Final Paper: "The Florida Seminoles:Survival in America"

This discussion topic submitted by Renee DeJaco ( at 6:57 pm on 6/6/00. Additions were last made on Saturday, October 26, 2002.

The Florida Seminoles: Surviving in America

By: Renee DeJaco

Part I: A Brief History

" History is very rarely written to be true." Arden Kahlo

Some scholars have written that the Seminoles of today are descendants of the Lower Creek tribe who fled from the Indian slave traders and "patriots" living in the southeastern United States. They state that the original indigenous people of the Florida territories were basically extinct due to the diseases brought by Europeans, abuse, starvation, and slave trading. Jerald Milanich writes,

"In the mid-eighteenth centuryÖ it is likely that refugee Indians other than those we know about were living in Florida. But for all practical purposes, the native people of Florida were gone, their ethnic identities shatteredÖ
"The population vacuum attracted not only Indians who saw opportunities in raiding the few refugees in central and southern Florida. It also drew Indians who sought a different kind of wealth: land and the desire to live in peace free from the international and intertribal conflicts being played out just to the north of Florida. Most of these latter Indians were Lower Creeks from Georgia and Alabama who sought independence from the Upper CreeksÖ
"Locales that once had sustained Spanish and Indian missions and ranches in northwest and north Florida became home to Creek Indians. Two areas were especially important in this period of early migration into Florida, the Tallahassee-Lake Miccosukee area in what had been Apalachee province and the Gainesville-Paynes Prairie region in Timucua.
" Artifacts recovered from archaeological sites associated with these early towns indicate that the Florida Creeks initially lived much like their Creek relatives to the north. But gradually they became independent of the more northerly Creeks and developed a way of life suited to their new surroundings. They also received a new name. By the 1760ís these Florida Indians were becoming known as Seminoles." (Milanich 1998:177)

However, the Seminole tribe tells their history differently:
"When the Maskoki tribes of Alabama, whom English speakers erroneously called ëCreeksí, rose up against the white settlers in the Creek War of 1813-14, the brutal repression and disastrous treaty forced upon them by General Andrew Jackson sent thousands of the most determined warriors and their families migrating southward to take refuge in Spanish Florida. There they joined the descendants of many other tribes whose members had lived all across the Florida forests for thousands of years. The Indians who constituted the nucleus of this Florida group thought of themselves as yatísiminoli or ëfree peopleí, because for centuries their ancestors had resisted the attempts of the Spanish to conquer and convert them, as well as the attempts of the English to take their lands and use them as military pawns. Soon, white Americans would begin to call all the Indians in Florida by that name: ëSeminolesí. " (

Part II: The Seminole Wars

" He (Abiaka) jest look at de Colonel aní I smelled the trouble then,
aní he up aní say, ëMy mother died heah, my father died heah, aní
be demned I die heah; Yo-Ho-ee, Hee-ee!í " - Martha Jane, who cooked the
Treaty dinner for General Worth in 1842 (Willson 1910:45)

The southern states of the U.S. had the desire to acquire more land for new settlements and were constantly being plagued by the loss of slaves into Florida. Many Indians had slaves given to them as gifts. However, the Indians never really knew what to do with the slaves once they had them. The African slaves had more "freedom" with the Seminoles. They had their own communities and raised their own food and cattle. There were constant conflicts because this area was still under Spanish rule and many slaves were even given their own land and freedom if they joined the Spanish military.

The First Seminole War was the result of Andrew Jacksonís impudent efforts to take care of the "Indian problem" where he burned Indian towns, captured Africans, and hung a Maskoki medicine man who he believed was inciting the Indians. This caused an international incident and he was reprimanded. However, two years after the First Seminole War, Spain ceded Florida to the United States and General Andrew Jackson was appointed the first governor of Florida. Jackson installed republican governments in the Florida territories which consisted of local Patriot leaders. These men divided the lands and created constitutions governing their own affairs. Many had their own plantations and ranches which were very profitable. Steeling Indian cattle and smuggling slaves were considered two "activities outside its jurisdiction" (Bennett 1989:99)

Jacksonís policies continued to fuel conflicts and skirmishes with the Indians of Florida. To settle these conflicts between settlers and Seminoles, the U.S. and several Seminole chiefs signed the Treaty of Moultrie Creek. The Indians gave up 28 million acres of land and kept 4 million. The Treaty of Payneís Landing, ratified by Congess, promised 5 million acres in southwest Florida to the Seminoles.

