Monday, November 30, 2009

Seminole Invictus: Unconquered Runaways

Here is yet another history paper that I wrote for my Native American History class. Luckily, I picked the tribe I knew best from the hat... what luck is that, huh? Anyway, it's a nice departure from the Imperialism for a change. Please enjoy. I always do. And my 26 years in Florida allowed me to learn a lot about the Seminole... even some language! "Mutdoh!"

Yeah... I'm 75 pounds heavier in this photo... this was before the shedding of my skin... lol.

“The Seminole was to learn their potency and strength

from the effort to break them…”[1]

The author known only as “Logan,” writing for The Floridian newspaper in 1836, felt great pity for the Seminole Indians in the United States’ territory of Florida. Logan may have identified with the Native American’s unique view of land ownership or his natural belief systems. Then again, perhaps he grew weary of a war that did not seem necessary. Whatever attracted Logan’s sympathies does not well reveal its source in the articles. Still, most Americans outside of Florida did not share his vision or compassion. Very likely however, Logan did not have the cultural “tools” that he needed to understand the differences that separated the Indian from the White man. Unique and disparate rituals and cultural beliefs caused the initial cultural clash, differences nurtured through the millennia of separation by a great sea. By the nineteenth century, the Indian and the European had known each other for a severely short time by comparison, a small fraction of their time apart. Moreover, the Seminole diverged from English Americans for nearly a century further, living under the auspices of Spanish rule. In many ways, the Seminole’s story began relatively late as a reaction to the European presence in America, a desire to be free of the Englishman. Ironically, it was the Spaniard of the eighteenth century that treated him with more respect, if one can attribute any European having a respectful air toward the Indian. For most native tribes, the United States became the real threat, the indomitable enemy.

For the brief time under Spanish rule, the Seminole developed a culture, both unique among the Indian as it was unique among the European. They were termed “runaways” by many European accounts, reflecting this trait. An almost scientific curiosity settled upon those Seminole remaining in Florida after Indian removal to Oklahoma perhaps because they hid in a forsaken wilderness full of mosquitoes, alligators, panthers, and bears rather than face removal. Perhaps it struck the American heart more to the core than most cases. Perhaps the swamp land in question did not seem worth the effort. The distinctive culture of the Seminole remains perhaps the reason that they were regarded with such curiosity by ethnographers of the twentieth century. A rather stark disparity between the Seminole and their closely related and recently separated brethren, the Creek of Georgia and Alabama may have been an aversion to the European practice of slavery. Black “runaway” slaves from the South in Florida probably found kinship among these unique Florida Indians, regarded as “runaways” themselves. Moreover, Africans left by the Spanish in Florida retained many of their original customs and rituals while freely joining with the Native Americans. The harshness of the Englishman in America catalyzed the cultural development of the Seminole. Desiring to be left alone, uncertainties surround their culture and development. Still, curious Americans endeavored early to “discover” the Seminole and their unique culture in the early 20th century.

The Seminole Tribe earned “official” American respect as one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” of the American Southeast. The Seminoles’ mother tribe, the Creek of Alabama and Georgia, had a written language and an art unparalleled in the region.[2] Their clothing patterned after English styles, with paisley and floral patterns and later, bright colors seen in the reds, yellows, greens, and blues of their cotton dresses and glass beads, worn profusely around the neck. As civilized as they seemed, it did not prevent the invasion of outsiders coming with the sale of Florida to the United States in 1819 and the tremendous wave of land-hungry American settlers. Three wars erupted. Seminoles, like other native tribes, faced the long, arduous trek to Oklahoma, save for a smattering of Seminole hiding in the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp of south Florida, a wilderness much too fearsome for the American of the mid-nineteenth century. Floridians, like “Logan,” in 1836, felt shock and outrage at the apparent mistreatment of their fellow Floridians. Others, arguably, land-hungry settlers that desired their swamps, continued to see them as “savages.” Seminoles understandably fought back and lost. Yet, they still survive in Florida today and have increased their number and earned the status of a federally recognized tribe, along with their immediate family, the “Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma.”

