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SOUTH FLORIDA’S
MICCOSUKEE SEMINOLES

By By Judy Weeks
Florida Monthly

Archeologists have established that the Florida peninsula has been inhabited for well over 12,000 years by Native Americans, and new findings have indicated this time frame could possibly be pushed back even further. As the centuries passed, these early inhabitants multiplied and developed into a culture that eventually included the entire lower portion of what is now the Southeastern United States.

 

The first Europeans to arrive in this area were the Spanish in 1513. They discovered hundreds of different tribes living across this territory with similar societies and speaking various dialects of the same linguistic origin. Depending upon their location, the tribe members derived their livelihood from agriculture, fishing, hunting, and gathering.

Unfortunately, their contact with the Spanish and later European conquerors and settlers had the same unfavorable result as with other Native Americans living throughout the Western Hemisphere. These invaders brought new diseases for which the natives had no immunity, greed, and a lust for the lands and natural resources of the New World. The pressures exerted by these newcomers and resulting warfare, which in some cases included enslavement, took a heavy toll upon these early inhabitants.

During the late 1600s and early 1700s, the advancing civilization was driving the natives of southern Alabama and Georgia into Florida, where they joined their neighbors, who were greatly reduced in number. Because of these people’s resistance to assimilate and strong desire to remain free the Spanish called them cimarrones meaning wild untamed In the more commonly spoken native languages this transformed into what is today referred to as “Seminole” and came to represent all of the Native people residing on the Florida peninsula.

Following Florida’s acquisition by the United States and its institution of the Indian Removal Act, three Seminole Wars ensued. The toll on the native population was astronomical and by the end of the wars in 1858 the remaining natives were hiding deep within the swamplands of the Everglades in Southern Florida. The Miccosukees trace their ancestry to these brave hardy and resilient survivors.

Those who had resided in the lower portion of Florida for many generations had adapted to life in this watery Wilderness.

The natives inhabiting the coastal areas and islands relied heavily upon the sea for their sustenance. Building dugout canoes and longboats from the massive cypress trees they gathered the wealth of fish and shellfish found in the saltwater and brackish inland waterways.

The inhabitants farther inland hunted, fished the fresh waters and grew produce on the fertile islands—known as hammocks—within the sawgrass prairies of the Everglades. The landscape was rich with vegetation and an enormous assortment of birds and wildlife.

Unfortunately, this swampy paradise was home to many dangerous wild animals, poisonous reptiles and an unimaginable variety of insects that took their toll on every living creature. There were torrential rains during summer months and long drought periods during winter. Tropical storms and hurricanes frequently ravaged the landscape. Existence was far from easy, but the Miccosukee were a part of this land.

The late Lucy John remembers her father, Doctor John, telling stories around the fire about the people living within the Ten Thousand Islands. They taught those who had recently come from farther north how to survive while hiding from their enemies. Being forced to flee for their lives, they had to leave behind their fields and domestic animals, upon which they had depended for many generations.

The newcomers quickly adapted to growing pumpkins, sweet potatoes, beans, squash and corn in small gardens hidden within the hammocks and protected from detection by the thick tree line and underbrush perimeter.

Doctor John told his daughter how the people learned to build shelters from the palm fronds and trunks of the cabbage and cypress trees. Referred to as chickees, these -houses were open-sided for ventilation with log platforms to elevate possessions from the rising water and foraging wildlife. The people made pallets on the platforms at night to sleep safely above the elements. What few articles of clothing they had were hung in the rafters with their food rations.

Single families were soon joined by others, and small, hidden villages began to appear in remote areas. The necessity for mobility that comes with the changing of the seasons, movements of game, harvesting of crops and possible invasion by the military forces created temporary villages and sometimes abandonment.

The Seminoles and Miccosukees were like ghosts, visible one minute and vanishing into the landscape the next. Becoming a part of the land, these brave, freedom-loving people resisted capture and developed survival techniques that defied their enemies.

They had fought for three generations by the conclusion of the Seminole Wars. Nearly all who had survived were transported to the Oklahoma Territory. The United States had spent more than $40 million to remove or eradicate the native population without success. The courageous resistors suffered such losses and debilitating conditions at the hands of the invaders that their numbers were reduced to approximately 250 to 300 individuals.

It is no wonder that the survivors withdrew deep into the swamplands and made no contact with their enemies. There had been so much treachery during the many years since the arrival of the Europeans that the natives felt they could not trust anyone. Living dose to the land, they began to reestablish their lives and slowly increase in number.

As the settlers moved southward, they brought traders and merchants with them. Establishing small communities, they began to farm and ranch the lands they had taken from the natives. The Miccosukee limited their contact with the whites to mere brief encounters.