Finally, the U.S. created a policy to remove the Indians and their Black slaves to Oklahoma. The negotiations and promises were not made in good faith by U.S. agents and the Second Seminole War began in 1835. This war was committed to removing approximately 3,000 Maskoki Indian men, women and children from Florida to Oklahoma.

A description of the sequence of events is told in a letter by First Lieutenant George McCall of the 4th US Infantry to his father:

Some hours after nightfall, a party of Indians, some forty or fifty apparently in numbers, were heard shouting their war-whoop, and singing war-songs. This was unmistakable evidence of their determination to fight, if an attempt to remove them by force, which had been threatened by the Agent, Mr. Thompson, should be made; and they correctly construed the advance of this force in the direction of the Agency at Fort King, to reinforce that garrison, as the first move towards carrying that threat into effect. And now, par parenthese, let me say, what I cannot refrain from, namely, that this outbreak of the Seminoles, which I predict will prove to be a seven years' war, and cost us fifty millions of dollars, has been brought about either by huge blundering, or by unfair dealings on the part of Government agents. The Treaty of Payne's Landing (on the Saint John's River, made with these Indians by Colonel Gadsden, Special Agent of the Government some two years ago) was an agreement to this effect: that the Seminoles should send a delegation of seven chiefs to the west of Arkansas, and beyond the Cherokee Reserve, to examine the country with respect to the character of the soil, the water, the salubrity of the climate, the game, and so forth; that, upon the return of the delegates, the Seminole nation should be called together in council to hear their report, and take into consideration the proposition laid before them by Colonel Gadsden, to give up their Florida possessions, and remove to the West, in consideration of certain inducements offered by the United States. In furtherance of this agreement, the chiefs designated set out to visit the country referred to. On their arrival at Fort Gibson, General Arbuckle, commanding that post, sent guides with them, and they passed some weeks in a thorough exploration of the country. On their return, General Arbuckle by some means, but under what instructions I know not, induced these chiefs to sign a treaty accepting the lands shown them, and ceding their Florida lands. In due time the delegation reached home, and a council was called: the report was made; but it was not unanimous, some of the chiefs pronouncing the country they had visited, in every respect less desirable than their native land. In fine, it was decided in council, by a large majority, to decline the offer made by the United States. Soon after this, Thompson, the Agent, sent for Micanopy who had succeeded to the chieftainship on the death of Tuko-see-mathla, or John Hicks, and told him he must prepare his people to be moved by a certain day, as ships had been ordered to be at Tampa at the time stated to transport the Indians to New Orleans. Micanopy then for the first time made known to the Agent the decision of the nation in council assembled. This news was received by Thompson with great surprise and amazement. He told the chief that he must go home and sleep upon what he had been told, and that he must return in the morning and bring a better talk. Micanopy quietly retired;-he returned the next morning, when Thompson directed Abraham,-a negro, once a slave of Dr. Sierra of Pensacola, but for many years past claiming to belong to Micanopy, and now his interpreter,-to ask the chief what he had to say in reply to the Agent's order to prepare his people to embark at an early day at Tampa Bay.
The question was put, and the answer returned by Abraham in these words: "The old man says to-day the same he said yesterday, 'that the nation had decided in council to decline the offer of the United States Government.'" These are the very words as reported to me by Major William A. Graham, who was present at the interview. This negro, Abraham, exercised a wonderful influence over his master; he was a very shrewd fellow, quick and intelligent, but crafty and artful in the extreme. I doubt not that he had on this occasion, as usual, much to do in keeping the chief, who was of a vacillating character, steady in his purpose.
Thompson repeated his threat, that, if the Indians were not ready to embark at the time appointed, the troops would be called out. It was in compliance with his requisition made soon afterwards, that the detachment, the command of which had accidentally devolved upon Major Dade, marched to reinforce the garrison of Fort King. Such was the state of affairs on the 25th of December. The following are the facts I have been enabled to collect from the most reliable sources. On that night, as I have stated, and on the two nights following, the Indians hung about the bivouac of the troops, whooping and occasionally firing their rifles, evincing in every way a highly exasperated state of feeling. At daybreak on the morning of the 28th, a very large proportion of the warriors of the nation had assembled at the point where the trail from Okahumpy, Micanopy's town, intersects the military road; and here it was proposed to attack the troops before they united with those at Fort King. Ö." (

