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Like Beads on a String: A Culture History of the Seminole Indians in North Peninsular Florida

Like Beads on a String: A Culture History of the Seminole Indians in North Peninsular Florida

by Brent Richards Weisman

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Florida's Seminole Indians are exerting an ever increasing influence on crucial issues in state politics, economy, and law. From a position of near obscurity less than a century ago, these Native Americans have staged a remarkable comeback to take an active hand in shaping Florida society, present and future. Anthropologists have long been fascinated with the


Florida's Seminole Indians are exerting an ever increasing influence on crucial issues in state politics, economy, and law. From a position of near obscurity less than a century ago, these Native Americans have staged a remarkable comeback to take an active hand in shaping Florida society, present and future. Anthropologists have long been fascinated with the Seminoles and have often remarked upon their ability to adapt to new circumstances while preserving the core features of their traditional culture. Early observers of the Seminoles also commented on the dynamic tension that existed for the individual, clan, and tribe, that drew them together, "like beads on a string," into a resilient and viable society. This study traces the emergence of these qualities in the late prehistoric and early historic period in the Southeast and demonstrates their influence on the course of Seminole culture history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Weisman's book on the Seminole pulls together not just the traditional historical accounts, but the recently uncovered archaeological data on this group, in order to help the reader understand the cultural makeup of a distinct Native American group. Highly recommended."
North American Archaeologist

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University of Alabama Press
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Like Beads on a String

A Culture History of the Seminole Indians in Northern Peninsular Florida
By Brent Richards Weisman

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1989 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-0411-9

Chapter One


North Peninsular Florida

This book primarily considers the historical archaeology of the Seminole Indians in north peninsular Florida. The north peninsula and the region of the Florida panhandle in the vicinity of Tallahassee were the two major centers of early Seminole settlement. There are indications that the Europeans of the time were more familiar with the Seminoles of the Tallahassee Red Hills than with the bands inhabiting the more remote regions of the Suwannee River drainage and the Alachua savanna, yet the archaeological picture of the panhandle bands is vastly incomplete. The north peninsula Seminoles did not entirely escape documentary notice, nor is their archaeology entirely unknown. The reason is in part the site survey and reconnaissance sponsored by the University of Florida in the vicinity of the Gainesville campus, near the former heartland of the peninsular Seminoles. The north peninsula is also a favorable area for study because Seminole occupation there was continuous for almost a century, whereas the panhandle groups were effectively removed from the area through combined American and Creek hostilities in the earlydecades of the nineteenth century. Thus Seminole archaeological sites found in the north peninsula usefully illustrate several significant trends in the development of Seminole culture history.

The study area is bounded on the west by the drainage of the Suwannee River, on the east by the St. Johns River, on the south by a line extending from Tampa Bay northeastward the headwaters of the St. Johns River (approximately 28 degrees north latitude), and on the north by a line east-west across the peninsula at approximately 30 degrees north latitude. The study area and the major archaeological sites discussed in the text are illustrated in figure 1.

Previous prehistoric archaeology in the north peninsula has been neatly summarized by Milanich and Fairbanks (1980:24-26,28-33), who divided the region into four archaeological culture areas. According to the authors, the last aboriginal occupation in three of the areas (the fourth is the central Gulf coast, in the vicinity of Tampa Bay) was by bands of Seminole Indians, whose migrations into the region can be traced in the archaeological record. Table 1 presents important culture-historical events in the north peninsula through 1765.

Geography is of some importance in any consideration of the cultural adaptation of the Seminoles to north peninsular Florida. Two of the three major rivers in the province-the Suwannee and the Withlacoochee-empty into the Gulf of Mexico and thus provided important river routes for Seminole commerce with Spanish Cuba. River travel by the Seminoles was of particular concern when Florida was under British and American control, for both of these powers wanted to prevent the Indians from engaging in uncontrolled trade with foreign sources. The Americans in particular took precautions against waterborne Indian trade by establishing in 1823 an Indian reservation with boundaries well inland from the Gulf. The British, however, used the St. Johns River to their advantage and established several major Indian trading houses on its banks deep within the Seminole domain.

Site survey information suggests that the first Seminole settlements in the north peninsula were located in the scattered oak-hickory uplands, especially in regions bordering the Alachua savanna. South of the Alachua area, the first settlements were located on the Brooksville Ridge, a narrow spine of highland tending north-northwest from present-day Brooksville (Hernando County) to the Withlacoochee gap at Dunellon (Marion County).

Sites are shallow, usually with a single component, and are often found near late prehistoric sites of the Alachua tradition (in the Alachua area) or, south of the Withlacoochee, near sites of the Safety Harbor archaeological culture. It is rare for Seminole sites to occur as upper components in prehistoric shell middens because the lifeways of the Seminoles did not at first emphasize the collecting of riverine and aquatic food resources. However, the Seminoles did not abandon the use of native-made pottery until their ultimate move into the southern Florida glades, and so their distinctive "brushed" ceramics are diagnostic of their presence on northern Florida sites.

