“As the United States is a nation made up of people from many nations, so the Seminole is a tribe made up of Indians from many tribes.” (Garbarino 13) The Seminole are the indigenous people living in southeastern America. They lived in what is now Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi. The Seminole had a Muskogean language of the Hokan-Siouan stock. (Bookshelf) The Indian tribes found in the southeast were the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Yuchi, Yamassee, Apalachicola, Timucua, and Calusa. The southeastern Indians were described by the Spanish as being tall with complexions ranging from olive, to brownish. The Indians in the mountainous regions were described as having lighter complexions, and those in the sunnier regions as brown. (Garbarino 13)
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The Seminole were originally part of the Creek, but they began to migrate from Southern Georgia to Northern Florida in the later half of the eighteenth century. The Seminole fled there because Spain owned Florida, and they hoped they would be free. They shared the land with another group of Indians, the Apalachee and the Timucua, who spoke the Mikasuki Language. (Seminole Indians 290) By about the year 1775, they began to be known by the name Seminole, which is derived from the Creek word simanoli, meaning “separatist,” or “runaway”. The name, Seminole, could also originate from the Spanish word cimarron, meaning “wild.” Also joining the migrants were Indian and Negro slaves, who fled from the power struggles between the Americans and the Indians. (Seminole 626)
The Indians who moved to Florida all had similar ways of life. After their migration, they kept many of the qualities of their original culture. Their natural environment affected every aspect of their culture and life. The environment determined what food they ate, what clothing they could wear, the houses that they could build, and how to live in them. The environment even influenced the language and rituals. Due to this involvement with Nature, they revered all of Nature. (Garbarino 13)
The landscape in which the Seminole lived was composed of fertile valleys, thick woods, and low mountains. The largest and most powerful tribes took the desirable locations, the fertile valleys. The small tribes settled in the woods and mountains. (Garbarino 14) The environment influenced the types of food the people could find the most. It allowed maize, beans, and squash to grow plentifully. Although these plants grow plentifully, the Seminoles lived more by hunting and gathering. It was easier to hunt and fish because the woodlands and rivers were filled with an abundance of game. The Indians also gathered founds that were found in the environment, like berries, nuts, tubers, and seeds. (Seminole 626)
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The jobs of gathering and growing plants were doled out to the women. They also had to prepare and cook the food that the men obtained. Most of the time, they baked boiled, or broiled the food. The women also preserved the food that they collect, such as plums and persimmons. (Garbarino 17) The men usually helped where there was heavy and intensive work to be do be done, like clearing land and harvesting, but the men’s main jobs were to hunt, fish, and battle. (Seminole Indians 290) The men hunted animals for their hides in addition to their meats. The most hunted for animals were: deer, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, bears, turkeys, ducks, and geese. The Indians also ate alligator meat, turtle meat, shellfish, and fresh and salt-water fish. (Garbarino 15)
The Indians lived in villages that ranged in size from 20 to 100 houses and in population from 100 to more than one thousand. The homes were most likely to be built around a square or town plaza. The central area of the square was left for ceremonial purposes. The chief’s house, a meeting hall, storage building, and often the home of an important medicine man or religious leader surrounded the square. Around these buildings, the townspeople made their homes. (Garbarino 20)
Early Seminoles used to build log cabins, but later on they began to live in basic shelters with thatched roofs that were supported by poles. These homes were called chickees. They had a chickee for summer, winter, and for a woman who is going to have a baby. The huts had raised platforms and the roof was thatched with palmetto leaves. (Lepthien 7, 24-25) Most of the towns with these chickees were stockaded or palisaded. That means they were surrounded with logs that formed a protective fence. This fence had usually had one or two openings, which allowed passage in and out. The men reinforced the walls with crossbeams and daubed clay or mud over the open spaces. (Garbarino 20-21)
All of the Indians of the Southeast belonged to clans. People were a member of the clan that their mother belonged. Clan membership was just as important as the village you lived in. Clans were usually ranked within tribes, making some clans higher in status than others. Since a boy was not part of his father’s clan, it was the maternal uncle’s job to instruct him in hunting and warfare. The mother cared for the girls that she has. Even though a child did not belong to the father’s clan, the father was responsible for the support of his children and they usually had a warm relationship. (Seminole Indians 290) A person must marry someone outside the clan because it formed an alliance between clans. It was not forbidden to marry into the father’s clan, but it was unusual. Men of very high status usually married two wives, if he could provide more than one wife could manage. The first wife was usually happy to have them and all the wives lived in different houses. Divorce was just a matter of separation. If a woman wanted a divorce, she would leave a bundle of his belongings outside and he left to go to his mother’s house. (Garbarino 23)
