We Seminole have lived in Florida for thousands of years. Our ancestors were the first people to come to Florida. Our ancestors were connected by family and culture to others across North America, from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi river, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. They are now called the Mississippian Culture, and their traditions still exist among the Seminole and other tribes today.
We were in Florida when the Spanish arrived. They met our ancestors, who they called by different names; the Miccosukee people, the Muscogee people, the Calusa people, and other Native American tribes. The Spanish brought with them diseases that devastated our ancestors. Within one hundred years the new diseases had killed nine out of ten of the Native People of the Americas.
We gathered from across Florida, Georgia, and Alabama; those borders did not exist for us. Our culture, our home, and our way of life joined us together. We defended our homes and our people, and we became a refuge for those who sought freedom from conquest and slavery. For this, we were seen as a threat.
We would not be controlled by the Spanish or brought into their mission colonies. They called us cimarrónes, the Spanish word for “runaways” or “wild ones”. Some of us saw the name as an insult, some saw it as a badge of honor. But we continued to trade with the people of the Spanish and other European colonies, as we had traded for centuries with our neighbors. We made friends, we made enemies, and we kept our culture as the Europeans struggled to expand their reach. In time, the Spanish bought their cattle and their leather from us.
We were in Florida when the invasion began, starting half a century of warfare with the United States. We watched as the man who led the invasion was elected to be the 7th President of the United States. As president he signed a law breaking all treaties the United States had made with the Native People. This law stated that all Native People east of the Mississippi River be “removed” west. When they tried to force us to leave, breaking the word that had been given, we fought for our home. Abiaka, Coacoochee, Micanopy, Osceola, Holatta Micco, and other great warriors fought for their families and their way of life. Throughout these years under siege many of us were killed, captured, or sent west to reservations far from our ancestors’ homes.
We followed Abiaka, who the Americans knew as Sam Jones, into the swamps of Florida, remaining free and Unconquered. We kept our ways and our traditions. As the years went by, more and more people settled in Florida. They built cities and drained the wetlands. We talked to and traded with these settlers as they filled our old lands. Roads and railways were built throughout the state, bringing new travelers to our lands. We greeted these travelers and shared with them our culture and sold them our crafts.
We continue to grow and prosper, from the two hundred who followed Abiaki, to more than five thousand Tribal members today. We continue to fight for our freedom, but have moved the war from the battlefield to the courtroom. We are a sovereign government with our own schools, police, and courts. We run one of the largest cattle operations in the United States. We own Hard Rock Hotel & Casinos, an international business with locations in 74 countries. We still continue our traditions of sewing, patchwork, chickee building, and alligator wrestling. The world has changed, as it always has, and we have adapted, as we always have; while keeping our ways, our culture, and our lives, to remain the Unconquered Seminole Tribe of Florida.
The history of the Seminole begins with the first people of Florida, their ancestors, who came to the region more than 14,000 years ago. The earliest known sites are located in the Florida Panhandle, but the ancestors continued to move into Florida, primarily along the coastlines and waterways and eventually occupying diverse regions throughout the peninsula. When the ice age came to an end, the gradually rising waters forced the Florida communities further inland, flooding the older sites. During this time (Around 8,000 years ago) the Florida people transitioned from nomadic lifestyles to more permanent settlements that relied on fishing, hunting, and gardens for food. These settlements thrived within Florida, allowing for advancements in craft and trade that paved the way for the larger towns to come.
With increasing populations, the Native people of Florida also began to modify the land to suit their needs. Earthwork mounds were formed at community sites, providing elevated locations above the waterline to build structures for living, cooking, and crafting. The coastal mounds were often formed from a layer of oyster shell harvested from local beds, with sand and earth layered above them. These mounds made possible the development of larger permanent communities such as Tocobaga and Calusa. Interior mounds within the wetlands served a similar roll while also providing needed hubs for travel and trade.
With the rise of permanent communities, the cultural landscape of Florida began to take on a stable shape. Trade routes, travel, migration, and conflict continued; but by the end of the 15th century there were distinct cultural regions that were able to be documented. Our primary knowledge of this time comes from oral histories of the Seminole Tribe, Spanish and other European written documents, and the archaeological record. These show a clear picture of a Florida that was interconnected both within the peninsula and to the larger geographic region. Copper from the Great Lakes Region would be fashioned into intricate breastplates buried with leaders of the Tallahassee, cities around Tampa Bay were part of a broader Mississippian culture centered in Cahokia, and shark’s teeth and shell from the Caribbean would be traded as far as Minnesota.