The number of known Seminole archaeological sites is small, especially compared with the numbers of sites upon which archaeologists customarily define cultures or phases. Because the sites are frequently of low artifact density, they often go undiscovered and are inadvertently destroyed through various human activities. Seminole sites rarely have above-ground manifestations and must be discovered through a detailed direct-historic approach. Thus their identification is both costly and labor intensive. These factors have tended to discourage systematic, problem-oriented research. Also, the relative wealth of documentary information pertaining to the political history of the Seminoles has eclipsed the importance of a social history derived from archaeology. The Seminoles themselves have not as yet placed a high priority on the archaeological investigation of their past, for understandable reasons. It is hoped, however, that this circumstance will change, with Seminole archaeology playing a major role in the development of a Seminole-derived culture history. It is also hoped that scholars of southeastern archaeology and ethnohistory will bring Seminole studies into the mainstream of their concerns.

Previous Views of the Seminole Past

Most previous interpretations of Seminole culture history have favored one of three approaches: a political model, an adaptational model, or an anthropological model. Political models emphasize the importance of the Euro-American presence in the colonial Southeast and its influence on the direction of Seminole culture history. Treaties, land cessions, and trading policies between colonists and Indians are featured as catalysts for change in aboriginal society. The primary proponent of this view was Charles H. Fairbanks (1974, 1978) of the University of Florida. Adaptational approaches hold that environmental and ecological conditions exerted selection pressure on the culture pattern of the Seminoles, a pressure that favored the development of new adaptive strategies and the abandonment of some older ones. Thus as the Seminoles moved into different environmental niches in the Florida peninsula, different responses were called for. The combination of these responses into a new cultural pattern essentially signaled the ethnic transformation from Creek to Seminole. This view appears in the work of Craig and Peebles (1974) and also characterized some of Fairbanks's publications. Anthropological perspectives emphasize the continuity between Creek and Seminole cultures through time (Sturtevant 1971) and illuminate the development of new cultural institutions with reference to preceding cultural forms. Table 2 summarizes these interpretations of Seminole culture history, including the approach outlined in the present volume.

The major ethnohistorical study of the Florida Seminoles was done by Charles Fairbanks in 1957 at the request of the Indian Claims Section of the U.S. Department of Justice in response to a petition filed in 1950 by certain southern Florida Seminoles against the United States, under terms provided in the Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946. These individuals sought financial compensation for the loss of approximately 32 million acres of Florida lands to the United States between 1823 and 1835.2 Based on the principle of aboriginal possession, the Seminole claim asserted that the Indians' ancestors had resided in Florida "from time immemorial" and had relinquished their lands only under duress.

The claims of the suit suggested three avenues of ethnohistorical research available to the Indian Claims Commission. First, the Indian claim that their tribal rights to property had been recognized by the Spaniards at the time of their cession of Florida to the United States could be confirmed or denied by referring to articles of Spanish colonial law. Second, the antiquity of Florida's Seminoles had to be established on the basis of available documentation. Finally, because the suit contended that the Seminole Tribe had been deprived of its lands without compensation, the existence of a Seminole polity at the time of American possession of Florida needed verification.

The report addressed the last two concerns. Fairbanks's conclusions indicated that the earliest Seminoles to reside in Florida permanently were the Oconee Creeks, who had migrated to the Alachua savanna by 1738, and, at the same time, lower Creek Mikasukis, who settled in the vicinity of Tallahassee. These conclusions did not differ significantly from knowledge gathered in the previous century (Swan in Schoolcraft 1851-1857: vol. 5:260; Gatschet 1884:68). Fairbanks adopted the following scenario for the settlement of Florida by the Seminoles. British-assisted Lower Creek raids in 1702-1704 against the Spanish-Indian mission chain in north Florida effectively exterminated the last of the Florida aborigines and left the Spaniards on the Atlantic coast of Florida with an unprotected rear. Into this void came bands of Lower Creeks, whose homes had been along the streams of central Georgia and in the Chattahoochee River basin to the west. Those that settled in the Tallahassee Red Hills and on the Apalachicola apparently did so at the request of the Spaniards, while others, including the Alachua band of Oconees who settled closest to Spanish St. Augustine, were decidedly pro-British in sympathy. Thus the stage was set for the development of factionalism among the new Indians of Florida.