Spain claimed a new land that Juan Ponce de Leon had named Florida. Ponce De Leon named the land Florida because of the festival that was going on in Spain at that time, Pascua Florida. Spain had claimed the land from the southernmost tip of Florida to the Chesapeake Bay and to the Mississippi River. Juan Ponce de Leon tried establish a settlement along the coast of Florida, but all he did was bother the Indians in the area. As a result of the skirmish between the Indians and the Spaniards, he was wounded very badly. He died a little while later at his base in Cuba. (Garbarino 33)
In the ensuing 50 years, many others reinforced Spain’s claim to Florida. None of the adventurers tried to settle, so they did not take any land away from the Indians, but they built little forts and supply depots. They were not many conflicts between the Spanish and the Indians, except when the Spanish held Indians captive and used them for forced labor and guides. (Garbarino 33)
As a result of the contact with the Spanish, some Indians contracted diseases like fatal pneumonia and smallpox. Some Indians did not even have to be in contact with the Spanish to get the diseases. If the Indians were in contact with other Indians who had the germs, they could also get the disease. The Indians could not fight against this enemy, so the Indians were rapidly reduced. (Lepthien 5-6)
The French also tried to establish a colony in Florida in 1564, but they failed because the Spanish captured the settlement the following and extinguished the belief that France had claims in Florida. One year later, the Spanish found the first Spanish and the first permanent European settlement in the southeast. It was named St. Augustine. The English were also interested in the Southeast. Sir Francis Drake commanded an English force against St. Augustine in 1586, but his forces failed to penetrate the Spanish fortress; however, the English established the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia just north of Florida and the Spanish always worried about the inevitable expansion of English territory southward. (Garbarino 34)
There soon began a rivalry between the Spanish and the English. The Indians either chose the English or the Spanish. Some Indians joined the English and killed other Indians. A few that were not captured, killed, enslaved, or died by disease fled to the Spanish West Indies. (Lepthien 13) After this time there was massive and reigning confusion. Indian tribes killed other Indians. The English trying to get rid of the Indians played one tribe off for another and caused more chaos. As a result, many tribes were reduced in size, and many people were homeless and hopeless. (Garbarino 36)
Soon afterward, the English presence in America grew, and colonists began to settle on Indian land. In 1715, the settlers and the Yamassee tribe began to fight. The Yamassee were badly defeated, and they moved into Northern Florida, where there was no competition for land. The state of Georgia worked as a buffer between the Spanish and the English. (Garbarino 37) Many African slaves and Indians lived in the buffer zone and were not bothered. The Indians accepted the blacks in their tribes and they even inter-married. Then, the English established the colony of Georgia, so the area could no longer be an area for runaways. All of the people fled to Florida, where the Europeans mispronounce their names. The Europeans called them Seminoles when the word is really simanoli. In 1763, Britain forced Spain to trade Florida for Cuba. (Garbarino 39)
In 1783, Florida became Spanish after Great Britain lost the Revolutionary War. The period of peace and prosperity was now over for the Seminoles. The American settlers were soon attracted to the fertile land that the Seminole owned. Some of them even trespassed and set up farms. (Lepthien 16) The Indians warned them that they would be attacked if they did not leave. The Americans did not comply with the Seminole, so they raided the American Homesteads. Also, at this time, the plantation owners whose slaves had become Seminoles, demanded their slaves back, and they sent slave-catchers to the Seminole lands. (Garbarino 39)
The War of 1812 also affected the Seminole because some were with the United States, and some were with Great Britain. As a result of continuing skirmishes between the United States and the Seminole, the United States declared war on the Florida Indians in 1817. They claimed that their mission was to recapture slaves, but the soldiers illegally went into Florida, and since the Spanish control in Florida was weak, U.S. continued to raid into Spanish territory. The Seminole villages were burned, livestock captured, and food was destroyed or confiscated. The fighting between the Seminole and the United States was later known to be the First Seminole War. It was fought from 1817-1818. (Seminole 626) The Seminole fought bravely. Billy Bowlegs led the Seminole. The United States Army was led by Andrew Jackson, who later became President. Many Indians were killed in the fighting, and those that survived, retreated into the marsh. Andrew Jackson’s victory caused the Spanish to sign a treaty with the U.S. setting up Florida for sale. On February 22, 1821, Florida became a part of the United States of America. (Garbarino 40-41)
On September 6, 1823, near St. Augustine, 70 Seminole chiefs met with Florida governor William P. DuVal to discuss the removal of the Seminole. Most of the Seminole Chiefs agreed to the Indians move to a reservation further south. The Seminole gave the U.S. 30 million acres of fertile farmland, and the U.S. gave them 5 million acres of land that was unfit for cultivation. The Seminoles took a year to move, and when they go there, they were soon afflicted by widespread hunger. They grew more and more discontented with their present situation.
