The History of the “Cimarron”
By Matthew Harner
Tropical Marine Ecology
June 8, 2001
Contrary to popular belief, Seminole Indians were not a single tribe that originated and lived their lives only in the Florida Everglades. To understand the true facts, which are both cruel and complex, one must research beyond the tainted American history books. The history of the Seminole people can be traced back over 12,000 years ago when the natural world was perceived as a treasure to preserve, rather than objects of monetary value.
Respect and preservation of the natural world was the Native American way of life until the early 1500’s when English, French, and Spanish powers flocked to the new world in competition for riches and world power. The term “Seminole” is a result of the Native American flight from British controlled slave colonies of the north. The Spanish named these migrating tribes the “Seminoles” from the Spanish word “Cimarron,” meaning “wild or free men” as a result of their resistance to slavery and defeat.
Numerous Muskogean tribes collectively made up the “Seminole Nation.” These Muskogean tribes consisted of the “Creeks, Hitichis, and Yamasees of Georgia, the Apalachees of Florida, the Alabamas and Mobiles of Alabama, along with the Choctaus, Chickasaws and Houmas of Mississippi” (Murray; pp. 2). Their exodus to Spanish controlled Florida provided a safe haven from slavery since the Spanish had no intent of returning slaves to the British. Upon reaching Florida beginning around 1515, the Muskogean found a land surrounded by the greed of war and new diseases such as small pox. The continual push of European settlers south, forced the Upper Creeks of Alabama to join Seminole forces in 1767, followed by more Lower Creeks in 1778 and many others.
The conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1784 resulted in both the creations of the United States and an increased demand for slavery. Yet another group began flight in search of freedom from oppression. Many African slaves fled from the Carolinas and Georgia to Florida, in hopes of seeking protection and joining forces with the Seminoles. Although their cultural heritage’s were vastly different, these two peoples shared a common bond based on the mutual fear of slavery. These bonds proved so strong that intermarriages and friendships led to an alliance of powers where African slaves became known as the “Black Seminoles.”
As more slaves continued to flee south towards Florida, Seminole forces became more prosperous, while depleting the slave industry’s numbers. Enraged by the economy’s loss of free labor and Native American resistance, the government behind General Andrew Jackson began to take action as tension grew between “Patriot” settlers and Seminoles. In order to protect their lands, Seminole warriors began attacking plantations causing General Andrew Jackson to destroy towns in 1813-14 at Alachua County, Florida in what is known as the Creek War. Immediately following the Creek War of 1813-14, Seminole numbers tripled from refugee Indians of Upper Creek towns. Since the majority of peoples that collectively made up the Seminole population spoke Muskogee, the entire linguistic complexion of the Seminole changed into the uniform language of Creek. (Swanton; pp. 181) Along with their growing numbers, the transformation into a mutual language brought conforming power to the Seminoles, and fear to both the United States government and settlers.
The First Seminole War broke out in 1818 when American troops burned Seminole villages and captured the Spanish towns of St. Marks and Pensacola. One year later in 1819, Florida was ceded from the Spanish to the United States. This action opened the gateway for heavy U.S. military advancement and American colonization.
May 28, 1830 proved one of the most shameful days in United States history as the Indian Removal Act was passed by Congress to forcibly move all “Five Civilized Tribes” to Arkansas and Oklahoma by whatever means necessary. The “Five Civilized Tribes” broke down into the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Cherokees, and the Seminoles (Murray; pp. 2). This act passed by congress created the infamous “Trail of Tears” where starvation, disease, rape, and murder led to the deaths of approximately 800 out of 3000 Native Americans forced along the Trail of Tears. All but the Seminoles were successfully removed from their lands and their fierce resistance led to the Second Seminole War on December 28, 1835.
