended on the creek for subsistence and recreation, hunting, fishing, and camping along its banks.

The Lykes family prohibited development along the creek and ran a campground and a canoeing concession at Palmdale. In 1989, the Lykes Brothers closed the creek to the public, igniting a 10-year legal battle. On February 19, 1998, Circuit Court Judge Charles Carlton ruled that Fisheating Creek belonged to the people of Florida, although the ordinary high water line, which is used to determine the boundary between public lands and private lands, had not been determined. Lykes Brothers appealed the decision. To put an end to litigation, the parties agreed to a settlement calling for the state of Florida to purchase a corridor along the creek under the auspices of the Conservation and Recreation Lands (CARL) Program using funds appropriated by the Florida Forever Act. This land (18,272 acres) became Fisheating Creek WMA. The settlement agreement has a number of stipulations that determine recreational use on the area including prohibition of motor vehicles, jet skis, and jet-powered watercraft; hunting west of U.S. 27 by quota permit only; prohibition of hunting east of U.S. 27 except for special opportunity spring turkey hunts; and restriction of airboats from portions of Cowbone Marsh.

carved eagle figure
Florida Museum of Natural History Eagle carving from Fort Center excavation
historic drawing of travelers in boat
Florida Photo Archives Traveling on Fisheating Creek, 1842
photo of group picnic at Fisheating Creek

Florida Photo Archives