Explore Magazine Volume 3 Issue 2


Florida's INDIANS: Past and Present

In 1962 Floridians awoke to find they had new neighbors when the federal government officially recognized the practically unknown Miccosukee Indians of south Florida.

Though much less familiar than the Seminole Indians, the Miccosukee share a history with the Seminole stretching back into Florida's colonial period. Indeed, people talking about the Seminole are usually referring to both the Seminole and the Miccosukee.

Who are the Miccosukee and where did they come from? Are the Miccosukee and Seminole Indians who live in Florida today descendants of the Florida Indians who lived here thousands of years ago? Who were the people who built the mounds we can visit today at the Crystal River State Archaeological Site on the Gulf coast, or the Lake Jackson Mounds State Archaeological Site near Tallahassee? These are just some of the questions Jerald T. Milanich, curator in archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus, answers in his new book Florida's Indians from Ancient Times to the Present, being published this month by University Press of Florida.

Drawing on his own archaeological and documentary research and the work of a host of colleagues and UF graduate students, Milanich paints a lively account of Florida's Native Americans, from more than 12,000 years ago to the present. This article is based on the book.

B.C. - Before Columbus

Florida was a much bigger, drier place when American Indians first arrived near the end of the Ice Age.

The colossal amounts of water tied up in glaciers left sea levels more than 320 feet lower than they are today, making Florida about twice its current size.
Early Paleoindian hunters moved from watering hole to watering hole, hunting mammoths and other now-extinct animals and gathering wild foods.

Many of those watering holes today are parts of the limestone beds of northern Florida's rivers. For nearly a decade, UF paleontologist David Webb has directed hundreds of dives to the bottom of some of the most productive of these sites as part of the Florida Museum of Natural History's Aucilla River Prehistory Project (ARPP).

Artifacts and other information collected from the Aucilla River by ARPP field crews, including students and volunteers, offer new perspectives on Florida's past climate and the plants and animals hunted and collected by Paleoindians. One significant revelation is that squashes, once thought to have been introduced into the eastern United States from Mexico several thousand years ago, actually were present in Florida even before the first Paleoindians arrived.

Beginning about 10,500 years ago, Florida's climate gradually became warmer and wetter as the Ice Age ended and glaciers receded. Sea levels rose and vegetation changed. Native peoples adjusted to these environmental alterations by adopting more settled lifestyles and establishing villages across the state, especially adjacent to wetlands where fish and shellfish were plentiful, such as on the St. Johns River and along the southwest coast. Excavations in coastal Collier County by UF archaeologist William H. Marquardt and graduate student Michael Russo revealed that settled village life and even mound construction had begun in such locales by 3000 B.C., much earlier than previously thought.

Many of the huge shell piles -- remains of thousands of pre-Columbian meals of oysters and freshwater mussels and snails --fell victim to the turn-of-the-century practice of mining them for road fill. But the few that remain, like Turtle Mound State Archaeological Site in Volusia County, are impressive monuments to Florida's early Indians.

Between 3000 B.C. and 500 B.C., unique Florida Indian cultures developed throughout every region of the state. It is these pre-Columbian societies that spawned the 350,000 American Indians who inhabited Florida when Juan Ponce de Leon landed on the Atlantic coast in 1513 and then sailed around the peninsula to Estero Bay near Fort Myers.

During the 2,000-year period before the Spaniards arrived, dozens of Florida Indian cultures flourished in regional environments, from the agricultural Fort Walton culture living among the forests, rivers and lakes of Florida's eastern panhandle to the Belle Glade culture occupying the Lake Okeechobee basin's vast wetlands and savannas.

The Fort Walton culture UF doctoral student Claudine Payne studied for her dissertation exhibited close ties to the very complex native societies that dominated the interior of the southeastern United States after 1000 A.D. Fort Walton societies were hierarchical, with powerful chiefs and other leaders occupying capital towns (like the Lake Jackson site), living in opulent quarters atop specially constructed pyramidal mounds. Lesser chiefs lived in outlying towns, and the common people lived at small agricultural homesteads scattered across the countryside. The Fort Walton people of what are today Leon and Jefferson counties were Florida's premier native farmers, cultivating corn, beans, squash and a host of other plants.

In contrast to the Fort Walton farmers were the Belle Glade people whose economy was based on fishing, hunting and collecting the wild foods of the Lake Okeechobee basin. After 500 B.C. the Belle Glade people constructed numerous mounds and earthworks, including embankments, ceremonial ponds and circular ditches, many near the old shoreline of the lake as well as along the Caloosahatchee and Kissimmee rivers. A dissertation by William Johnson, another of Milanich's students, describes and interprets the different types of earthworks, some of whose functions continue to elude archaeologists.

In another dissertation, UF graduate student Jeffrey Mitchem examined Safety Harbor, a regional culture in western peninsular Florida from Sarasota County north to the Withlacoochee River. Mitchem described subtle cultural variations among the Safety Harbor Indians, from fishing-gathering cultures around Tampa Bay to agricultural societies farther north. Today, several Safety Harbor towns with mounds, plazas and village areas still can be visited in Manatee and Pinellas counties.

The wetlands that were so important to the economies of pre-Columbian Floridians also have proved a boon to archaeologists. Preserved underwater in rivers or in muck or peat in the bottom of ponds and marshes are thousands of fiber, bone and wood artifacts. Wet-site excavations by UF professor emerita of anthropology Barbara Purdy at Hontoon Island in the St. Johns River near Deland turned up a cornucopia of plant remains. Graduate student Lee Newsom identified a remarkable array of plants and wooden tools. One item in abundance was cypress chips from dugout canoes.

