Fort Myers: An Alternative History
Located on the eastern face of the federal courthouse in the downtown Fort Myers River District is a 20 foot tall by 100 foot long ceramic tile mural. Dominating a brick paved courtyard that the federal building shares with Hotel Indigo, HOWL Gallery/Tattoo, Starbucks and Lush Bakery, the sepia-toned mural depicts Chief Billy Bowlegs, a section of stockade of the old fort for which the city is named, a contingent of the 2nd Regiment of the United States Colored Troops that defended the fort from Confederate attack in the waning days of the Civil War, a cattle rancher leaning against one of his steers and the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad locomotive that brought rail service to the fledgling town on February 20, 1904. Named Fort Myers: An Alternative History, this 1999 public art installation by public artist and photography professor Barbara Jo Revelle encapsulates Fort Myers’ early history, a 46-year period denoted by conflict, struggle, and even abject shame.
Where it is
The mural overlooks a courtyard that is shared by the federal courthouse on the west, Hotel Indigo to the south and HOWL Gallery/Tattoo, Starbucks Coffee and Lush Bakery to the east. You can access the courtyard either by going through the arcade leading past Vino de Notte and Icheban restaurant to Hotel Indigo or HOWL Gallery, or via the entrance on First Street that’s just steps to the west of Lush Bakery.
[The mural's physical address is 2167 First Street, Fort Myers, FL 33901. It sits at Latitude N 26° 37' 13.4381" and Longitude W 81° 52' 20.9912".]
What it Depicts
In choosing the subject matter for this mural,” states Barbara Jo Revelle, “I wanted to represent an alternative history of Fort Myers, not the official one we are accustomed to, the one featuring Thomas Edison, the electrical wizard who for nearly half a century was a winter resident of Fort Myers.” Revelle felt with good cause that Edison and his story, as well as that of his friend and fellow inventor Henry Ford, were characterized adequately in various ways and pieces throughout the community. “In this mural, I wanted to represent some of the lesser known (and perhaps even suppressed) chapters in Fort Myers history, some of the events associated with the actual Fort Myers fort.”
The ignominy of the United States’ deportation of the bedraggled remnants of Seminole nation to reservations in Oklahoma, the fact that Fort Myers was a Union stronghold during the Civil War, the role played by black soldiers in depriving the Confederacy of much needed beef and defending the fort from Confederate attack on February 20, 1865, Fort Myers’ role as a cow town in the last half of the 19th century and the city’s struggles to bring rail service to the town are “crucial in any attempt to characterize Fort Myers’ real history,” Revelle contends. And that represents the guide to appreciating the images Revelle used as content for Fort Myers: An Alternative History.
Chief Billy Bowlegs, his tribe and the Steamer Grey Cloud
The left (south) quadrant of the mural depicts a contingent of Seminole Indians standing on the shore of the Caloosahatchee River next to Chief Billy Bowlegs with the steamer Grey Cloud in the background. According to the muralist, Barbara Jo Revelle, this vignette represents “one of the darkest chapters in Fort Myers’ history” and depicts the sad conclusion to the Seminole wars, during which the Seminole people, “including elders, women and children, were hunted with bloodhounds, rounded up like cattle, and forced onto ships that carried them to New Orleans,” up the Mississippi and ultimately to “Indian Territory” in Oklahoma and Arkansas “where they were attacked by other tribes in a fierce competition for the scarce resources they all needed to survive.”
For thirteen years following the end of the Second Seminole War, Chief Bowlegs and his people lived in peace on the edge of the Everglades, several miles south of Fort Myers. But in 1855, the federal government decided these Seminoles had to be tracked down and deported to Oklahoma (probably at the urging of local plantation owners who had become aware around that time that the deep, rich muckland around Lake Okeechobee could make them a fortune in sugar and rice “but not with the Seminoles living on the edge of the Everglades and that precious muckland”). So in December of 1855, Lt. George Hartsuff and a survey party were dispatched from the fort to find out where the Seminoles were living. Historians believe that Hartsuff provoked an incident in order to create support among the settlers for rounding up the Seminoles, but he underestimated the swiftness of Bowlegs’ reprisals and he was killed before he and his party could make it back to the fort. (Legend has it that Hartsuff hacked up Bowlegs’ banana plantation and then tossed him to the ground when Bowlegs protested about it, prompting the Chief and his warriors to go on the warpath.)
