Tag Archives: haunted history

“Don’t Tread on Me” Florida License Plate and Florida history

The Gadsden flag, which is a yellow flag with a coiled snake on it. The text reads "Don't tread on me" — this is now part of the "Don't Tread on Me" Florida license plate.
The “Don’t Tread on Me” Florida license plate shows how little we know Florida history.
Public Domain

The other day I was driving and found myself behind a truck with a specialty tag. That in and of itself isn’t unusual; Florida has more than 100 specialty license plates. What caught my eye was the image on the plate: The Gadsden flag.

This made me cringe.  Not because I don’t find the beneficiary worthy (the Florida Veterans Foundation) or because the flag, to some, embodies the battle cries of those who believe the 2020 election was stolen (it was not.)

It’s because the “Don’t Tread on Me” Florida license plate shows how truly ignorant we are about Florida’s history.

A black license plate with a yellow flag next to the letters "S A M P L" — the flag is the Gadsden Flag and shows a coiled snake with the words "don't tread on me" on it. The plate also says "Florida" and "Don't Tread on Me" on it.
Early 19th-century Floridians are rolling in their graves. 
Image via the State of Florida

The Gadsden Flag

I first learned about the Gadsden flag in grade school. It represented the unity of the 13 so-called “original” colonies. The idea came from a 1754 political cartoon, called “Join, or Die” and symbolized the unity of all EuroAmericans against King George.

a black-and-white illustration of a segmented snake, with different British colony abbreviations at each segment. Below the image are the words "Join, or Die" — this is the start of the Gadsden Flag that would become the Don't Tread on Me Florida License Plate
“Join, or Die” — this is the start of the Gadsden Flag that would become the “Don’t Tread on Me” Florida license plate.
Image via the United States Library of Congress

Or did it?

Why the “Don’t Tread on Me” Florida License Plate is an Insult to History

The Gadsden flag was hoisted in 1775, as the colonies — some of the colonies — in North America prepared to declare their independence from England. Everyone knows there were 13 original colonies, and they all rallied behind this flag.

Most of that is true. The 13 colonies revolting against the Crown did, indeed, rally behind this flag. But they weren’t the original colonies. Or, more accurately, they weren’t the only colonies at this time. Other colonies apart from those so-called “original” 13 included Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Quebec. Caribbean colonies — the Bahamas, the BVI, Jamaica and Bermuda — also remained loyal.

And so did Florida. At the time, we were two colonies: East Florida and West Florida, and we wanted no part of a revolution. The way we saw it, it wasn’t so much “revolution” as it was “insurrection” (yes, I know) and it was, to our way of thinking, treason.

Other colonists who wanted to remain British fled either to present-day Canada or to Florida. There are a few reasons life in Florida was great for British colonists (check out that link; it’s a fascinating description of Florida during the American Revolution), but the takeaway here is that the signing of the Declaration of Independence so incensed Floridians that they  burned effigies of John Hancock and Sam Adams in the St. Augustine town square. During the war, Floridians fought for England.

So, in 1776, Florida was less concerned with being tread on than it was distancing itself from an insurrection. And make no mistake about it: What we now call the American Revolution was, indeed, an insurrection (per Merriam Webster, who defines insurrection as an “act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government.”)

The End of Revolution and the Gadsden Flag

The Gadsden flag, then, was not one Florida supported. It, in all likelihood, upset late-18th-century and early-19th-century Floridians. When the 13 other colonies won their independence, that flag likely chafed even more, because now the Floridas went to Spain. That’s one hell of a reward for loyalty, although this was part of the 1783 Treaty of Paris and not something England otherwise might have done. Nevertheless, every time a Floridian looked at the Gadsden flag or heard the phrase “don’t tread on me,” it’s safe to say it didn’t inspire patriotism.

Of course, today, Florida’s part of the United States. I get that. But we can’t claim that the Gadsden flag’s origin or initial purpose did anything other than stand in opposition to what Florida was at the time. It stood for things we hated.