The Seminole Ancestors who lived in Florida and made contact with the early Spanish colonizers, while interconnected, had multiple languages, outlooks, and cultures. The Spanish recorded names for these people without fully understanding this. Their initial biases led to a great deal of misinformation about the Florida Ancestors that has been passed on. Spanish records can only be properly contextualized by the oral histories of the Seminole. By uniting Indigenous resources with historical and archaeological methods we get a clearer picture of the Ancestors.
The period of time in which the Seminole Ancestors first came to the Florida Peninsula, flourished, and built cultures and societies, covers the vast majority of the history of the Seminole People. The people of the time did not call themselves Seminole. That word would be placed on their descendants by outsiders and only came to be adopted later due to the threat of the common foe that united the Florida people.
Historians have placed many titles on this period of time: Pre-Columbian, Pre-Colonial, Prehistoric Florida, and others. These titles place the emphasis not on the people of Florida, but on the colonizers who invaded the peninsula after AD 1492. This view does not accurately reflect how the Seminole People, or other Native groups, view their history. The term used to cover this time here is The Ancestral Period.
Around the year 1500, the Ancestors first encountered a new and unknown people. Spanish ships were spotted off the coast, and stories of brutal conquest were heard from the Taino people of the Caribbean, many of whom sought refuge with the Calusa and other Florida groups. While the Calusa repelled the first invasion of Florida, delivering a mortal blow to the Conquistador Ponce De Leon, the Spanish would soon return.
Whether as conquerors like Hernando de Soto, colonizers at Saint Augustine and Pensacola, or traders and missionaries sent from Havana, the Spanish goal was to add Florida to their expanding empire. The consequences for the people of Florida were dire. The missions sought to destroy the Ancestors’ culture, slavers carried many away into bondage, and European wars spilled over into America and brought different towns to war as old grievances and new alliances placed the Ancestors at each other’s throats. But perhaps most devastating of all were the new diseases brought from across the ocean. Smallpox, measles, yellow fever, and malaria spread unchecked throughout the Ancestral communities. It is estimated that between 1500 and 1700 AD these new factors killed over ninety percent of the population, not just in Florida, but across the American continents.
The ramifications from this cannot be underestimated. Survivors from different groups joined together or fought against each other. Ancient knowledge was lost, and cultures irrevocably changed as people tried to make new lives and new communities. Colonizers found depopulated lands and pushed their way into them. With Florida being one of the worst hit areas, people from other Muskogee speaking towns who were facing pressure from the English colonies and their allied tribes came south into the region. Here they found the survivors of the Florida tribes who had not joined the Spanish mission system. The Spanish began to call the Native people beyond their control cimarrones, a word the English and later Americans picked up as Seminoles.
While the Spanish claimed Florida for their Empire, in truth, nothing outside the walls of St. Augustine and Pensacola were under their control. Around Pensacola, Seminole towns like Tallahassee and Miccosukee grew and prospered, home to thousands of people. Native leaders like Payne, in Alachua, and Kinache, in Miccosukee, began to trade food and goods with the Spanish and English colonizers for tools and weapons. Domestic cattle had only first arrived with Ponce de Leon’s failed expedition, but the Native people learned quickly how to raise them, and soon the Seminole were the main suppliers of beef to the Spanish colonies. The Ancestors’ world was gone forever, but the people of Florida survived, adapted, and began to flourish anew.
“Seminole” is not a Seminole word. Like many names commonly associated with Indigenous American groups, it was put on them from the outside. During the time of colonization, the Spanish began to use the word Cimarrón for two groups of people: Those who had escaped enslavement, and the Native people of Florida who lived outside their control. The word had come from the Caribbean Taino people, and the Spanish adapted for their own use. It originally meant “runaway livestock”.
Over time the term for the African people who were not enslaved was shortened to maroon. North of Florida, Muskogeean people (such as the Creek) adopted cimarrón from the Spanish to describe Native people of Florida, however in their dialect it became simaló-ni. Americans would then learn the term from the Creek, and pronounced it as Seminole.
This new title was not initially embraced by the people of Florida, who knew themselves to be people from many towns, connected by clan, and members of a broader Muskogean-speaking culture that was far larger and older than the political borders the European governments tried to enforce. The title was used grudgingly with Europeans and Americans until the Seminole War. During that struggle it became something more, a common identity that united people from disparate backgrounds, but who had a common cause and faced a common invading enemy. It was with pride they then called themselves Seminole.