The Seminoles retreated to the Everglades and for the first time in history, the U.S. soldiers were fighting a "guerrilla" war. The old tactics of U.S. warfare were almost useless against the Seminole warriors who would attack and disappear, using the terrain as a weapon. Not until the war in Vietnam, has the U.S. fought another such war. James D. Elderkin of the 4th US Infantry wrote of this experience in 1841:

I am inclined to think if our boys who were engaged in the recent little affair with Spain could taste a bit of our Florida experience they would think their recent war experience was quite a pleasant picnic in comparisonÖ For the most part, it was a succession of swamps, ridges, lagoons and low hills, called hummocks. The timber land, except for a trail here and there, was an impenetrable jungleÖ
Not only this, but every leaf seemed to bear some poisonous insect as dangerous as the serpents under foot, and still more dangerous than all the rest, the cunning redskins had slowly retreated before the United States army; for this war had been going on for years, and they had penetrated the jungles deep, and here and there cleared the hummocks of timber and built themselves comfortable homes from the bark of the cypress tree; and they defended those homes with that fury that only men driven to desperation can do. Concealing themselves under the dense foliage, covered with Spanish moss, they were undiscernable until they revealed their position by a rifle shot. This, of course, was often too late for some poor comrade who was pushing his way determindly through the tangle, and with death lurking on every handÖ.
The night was made hideous by the howl of wolves, the scream of the panther, the bull-like bellow of the alligator and the dismal cry of the loon, interspersed here and there by the sweet notes of the whippoorwill, or the song of the American nightingale, that most beautiful of all songsters, the mocking bird. (The mocking bird often sings in the night.)
All of these sounds, whether dismal or sweet, were heeded with the greatest precaution, as it might be real or might be the signal of a wily savage to his cohorts to join in an onslaught that would end in a massacre or death-struggle of extermination for one side or the otherÖ.
It was in 1841 we went to Florida, where we remained for one year. Of all my experience of hardships in three wars that which I experienced in Florida was the worst. (
After the "seven yearsí war", a Third Seminole War took place between 1855-1858. Keeping true to their promise, the Indians abstained from all aggression towards whites. However, some whites continued to steal and kill cattle, burn crops and destroy the homes of Indians. Old Billy Bowlegs, a recognized leader of the Seminole tribe, was attacked by United States surveyors after he had complained that they ruined his crops. There were raids perpetrated by whites disguised as Indians to create anti-Indian sentiment. The settlers demanded removal of the Indians. The United States government offered $100 to $500 for living Indians delivered to Fort Myers. Old Billy Bowlegs and his band of 150 people were eventually captured and exiled to western lands.

The United States was still unsuccessful in trying to remove the remaining Seminoles from Florida. By this time the U.S. had taken "ownership" of most of the land. The remaining Seminole Indians were struggling to survive in the Everglades. They fled from the hunters and soldiers who were acting in accordance with the Indian Removal Act pushed through Congress by President Andrew Jackson. Although close to 3,000 Seminoles were shipped to Oklahoma, a few hundred remained in Big Cypress and other remote areas of Florida under the leadership of the medicine man named, Abiaka. The U.S. declared the war ended and gave up the efforts to remove all Seminole Indians from Florida. No peace treaty was ever signed.

