Fort Basinger

The historic memorial sign for Fort Basinger explains a little about the small community that once sat on the banks of the Kissimmee River.

A lot of folks attending the 2021 Heritage Festival will be coming to a town that has disappeared but has had an important past. The only identifying piece to the town is a Florida State Historical Marker on the side of the road. The following will provide some information as to what occurred nearly 200 years ago as part of Highlands County’s 100th Anniversary. The town was located in the area of the Pearce Homestead along the Kissimmee River.

The Seminole Wars began (three wars 1816-1858), as soon as the U.S. acquired Florida, by urging Indians to leave their lands and relocate along with other northeastern tribes to Indian Territory, the present day Oklahoma. Some Seminole leaders signed a treaty in 1832 and moved, but other Seminoles refused and fled into the Florida Everglades. The job of the U.S. Army was to capture those that fled.

It was in 1837 when U.S. Army Col. Zachary Taylor, who later became our 12th United States president, led an army of 1,100 foot soldiers from Tampa to this area along the Kissimmee River, with orders to capture hostile native American Indians.

As the soldiers passed along the western shore of the Kissimmee River, Col. Zachary Taylor looked for a suitable place to build a pine log fort with a supply station and stockade. A low sand hill overlooking the river seemed the ideal spot. He decided to name the new fort, Fort Basinger, in honor of Lt. William E. Basinger of Georgia, killed in the Dade massacre two years earlier.

Once built, this small fort would serve a line of forts extending from Tampa to Lake Okeechobee. The fort was abandoned after the end of the Seminole Indian Wars and the fort was on the property when Edna Pearce Lockett’s grandfather, John Mizell Pearce, first saw it and the property while serving in the Confederate States Army. After serving in the Army and at the conclusion of the Civil War, he returned home and applied for a homestead with the State of Florida and was awarded the property along the Kissimmee River. He moved his family and cattle business to the homestead in 1874 from Fort Meade.

In the late 1880s, slowly, pioneer families – mostly cattle ranchers, farmers and trappers – started moving to the area. They liked the low-lying land, its position on the river and the good pastureland (whenever it was not flooded). Looking back, the Pearce’s were the first settlers in Highlands County. The town of Fort Basinger became prosperous as its location along the river allowed it to become a hub of activity where crops were shipped out and goods were brought in on steamers. It was a thriving community for 40 years. The wood-burning paddlewheel steamboats coming from the town of Kissimmee provided shipping connections to railroads for fruits and vegetables. The steamboats stopped along the landings up and down the river.

In its heyday, Fort Basinger had hotels, two churches, a harness shop, four stores, a post office and the Fort Basinger School. Everything was fine until trains came bypassing Fort Basinger. Folks began moving away around 1915 to the new towns springing up along the tracks that included the new town of Okeechobee.

Across the river in Okeechobee County was another flourishing community – Basinger or Bassinger. It was also named for that same Georgia lieutenant that was killed. Its importance also ended with the coming of trains and automobiles.

Today, what used to be Fort Basinger is a sparsely populated area. The river is used by sportsmen, and the vast open prairies are still useful for cattle-raising.

Source: Based on Early Florida History by Park Devane; Pioneer Families of the Kissimmee River Valley by Kyle Vanlandingham; The River of the Long Water, Alma Hetherington; Seminole Wars- Florida Dept. of State.