When the 19th century began, the Seminole had towns, farms, and pastureland across northern and central Florida. These towns were working not only with each other but also with the growing Maroon communities of free African people. These were relative newcomers, many of whom had escaped enslavement in the United States and found freedom in Florida. With the establishment of a working relationship with the colonizer Spanish and English, the Seminole had become the primary suppliers of beef and trade goods to the Spanish. The success of these lands, however, caught the eye of farmers and plantation owners across the northern border, in the southern United States.
Many Americans, already an expansionistic nation, wanted to lay claim to Florida. Northern Florida had good ranch and farmland, and a wealth of other natural resources. The presence of a Spanish Colony was a source of concern, but more frightening for many in the South was the promise of freedom Florida offered to the people they had enslaved. Spain had declared anyone who entered Florida was free, and because of this, the first Underground Railroad ran to Florida. None of these reasons, however, would sounds good in the newspapers as a reason for war. For that, the country turned to the sporadic border fights that took place between settlers and Natives, and claimed that war was necessary to pacify the “Wild and Uncivilized Savages”, the Seminole people.
The first American invasion began in 1812, when a collection of southern militias with tacit support from Washington invaded Florida. Called the Patriot War of East Florida by the Americans, but for Florida Natives it was the beginning of the Seminole War that would define the next half-century. American militias attacked Spanish holdings and then set their sights on the renowned cattle town of Alachua. The Seminole fought them off, but the attack took the lives of many, including King Payne. His brother Bowlek, who the Americans called Bowlegs, became the new leader of the Alachua band.
In 1817, American forces returned under the command of Andrew Jackson. Jackson’s army targeted and destroyed Seminole towns and seized Seminole farms and pastureland before taking Pensacola and marching on Bowleg’s Town, home of Bowlek, and the neighboring Nero’s Town, the largest Maroon settlement in Florida. After Spain ceded Florida to the United States, the Seminole leaders met with American representatives. The Treaty of Moultrie Creek, instructed Seminoles to give up their farms and ranches in the north, and move to a reservation south of Ocala, land they knew to be far less desirable.
Elected as president in 1828, Jackson called for the Indian Removal Act, which passed two years later. The act ordered the forced removal of all Native people east of the Mississippi River to “Indian Territory,” what would one day become Oklahoma. With one signature, the United States broke every treaty with Native people. Most populations, already surrounded by lands America had claimed, could not effectively resist without the threat of destruction. The Trail of Tears began as these people were forcibly marched from the homes of their ancestors to distant reservations across the Mississippi River. Thousands died along the way. In Florida, however, the government found stiff defiance in a land they never truly controlled. The Seminole refused to leave.
Faced with this resistance, the US government ordered the Army to Florida to “remove” the Seminole by force. For seven years, they fought this “Second” war, and it would prove to be the longest and most expensive of all America’s “Indian Wars.” With their knowledge of the land, the Seminole fought a guerilla resistance that American forces, classically trained, were not prepared for. As the war continued, Seminole forces continued to outlast the military. The names of warriors such as Wildcat (Coacoochee), Sam Jones (Abiaki), and Alligator (Halpatter) became famous, and the charismatic Osceola (Asi-Yahola) became the most famous Native American in the world. However, as the war dragged on, it took its toll. Both sides faced losses, but while fresh recruits from the states replaced every American loss, there were no reinforcements for the Seminole. General Thomas Jesup cast aside the rules of war, forever tarnishing his and the Army’s reputation as he captured Wildcat and Osceola under a flag of truce. While Wildcat would lead an escape from St Augustine, Osceola was too ill to follow, and would die in US custody shortly after, far from Florida. By 1842, the forced removal campaign resulted in the death and abduction of more than 3000 Tribal members. With less than a thousand remaining in the state, and faced with the war’s rising cost and unpopularity with the American people, the Army declared victory and left.
Over the next decade, the Seminole remaining in Florida worked to recover while staying wary of new American aggression. Holatta Micco, known to Americans as Billy Bowlegs, worked with American allies to try to find a peace that would allow the two people to coexist, but both sides held grudges from the violence of war. Despite efforts on both sides, the government continued to push for full removal. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis ordered increased troops into Florida to patrol and survey Seminole land, but these soldiers and the militias with them destroyed Seminole camps and farms. The steady pressure campaign worked, flaring again into open violence, creating the “third” war.
