How a Legendary Black Seminole Got His Name

“One autumn morning in 1826, Andrew the black cook of Lt. Col. George M. Brooke, commander of the cantonment, appeared at the officer’s door. Andrew told him there was a young black Seminole wanting an interview. He also said the youth had some ‘gophers’ (land turtles) for sale. Since arriving in Florida, Brooke had developed a taste for their succulent meat and owned a pen of rails for keeping them.

Gopher John

Presently, between his quarters and the kitchen, the colonel met a ‘long legged, lathy negro boy of some fourteen years.’ His long, crinkly hair and copper complexion indicated some Indian blood. The officer’s main interest, however, was in the youngster’s large fiber bag. Brooke asked to see the terrapins and John tumbled out two unusually fine specimens. The officer eyed them covetously and asked their price. After a moment’s hesitation, the youth said ‘about two bits.’ Brooke took a coin from his pocket and gave it to the boy. Then he turned toward the kitchen and told his cook to put the reptile inside the pen. After learning the young salesman’s name, the Colonel asked John for a steady supply in the future. If possible, he wanted more brought tomorrow. For the next few days, John returned with more gophers for sale. Colonel Brooke gladly paid a quarter for each new acquisition. Then he began planning a great feast for the post’s officers. Terrapin would be the main course.

Days later, and shortly after one of John’s visits, Brooke finalized the menu and asked Andrew to count the turtles in the pen. He was stunned when informed that there were only two; the same pair John had delivered that morning. Upon reflection, the officer realized that the youngster had repeatedly sold him the same ones.

Enraged, Brooke commanded  his orderly to go immediately to Tholonotosassa and fetch John. The soldier soon reappeared, shoving the ashen-faced lad before him. The officer, barely containing his fury, confronted John. Desperately searching for words while trying to conquer his nervous stammer, John mumbled that his only intent was not to disappoint the colonel.

The ingenious excuse deflated Brooke’s anger. Rather than punishing him,  he ordered the youngster to provide, eventually, the turtles already purchased. The officer then nicknamed him Gopher John lest he forget his dishonesty. This sobriquet stayed with him for life.”

Sources: The Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom Seeking- People by Kenneth W. Porter. Revised and edited by Alcione M. Amos and Thomas P. Senter. University Press of Florida, 1996. p. 30; and McCall, George A. [1868] 1974. Letters from the Frontier. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. Facisimile

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