By the year 1830, the Seminole’s old land was already settled, and the homesteaders were looking for more. The Federal Government was planning to remove all Eastern Indians to the west of Mississippi. President Andrew Jackson was given the authority to relocate the Eastern Indian Tribes. In 1832, some Seminole decided that they could fight no more, so they moved, but the two most powerful leaders, Micanopy and King Philip, refused to leave. They believed that they had rearranged their lives so much that they were going to stay. Seven Seminole leaders went to check out the reservation that they were going to be put on, and there, the leaders signed the Treaty of Fort Gibson, in which they agreed to move. When the leaders returned to Florida, they said that they were tricked into signing the treaty, and they refused to leave. (Garbarino 45-46)
The Seminole were given until January 1, 1836 to move by. One month before the deadline, Seminole warriors began to raid against U.S. troops stationed in Florida, thus began the Second Seminole War. (Garbarino 46) This was one of the most costly U.S. versus Indian wars. This war lasted for seven years. Their brave leader, Osceola, led the Seminole. The warriors hid the families in the Everglades, and they used guerrilla warfare. This war cost the U.S. Government between 40 Million Dollars and 60 Million Dollars. Almost 2000 men died for the United States and the death total was uncounted for the Seminole. (Seminole War 626) The Seminole Warriors began to terrorized the settlers in the area. The burned and pillaged the homes of the wealthy plantation owners. The Seminole destroyed 16 plantations in one month. Osceola was completely against the raiding of these homes. He did not want to hurt any women or children. Osceola taught the Indians how to use ambush and withdrawal to surprise the enemy. (Garbarino 52)
The U.S. Army now had a new General. General Thomas S. Jesup took command of the 10,000 men in Florida. He attacked the Seminole villages, ruined their crops, captured their cattle and horses, and took their women and children hostage. All of these combined lowered much of the Indian’s enthusiasm for battle. On October 23, 1837, near St. Augustine, Osceola and several of his warriors, met with one of Jesup’s officers to release King Philip. The Indians carried a white flag and tried to call a truce, but they were captured and imprisoned. Later the same year, a delegation of 11 Seminole chiefs, met with General Jesup with a white flag of truce. They were also captured. The prisoners were moved to another prison, and soon afterward, Osceola died. Instead of lowering the morale of the Seminole, the death of their war chief inspired them to fight on. (Garbarino 52)
Soon the war began to end because enthusiasm was low and the might and numbers of the U.S. Army intimidated the Indians. There was no treaty to end the war; the war just began to stop, and then it completely stopped. No one came to give them a treaty because no one wanted to go into the Everglades to acknowledge the signing of a treaty. (Garbarino 54) Problems began to mount in 1855, when surveyors went to map the Everglades, and then they took away the ripest crops that the Chief, Billy Bowlegs, had, and then they burned the rest of their crops. The Indians then attacked them, and wounded several of them. Over the next three years, there were little skirmishes, but there was little bloodshed. In 1858, 163 Seminole moved west of the Mississippi. Only a few remained in the Everglades, and those that remained, moved deeper into the Everglades. After that, they were left alone. (Garbarino 54-55)
Today, many Seminole live on small farms in Oklahoma. They were among the Five Civilized Tribes that include the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Choctaw. The Seminole that remained in Florida make a living by hunting, fishing, farming, raising cattle, or working in tourism. (Seminole Indians 291)
“For more than 200 years the Seminole have survived as a tribe by adapting to change without giving up their traditional ways entirely. The preservation of their customs has helped the Seminole maintain a strong sense of identity as a distinct and proud people.”” (Garbarino 102)
Garbarino, Merwyn S. The Seminole. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.
Lepthien, Emilie U. The Seminole. Chicago: Childrens Press, 1985.
“Seminole.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 1993 ed.