With less than a thousand Seminole present at the start, Army leaders building on the lessons of the second war, and a half century of fighting taking its toll on the Tribe, the war ended in three years. The US Army shifted tactics to target the home camps and capturing noncombatants: mostly women, children, and elders. Places like Egmont Key became concentration camps for those taken and held hostage. The warriors were informed that their families would be sent west, and if they wanted to be with their families, the warriors should surrender. The tactic was effective. Billy Bowlegs and many of his followers agreed to removal and taken to Oklahoma. The Seminole War was over.
Despite many losses, however, the American goal of Seminole removal was never realized. Several bands remained in Florida, written off by the Army as doomed. Polly, a woman on the last removal voyage, led an escape from the boat when it stopped in the Florida panhandle for fuel. This bold action allowed her and six other women to make the long trek back to Lake Okeechobee. The Tribe would then follow Abiaki, who at around 100 years of age had fought the long war from the beginning to the end, as he led them into the deep wetlands. There the remaining Seminole would not only survive, but thrive.
American histories record three Seminole Wars; Jackson’s invasion from 1817 to 1818, the first removal war from 1835 to 1842, and the third from 1855 to 1858. This captures the American perspective, marking the periods where Congress officially declared action. But for the Seminole people there was only one war. They came under armed and organized attack from America in 1812, and the fighting only ended in 1858. While there were negotiations and times where the Army did not directly engage them, the Seminole still faced regular aggression and violence from American settlers, militia, slave catchers, and even lawmen. In 1842, while America called their 2nd war to an end, Congress signed the Armed Immigration Act, specifically aimed to send armed settlers into Seminole Florida lands to pressure them to leave. There was never truly a peace for the Seminole during this time, only one long war.
The Seminole who remained in Florida had been prepared for survival in the harsh wetlands environment by nearly five decades of wartime life. The declaration by the United States that the war was over did not mean much to the Native people, who had heard such statements before. The Seminole remained on guard and cautious, making their homes and camps in places hidden from the expanding American settlements.
Ties with Americans were never completely severed, however, and trade was kept with select Americans who had earned trust. When the United States broke into Civil War, Sam Jones learned of it, and even at one point met with a representative of the Confederate Florida government. Throughout the next few decades the Seminole maintained their wariness, with only a few interacting with Floridians to buy and sell goods, and to learn the news from the outside world.
During this time the Tribe began divide. The majority remained in the south, in the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamps. They were primarily the descendants of the Miccosukee, Calusa, Apalachee, and other Florida people. These families spoke Miccosukee and were led by Abiaka (Sam Jones). The Red-Stick Creek and their families, who had come into Florida after the Creek Civil War, spoke the Muscogee language and preferred the more central lands east of Lake Okeechobee.
The Seminole people watched as Americans expanded further in Florida. Trade became more regular, with Florida commodities such as alligator hides, deer skins, and bird plumage grew popular in the northern United States. Trading posts were established with friends of the Tribe, such as Frank Stranahan in Ft. Lauderdale, and William Brown in Big Cypress. One trading post established by the Seminole east of Lake Okeechobee grew to become the community of Indiantown.
One Cow Creek leader, Thlocko Tustenugee (Captain Tom Tiger), began to visit the American towns regularly, becoming a popular figure. When one settler stole Tom Tiger’s horse, he became the first Native person in Florida to take an American to court. While he lost the case, the support he got spread into the organization known as the Friends of the Seminole. Tom Tiger would later open the first Seminole tourist camp near Miami, boosting a new enterprise for the Tribe.
New sources of income were needed as well. While the hunting trade had brought wealth into the tribe, it also attracted more settlers looking to compete. Soon American hunters not only outnumbered the Seminole, but the toll on the animals from over-hunting brought them to the brink of extinction. Expanding land plans in Florida also called for draining the wetlands. For the Tribe this meant not only losing the canoe routes they relied on for transportation, but their isolation as canals and roads cut through their lands. During the Florida land boom developers bought wide swaths of land from the state, much of which was home to Seminole camps. Tribal members began to take what jobs could be found in the new economy, often working as farmhands or laborers.
Faced with growing threats to their way of life Tribal leaders began working with the Friends of the Seminole to find a solution. A petition to the federal government started the process for land to be brought into trust for the Tribe. By 1938 three reservations had been established, covering over 80,000 acres, near Dania, Okeechobee, and Big Cypress. Old lessons of government deals were not forgotten, however, and many Tribal members were weary of moving to these lands.