Part III: Post-war Life

" Yes, dat ole Seminole war make a heap oí white folks
rich in Florida." - Martha Jane

The survivors were comprised of two groups: Maskoki speakers who lived near Lake Okeechobee and those who spoke the Hitchiti tongue (the Miccosukee or Seminole). By the early 1900ís there were less than 600 Indians living in Florida. They had become a homeless people, poverty stricken and suspicious of Washington officials. Lands that were once filled with the Indianís cattle and crops were now being sold to developers by the State. Indians were no longer permitted to own cattle. An Indian Agency was established and reported $7,000,000 in annual appropriations for schools and lands for Indian homes. Each time, the Indians refused the governmentís offers. The land being offered was not good land and schools were looked upon as a tool of destruction against their race. Government agents funneled most of this money to themselves.

Even though these people had survived the U.S. governmentís attempt to eliminate them from their homeland, they had no contempt for the whites. Their only desire was to live a simple, peaceful life. The Seminoles would paddle canoes down the rivers to hunt deer, alligator, and bear. They lived in small camps of cypress framed chickees with palmetto thatched roofs. A kettle of Sof-ka , a stew thickened with vegetables and meal was the standard Seminole dish. They ate duck, wild turkey and deer. They remained isolated from the rest of Florida society and the world. They just wanted to be left alone in peace. The Seminoles survived by hunting, fishing, trapping and trading with whites at the outposts. In 1912 the tanneries stopped purchasing alligator hides which was a main source of income and the fur markets decreased due to the European War. By the 1920ís the Seminoleís means of economic survival had collapsed.

Development and drainage of the Everglades had drastically affected their means of survival. With Governor Broward in power, drainage of the Everglades had begun in 1897. Minnie Moore Willson, an activist at the time wrote, "Dynamite blasts shake the very pans and kettles hanging around the wigwams and, while this monster machine destroys the only home of the tribe, is the time not ripe for decisive action in the protection of these wards of Florida?" (Willson 1910:134)

Surveyors exploring the interior of the Everglades were very excited to find acres of rich, tillable soil covered by inches of water. The efforts to drain the swamplands, and building canals to connect many of the lakes had a significant effect on the water table. The effects of drainage was disastrous for the Seminole Indians. It affected their hunting, gathering, maritime skills and visiting patterns.

The Standard Oil magnate, Henry Flagler, opened his Royal Palm Hotel located at the end of the Florida East Coast Railroad line, and settlers were pouring into the area. The Everglades were getting smaller and smaller. It was becoming more difficult each year for the Seminole Indian to continue their folkways of living. Many scratched out a living by working on the farms and plantations by picking the fruits and vegetables grown on the lands that were once farmed by them.

With the influx of tourists came the new tourist attractions. Attractions along the Miami River became very popular. The citrus groves where tourists could stoll down lanes and sip their fruit punch, tropical gardens, and alligator wrestling by the infamous "Alligator Joe" were attracting many tourists. Tour bus drivers would locate an Indian camp and tourists would walk around the camps having their pictures taken with the Indians. The only drawback was when the camp moved and the bus driver would have to give back the touristsí money. Henry Coppinger, Jr. explained how one of the guides suggested that he add a Seminole attraction to his gardens. In 1918 Coppingerís Tropical Gardens added the first Seminole camp on their property as a tourist attraction. The freeze that destroyed the tropical plantings in Coppingerís Garden that February was the driving force that influenced Coppinger to add this new tourist attraction. By 1930, half of the Miccosukee (Hitchiti-speaking Indians) were now involved in the tourist trade making their culture saleable.

Indians lived in the tourist camps and camps located on the Tamiami Trail. There was usually a small shop located on the road at the entrance of the Trail camps where craft items made by both men and women were sold. Men carved and painted toy cypress canoes and wooden dolls. With the use of sewing machines, women created patchwork dresses, shirts, skirts, and clothing for the dolls. Another popular item was the palmetto fiber dolls. When the tourist trade was out of season, additional income was made from crop picking on local farms.

