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A Passion To Change The Future

Missionary Harriet Bedell’s dedication to the Seminole Tribe of Florida showed the power of one person to make a difference.

Deaconess Bedell with Mary Osceola Huff and Fanny Stuart

Deaconess Bedell with Mary Osceola Huff and Fanny Stuart

“You cannot live with people without loving them.” This simple-sounding philosophy inspired Harriet Bedell, born in 1875, to spend more than a half century living among and serving as a missionary to the Cheyenne in Oklahoma, the Koyukon in remote Alaska and the Seminoles in South Florida. In honor of her tireless work and unflagging devotion, the Episcopal Church of America named Deaconess Bedell a saint in 2009, 40 years after her death. Her commitment to improving the quality of life for people who have been diminished, mistreated and marginalized is a stirring reminder both of the darkest remnants of our collective past and of the undeniable power of a single person with a passion to change the future. 

Bedell’s particular dedication to the Seminoles in Florida brings to mind Indian River County’s own history with the Ais, one of the many diverse groups that lived throughout what is now the southeastern United States as long as 14,000 years before the Europeans’ 16th century arrival. The Ais lived along Florida’s east coast from Cape Canaveral to Fort Pierce. Their lands extended westward to the St. Johns River and encompassed what they called “El Rio de Ais,” helping to explain the eventual name “Indian River.” 

Spanish sailors first reported contact with the Ais in 1565. Primarily foragers, the Ais maintained summer villages on the mainland and winter grounds on the barrier islands. While in 1597, Florida’s Spanish governor reported that the Ais chief had more Native Americans under his command than any other tribe that he had visited, there is no record of the group after 1703. Area historians, archaeologists and anthropologists have long sought to save and explore area mounds and artifacts in attempts to unravel the mystery of precisely where and how the Ais lived and what ultimately happened to them.