A more controversial conclusion of the Fairbanks report indicated that the Seminoles had in fact established an independent polity that was in place by the year 1800. The formation of the polity had been influenced by favorable trade relations between the Seminoles and the British overlords of Florida (between the years 1763 and 1783), which promoted a schism between the Florida Seminoles and the Creek Nation to the north. The implication of this finding for the Indian Claims case was clear. By the time of formal American rule of the peninsula in 1821, the Seminole Nation was well established as a political entity. Furthermore, the oral testimony provided by John M. Goggin on behalf of the Seminoles indicated that Spanish colonial law had in fact recognized limited Indian rights to Florida land. According to the Spanish view, individual Indians and their families held claim to their farms and villages, while hunting territories were in the public domain.

The Indian Claims Commission found for the Seminoles, and on April 27, 1976, entered a final award of $16 million to the Nation. The award was meant to be distributed among the descendants of all those Indians living in Florida on September 18, 1823, the date of the Treaty of Moultrie Creek. This meant division of the sum four ways: to the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, whose ancestors were Seminoles deported from Florida; to the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida, both federally recognized tribes descended from the original Florida Seminoles; and to the remaining Seminoles in Florida of no tribal affiliation. However, no equitable means of distributing the funds has been devised, and the monies remain undelivered.

The Fairbanks report and the Indian Claims testimony together worked to emphasize the complexity of Seminole ethnohistory while embedding it inextricably in the politics of tribalism. Earlier works had ably summarized the diverse tribal origins of the Seminoles, their linguistic division into Muskogee and Mikasuki-speaking bands, and the chronology of their arrivals in Florida (Swanton 1922, 1946). But now for the first time Indians and whites alike were evaluating this history to determine its utility in practical affairs. However, definitive histories of the Seminole, Mikasuki, and Oklahoma nations remain to be written.

With the Indian Claims research as a foundation, Fairbanks (1978) later proposed a formal outline of Seminole culture history. Unlike the previous study, this work incorporated the limited data then available from archaeology. Five periods or phases were described through the course of which Seminole ethnicity progressively developed in response to changing political, ecological, and social condition. In Fairbanks's view, the evolution from Creek to Seminole was a case study in culture change.

The Seminoles of the colonization phase (171G1763; Fairbanks 1978:169) were removed from their former contacts in the Creek Nation and remote from the mercantilism of the British-inspired deerskin trade. There was accordingly a reduced need for political centralization. Seminole towns, such as they were, were constructed without a central squareground, were not permanent in nature, and did not serve as a unifying element for outlying populations. The Seminole settlement pattern thus clearly diverged from the Creek. In addition, the Seminoles of the Alachua savanna began herding the free-ranging cattle descended from the Spanish stock of the La Chua ranch. This pastoralism further reinforced changes away from settled, permanent village life.

In Fairbanks's estimation, women's roles remained relatively unaffected by the processes of social and economic change, and so their continued manufacture of Chattahoochee Brushed pottery (Bullen 1950; Goggin 1958) linked the Seminole and Creek ceramic traditions. Like their Seminole counterparts, Creek women were also responsible for conservative elements in colonial-era aboriginal society (Fairbanks 1962:51).

The estrangement of the Seminoles from the network of social and political alliances that crisscrossed Creek country was completed during the separation phase, which Fairbanks (1978:171) considers to have occurred during the years 1763-1790. This phase coincides with the period of British rule in Florida. As the Seminoles anchored themselves within the tide of newly established trade networks along the St. Johns River, inland at Alachua and on the Suwannee, and at St. Marks in the panhandle, the archaeological visibility of their sites is marked by quantities of European-derived trade goods. Diplomatic and trade relations with the British colonial government in St. Augustine fostered the separation of Creek and Seminole. It is doubtful that the powerful Creek leader Alexander McGillivray had any real contact with the peninsular Seminoles during this period (Swan in Schoolcraft 1851-1857:vol. 5:260). The term "Seminole" or forms thereof appears with some regularity in colonial documents, on occasion with pejorative connotations.

The development of an autonomous Seminole polity was evidently not accompanied by a process of political centralization. According to Fairbanks, squareground construction had been completely abandoned, and core elements of Seminole society, religion, and politics were undergoing simplification. Brushed pottery continued to be produced by Seminole women, often in the traditional jar and bowl forms typical of Creek ceramics.

In 1790-1840 a series of historical circumstances acted to diminish the organizational complexity of Seminole society further. Just prior to the resistance and removal phase (Fairbanks 1978:178), Florida was retroceded to Spain, which held it until 1821. In that year, Florida became a territory of the United States. With American propriety came the policies of Indian containment and removal. Through the implementation of four treaties during the years 1823-1833, the Seminoles were effectively removed from their Florida lands and placed in the newly created Indian Territory on lands west of the Mississippi. The resistance on the part of some Seminoles is known to history as the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). Florida's living Seminoles are the descendants of those individuals who were not deported or killed outright during these seven years of hostilities.


Excerpted from Like Beads on a String by Brent Richards Weisman Copyright © 1989 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
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