Paul “Swamp Owl” Morrison speaks to students from Beverly Shores Elementary School at the Bourlay Historic Nature Park in a presentation sponsored by the Lake County Water Authority. Photo courtesy of Lake County Water Authority
As a four-year-old tyke, Paul Morrison was already making career plans. He proclaimed to his parents that he was going to dress like an Indian and visit parks when he grew up.
His father replied that was fine, but that he’d better find a way to support a family, too, because there certainly wasn’t a big demand for Indians.
“My dad never dreamed that I’d be able to make a living doing historical presentations and reenactments,” says the 58-year-old Leesburg native. “I’ve been supporting my family this way for over 30 years now.”
Swamp Owl’s regalia includes a hand-carved alligator tooth similar to those used by Seminoles to carry gun powder. Photo by Mary Ann DeSantis
Whether he was playing “Cowboys and Indians” with friends or performing in school plays, Paul always chose the role of an Indian. History was his favorite subject, and he occasionally skipped classes at Leesburg High School to watch Seminole War reenactments at the Dade Battlefield near Bushnell.
“I prayed for years that someday I would be invited to join those reenactments,” says Paul. “It was a dream come true when I led the Seminoles into battle.”
He sports an authentic Seminole Indian haircut full-time, and even in his off-duty attire he looks every bit Native American. However, Paul didn’t know that he was truly a descendent of Seminole and Mohawk tribes until he was in his thirties.
“My maternal grandmother’s sister died and we found an old family Bible in a trunk that showed my great-grandmother was a Seminole,” says Paul. “In those days, a lot of people denied their Indian heritage, so it wasn’t unusual that she didn’t talk about it.”
The Mohawk line comes from his father’s side of the family, whose roots can be traced to the Mayflower, according to Paul. His grandfather told family members that his third-great-grandfather was a Mohawk chief.
“Everyone said that he was old and just talking,” Paul says with a laugh. “Years later, when we had a family tree done, we found out he was telling the truth.”
Paul prides himself on his attention to detail when it comes to his regalia and his stories. For presentations such as the one he’ll be doing later this month at the Lady Lake Historical Museum, dressing in his Seminole regalia takes at least an hour. Beaded belts and sashes fill his closets along with the traditional garb worn for reenactments. In addition to authentic clothing, he has devoted an entire room in his new log cabin home to historical items pertaining to Florida history and Seminole culture.
Swamp Owl and his beloved Florida cracker horse, Smokee, participate in Seminole War reenactments throughout the South. Seminole Tribe of Florida, courtesy of Paul Morrison
Jeff Grzlak has known Paul for more than 20 years and gets “killed” annually by Paul during the reenactments of the Second Seminole War at Dade Battlefield.
“For questions about Seminole history, Paul is the go-to guy for information,” says Jeff, who is also a Civil War history buff. “He is a great living historian and probably one of the top three in the state for authenticity.”
Paul worked as a storyteller for the Seminole Tribe in Big Cypress Swamp in the Everglades for 15 years. His resume also includes alligator wrestling at Billy Swamp Safari in Big Cypress. It was that job that almost cost him his right arm.
“The only time I ever got hurt was when I was posing for a picture,” says Paul with a laugh. “I knew better than to put my hand in a gator’s mouth, but I wanted to keep the tourists happy.”
During his years at Billy Swamp Safari, he became known as the man who could call owls and the name “Swamp Owl” just seemed to fit. A friend gave Paul the name because of his ability to “hoot up” owls whenever he wanted his friends to stop being annoying.
“The Seminoles believe that souls are transferred to owls, which carry the souls to heaven or hell,” says Paul, who has always been fascinated by the creatures. “I always warned my friends that the owl would get them if they didn’t quit whatever it was they were doing.”
As Swamp Owl, Paul traveled the country making historical presentations at schools and museums. He began limiting his trips to the Southeast a few years ago when his father was ill. He’s also made numerous presentations at Florida’s state parks along with his purebred stallion, named “Smokee,” which he proudly describes as a Florida cracker horse.
“When Paul rode into Bourlay Historic Nature Park on his horse, history came alive for the students who were there for his presentation,” recalls Patricia Burgos, environmental program manager for the Lake County Water Authority, which sponsored the event. “The setting was picture-perfect and you can’t get that experience in a textbook.”
Mixed with lots of historical facts, Swamp Owl’s presentations also cover the importance of taking care of the environment. He hopes that his message resonates with his audiences, many of whom are recent transplants to the Sunshine State.
“When things start dying out, so will we,” says Paul, who also has made appearances on the Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet. “I’m a very blessed person. Both my parents loved the outdoors and taught me how to respect the environment. I would like for other people to understand Florida and respect it, too.”
Want To Meet Swamp Owl?
Paul Morrison’s next presentation as “Swamp Owl” will be at 7pm, Oct. 28, at the Lady Lake Historical Museum, just behind the Log Cabin on Highway 441.