There was opposition at the time to this "exhibition" trade of the Indians. The image of the "good" Indian of the reservations and the "bad" Indian of the tourist attractions began to emerge at the time. Many felt the tourist attractions "demeaning " to the Indians and the exhibition camps "the great sore spots in the Seminole picture".(West 1998: 100) It wasnít until the proposal of the Everglades National Park that these critics suggested that the opportunity to work as guides and souvenir sellers at the park would give the Indians "a chance to earn a living". This strategy might have been instigated by government agencies because the Seminoles were becoming more aware of their sovereignty rights. The Indian council was opposed to Seminoles registering for the draft and this was seen as a threat to government authority.

In 1947 the Seminole Indians filed a petition with the Claims Commission for a settlement to cover lost lands. In 1953 the U.S. government threatened to terminate the Seminole Tribe. The Indians on the federal reservations made the effort to govern themselves by incorporating and in 1957 the Seminole Tribe of Florida was federally recognized. Jimmy OíToole Osceola, a 72 year old elder and member of the Seminole Constitution Committee in 1957 recalls those events in an interview with Rena Frank of the Seminole Tribune :

"We lived independent livesÖ The Seminoles received information through the Agency that the government was planning to terminate the Seminoles at that time. During meetings, discussions were about what little the U.S. government had done for the TribeÖWhen decisions were made, they told us we had to be a legalized tribe in order to request help from the government. In other words, when we are not a legalized tribe we have no voice in Tallahassee or Washington to make requests. We have to have authority, so thatís when we started to form a constitution and bylaws on the different reservations."

The first economic industry established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs was the tourist attraction, "Okalee Indian Village" which came complete with a craft shop, zoo, and alligator wrestling pits. This seemed a little strange since it was government agencies that vehemently opposed the exhibition and tourist attractions of the Trail Indians.

The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians was federally recognized as separate from the Seminoles in 1962. This group of anti-government, separatist Trail Indians met with Fidel Castro in order to get his public recognition at a time when the U.S. was involved in serious diplomatic negotiations with that country. This politically savvy media strategy not only brought about their recognition as a separate tribe but also established protection of their culture by having their own educational system. In a widely publicized controversy, the Miccosukee Tribeís efforts to preserve the higher water standards for the Florida Everglades restoration project has been another example of this small groupís political clout. (

Part IV: Cultural Traditions and Values

"Ö.The Government wanted to see self-sufficiency and
self-determination for our people. However, when we show
them what we can do, they want it to stopÖ. The Federal
Government Giveth and Taketh and Taketh and TakethÖ"
-Laura Mae Osceola

Betty Mae Jumper was elected to the Seminole Tribeís first Council. Then in 1967, she was elected Tribal Chairman, becoming the first female Tribal ëChiefí in America. She spoke with Dan McDonald, of the Seminole Tribune, ( the 40th. Anniversary issue:

DM: What were the big issues facing the early Council?
BMJ: Iíd say it was always about getting money. Even when I took office as Chairman in 1967, I was told we had $38 in the treasury. Everything we did was a struggle. We had to work hard to keep things going.
DM: What was a typical meeting like?
BMJ: We always opened with a prayer, asking God to help us in our decisions. Sometimes on big issues, weíd fast. The meetings were usually very simple. We didnít have time for lots of long discussions. Whatever we were voting on we got right to it.
DM: What did you most like in those old days?
BMJ: Iíd say the visiting. In the old days, all Indians used to visit one another. Every night youíd have neighbors walk over. Stop by. Say hello. Drink sofkee. I think that was the beautiful thing about living in a chickee. It was easy to socialize. Now, weíre all living in homes and we donít stop to say hello to our neighbors anymore.
DM: If you could change anything from today, what would it be?
BMJ: Well, Iíd start with the children. Today, they have so much, but many of them donít learn the value of hard work. In the old days everyone worked. When I was a kid, I picked beans to survive. My mother taught me how to sew. Now, kids have it so easy.
And, theyíve lost their respect for elders. Iíd like to get them back on the right path.

