Seminoles’ gritty history part of Florida’s fascinating lore


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Spinning tales about the Florida Seminoles. In the 1700s, facing conflict with British-controlled northern colonies and other tribes, some Native Americans (significantly Creek) migrated to Spanish Florida, joined by other tribes. Consequently, they became known as Seminoles, from the Spanish label “Cimarron,” denoting wild, runaway, or free people — resisting capture and slavery.

Eventually, the Florida Seminoles formed a strong, protective union against slavery with the Black Seminoles — some were free blacks but most were Gullah escaped slaves (maroons) from the rice plantations of South Carolina and later Georgia (Low Country). Some Seminole leaders held Black Seminoles as so-called slaves, but they were more free than with whites or other tribes. Intermarriage occurred.

Seminole homes were chickees, built in large villages. They were raised platform shelters with thick cypress logs and thatched roofs made from palmetto fiber. Since there were no walls, canvas or hide tarps offered protection during storms.

For sustenance, wild nuts and fruits were gathered, and women were productive farmers. Crops were raised unattended behind homes, overwhelmed with weeds and lacking irrigation; nature was the caretaker. Corn, the main yield, was used for bread, pancakes, or the soft drink (sofkee) — still popular today. Sugarcane was a sweetener. The hardy Seminole pumpkin, often planted at the base of a dead oak, vigorously climbed the limbs. Eager young braves retrieved the fruit, flaunting their skills.

Men hunted, fished and raised cattle abandoned by the Spanish. Hunters pursued creatures, including birds, turkeys, or alligators. To capture venison, grass was burned and luscious new growth attracted the animal.

Fishing, probably from a cypress dugout canoe, often involved spears, sometimes tipped with the spiked tails of stingrays or horseshoe crabs. Turkey or deer bones were common for fishing pole hooks.

Daily meals were enjoyed in the communal eating house, the biggest house in the village. Women prepared food. Prevalent was corn bread, soups and stews.

Certainly, trading posts were welcomed. Pelts and hides were exchanged for items such as staples, cookware, tools, guns and vivid cloth.

The fertile and nurtured land of the Seminoles was inevitably pursued by those who were better equipped for battle. Aggression resulted in the three Seminole Wars from 1817 to 1858. Many Native Americans were forced to Oklahoma reservations. Few remained (200 to 300) concealed in the Everglades — proudly the “Unconquered.”

Today, devastating encounters belong to history. Seminoles now maintain enterprises such as casinos, high-stakes bingo, tourism and the cattle business. Their vibrant patchwork clothing, originally fabricated from scraps, is much in demand, as are palmetto dolls.

Whether they live on reservations or elsewhere, these Native Americans continue to preserve their Florida culture and homeland.