The departure of Florida’s native population, the Timucua, Potano, Ais, Calusa, and others left a void that begged to be filled. The Creek, or Muskogee, Miccosuki, and as many as seven different tribes answered that call.[3] La Florida, a possession of Spain until 1819, began to turn more toward Christianization of the natives than enslavement by the nineteenth century. Native peoples lived comfortably within and outside the mission districts of Spanish La Florida. By 1750, the Spanish began to refer to natives living in the outlying regions as “Cimarrones.”[4] These “Seminoles” or “seceeders” tried to avoid contact with the English, while other Florida Creeks allied with them against the Spanish. The Creek, perhaps in reference to Seminoles having left their homeland in Alabama and Georgia, simply called them “runaways” and claimed that “Seminole” is a Creek word having that meaning.[5] Florida scholars, however, ascribe to the Spanish origin. J. W. Powell’s introduction to MacCauley’s “The Seminole Indians of Florida,” refers possibly to the Creek immigrants to Florida following the Creek Wars of 1813-14 as “turbulent and criminal Indians.”[6] The term “Simánole,” meaning separatist or renegade, refers to these Indians, he asserts, perhaps by the main body of Creeks still in their original Georgia and Alabama abodes. He notes also that the Seminoles of Florida thrust this appellation back upon the larger group who left Florida for the western territories (Oklahoma), “impugning their courage and steadfastness.”[7] In short, many legends surround the real origins of the name.

Seminoles began to attract many “runaways” to their Florida home, incorporating many nations, including vague remnants of native Floridian tribes and even runaway slaves from the nearby United States. Seminole Nation diversity reflects itself in the many languages spoken by their people: Muscogee, Hitchiti, Koasati, Alabama, Natchez, Yuchi and Shawnee. The Apalachi, a Hitchiti speaking people, may have been related to the Creek Tamathli, or Apalachicola. Representing a native remnant of an original Florida tribe, the Apalachicola existed there, on the Apalachicola River, at the time of Spanish contact. The first Creek-speaking people, relative late-comers to Florida, arrived about 1760 and settled in Chocuchattee (Red House) near present day Brooksville, Florida.[8] The fact that the early Florida Creeks, or Seminole owned cattle and became great herdsmen contributed to the American desire for their possessions. Florida remains today a large cattle state with large, flat expanses of pasture land.

Seminoles remained a small tribe, compared with their more numerous Creek brethren. Before the War of 1812, Seminoles numbered about 1,200 people to the Georgia and Alabama Creeks’ 25,000.[9] The matriclan, or matrilineal organizational unit of the Seminole, like the Creek, was composed of the individual clan and various moieties of that clan, all classified on the red-white color opposition that was basic to Creek society. War leaders usually were chosen by red clans, perhaps based on the idea of red representing war. Conversely, positive attributes like organization and leadership represented the white-clan responsibility. In general, there are eight Seminole clans - Panther, Bear, Deer, Wind, Bigtown, Bird, Snake, and Otter. When the last female in a clan passes on, the clan is considered extinct; for instance, the Alligator clan is now extinct. The Panther clan is the largest clan in today's Seminole Tribe of Florida.[10]

Seminoles were accomplished cattlemen, developing profitable herds in the region of north Florida centered upon modern Alachua. Consequently, the Jackson era of the 1820s became a time of great change in Florida’s native society. The United States, coveting the cattle and land in Florida, came to take it from both the Spanish and the Indian in 1821. Patterns of American migration paralleled the usurpation of Indian lands throughout the new country, especially after the invention of the cotton gin in 1790. Many conflicts, given various “official” names and causes by the Americans, were essentially wars against the Indians to gain their land. For the Seminole, the cause may not have been the swamps so much as the cattle.

The destruction of a British post on the Appalachicola River in 1821 was regarded as the end of the War of 1812 by some and the beginning of the First Seminole War by others. At the same time, native Floridians had begun to flourish and gained in population through the influx of the refuge Creeks after the war. Native population in 1823 had increased three or four times by immigration of the newcomers. It was this population of about five thousand collective peoples who experienced the fiercest of all wars ever waged by the U.S. Government against Indians, known as the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842. By the end of the war, only three-hundred Seminoles remained in Florida. The Third Seminole War removed another 240.[11]

By the end of the Second Seminole War in 1842, the three-hundred remaining Florida Seminole had organized themselves into bands and each band became associated with a medicine bundle.[12] Each bundle had a keeper and the ceremonial dances, with bundle and keeper became the focus of Seminole life. The hostility associated with the second war may have attributed to the centralization of the importance of medicine bundles, the opening of which by the keeper and display of the sacred objects, the “Power of War,” ensured the health of the tribe until the next Green Corn festival.[13] The war magic focused the tribe on the American threat at hand that would threaten them a third time after 1842.