Led by their famous leader Osceola, 250 Seminoles successfully defeated 750 soldiers, however, a deceitful peace treaty initiated by the U.S. government resulted in Osceola’s imprisonment and death. Many battles and lives latter, the Second Seminole War ended in 1842. This single war cost the United States government “the lives of 1,500 men and over $20 million. Most of the Seminole population, including some 500 Black Seminoles were relocated to the Indian Territory” (Murray; pp. 5-6). However, some 500 Seminoles remained free by retreating further south into the Everglades where American soldiers would not advance.
It came as no surprise that the United States government refused to end their vices for greed and corruption here. All Black Seminoles were declared slaves once again in 1849. Those who were not forced back into slavery did so by fleeing to Mexico in search of their inherent right for freedom. “Sadly enough, the Black Seminoles never owned land anywhere after they left Florida” (Murray; pp. 7).
A series of battles from 1856-58 formed the Third Seminole War, only to result in the United State’s withdrawal after an inability to reach a treaty or a victory. Those Seminoles forced into the Indian Territory where once again striped of lands, only this time it was reservation lands under the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887 (Murray; pp. 7).
The few Seminoles who remained free “began the 20th century where they had been left at the conclusion of the Seminole Wars- in abject poverty, hiding out in remote camps in the wet wilderness areas of South Florida”(Seminole Tribe of Florida; pp. 1). They lived free of government oppression by living completely off the inhospitable land while avoiding contact with the outside world. Hunting and fishing the lush swampy waters of the Everglades provided an ample food source while fur trading with white frontier posts served as their only economic means.
Once large-scale development hit the coastal waters of Southern Florida in the early 1900’s, Seminole life in the Everglades was forced into extinction. Pollution and shrinking lands disrupted ecological life cycles, killing both the plant and animal food sources of the Seminoles. By this time, the Everglades could no longer provide a source of life for the Seminoles due to its mass destruction. Many families were forced into far hands and tourist attractions for low wages because they had no advanced education or skills in the growing industrialized world.
Life remained hard for these people until 1934 when the Wheeler-Howard Act was passed. Also known as the Indian Reorganization Act, American Indians were enabled to establish their own governments, bylaws, elections, and practice religious freedom without persecution. In all, Native Americans were finally given their inherent rights as human beings. Today, “the Seminole Tribe of Florida has almost 3,000 members, living on five reservations across the peninsula at Hollywood (formerly Dania), Big Cypress, Brighton, Immokalee, and Tampa”(Summary of Seminole History; pp. 3). Once a self-sufficient Tribe that lived solely off the bounty of the land, the Seminole Indians have been forced into the ways of our modern world built on monetary gain. The Seminole Nation now has a “diverse economy consisting of agriculture, citrus, aircraft production, casino-gaming, tobacco sales, land leases, cattle, and aquaculture” (Summary of Seminole History; pp. 3).
Sad but true, Native Americans who inhabited this continent some 12,000+ years before white settlement, did not gain United States citizenship until during World War II under the Snyder Act. The horrifying history of the Seminole people proves that perseverance is true power and that wisdom is the key to this power.
Against all odds, their fierce determination for survival and freedom, “let neither three wars with the U.S. Army or the harsh Everglades defeat them”(Murray; pp. 1).
Swanton, John R. The Indians of the Southeastern United
States: Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 137. Washington: United States Government Printing Office. 1946.
“History, Where We Came From: Introduction.” Seminole Tribe
Of Florida (2001): Internet. March 30, 2001.
“History, Where We Came From: Survival in the Swamp.”
Seminole Tribe of Florida (1997-2000): Internet. March
“Brief Summary of Seminole History.” Seminole Tribe of
Florida (1997-2000): Internet. April 30, 2001
Murray, Dru J. “The Unconquered Seminoles.” Absolutely
Florida Magazine (1997): March 30, 2001
McReynolds, Edwin C. The Seminoles. Norman, Oklahoma:
University of Oklahoma Press. 1957.
For Further Info on this Topic, Check out this WWW Site: www.seminoletribe.com.
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