For more than two years, Bowlegs and his warriors engaged in a campaign of guerrilla warfare. They ambushed the soldiers by day and attacked them under cover of darkness at night before slipping back into the impenetrable swamps in the Big Cypress. But by 1858, war-weary and starving, the Seminole chief had enough. He set up camp on a freshwater creek half a mile east of the fort (known ever since as “Billy’s Creek”) and entered into peace negotiations. “A shrewd bargainer,” reports muralist Revelle, “Billy Bowlegs received $7,500 for himself and generous amounts for his tribe.” (Some historians place the amount at $10,000 for Bowlegs and $1,000 for each of his chiefs. ) He also received assurances that he and his tribe would be settled on land apart from the Creeks living in the resettlement area. The deal struck, Bowlegs returned two weeks later with 123 warriors,women, children and elders from his tribe, and another 79 Seminoles from various places throughout the state. On May 4, 1858, they boarded the steamer Grey Cloud bound for New Orleans and ultimately the Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Regrettably, Bowlegs did not have the opportunity to enjoy much of the relocation money he and his tribe received. He died on April 27, 1859, shortly after reaching the lands set aside for him and his tribe in Oklahoma. Unfortunately for him, Oklahoma was in the throes of a small pox epidemic, and the Seminole Chief contracted and succumbed to the scourge that killed tens of thousands of Native Americans between 1837 and 1870.
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The fort on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River
“One important function public art can serve is to help us remember the lived history of a particular site,” writes Barbara Jo Revelle. “[T]he site of the Federal Building and Court House is actually on the land formerly occupied by the old fort.”
Actually, the fort depicted in Revelle’s mural was massive. It occupied most of what today is downtown Fort Myers. The fort’s eastern stockade ran along Hough Street, one block east of Fowler. Its southern stockade extended along Second Street from Hough all the way to Monroe. The fort’s northern perimeter meandered along the rock-rimmed banks of the Caloosahatchee River. The officer’s quarters were located between Bay and First Street, on the land now occupied by Arts for ACT, the Florida Repertory Theater and the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center, with palm-decorated parade grounds occupying most of the land between First and Second Street. In all, 57 yellow pine buildings, commissaries and stables housed men, supplies and horses, and a 1,000 foot wharf brought in supplies from barges and boats that came upriver from the Gulf of Mexico.
The fort replaced a small outpost named Fort Harvie that was built in November of 1841 after Fort Dulany, built some 15 miles downriver at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, was washed away in a hurricane. Fort Harvie’s tenure was destined to be short-lived. It was abandoned just four months later on March 23, 1842 when the Second Seminole War came to an end. But after five Indians killed a trader by the name of Whidden toward the end of the decade, the United States Secretary of War ordered a new fort built for the purpose of rounding up the few Seminoles remaining in southwest Florida. “[Major] General [David] Emanuel Twiggs signed the order for the new fort on February 14, 1850,” reports Barbara Jo Revelle in her Guidebook on the mural. “A week later, Major Ridgely of the 4th Artillery sailed up the Caloosahatchee, spotted the clearing where Fort Harvie stood eight years previously, and landed. Fort Myers was born.”
The rebuilt and expanded post was renamed Ft. Myers in honor of Colonel Abraham C. Myers, who was soon to wed General Twigg’s daughter. Abandoned in 1858 after Billy Bowlegs and his tribe boarded the Grey Cloud for New Orleans, the fort sat vacant for five years. But in December of 1863, it was newly garrisoned – not by Confederate forces, but by the Union Army whose mission it was “to send horse soldiers into the area north of the Caloosahatchee River to confiscate the stock from cattle ranchers, thus preventing the shipment of beef herds to the Confederate Army in Georgia.” The fort also became a refuge for escaped slaves and Union sympathizers.
“Using the fort as the central image for this mural,” Revelle explains, “allowed a pretext for picturing many events important to representing an alternative and perhaps more objective history of Fort Myers.”