Similar archaeological discoveries across Florida offer researchers a much clearer picture of these regional cultures than was possible even a decade ago. From this perspective, scholars can study groups like the Apalachee, Calusa, Potano, Mayaca, Tequesta and Guacata Indians and determine how they dealt with the coming of the Europeans.

Another World

During the early colonial period, France and Spain vied to conquer and colonize Florida and the surrounding portions of the Southeast. After a half century of ill-fated attempts, including that of Hernando deSoto, focus of a study by Milanich and UF graduate student Kenneth Johnson, it was Spain that finally established the first successful settlement in 1565: St. Augustine.

For more than two decades, Kathleen A. Deagan, distinguished research curator in historical archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, has combined historical and archaeological research to understand the dynamics of Spanish St. Augustine and its role as one of the northernmost outposts of Spain's American empire.

Building on the research of earlier scholars like noted UF historian Michael V. Gannon, we can describe the impact of Spanish colonization on the native peoples of Florida.

Especially noteworthy is the role the missions played in converting the Indians to Christianity and making them loyal subjects of the Spanish Crown so they would labor in support of St. Augustine's colonists.

The story of the 150 mission churches of Spanish Florida and the people they served, one of history's best-kept secrets, has become much clearer in the last decade, thanks to excavations by Milanich and UF graduate student Rebecca Saunders at missions Santa Catalina on Amelia Island and San Martin near the Ichetucknee Springs. Milanich and a team of students also excavated San Juan de Guacara in southern Suwannee County. Together those projects have provided new details about mission structures and the changes in the Indians' lives that Christianity bought. UF graduate student Donna Ruhl continues to identify plant remains from the sites that indicate mission Indians adopted a host of European plants for their own gardens.

The archaeological record of the missions has been greatly enhanced by the archival research of John Worth, whose UF dissertation and subsequent work have opened new vistas on the mission among the Timucua Indians. We now realize that the system of conscripted labor organized through the missions caused the death of many Christian Indians.

But more deadly were the diseases introduced to the Florida Indians by people and animals brought from Europe. The UF dissertation by Lisa Hoshower, a bioarchaeologist, provides graphic, physical testimony to the hardships suffered by the Indians, whose mortal remains were interred under the floors of their mission churches. By the end of the 17th century the number of Timucua and Apalachee Indians living in missions in northern Florida had dwindled to less than 12,000.

In 1763, two centuries after the founding of St. Augustine, Spain relinquished its Florida colony to Britain. Eighty-nine Indians living in St. Augustine and two remaining Franciscan missions left for Cuba with the departing Spaniards. They were the last of the Florida Indians; Florida's indigenous native population was gone.

A New Beginning

The demise of Florida's native people left a population vacuum that drew Indians seeking land and the desire to live in peace, free from tribal conflicts. Most of these new residents were Lower Creek Indians from Georgia and Alabama who sought independence from the Upper Creeks.

Florida presented new opportunities, and the Indians took advantage of them. By the 1760s these new Florida Indians collectively were becoming known as the Seminole.

As Brent Weisman's UF dissertation recounts, the Seminole were actively involved in bartering honey, cow and deer hides, garden produce and other commodities for European items, especially after Britain took control of Florida in 1763. Women were full participants in this trade, exchanging the products of their gardening efforts for goods. The opportunities to acquire wealth through shrewd trading and individual initiative made entrepreneurs out of many Seminole. Men and women acquired status and power from accomplishments, not just inherited social position. A distinctive Seminole way of life different from that of the Creek Indians was evolving.

In the early 19th century another large migration of Creeks took place, including ancestors of the Miccosukee Indians. Perhaps a thousand Upper Creeks moved to Florida following Andrew Jackson's 1814 defeat of Upper Creek warriors at the Battle of Tohopeka in Alabama. As many as 6,000 Seminole and Miccosukee lived in Florida when it became a United States territory in 1819.

As American settlers began to pour into the state in the 19th century, conflicts between Indians and settlers erupted. A series of wars were fought in the 1830s and 1850s as the government attempted to enforce the Indian Removal Act to move all Indians east of the Mississippi River to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.

Many Florida Indians were captured or surrendered and were moved west, leaving only a few hundred Indians scattered among the Everglades, the Big Cypress Swamp and the Ten Thousand Islands. It is the descendants of those unconquered Seminole and Miccosukee who today live in Florida.

As the economic boom of the early 20th century brought new residents to south Florida cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Fort Myers, the Seminole began to stress tourism and, later, cattle raising and other economic pursuits.

When federal legislation in the 1950s sought to remove the special status of American Indian tribes, the Seminole voted on August 21,1957 to become the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Five years later the Miccosukee Indians also became a government-recognized political entity.

Today Florida has three federally recognized Native American tribes: the Seminole, the Miccosukee and the Poarch Creeks, the latter descended from Alabama Creeks not forced to move to Indian Territory in the 1830s. But these three tribes represent less than a tenth of the 36,335 people (out of 13 million total Florida residents) who identified themselves as American Indians in the 1990 census. According to that census, there are more Cherokee Indians in Florida than any other Indian tribe; 10,000 people cite Cherokee affiliation.

Florida once again is home to a significant number of people of American Indian descent. As we enter a new millennium, Florida's Indians will play an important role in helping all of us to understand the past and plan for our shared future.

Related web sites:
Florida Museum of Natural History
University Press of Florida