News Section: Community
Sunday Favorites: Mary Jane Wyatt: a True Pioneer
|Mrs. William H. Whitaker (Mary Jane Wyatt) and grandchildren Karl E. and Sophie T. Children of Charles Clarence Whitaker.|
Many locals might remember Mary Jane Wyatt Whittaker as a loving grandmother who sewed her grandchildren booties of raccoon hide, stuffed their mattresses with palm fronds and marked her place in her bible with a piece of seaweed. But as a young woman, Mary Jane Wyatt was one fearless woman. So much so, that this pioneer earned the respect of Billy Bowlegs, Chief of the Seminole Nation.
Wyatt’s father, Colonel William Wyatt, was originally from Indiana, but had ties in Tallahassee where the family first moved after the earliest Florida territories opened for settlement. William delivered mail from St. Augustine to Tallahassee but quickly moved up the political ranks. In 1838, he was one of 55 delegates who represented the Florida territory, which was then made up of 20 counties. William even ran for governor at one point, but was defeated by Robert Raymond Reid of St. Johns County by one vote, according to the Lures of Manatee by Lillie McDuffee.
Despite his success in the capitol, William had dreams of further settling Florida’s frontier.
“Florida is the hope of the emigrant, and the keystone of the South,” he once said in a toast in Tallahassee.
He brought his family to Manatee in 1843, where he was one of the oldest pioneers, a man of 50 with a family of grown children, two of whom were married with children of their own.
Mary Jane remained single and is considered the first young lady to “grace the wilderness of Manatee,” according to McDuffee.
The family’s life in rural Manatee was much different than the one they led in Tallahassee, where William had owned two hotels and consistently rubbed elbows with Florida bigwigs. William was quick to jump on board the cattle train and begin rounding up wild Florida piney wood cows to trade with Cuba. He moved his family temporarily to a ranch eight miles east of the Village of Manatee while Mary Jane recovered from malaria. While the family was not used to the isolation, Mary Jane thrived in the environment. Far from the social stigmas that surrounded young women during that era, she could ride horses with her brothers, herd cattle and shoot rifles. In the words of McDuffee, Mary Jane “was as strong and brown-skinned as the Seminoles.” She would often bring home a turkey she had killed for dinner. She could also swim and handle a boat better than her brothers could.
Since the deportation of the Seminoles after the Second Seminole War, scarcely 100 men, women and children remained in the Manatee section. Billy Bowlegs, or Assinna Othulkeethloko as he was known to his people, was their leader and chief. He was a nephew of Chief Micanopy and son of another famous Seminole, Se Coffee, thus earning his position through hereditary channels. Under his rule the Seminoles led a peaceful existence and soon unease among pioneers faded. In fact, many of the pioneer families were visited by Bowlegs on a regular basis; he was usually accompanied by his brother-in-law No-Kush Adjo.
Both natives had a creative sense of humor. Their homemade moccasins allowed them to approach a homestead almost silently. Settlers passing the time by cross stitching or reading on their porch would almost fall from their rocking chairs in freight after looking up and seeing the Bowlegs and Adjo watching them in silence. The two Seminoles thought this was hilarious of course and bent over with laughter at the reaction.
But the Wyatt family, completely isolated from the rest of the community, were oblivious to these customs by Billy Bowlegs and his crew. One day, while Mary Jane and her mother were traveling along the river they heard voices from the other side. Thinking it was friends who wished to cross for a friendly visit, Mary Jane readied the canoe, but when she called out to the visitors, she heard no reply. Only then did she see Bowlegs and a few others peeking out from the underbrush. She gasped in surprise, which excited Bowlegs. He instructed her to bring the canoe across. At first she hesitated. McDuffee goes on to explain the rest of the episode.
“Her father and brothers were away herding cattle. Mary Jane realized that her mother and herself were at the mercy of these Indians and that their safety depended largely on the amount of courage she would be able to display.”
Bowlegs was reportedly impressed by her brazenness. He and his cohorts stayed near the Wyatt home for several days. They were recuperating from an illness and bleeding themselves and using various herbs to heal the wounds. One of the members of the family asked the natives, “If there was an uprising, would you kill our family?” Bowlegs replied, “Yes, but we would kill you easy.” Bowlegs meant this as a compliment.
Eventually Mary Jane would go from Manatee’s first single woman to Manatee’s first bride when she married William Whittaker, the founder of Sarasota. During the Seminole uprising the couple gave birth to their first son, Furman Whittaker, while at Fort Branch, a fortified encampment where the majority of the community was holed up for nine months.
The Whitakers settled Yellow Bluffs in Sarasota. While the location was breathtakingly scenic, it was also landmark visible from offshore, making it an easy target for the Union Blockade at the end of the Civil War. Mary Jane, who had braved both Seminole Wars, now had to face raids from hungry armed Union soldiers while her husband was off fighting for the Confederacy.
On one occasion soldiers searched the Whittaker place gathering chickens, hogs and citrus. One soldier confiscated seven-year-old Furman’s gun. Mary Jane would not have it. She sent Furman to tell a commanding officer and the gun was returned.
On another occasion, an officer demanded Mary Jane fetch matches so he could burn down her house. She brought the matches but said to him, “Sir, I want to look into the eyes of a man who can stoop so low as to burn the home of a helpless woman and her family.”
The house was saved.
Mary Jane never lost her spunk, and women and men across the region remember her bravery to this day.