The taking of Uchee Billy’s head during the Second Seminole War

by Dale Cox

Uchee Billy (Yuchi Tustenuggee) as an important Native American leader of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, ranked only behind Osceola in newspaper mentions from the first year of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842).

He breathed his last in a prison formed by the stone walls of the Castillo de San Marcos – then called Fort Marion – in St. Augustine, Florida. An army surgeon then inflicted a final indignity on the chief by taking his head as a “scientific” souvenir.

The Yuchi (also spelled Uchee and Euchee) are one of the most enigmatic of the original Native American groups that were living in the Southeast when the first Spanish explorers arrived. Some associate them with the Chisca encountered by conquistador Hernando de Soto in the Appalachian Mountains, but others believe they have Caribbean origins and first appeared along the coast of the Florida panhandle.

Uchee Jack (Eteh-ee-fix-e-co), brother of Uchee Billy, captured in East Florida in 1837. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.

Many of the surviving Yuchi are members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma today, although others continue to live in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and elsewhere. Their language and ceremonial practices, however, are distinct from those of the Creeks and they have tried on repeated occasions to achieve independent recognition from the U.S. Government.

By the late 1700s the surviving Yuchi were living at Euchee town on the Chattahoochee River and in several small settlements on the Flint River. The noted Georgia deerskin trader Timothy Barnard married a Yuchi woman and his son, Timpoochee Barnard, was a noted ally of the United States during the War of 1812 and First Seminole War.

Timpoochee Barnard, a Yuchi warrior, sided with the United States in the First Seminole War.
Charles Bird King painting in the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Uchee Billy, the subject of this article, first appeared on the scene in the late 1700s. His name is given here as it was commonly spelled by white writers during his lifetime for the sake of clarity, but he was also called Euchee Billy, Yuchi Billy, and Yuchi Tustenuggee.

Benjamin Hawkins, the U.S. Agent for Indian Affairs, mentioned that “Uchee Will of Uchee” was the representative of the Yuchi people in 1795-1796 and received the band’s $100 portion of the annuity promised to them by the American government. This chief appears to have been the same individual under discussion here, as Hawkins interchanged the names “Uchee Will” and “Uchee Billy” in alternating documents. [I]

The Yuchi on the Chattahoochee River “took the talk of the Prophet” and raised the Red Stick (or red war club) in support of the Prophet Josiah Francis (Hillis Hadjo) during the Creek War of 1813-1814. Joined by warriors from Tutalosi Talofa (Fowltown) and Miccosukee, they were preparing to march and join the Prophet’s army when the Euchee town was destroyed in an attack by U.S.-allied Coweta warriors under William McIntosh. Uchee Billy and the other inhabitants fled south down the Chattahoochee into Spanish Florida.

Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River.

By the spring of 1814 they were living in what is now Jackson County, Florida. They were discovered there by Capt. George Woodbine, the commanding officer of an advance party sent to the Apalachicola River by Great Britain. The War of 1812 was underway and the British hoped to enlist Seminole, Red Stick Creek and other Native American warriors for service against the United States. The Yuchi responded to the British call and soon relocated to the British Post at Prospect Bluff (also called “Negro Fort” and later Fort Gadsden) on the lower Apalachicola.

Military records show that the band stayed active with the British until the end of the war and that Yuchi Tustenuggee (Uchee Billy) was at Nicolls’ Outpost, a second British fort at present-day Chattahoochee, when a proposed treaty was signed between Great Britain and many of Florida’s Native American groups.

When the British withdrew from the Apalachicola in May-June 1815, Billy relocated his town to a new site near Miccosukee in what is now Leon County, Florida. He and his warriors joined the Red Sticks, Seminoles and Miccosukees to battle U.S. forces after American soldiers launched unprovoked attacks on Fowltown in November 1817.

Yuchi warriors took part in the retaliatory attack on Lt. Richard W. Scott’s command at today’s Chattahoochee on November 30, 1817, and in the Battle of Ocheesee two weeks later. They fled east across the Suwannee River when Andrew Jackson’s army burned their town in 1818.

Uchee Billy next appeared in U.S. records in 1821 when army officers listed him as the chief of a town called Spring Garden. Named for a Spanish and Territorial era plantation, it was at today’s De Leon Springs State Park in Volusia County.

He gained notoriety in the eyes of the whites by opposing white settlers who tried to move into areas claimed by the Seminole. He was indicted by the Superior Court of St. Johns County in 1826 after he drove back a party of would-be frontiersmen:

…Others intimated a disposition to enforce a claim to all the lands West of the St. John’s,and the chief, Se-nuf-ka, with Eu-chee Billy and his brother Jack actually repulsed one of our citizens and his party in passing up the river, for the purpose of surveying some land that he had recently purchased, and  take away their provisions and clothing, and to tie them and send them into the nation and whip them. [II]

When the Second Seminole War erupted in 1835, the Yuchi quickly joined the alliance fighting against the United States. Uchee Billy and Uchee Jack took part in raids against sugar plantations in East Florida and battled U.S. forces as they moved through the region. Billy was even – falsely – reported killed in 1836 after a battle with one wing of Maj. Gen. Winfield T. Scott’s army.