The nuclear family became the fundamental unit of communal interaction in Creek society, and so it was with Seminole. Females shared responsibility in Creek communities, or Huti.[14] The term describes more than just the physical huts and their surroundings. Communal responsibility also contributed to the meaning of Huti. The matrilineal concept of Huti actually differed for men and women. For a woman, the Huti carried a more traditional meaning of “hearth and home,” whereas, for men, it implied the various homes of his mother and her clan.

Individual homes were grouped by clan into clusters within the town, which contained a town square in which the Mico, or chief and his advisors, or henihas, would conduct the business of the town. Another important member of this leadership was the tastanagi, or tustenugi, or war chief. The Mico and henihas sat facing the east and occupied the western arbor of the square, while the tustenagi and his fellow warriors sat on the south side, facing north. The remaining two sides remained for the visitors and other members of the talwa, or the town political structure, translated as “people of one fire.[15]

All community gatherings occurred around this totka, or “central fire,” a very important cultural bond, symbolizing purity and renewal. The overt ritual of cleanliness, especially of the Seminole, was a reflection of this concept of purity and many tangential rituals branched from this idea. Purity of spirit was so important to the Creek and Seminole that it sometimes involved the drinking of purgatives and scarification during the Green Corn ceremonies. Purity of body equated with the mind in the general practice of forgiving all trespasses during Green Corn. The practice of sprinkling small particles of tobacco into the totka while offering prayers to Hesekatomese, or “Grandfather,” may have lent a magical quality to these and other ceremonies by virtue of the bright red sparks they gave off. Troupes of Seminole dancers performed the "fire ant," "crow," "catfish" and other Seminole social stomp dances, as they still do today.[16]

Magic, or spiritualism meant a great deal to the Creek and early Seminole. Many believe that good luck, bad luck, success, failure, danger, safety, right decisions, wrong decisions, and other natural consequences can be influenced by the application of "medicine." These beliefs were assumed to have been simplified, or concentrated by the smaller Seminole tribe. In the late eighteenth century, the naturalist, William Bartram killed a rattlesnake that had crawled into an Indian camp, much to the alarm of its inhabitants. When the Indians tried to bleed Bartram to restore “mildness” to his nature, Bartram refused, much to the Indians’ alarm, afraid of the reptile’s spirit. A definite and precarious nature revolved around the spirit world for these people. Friends and relatives of the injured rattlesnake, as seen by the Indian, would seek vengeance for the wrong done to their brother unless appeased by the ritual. Further, a drunken rage murder in the Indian village of Alachua in 1764 may have prompted the entire village to move due to disturbed spirits of the slain man. They even refused to bury him. In contrast to Christianity, nature embodied everything, all creatures, both spiritual and real, as well as causes and their effects. Religious parallels of the Christian “God” and Hesekatomese were made obvious to the Indians only by a natural reference to God as “one who thunders.”[17]

Hesekatomese, or “Grandfather,” or “Master of Breath,” presided over a more numerous if less prominent pantheon of animals and spirits. The Green Corn Dance occurred in late June or July, a celebration of Huti renewal and the Hunting Dance occurred in the fall. These were ceremonies for the warriors and often excluded women. Green Corn has special significance in that it prepares the Huti for the next year, celebrating the ripening to milk stage of the new corn crop, ushering in a new cycle for the community. Green Corn lasted eight, sometimes four days. The cycle of four has a special significance to the Seminole. Normal dances generally occur in multiples of four as well. Properly performed dances, only in multiples of four, were essential to release the beneficent power of Grandfather upon his people. Every warrior was required to return to the village of his mother’s family to attend the Green Corn ceremony at the appointed time or risk angering the forces of nature and the censure of his fellows. The medicine bundle would be opened by the keeper and its contents prayed over. Purgative teas aided the purification of warriors who must accept the forgiveness of all debts before the renewal of the New Year. No Seminole would hold a grudge longer.[18]

Beginning in the late seventeenth century, the Spanish granted liberty to runaway slaves from the Carolinas and Georgia who crossed over the border into Florida. In return for their military support against the British, these Africans could live apart, own arms and property, travel at will, and select their own leaders.

