by Tim Gilmore, 5/30/2015
“The Indians” named the crossing Wacca Pilatka and the English translated that phrase as Cow Ford, according to that much beloved tome Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage, but it doesn’t say which Indians.
Cowford, often considered the early name for Jacksonville, leant itself to the 1970s Cowford Flea Market on Blanding Boulevard, the Cowford Arts Council, a small peer group started by poet and cultural impresario Keri Foster, and even Silver Cow Watering Hole, one of my favorite Riverside bars.
But back to Wacca Pilatka. Wikipedia says, “Under British rule, settlement grew at the narrow point in the river where cattle crossed, known as Wacca Pilatka to the Seminole and the Cow Ford to the British.”
Of course Wikipedia comes always with an asterisk. I mean, Sarah Palin didn’t really have an affair with a polar bear.
But The Encyclopedia Britannica says, “The locality was originally known as Wacca Pilatka (derived from a Timucua term meaning ‘cows’ crossing’).” So was it Timucuan or Seminole?
After having read of Wacca Pilatka so many times in brief newspaper features, I was surprised three years ago to hear UNF archaeologists Robert Thunen, Vicki Rolland and Keith Ashley say they didn’t know of any Timucuan village downtown.
We were out on Black Hammock Island, digging in the brutal summer heat with an archaeological field school, when I asked them about it.
So I consulted two sources—T. Frederick Davis’s History of Jacksonville, Florida and Vicinity, 1513-1924, published in 1925, and Jerald T. Milanich’s 1996 book The Timucua.
Davis says, “At Liberty Street, there was a rather bold spring of clear, good water (an outcropping, perhaps, of the stream that is known at the present day to underlie the surface in that section of the city). Back from the river a short distance stood a small Indian village.”
Then Davis quotes the 1877 book History of Florida by Wanton S. Webb, saying “one of the earliest Spanish maps shows an Indian village here called Ossachite [four syllables], a Timuqua village of probably not more than half a dozen houses.”
The next paragraph says “the Indians” (not specifying whether the Timucua, who disappeared centuries ago, or the Seminole) called the fordable part of the St. Johns River “Wacca Pilatka.”
It’s quite a leap from Oss-sa-chi-te to Wacca Pilatka, but the latter sounds a bit like Palanca de Vaca, which in Spanish would mean something like Cow Lever.
Looking to Milanich’s still-definitive book on the extinct Timucuan Indians, which comprised several smaller tribes from North Central Florida to Southeast Georgia, I found no mention whatsoever of a Timucuan settlement in present-day downtown Jacksonville, no Wacca Pilatka and no Ossachite.
A lack of evidence isn’t proof against the existence of any settlement. Since the Timucua lived in the Jacksonville area for thousands of years, surely they experienced the swamps and trees where downtown and San Marco and Riverside now are.
The creation of the modern city, however, filled numerous swamps and marshlands and “infilled” the land out into the river. Though Hogans and McCoys and Little and Big Fishweir Creeks have flowed mostly the same course for thousands of years, many of inner-Jacksonville’s waterlines don’t reflect its geographical history.
Published historical accounts feature Wacca Pilatka and Ossachite so regularly, it would be an unaccountably egregious oversight for a Florida archaeologist like Milanich, the best known scholar on the Timucua, to have missed them.
Donald J. Mabry’s book World’s Finest Beach, a Brief History of the Jacksonville Beaches and stories published on six or seven historical and news websites call Ossachite “a grand Timucuan city” and the “Timucua Metropolis.” One website says Ossachite throve for 700 years and had at least 2500 residents at its peak as the region’s capitol.
That site says, “Ossachite must have been as busy as a beehive,” and claims, “The city’s most prominent structure was the council house, used for community meetings. So large that it was constructed with whole tree trunks, the oval-shaped structure could seat hundreds.”
When I emailed Milanich, he responded, “There was never a Timucua town called Ossachite; that is a piece of bad historical research by T. Frederick Davis; he took the word from a map. It may be a Seminole word. Wacca (from the Spanish vaca) is the word the Seminoles used for cow. Wacca Pilatka is Seminole for cow crossing (there is a Wacahoota near Gainesville: Seminole for cow pens).”
More importantly, Milanich said the Timucua weren’t city-builders. Their largest settlements contained “a small number of huts and burial mounds.”
When I emailed one popular local news and history site, its editor responded, “Frederick Davis’ book might be Milanich’s only source.” He said the name Ossachite “comes from the writings of James Moncrief’s letters from the 1760s.” He says I should “pass this on to Jerald for his edification.”
In fact, a Frenchmen named Eugene [not James] Moncrief did explore the region, but left no record of a “grand Timucuan village.”
The editor says I can “easily find” Moncrief’s “travels and maps online” by looking up “Timucuan Chiefdoms by Jim Worth.” The University of Florida had published two volumes of Timucuan Chiefdoms of Spanish Florida, by John Worth, not Jim Worth, but the book contains no mention of a Timucuan village called Ossachite. Furthermore, the preface was written by none other than Jerald T. Milanich himself.
So often what seems the truth is just the story that’s been most told.
Nevertheless, the other truths, truer and older, lie everywhere beneath our feet. Knowing we share with the dead the same basic wants and fears they experienced, their stories seem unknowably lost and familiarly alien, as we hope, walking this same earth, this only earth, this always-abiding earth, for our own lives to matter after us.
Just how far from our stories will our future histories be?