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The 2nd Regiment of the United States Colored Troops
Depicted to the right of Chief Billy Bowlegs and beneath the stockade of the old fort are 15 members of the 2nd Regiment of the United States Colored Troops. The contingent of 250 African American troops were assigned to Fort Myers, where they joined the 2nd Florida Calvary and a recently detached company of the 110th New York Infantry from Fort Taylor in Key West. They served with enthusiasm and valor during the waning days of the Civil War, and defended Fort Myers from Confederate attack in the southernmost battle of the Civil War on February 20, 1865. Their story is recounted in connection with another tribute to their bravery and sacrifice, D.J. Wilkins’ Clayton, a statue that stands in the eastern section of the River District’s Centennial Park.
“Fort Myers was a Union stronghold in a state otherwise predominately held by the Confederates,” writes Barbara Jo Revelle of this section of her mural. “African American slaves actually built the Fort Myers fort, and have had, for many reasons, a very important place in the history of the community … The African American character and culture and the unique social and economic contribution of these people to the history of Fort Myers is complex and multi-faceted. However, I believe the image of African American Union soldiers who occupied the fort during the Civil War will be a source of pride for this community, and for the city as a whole.”
To understand this sentiment, it helps to know that in January of 1997, an article in Population Today magazine named the greater Fort Myers area “one of the most segregated in the South.” The magazine quoted a University of Michigan study of living patterns indicated by the 1990 U.S. Census Bureau, and within days concerned members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Myers established an ad hoc committee under the name of Lee County Pulling Together (LCPT) to explore what the community could do to reduce racial division. The mural was created and dedicated in the aftermath of this controversial report, as was D.J. Wilkins’ statue of Clayton, which is dedicated to the more than 180,000 African Americans who fought on the side of the Union in the Civil War.
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Many people are surprised to discover that Fort Myers was also a cattle town during the latter half of the 19th Century. “After the Civil War, a primary reason Fort Myers grew and prospered was that it was the one and only accessible trading center for a rapidly growing cattle industry,” writes Revelle in her Guidebook for the mural. “Fort Myers was for many years a cow town, and since the actual fort figured early on into the cattle raids that played a major role in the Civil War, it seemed important to reference cattle in the mural.
As a technical point, however, the trading center for the cattle operation was not located in Fort Myers but on Punta Rassa near the location where Fort Dulany had been destroyed by a hurricane in 1841. “To support the blockade of Florida during the Civil War,” notes Revelle, “the U.S. Army had built barracks and warehouses for troops … When the troops at Fort Myers began bringing in cattle from the Rebel ranches, the herds were shipped out of Punta Rassa to Key West [and] cattle loading chutes had to be built … to get the animals aboard the boats.” The cattle chutes were left intact, and after the Spanish army was sent to quell a rebellion in Cuba, Punta Rassa became a thriving port for cattle shipments to Havana.
Fort Myers benefited as well. Rather than live on the prairies where the cattle grazed, the cattlemen moved their families into the tiny hamlet of Fort Myers. “Relatives joined them, and by 1873 about ten families were living in the little settlement.”
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While Fort Myers grew as a direct and proximate result of the thriving cattle trade, its development was limited by its lack of rail service. “The nearest railroad was at Cedar Key, 200 miles up the coast … Without railroad or commercial activities, making a living depended on the occasional sailboat that came to take a few farm products to Key West. The citizens of Fort Myers lived mainly on fish, game, and their homegrown vegetables and beef.”
The city grew slowly. By the early 1880s, the town had 300 residents, with several hundred more living in the surrounding countryside. By 1890, the town had 1,500 people. And the population doubled in the ensuing 10 years. “[But] by most standards, the little town was still a backwater community,” Revelle notes. In the end, it wasn’t cattle, sugar or Alligator hides that secured rail service to the hamlet of Fort Myers. It was citrus. After the “Big Freeze of 1894 and another longer freeze in February of 1895 ravaged the state’s citrus groves everywhere but in Lee County. “After the freeze, the growers from the north came to buy whatever groves were available and land to plant new groves. The citrus industry along the Caloosahatchee River became viable and extremely profitable and that attracted” first steamboats and, in 1904, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad.
“The last tracks were laid February 20, 1904. As the locomotive chugged forward pushing the flat car carrying the rails to be laid, the ladies of the town who had bedecked the steam engine, including the engineer, with garlands of flowers, took control of the train and kept the bell ringing and the whistle blowing. A brass cannon fired a salute, the crowd cheered and Fort Myers was at last launched into the twentieth century.”