The nature of slavery, if such a term can be applied to acts of the Seminole, has been a controversial subject. Historian Kenneth W. Porter, in Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-seeking People, sought to understand the black Seminoles and their leader, John Horse. The tumultuous year of 1812 witnessed more than the American’s renewed war with the British. A young black woman living with the Seminole just west of St. Augustine, in the native town of Alachua, gave birth to a young son that she named John. John’s father may have been the Seminole tribesman, Charles Cavello, who may have owned her.[19]

Still, did Cavello own the black mother of John Horse? Slave-holding Creeks in Georgia may have recognized the mix of black Spanish colonists and runaway slaves living amongst the Florida Indians generally as “runaways.” The assumption remained that the Seminole “owned” slaves. Indeed, the early Creek immigrants to Florida may have viewed it as ownership. British officials, following the cession of Florida in 1763 to the Empire, gave the Florida tribes “King’s gifts,” or black servants as a reward for their services. However, Seminoles, as a multi-ethnic community after the Creek Wars, may have been perplexed as to how to manage their new “property.” Not intending to manage plantations like their neighbors in South Carolina, they began giving blacks tools to cut down trees, build houses, and raise corn. The Black Seminole came into being as a member of the tribe and not as a slave, per se. They did, however, live in separate communities for the most part. Runaway slaves, from the neighboring American colonies, then as the United States, became a source of refuge. It continued through the British period, the re-acquisition of Florida by the Spanish, and the eventual American takeover in 1821.[20]

After Seminole removal to Oklahoma and the Civil War, the Seminoles remaining in Florida were hiding in the alligator and panther-inhabited swamps of the Everglades. There they remained in remote acclimated peace for more than two decades. The land “fever” in America had subsided somewhat and the resulting tide of academia influenced by the Smithsonian Institute encouraged wonder at the now mysterious Florida Seminole.

In reflection, it seems ridiculous. Seminoles were an innovative, adaptive native culture living on their own in mosquito-infested, swampy turf whose older members remembered Americans and taught their children how to use guerilla warfare to fight them. The Seminoles wars were an early Vietnam for the United States. Even further, American soldiers fought three of these wars, suffered 1500 deaths, and spent $20 million in a violent bid for swamp land in Florida.[21]

During the winter of 1880-81, the Seminole still in Florida remained elusive. Reverend Clay MacCauley had to track them into the Everglades and surrounding environs for his report to the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution. He endured the hardships of nineteenth-century South Florida to “inquire into the condition and to ascertain the number of Indians commonly known as the Seminole” that remained in Florida. He found 208, of thirty-seven families, living in twenty-two camps, and gathered amongst a few settlements. Five late settlements developed in south Florida were the Big Cypress Swamp, the Miami River, Fish Eating Creek, Cow Creek, and Cat Fish Lake.[22] Since the Civil War, Seminoles lived on “the fringes of society,” often as “hunters, guides and sometimes, curiosities for the tourists.”[23]

The 1950’s were a turning point for the Florida Seminoles. In 1953, the United States Congress passed legislation to terminate federal tribal programs and the State of Florida supported termination of services to the Seminoles. However, tribal members and their supporters were able to successfully argue against termination, drafting their own constitution by 1957. Self government came in the formation of a Tribal Council. At the same time, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc. was created to facilitate their businesses. These included Seminole casinos, a motocross park, Hard Rock café, and other lucrative businesses whose income supports a growing infrastructure for the Seminole community’s health and welfare, public safety, and education. Stable economics provided by gaming, as well as cattle, citrus, and other business enterprises, has made the Seminole Tribe of Florida one of the most successful native business ventures in the United States today. They employ more than 7,000 people and purchase more than $130.3 million in goods and services yearly.[24]


An Online Resource on the Historical and Present Day Creek Indians., 2001. (accessed September 5, 2009).

Cohen, M. M. Notices of Florida and the Campaigns. Reproduction, 1836 original. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1964.

Covington, James W. Seminoles of Florida. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1993.