It soon became apparent, however, that he was still alive:

EUCHEE BILLY, (the Chief heretofore supposed to have been killed in battle, by our own forces) it is now said, is at Fort Mellon with Phillip’s son. Phillip is said to be wounded, and it is supposed, received his wound at the hard fought battle at Lake Monroe, where the gallant Mellon fell a sacrifice to Indian peridy. [III]

King Phillip as painted by George Catlin.
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.

Phillip or King Phillip was an important leader in the Seminole war effort and a close ally of Uchee Billy. Phillip’s son, mentioned in the account above, was probably Coacoochee or Wild Cat. 

Some writers incorrectly claim that Billy was the son of John Hicks, the prominent Miccosukee-Seminole chief of the 1820s and 1830s. This error resulted from an incorrect reading of 19th-century documents.

The Yuchi, along with Phillip’s band, went back to the sugar plantation region south of St. Augustine by late summer 1837. Brig. Gen. Joseph M. Hernandez – who previously represented Florida as the first Hispanic member of the U.S. Congress – learned of their presence and led troops to find them. 

He camped at the ruins of the Bulow Plantation on September 7, where he learned from surrendering maroons (escaped slaves) that two camps of warriors were nearby.

Ruins at Bulow Sugar Mill Historic State Park near Palm Coast, Florida.

The first of these, under Phillip, was attacked near today’s Dunlawton Plantation Sugar Mill Gardens on September 8. Phillip and all but one of his followers were captured.

One of the prisoners, a Seminole named Tomoka John, offered to guide the soldiers to the nearby camp of Uchee Billy:

…I had the Indian warrior Tomoka John who was taken with Philip, brought before me, and by him I was informed that there was another encampment of a party of eight warriors at the head of whom was Euchee Billy, with a number of women and children, in a swamp about five or six miles north of us. This Tomoka John stated that he had been at their encampment the day before and offered to lead me to the spot: alleging at the same time that it was necessary to proceed with great caution as they were always on the alert. On this information I interrogated Philip, who in substance confirmed the statement of Tomoka John saying that he had known me from my infancy, had perfect confidence in my promise of protection, and would readily give me all the information in his power, assuring me at the same time that I might entirely trust to Tomoka John. [IV]

Chee-a-ex-e-co, the daughter of Uchee Jack and niece of Uchee Billy,
was among those captured on September 10, 1837.
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.

The soldiers advanced through extremely difficult terrain to reach the Yuchi camp, which they struck at sunrise on September 9, 1837:

…At daylight the signal was given and the charge made with great promptness, but so watchful were the Indians that they succeeded in discharging two rifles, by one of which I greatly lament to say as I have already stated to you before Lieut. McNeill while gallantly advancing at the head of his men was mortally wounded. The affair was soon over. One Indian was killed and three wounded one of whom afterwards died. The party consisted of twenty one of whom none escaped except one man who fled in the night. The encampment of this party was exceedingly well chosen, it being almost impossible that it could be discovered by those not previously acquainted with its position. [V]

Uchee Billy was credited with firing the shot that killed Lt. John Winfield Scott McNeil. He was a nephew of future President Pranklin Pierce.

Uchee Billy, Uchee Jack, three warriors, and a number of women and children were captured by the troops. Two warriors were killed in the fighting and several others were wounded.

The prisoners were taken to St. Augustine, where Billy and Jack were imprisoned in the ancient stone walls of the Castillo de San Marcos (Fort Marion). Billy grew sick and died there on November 25, 1837. Jack and the other Yuchi soon after traveled the Trail of Tears west to what is now Oklahoma.

Dr. Frederick Weedon, who decapitated both Uchee Billy and Osceola.
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection

The imprisonment and death of Uchee Billy was not the end of the distinguished chief’s story. He had the misfortune to be treated in his dying hours by Dr. Frederick Weedon, the same Dr. Weedon who later treated Osceola at Fort Moultrie in South Carolina.

Weedon was a practitioner of the “science” of phrenology. He and other phrenologists believed that they could determine the personality and other attributes of individuals by studying their heads.

Dr. Weedon cut off Uchee Billy’s head and added it to his personal collection. He “defleshed” the skull and exhibited it in his St. Augustine offices. The rest of the chief’s body, it is assumed, was buried.

Weeden is remembered with some notoriety today as the man who decapitated Osceola at Fort Moultrie in January 1838. Osceola’s head was preserved in a jar of alcohol and also exhibited at the doctor’s office.

Osceola, as painted by George Catlin in 1838, was also decapitated by Dr. Weedon. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

What became of the two heads – along with others in Weedon’s collection – is a mystery.

The jar containing Osceola’s head later passed to Dr. Valentine Mott, founder of a Surgical and Pathological Museum in New York. Many believe that the head was lost when a fire destroyed the museum in 1866. Dr. Mott, however, mentioned in a letter to Weedon’s son-in-law that he kept Osceola’s head not in the museum but in a separate collection in his home. It disappeared after his death and may be part of someone’s macabre collection to this day.

Uchee Billy’s skull remained in Dr. Weedon’s collection for a number of years but vanished from the record before the doctor’s death in 1857. Some collector may still hold it, depriving him of final dignity and rest.

[I] Benjamin Hawkins, Letters of Benjamin Hawkins, 1796-1806.

[II] East Florida Herald, July 11, 1836.

[III] The Weekly Standard, May 17, 1837

[IV] Brig. Gen. Joseph M. Hernandez to Maj. Gen. Thomas S. Jesup, Dec. 16, 1837, Adjutant General, Letters Received, National Archives.

[V] Ibid.