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Why Barbara Jo Revelle
Once in the courtyard, you’ll see the mural towering above the green glass panels that line the lower portion of the federal building. The General Services Administration in Washington commissioned photography artist Barbara Jo Revelle to make the mural in 1997 following a national call for artists’ submissions. [Please see below for more information on the federal government's Art in Architecture Program.]
Revelle gained national notoriety in 1991 when she completed photo-based, computer-generated tile mural on the Denver Convention Center that is two city blocks long. Titled A People’s History of Colorado, it is still one of the largest outdoor public art murals in the world. Between 1991 and 1997, Ms. Revelle went on to render murals on the new public library in Lafayette, Colorado, the clock tower that is part of the Safety and Justice Building in Longmont, Colorado, and a documentary photo-mural for the Hancock Center, IBM Building and Uptown Hull House Gallery in Chicago that was sponsored by the Chicago Council of Fine Arts.
Prior to her retirement from teaching in 2011, Revelle served as Coordinator for the Photography Area of the University of Florida in Gainesville, where she had also served as Director of the School of Art and Art History between 1996 and 2000. Prior to that, she was director of the Photography and Electronic Media Program at the University of Colorado in Boulder for 13 years.
Over a span of more than 30 years, Revelle has taught art in many locations throughout the country, including San Francisco Art Institute, UCLA, the University of Colorado in Boulder, The School of the Art Institute and The Institute of Design in Chicago, Arizona State University, N.Y. State University College in Buffalo and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.
Revelle has exhibited nationally and internationally in more than 32 individual and 130 group shows in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Japan, Mexico, Germany, France, Sweden, Australia and England. Her work is owned by 41 public collections here and abroad including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, the Bibliotheque National in Paris, the Eikoh Hosoe Collection in Tokyo, the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Her work has received critical acclaim in Art Forum, Z Magazine, Ten/8, Art Week, Afterimage, the New Art Examiner and a host of other journals and art publications.
How it was made
To create Fort Myers: An Alternative History, Revelle spent two years pouring over historical documents and treatises, including James W. Covington’s The Seminoles of Florida; Karl H. Grismer’s The Story of Fort Myers; and The New History of Fort Myers, edited by Michael Gannon. She created vanilla folders for Seminole Chief Billy Bowlegs, the Seminole Indians, the fort built along the banks of the Caloosahatchee River during the Seminole Wars, and the soldiers of Companies D & I of the 2nd Regiment of the United States Colored Troops which occupied and defended the fort during the waning days of the Civil War in what turned out to be the southernmost engagement of that conflict. The USCT was assigned to the fort in order to prevent the shipment of cattle to Confederate troops fighting in Georgia by ranchers who had established a bustling cattle ranching industry prior to the South’s cessation from the United States.
Revelle digitized the photographs and then transferred the digital prints to thousands of ceramic tiles using print technologies considered innovative in the 1990s. The resulting sepia-toned graded mosaic tiles then had to be affixed to the pre-cast concrete walls of the courthouse by masons using a master digital montage print-out like the blueprint to an immense jigsaw puzzle.
The installation required the same techniques and preparation that swimming pool contractors use when installing ceramic tile accents to a pool or water feature. Revelle recommended that the smooth precast concrete be sand blasted “immediately prior to the installation to fully clean the surface,” which needed to be devoid of oil and release agents. Working from an intricate network of scaffolds, the masons then applied a 1/8th inch thick coat of skim coat to the concrete substrate before bedding the tiles in thin-set latex-modified Portland cement mortar. These practices were required as a precaution against cracking in the torrid temperatures that the surface of the mural can reach during afternoons in the blazing southwest Florida sun.
The result is a breathtaking mural that pictorially chronicles a 46-year span framed by the departure of Chief Billy Bowlegs and 123 of his people aboard the steamer Grey Cloud bound for New Orleans on May 4, 1858 and the arrival of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in Fort Myers on February 20, 1904.
A Note about the Federal Art-in-Architecture Program
Incorporating art in U.S. government buildings has been a tradition since 1855, when Congress commissioned Constantino Brumidi to paint frescoes in the committee hearing rooms of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. Today, the Public Buildings Service of the General Services Administration or GSA continues this tradition of commissioning fine art for federal buildings nationwide through its Art in Architecture Program, which mandates that up to one-half of one percent (0.5%) of the cost of constructing a federal building be allocated for works of art.