The tribesmen had begun to domesticate the wild hogs and, from time to time, rounded up some of the wild cattle that had thrived in Florida after their introduction by the early Spanish. In addition to their established crops, they added bananas, sugar cane and citrus to their village fields.

Industrious merchants had long seen the benefits of establishing trade with the Native Americans, and those in Florida were no exception. Both good and bad came to take advantage of this new market. The bad were easily recognized and soon disappeared because of their illicit transactions.

The honest traders slowly enticed the natives with much-needed supplies that could not be derived from the land. First kettles, skillets, knives, guns, ammunition, axes and the bare essentials were among the coveted trade objects. As the Indians acquired more items to barter, their list of desired merchandise increased. Cloth, beads, foods to supplement their diet and other things that many take for granted became available.

The traders became a link in the chain that would make it possib1e for the residents of South Florida to co-exist. The settlers appreciated the fresh game, fish, turkeys, birds and turtles supplied by the Indians, as well as produce from their gardens. Many of the settlers were anxious to trade for the wild cattle. During the Civil War, the Cow Cavalry established a direct line of trade for stock to feed the Confederate Army.

Over the years, many traders developed close relationships with their tribal customers, and strong friendships proved beneficial to both parties. The traders depended upon the Indians for the goods that would turn them a profit in the North. The Indians acquired much-needed supplies and items they considered luxuries, such as hand-crank sewing machines, doth, beads and tobacco.

The vanity of the ladies in the Northern states created a new source of income for the Indians by the late 1800s. The Seminoles found a lucrative market for their fine pelts, such as otter, raccoon, bobcat, bear and panther. The large tail feathers of osprey, egrets and heron became plumes for ladies’ hats. Deer and alligator hides were prized for the manufacture of boots, belts and purses. Garfish were caught for food, and their scales collected by the barrel for use as sequins.

By living in remote areas, the Miccosukee maintained relative freedom. Travel from their distant villages to trade was an adventure that usually required several days away from camp. Dugout canoes were poled through the swamps and rivers to the nearest trading posts. Most settlers’ communities sprang up along the coast line because boats were their only link with the outside world.

With the “Florida Boom” in the 1920s came the first railroads into South Florida. But their arrival brought little change to the Miccosukee, who continued to live in villages deep within the Everglades’ interior.

The late Tommie Jumper was born around 1900 in the swamplands, east of what is now Copeland on State Road 29 in Collier County She recalled as a young girl traveling by dugout canoe through swamp and down the river with her parents to trade at Smallwood’s Trading Post on Chokoloskee Island. Here, she saw her first white man and sampled her first piece of candy.

The advent of the Tamiami Trail would change the Miccosukee lifestyle immensely. This highway followed the western coastline from Tampa southward and across the vast swampland to Miami. No longer would a trade trip take days of travel. Civilization was slowly creeping toward their front door.

Building of the Trail in the 1920s offered the Miccosukee an opportunity to sell fresh meat and vegetables to highway construction crews. With the opening of the trail, automobiles slowly made their way across the state, bringing tourists and adventurers.

While many villages chose to remain in seclusion, some enterprising Indians relocated along this ribbon of commerce. A new source of income from trade goods and crafts opened the door to change. Miccosukee villages sprang up at regular intervals beside the canal that building the highway had created.

Life was changing for many of the Miccosukee along the Trail. Some began to seek jobs at produce farms that sprang up at Ochopee. A very traditional, respected, English-speaking tribal leader, Corey Osceola, became supervisor for an Indian crew that worked for several years in the fields and packing house.

The Lee Tidewater Cypress Lumber Company established a large logging camp at Copeland. It used steam engines to pull the cypress timber out of the swamps on small, specially built railroad trams. Many Indians were employed at this location from the 1930s to the late 1950s.

Meanwhile, on the eastern end of the Trail, the villages proved to be a big tourist attraction, offering clothing, wood crafts, beadwork, baskets, dolls and alligator wrestling.

The Miccosukee are considered to be very traditional in their beliefs and still adhere to their spiritual heritage, although some have converted to Christianity. Their society is divided into clan groups, which are passed on to the children through their mother. When a man marries, he goes to live in the village of his new wife’s family. Here, they generally remain and raise their children, unless his wife eventually starts a camp of her own.

Until the late 1960s, the majority of the Miccosukee were opposed to their children attending school and felt that a white man’s education could be very harmful to their continued existence. Those choosing to receive an education had to travel to the nearest school in Miami or Everglades City

The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida was established as a political entity in 1962. A council governs the tribe, with a chairman and representatives elected by popular vote. The tribe’s administrative offices are located at the Miccosukee Reservation on the Trail, where it has a large, modern school and a cultural center in close proximity to its headquarters.

 

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