Laura Mae Osceola, 74, was an interpreter for the Tribe to the government. She tells of her memories in an interview with the Seminole Tribune:

" When I think back, all I can see are trees and chickees all around 441 and Stirling Roads. The smell of sofkee cooking and the sound of children playing. I remember waiting for the bus to come down the one lane dirt road, Route 441. This was a very exciting time because there were many tourists on the bus. We had aot of crafts to sell and that would mean money for the family for their next meal and maybe a special treat for the children, a penny candy.
As I grew up I took an interest in Tribal Government. I wanted to see the Tribe succeed. I participated in many meetings under the Old Oak and in our one room Clinic with one bathroomÖI wanted to see our children have the education they needed so that they could be strong leaders for our Tribe. I wanted our seniors to have the care they needed for their older years. I wanted to see a proud Tribe and an industrious Tribe, one that was independent and self-sufficient. It is now starting to come true.

Now that we are seeing progress in our Tribe so that we can see the day that we will not need their grant money, the government wants to take away our chance for independence
They want to put us back where we were, waiting for a busÖNow they want to control what we put on our land so that we cannot use our land to produce income for our people."

Today the Seminole Tribe maintains its own newspaper, broadcasting department, and website. Their headquarters are located in a newly erected four-story building on the Hollywood Reservation. The chief governing body is the Tribal Council, which is composed of a Chairman, a Vice-Chairman and Council representatives from each reservation. The current Chairman is James Billie and today most Tribal members have modern housing and health care. Over $1 million is spent on education which includes grants to promising Tribal college students and the operation of the Ahfachkee Indian School. Another important educational venue is the newly developed Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum which means "a place to remember". The museumís purpose is to preserve culture and educate the outside public and the Seminole people themselves. This museum which was built from the Tribeís bingo gaming proceeds, will eventually be able to regain all artifacts now held in the Smithsonian Museum and the Heye Museum in New York City.

Another important means of preserving culture is the continued tradition of the Green Corn Dance. This ceremony is a Native American celebration and thanksgiving for the corn, rain, sun, and a good harvest. Thanksgiving is sacred to the Indians and no corn is to be eaten until the Great Spirit has been thanked in this manner. It is also a time of religious renewal and spiritual cleansing. It is a ceremony in which Indians renew their commitment to the Great Spirit. The time for the ceremony is determined when the corn is ripe (usually around the first of July) and the time is announced by the "Keepers of the Faith". In earlier times, the Medicine Men arranged the date. The ceremony before the dance would allow minor transgressors to enter a closed skin tent where they were subject to suffocating heat. Then they must swallow the "Black Drink" which was a medicine made of herbs. This would cleanse the system of the person. This was a great time for courtships, re-unions, and revived friendships. The festivities usually last 3 to 5 days. It is during this time that council meetings are held although this is not part of the ceremonial purpose of the Green Corn Festival.

Vocabulary (as given by Chief Tallahassee )

Ha-tee-eten-chee-hick-cha-hit-is-chay ÖÖÖ.. Glad to see you.
Hi-lip-pit-ka-shaw ÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖ. How are you?
En-cha-mun-chay ÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖ.. Well or good
Aw-lip-ka-shaw ÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖ. Good-bye
Shot-cay-taw ÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖ Green Corn Dance
Mot-to ÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖ.. Thank you
Yo-ho-ee-hee ÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖ War cry
Fo-so-wa-los-te-nock-ee ÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖ.. Chief of the Bird tribe ( Chief
Tallahasseeís Indian name )
Tal-lah-has-see ÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖ. All gone, deserted (no more Indians)
O-kee-cho-bee ÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖÖ Place of big water

After reading about the Seminoles, I am saddened by their tragic history and yet very inspired by their hope and faith in the future. As Laura Mae Osceola said in her interview,

"I have seen a lot of things in my lifetime, some good and some bad. However, with the Great Spirit at our side, my dream will become a reality soon and the best is yet to come!"

I hope you enjoy the paper. Sho-naan-bish!
(Happy studying!)

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