Billy Bowlegs III Ahead of his Time

Native American Heritage Month is a time to celebrate its indigenous people’s accomplishments, contributions, and traditions. Keeping with that theme, Osceola History would like to honor Billy Bowlegs III. A Seminole tribesman was helping to teach the residents of Osceola County all about his peoples’ traditions in the late 1800s.

A Boy With Many Names

FeaturedNative American Billy Bowlegs III in his NAtive AMerican attire for Blog post about Native American Heritage month

Born Billie Fewell to an African-American father and a Seminole mother. Billie later revealed his first Seminole name to be Mo-nee-fah-gee and his second Seminole name to be Co-fee-hat-co to historian Albert Devane. Billie was a member of the Snake Clan, and his maternal grandfather was the great Seminole warrior, Osceola. Born “on the night of the little moon” (first quarter), on February 17, 1862, in Polk County, Florida, the family moved to Fisheating Creek about 1871. At the age of fifteen, during a Green Corn Dance, he took the name Billy Bowlegs III (Holata Micco), after the prominent Seminole Chief during the Seminole Wars. In her book, Minnie Moore Wilson described him as “a warrior of more than usual intelligence.” Furthermore, “although six feet, two inches tall, he is so symmetrically proportionate that one loses sight of his height.” 

Manhood

Billy Bowlegs III moved with a band of Seminoles to an area north of Lake Okeechobee. He married Chief Chipco’s sister’s granddaughter, Lucy, of the Deer Clan. Sadly Lucy died shortly after the birth of a son, Eli Morgan; Billy never remarried. In the late 1880s, Billy had learned to read and write from another Indian, Jack Scarborough. As a guide for hunting parties, Billy learned from the books and magazines shared with him around campfires. 

Friend to the White Man

Billy liked to venture far from his home in the Everglades, often making trips to Kissimmee, Florida, and as far north as St. Augustine. An astute businessman, he kept up to date on the markets. His pockets often bulged with letters from buyers in New York or Jacksonville wanting skins and pelts. Billy was in attendance to greet the first train to arrive in Kissimmee in 1883. He also attended the Flagler celebration in Palm Beach when the first train arrived there. Billie was a friend to the steamboat captains, often providing them with turkeys or venison. Additionally, Mr. Bowlegs III became a regular guest of Jim and Minnie Moore Willson. When Mrs. Willson wrote “The Seminoles of Florida,” Billy provided much of the information for her book. 

A Long Life

Great Seminole Tribesman "Chief" Billy Bowlegs III.

When Billy Bowlegs III died on February 13, 1965, he was nearly 103 years old. Born at the beginning of the Civil War, he lived through two World Wars. He witnessed the introduction of airplanes, automobiles, the telephone, and many advances in technology. Billy was known for his elaborate attire but was a simple man with a soft, low voice and progressive mind. In 1996 a memorial ceremony was held in the Ortona Cemetery, with nearly 1000 people in attendance. 

Written by Anza Bast

SOURCES

[Excerpted from Minnie Moore-Willson, 1896, The Seminoles of Florida, Philadelphia : American, p. 85-86.]

“River of the Long Water” by Alma Hetherington

“Kissimmee Gazette” July 21, 1960

Billie “Chief” Bowlegs III (1862-1965) – Find A Grave Memorial

https://www.floridamemory.com/

“Orlando Sentinel” October 18, 1963, May 22, 1998, April 5, 1998

Osceola History postcard collection