Creek Language Archive: Resources for the Study of the Creek (Muscogee) Language. Edited by Jack B. Martin, Margaret McKane Mauldin, and Gloria McCarty. Williamsburg, VA: College of William and Mary, 2009. (accessed September 5, 2009).

Fairbanks, Charles H. Florida Seminole People. Phoenix, AZ: Indian Tribal Series, 1973.

Foster, William S. This Miserable Pride of a Soldier: The Letters and Journals of Col. William S. Foster in the Second Seminole War. Compiled and edited by John and Mary Lou Missall. Tampa, FL: University of Tampa Press, 2005.

Kersey, Harry A. Jr. Florida Seminoles and the New Deal: 1933-1942. Boca Raton, FL: Florida Atlantic University Press, 1989.

Logan. Osceola, the Indian Warrior,” The Floridian, (Tallahassee, FL) Saturday, April 09, 1836; Issue [35]; col A.

MacCauley, Clay. Seminole Indians of Florida. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2000.

Milanich, Jerald T. Florida Indians and the Invasion from Europe. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1998.

Porter, Kenneth W. Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-seeking People. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1996.

Steele, Willard. “Brief Summary of Seminole History,” Seminole Tribe of Florida. Hollywood, FL: Seminole Tribe of Florida, 2008. (accessed September 5, 2009).

Weisman, Brent R. Like Beads on a String: A Culture History of the Seminole Indians in Northern Peninsular Florida. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1989.

Weisman, Brent R. Unconquered People: Florida’s Seminole and Miccosukee Indians. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1999.

Wickman, Patricia R. Tree That Bends: Discourse, Power, and the Survival of the Maskókȋ People. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1999.

Wright, J. Leitch Jr. Creeks and Seminoles: The Destruction and Regeneration of the Muscogulge People. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

[1] Logan. Osceola, the Indian Warrior,” The Floridian, (Tallahassee, FL) Saturday, April 09, 1836; Issue [35]; col A.

[2] Creek Language Archive: Resources for the Study of the Creek (Muscogee) Language, edited by Jack B. Martin, Margaret McKane Mauldin, and Gloria McCarty (Williamsburg, VA: College of William and Mary, 2009), (accessed September 5, 2009).

[3] Willard Steele, “Brief Summary of Seminole History,” Seminole Tribe of Florida (Hollywood, FL: Seminole Tribe of Florida, 2008-2009), [] (accessed September 5, 2009).

[4] Jerald T. Milanich, Florida Indians and the Invasion from Europe (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1998), 234.

[5] An Online Resource on the Historical and Present Day Creek Indians (, 2001), (accessed September 5, 2009); Kenneth W. Porter, Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-seeking People (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1996), 5.

[6] Clay MacCauley, Seminole Indians of Florida (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2000), intro.

[7] Clay MacCauley, Seminole Indians of Florida (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2000), 471.

[8] Steele, “Brief Summary” (accessed September 5, 2009).

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Clans,” Seminole Tribe of Florida, (accessed November 16, 2009).

[11] Steele, “Brief Summary.”

[12] Brent R Weisman, Like Beads on a String: A Culture History of the Seminole Indians in Northern Peninsular Florida (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1989), 152.

[13] Brent R Weisman, Like Beads on a String: A Culture History of the Seminole Indians in Northern Peninsular Florida (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1989), 152.

[14] Brent R Weisman, Like Beads on a String: A Culture History of the Seminole Indians in Northern Peninsular Florida (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1989), 28.

[15] Ibid., 29.

[16] Ibid., 48-9.

[17] Ibid., 49; Brent R. Weisman, Unconquered People: Florida’s Seminole and Miccosukee Indians (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1999), 20-21.

[18] Charles H. Fairbanks, Florida Seminole People. (Phoenix, AZ: Indian Tribal Series, 1973), 80-81.

[19] Kenneth W. Porter, Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-seeking People (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1996), 3.

[20] Porter, Black Seminoles, 5.

[21] “Survival in the Swamp,” Seminole Tribe of Florida, (accessed November 10, 2009).

[22] MacCauley, Seminole Indians, 478.

[23] Steele, “Brief Summary.”

[24] “Seminoles Today,” Seminole Tribe of Florida, (accessed November 10, 2009).

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