But sure, let’s put it on a license plate. Even if, every time I see one of those plates, I won’t think about helping Florida’s veterans. Instead, I’ll remember a Florida that desperately wanted nothing to do with these United States.

Maybe not the message we want that Don’t Tread on me Florida license plate to send.

Read more Florida history you don’t know, this time about Henry Flagler and railroads.

Robert the Doll and a remote… experience

Robert the Doll
This image, courtesy of Key West Wedding Photography via Flickr/CC, was presumably taken with permission.

I am a skeptic when it comes to “ghost stories” but I am also open-minded. I’m not going to ignore something smashing me in the face, but I’m also not going to believe anything because it’s a compelling tale.

Florida has some good ghost tales, and this time of year I have a talk about some of them I give to various groups. Yesterday I gave that talk at OLLI, and I was joking around about some of the stories, including this one about Robert the Doll. 
I use Keynote on an iPad Pro for all my talks, connecting to the projector either with HDMI or Apple TV,  and this works out well. I silence the iPad for  the talk, but it’s never been an issue because whenever I get a call/text/alert during a talk, I can see the alert on the iPad itself but it doesn’t appear on the projected screen. Yesterday was no different — I’d been in this room before with the exact same setup and equipment.
As I researched this legend, I found more than one story about how those who try and photograph Robert without permission either don’t get a good photo or the camera/camera phone fails — electronic failure is one of his hallmarks. And I was about to say this during the talk, my iPad rang. As in, the class heard it because the ring went through the HDMI and out to the speakers. I found it disarming, to say the least, but I laughed it off and then checked to make sure the volume on the iPad was off (it was all the way down, yes).
And then it rang again — again, disrupting the presentation and now freaking me out a bit. I put the iPad in “airplane mode” and laugh it off, telling the group that I’d done so and that if it range again, I was leaving. We all had a good laugh.
It’s important to note I poke at Robert’s owner a bit in the story, too — something legend says you shouldn’t do in the presence of the doll, because people report that his expression changes and seems “displeased” when people make fun of the man who owned him. But Robert’s in Key West and I’m in St. Pete giving this talk, so really,  I’m in the clear, right?
Last night  I was telling Sandi and Nicole this story, because in truth it’s a little creepy but also sort of funny. And my hair kind of stood on end while I told the story I told you, but I chalked that up to having an incredibly long day — fatigue makes anyone susceptible to things, right? While I told them, my phone was right next to me, and I went to bed, plugged it into the charger, and thought nothing of it.
This morning my iPhone is dead. As in, paperweight dead. I’ve done everything I can think of to get it to turn on, but nope, nada, zilch. 
I’m not saying it’s Robert, but at this point I’m not willing to say it isn’t, either.


Road Trip: Pirates, ghost dogs and massacres at Cedar Key

This article appeared in the October 27, 2016 issue of Creative Loafing Tampa.

My Cedar Key ghost story happened 20 years ago. While contentedly exploring the island, I happened upon a cemetery and, with a macabre excitement, busied myself going from tombstone to tombstone when this old green Ford Thunderbird convertible drove through the cemetery and then disappeared. I couldn’t find a drive or path where it would have turned off, but it was gone nonetheless.

Alcohol was not involved.

Today I know that I had too much city in me to find the turnoff — I was young and I expected drives to have clear markings, I suppose. Pretty sure I saw a good ol’ boy and not a ghost, but if I said I had seen a ghost, there’d be no shortage of people to assure me I had. See, every culture, regardless of how much contact it has with other cultures, has three things: mermaids, Bigfoots and ghosts. Cedar Key is no exception. Do I believe they’re true? As with mermaids and Bigfoots, let’s leave it at this: I want to believe.

My skepticism doesn’t make the re-telling of the ghost stories any more fun and Cedar Key — a tiny outpost a couple hours north of Tampa Bay in Levy County — has awesome legends: Murder, pirates and ghost dogs. Let’s break down the three most popular.

[read more at cltampa.com]