The Seminole Tribe has a word it likes to use to describe its history: unconquered. It might sound like bravado or an exaggeration, but the truth of it is remarkable.
Despite military campaigns from Europe’s greatest powers and the entire might of the U.S. government, despite being chased into the swamps, despite all the trickery their enemies used to try to get them to give up, the Seminoles held strong. Consider for a moment how different that is from the stories we know of Native Americans elsewhere, where they were largely pushed to reservations in the West. But the Seminoles—and others, including the Miccosukee—they’re still here. And their history is closer than you think.
For those of us who grew up watching Westerns and hearing the “cowboys versus Indians” tales of Hollywood, it might seem like all of the good stories are based in the West. But here in South Florida, the history of the native people dates back generations, full of a rich culture, battles lost and won, and a future perhaps brighter than ever.
The moment in time that most interests Sara Ayers-Rigsby happened way back, about 12,000 years ago. Ayers-Rigsby works for the Florida Public Archaeology Network and is based in Jupiter at Florida Atlantic University. She says the Florida of that time was going through something it is also dealing with today: a vastly changing sea level that drastically altered the living conditions for the native people.
Up until that time, the Ice Age had taken a big portion of the planet’s water and turned it into glaciers that covered the north. The peninsula that is now Florida was twice the size it is today, with massive cliffs that fell to the seas. The native people who were here hunted mastodons and other massive roaming animals.
As the seas began to rise, and the cliffs got sucked into the water, the giant roaming animals were no longer. The native people who hunted on the great plains of Florida became fishermen and farmers. “If I had a time machine and could go back to any period, it would be to see what people were doing to adapt to those changes,” Ayers-Rigsby says. If the natives could adapt 12,000 years ago, she notes, perhaps we can adapt to the changes we’re seeing today. “Their story shows that people are incredibly resilient. It tells an incredibly optimistic view of humanity’s future.”
Thinking back to those prehistoric days in Florida also offers some perspective on just how long native people occupied this area before Europeans arrived, says British-born archaeologist Paul Backhouse. For nearly a decade, Backhouse has served as the Seminole tribal historic preservation officer and director of the 70-acre Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation located just south of Clewiston. “Florida has been
occupied since time immemorial,” Backhouse says. “Colonial history says the Seminoles came late, but their ancestors have lived in Jupiter and Stuart for thousands of years. Tequesta and Seminole are names given by outside forces, and those distinctions given by historians are not necessarily how those groups see themselves.”
The Seminole and Miccosukee tribes have eight generations of history passed down by spoken tales. Backhouse likes to emphasize this by repeating a quote from Coacoochee (which translates to “wildcat”), the Seminole leader from the 1800s.
“Coacoochee is quoted as saying he is made of the sands of Florida,” Backhouse says. “It captures beautifully that Florida was a native land.”
South Florida is dotted with spots that indicate the long history of native people. “There are archaeological sites everywhere,” Ayers-Rigsby says. “There is evidence of indigenous people living here for thousands of years. This area is incredibly rich in Native American archaeological history.”
Standing tall on the Jupiter Inlet is the town’s most famous site: the iconic red lighthouse built in 1860. Surrounding that structure is land where native people lived for at least 5,000 years. The lighthouse grounds include a Seminole chickee hut constructed in 2009 by then tribal chairman James Billie as a tribute to the history of the local Seminoles and their history trading with early settlers.
Just a few miles away, off West Indiantown Road, is Loxahatchee River Battlefield Park. In 1838, the U.S. military arrived and attempted to extricate native people, leading to two battles on the banks of the Loxahatchee River—one a clear victory by the Seminoles and the second pushing the tribe deep into the swamps. A nonprofit organization called the Loxahatchee Battlefield Preservationists keeps that history alive today with presentations three times a year, the next to be held in April.
Stuart’s House of Refuge, built in 1876 for shipwrecked sailors, stands on land once occupied by Native Americans. The hurricanes of 2004 exposed a Native American midden, or shell-covered trash heap, full of detritus of an earlier time.
Workers dredging a canal in 1913 to create what’s now Vero Beach began discovering bones nicknamed “Old Vero Man.” The site remains an active dig and is in need of volunteers, offering a chance for amateur historians to see what it’s like to be an archaeologist for a day.
In 1979, fossils were first discovered in a sinkhole on what’s now the Charles Deering Estate Park, and archaeologists have since discovered bones of native people dating back 650 years. The park also includes the Cutler Burial Mound, which is believed to include the remains of perhaps 18 native people.
The village of Indiantown sits on the site of a Seminole trading post set up by tribal members fleeing south after the First Seminole War. Others first began settling there in the 1890s.
Not far from the northern shores of Lake Okeechobee, the Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park occupies land where an 1837 Christmas Day battle marked a turning point in the Second Seminole War, with 1,000 government soldiers fighting several hundred Seminole and Miccosukee. The battle is reenacted on the last weekend every February.
Located on Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation near Clewiston, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is among the nation’s most significant museums dedicated to the history of native people. Backhouse says the museum stands as a testament to the tribes. “Some of the most important stories regarding indigenous sovereignty can be seen here in South Florida,” Backhouse says. “The Seminole and Miccosukee tribes did not sign a peace treaty and held on against all odds to stay here in South Florida.”
Spotlight: Today’s Tribal Heroes
“It’s important to realize that indigenous cultures still exist and are very much alive and active today,” Ayers-Rigsby says. There are many natives working hard to preserve the tribal way of life, adds Backhouse, and it’s becoming more and more difficult. Florida’s native tribes have always been under threat from outside forces that hoped to assimilate them or dismantle their culture, and the current threats of climate change and urban encroachment are just as significant. COVID also took a toll, claiming the lives of tribal leader Max Osceola Jr. and Seminole Chief Justice of the Tribal Courts Willie Johns. Here, Backhouse notes two tribal leaders who are working tirelessly to keep Seminole culture alive.
Seminole Tribe member Daniel Tommie is working to revive the ancient practice of creating dug-out canoes from a single piece of wood. To hone his skills, he began with a three-inch piece of wood and carved it into a canoe shape, then began working his way up to larger canoes. Today, Tommy holds presentations for schoolchildren and community groups, lately via Zoom, demonstrating an art that was nearly lost.
Tina Marie Osceola
As director of the Seminole Tribal Historic Preservation Office and a tribal judge, Tina Marie Osceola is an advocate for tribal sovereignty. Among her efforts is to reclaim the remains of Seminoles stored in museums all over the world. So far, many of those museums, including the Smithsonian, have refused to return the bones, claiming them as historical relics. Osceola and the Seminoles want to give the remains a proper burial on tribal property, a goal that once again pits outsiders against the unconquered tribe.