As a matter of public policy, the concept of dedicating a percentage of construction costs for the acquisition of public art dates back to the New Deal and the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture, which was established in 1934. That program set aside approximately one percent of a federal building’s cost for artistic decoration. The program had nothing to do with New Deal welfare relief or make-work initiatives. It merely codified the nation’s longstanding practice of decorating its public buildings. Unfortunately, the concern for public art waned with America’s entry into World War II, and the program was officially disbanded in 1943.
The percent-for-art program reappeared 20 years later after President Kennedy’s Ad Hoc Committee on Government Office Space recommended that fine art be incorporated, where appropriate, in the design of federal buildings. But just three years after the Government Services Administration re-established it in the spring of 1963, the program was again suspended, this time because of budgetary pressures relating to the war in Southeast Asia and widespread apathy on the part of the general public.
Today’s iteration of the federal percent-for-art program takes its impetus from a presidential directive issued by President Richard Nixon on May 16, 1972 that once again espoused “a program for including artworks in new Federal buildings.” Taking its lead from the Nixon directive, the GSA reinstated the Art-in-Architecture policy that September, declaring “a fresh commitment to commission the finest American artists,” and the country has enjoyed a percent-for-art program ever since.
Today, hundreds of GSA-commissioned works of fine art enrich federal buildings in every part of the country, including downtown Fort Myers, which boasts Fort Myers: An Alternative History by Barbara Jo Revelle.
N.B.: Twenty-one states also embrace public art through percent-for-art statutes. Florida is one of them, with section 255.043 of the Florida Statutes creating Florida’s Art in State Buildings program. Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Washington and Wyoming have also adopted percent-for-art laws, with Maryland, North Carolina and Vermont requiring annual allocations for public art from either general revenues or their capital improvement funds.
Lee County does not have a formal public art program. The city of Fort Myers does, but its percent-for-art ordinance is voluntary rather than mandatory. As presently structured, Fort Myers Ordinance 118.7.7 encourages “private and public developments … with a building construction value of $250,000 or more … to donate an amount of not less than 0.75 percent of such costs for acquisition and installation of fine art on the development site, but not to exceed the sum of $75,000 ….”
- The mural was commissioned in 1997.
- The cost of the commission was $110,000.
- Revelle received an additional $14,000 to prepare a Guidebook pertaining to the mural and its creation.
- The mural was installed in January of 1999.
- Chief Billy Bowlegs also went by the name of Holata Micco or Halpuda Mikko, which means Alligator Chief in Seminole. His surname Bowlegs is not a reference to the chief being bowlegged as a result of riding horses bareback. Rather, it may have been a family name that went back many years to a French trader named Beaulieu, which they could not pronounce. It is also possible that it was an alternate spelling of Bolek, which was the name of a preceding Seminole chief.
- Some authors mistakenly claim that Billy Bowlegs gained distinction after his arrival in Oklahoma serving as a captain in the Union Army’s First Indian Regiment, “protecting his new home from Confederate attempts to control it.” However, is was Sonuk Mikko, not Halpuda Mikko, who gained fame as a captain in the Union Army during the Civil War. Both Halpuda Mikko and the later Sonuk Mikko were called Billy Bowlegs.
Other Public Art Installations in City of Fort Myers
Fort Myers: An Alternative History is one of 7 major public art installations in the City of Fort Myers. The others include Fire Dance, a 25-foot Dupont red proto-architectural piece by Ohio metal sculptor David Black; Parallel Park by Marylyn Dintenfass, a 30,000 square foot project that has transformed the 5-story Lee County Justice Center Parking Garage into an outdoor work of experiential art; Caloosahatchee Manuscripts by Jim Sanborn, which lights up the façade of the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center at night; Naiad by Albert Paley, a colorful 30-foot tall polychromed steel sculpture that guards the front entrance of the St. Tropez/Riviera Condominium Complex on East First Street; Uncommon Friends by D.J. Wilkins, which includes a fountain, a 40-foot diameter pool and a 20-foot island on which Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone lounge around a campfire no doubt discussing their next great inventions; and Clayton, D.J. Wilkins’ memorial to the men of Companies D & I of the 2nd Regiment of the United States Colored Troops.
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