Fort Basinger, Florida – Ghost Town on the Kissimmee River

 

Fort Basinger, Florida

Fort Basinger, Florida

 

Fort Basinger was both a U.S. Army military post and a town located in Highlands County, Florida. Both are gone today, with the exception of a single historic homestead.

Zachary Taylor by Joseph Henry Bush. about 1848

Zachary Taylor by Joseph Henry Bush. about 1848

In 1837, a U.S. Army fort was established by Colonel Zachary Taylor during the Second Seminole War on the south bank of the Kissimmee River. It was named for Lieutenant William E. Basinger, 2nd U.S. Artillery, who was killed at the Dade Massacre on December 28, 1835. The post was one of a series of small, temporary supply posts established along Taylor’s route from Fort Brooke at Tampa to Lake Okeechobee. The fort included a log palisade with blockhouses at opposing angles. After supplies and heavy baggage at the post, Colonel Taylor pressed on to Lake Okeechobee, on a mission to round up a number of Seminole Indians who were resisting removal to Indian Territory (Oklahoma).

On December 25, 1837, while Taylor and about 800 troops were making their way to Lake Okeechobee, they were ambushed by about 400 Seminole Indians under chiefs Alligator, Billy Bowlegs and Abiaca. As the soldiers moved toward the lake, they came upon a large stand of trees with a half a mile of swamp in front of it. Lake Okeechobee lay beyond it. As Taylor moved his troops on foot squarely into the center of the swamp, they were hit from all sides by warriors perched in the treetops. Colonel Taylor and his troops were forced to retire to Fort Basinger. The U.S. forces suffered 26 killed and 112 wounded while the Seminole had only 11 killed and 14 wounded. The Battle of Lake Okeechobee, stopped Taylor’s troops from further advance south, for the time being, and no Seminole were captured.

Battle of Okeechobee, Florida

Battle of Okeechobee, Florida

Though the Seminole won the battle, Colonel Taylor demonstrated the ability of U.S. forces to penetrate deep into Seminole territory with large forces, which, with improved tactics, the U.S. Army would prevail in the removal effort.

The fort was officially abandoned in 1850 but was utilized again during the Third Seminole War which lasted from 1855 to 1858. Afterward, the surrounding area remained largely settled until after the Civil War.

Slowly, a few pioneer families, mostly cattle ranchers, farmers, and trappers, started moving into the area in the 1870s and the town of Basinger was established on the northeast side of the Kissimmee River in present-day Okeechobee County.

In 1875, Captain John Mizell Pearce, who had served in the Third Seminole War and as a captain in the Civil War, was deeded 157 acres of land on the southwest side of the river, which included the old fort. The Pearce family became one of the first to settle in what would become Highlands County. Pearce built a pine log home for his family, ran a cattle business, and started a steamboat ferry across the Kissimmee River to Basinger. In addition to running his cattle and ferry business, Pearce served as Deputy Sheriff and for some time, he was the only law enforcement in the lower Kissimmee River Valley.

Basinger, Florida General Store and Post Office

In the meantime, the town of Basinger began to grow and by 1878, enough people had moved to the town to support a general store. By 1880, there was a school. The town quickly became prosperous as it’s location along the river allowed it to become a hub of activity, where crops were shipped out and goods were brought in on steamers. Steamboats also took passengers north to Kissimmee, which connected the town to the railroad system. The first post office was founded in 1893 under the name “Bassenger.”

Captain Pearce died at Fort Basinger in 1897 and his wife Martha and son, Sidney ran the ranch together. A couple of years later she began building a new and larger home overlooking the Kissimmee River about 1.5 miles north of their earlier cabin. This would later become the Pearce Lockett Estate

By the turn of the century, the community of Basinger was a bustling cowboy town, with two hotels, a general store, clothing store, schoolhouse, a church, and thriving social activities. That year, the 1900 Census reported 338 people on the Okeechobee County side in Basinger and another 165 living on the Highlands County side at Fort Basinger.

In 1911 Martha Pearce died and her son Sidney, bought her homestead from the estate and he and his wife and children moved in. Sidney donated land to the community for the Fort Basinger School, which provided for up to 50 students from the area to attend, including his own children. He and his son, Cliff, ran the ranch while his daughters, Pearl and Edna grew up to teach in the school that their father built.

Florida East Coast Railway advertisement, 1913

Florida East Coast Railway advertisement, 1913

In the meantime, Basinger began to lose population in 1915 when the Florida East Coast Railroad bypassed Basinger in favor of Okeechobee some 20 miles to the southwest. The Bassenger post office closed in 1918. A final blow came to Basinger when the steamships stopped running in the 1920s due to improved roadway networks.

However, at about the same time, hopes for both towns were rekindled during the Great Florida Land Boom of the early 1920s. Huge land deals were struck on both sides of the river that investors believed would net huge profits. Various newspapers hailed that the “new” town would “become a city with 5,000 to 8,000 population… within five years or less.” A new post office was granted in 1925 on the fort-side of the river and was called “Fort Basinger.” At this point, the community had five stores, three blacksmith shops, two churches, a saddle shop, and the Fort Basinger three-room school with 150 students and three teachers.

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