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Environment of the Seminole

Native American Nations | Seminole Indians of Florida

                     

Nature

Southern Florida, the region to which most of the Seminole have been driven by the advances of civilization, is, taken all in all, unlike any other part of our country. In climate it is subtropical; in character of soil it shows a contrast of comparative barrenness and abounding fertility; and in topography it is a plain, with hardly any perceptible natural elevations or depressions. The following description, based upon the notes of my journey to the Big Cypress Swamp, indicates the character of the country generally. I left Myers, on the Caloosahatchie River, a small settlement composed principally of cattlemen, one morning in the month of February. Even in February the sun was so hot that clothing was a burden. As we started upon our journey, which was to be for a distance of sixty miles or more, my attention was called to the fact that the harness of the horse attached to my buggy was without the breeching. I was told that this part of the harness would not be needed, so level should we find the country. Our way, soon after leaving the main street of Myers, entered pine woods. The soil across which we traveled at first was a dry, dazzling white sand, over which, was scattered a growth of dwarf palmetto. The pine trees were not near enough together to shade us from the fierce, sun. This sparseness of growth, and comparative absence of shade, is one marked characteristic of Florida’s pine woods. Through this thin forest we drove all the day. The monotonous scenery was unchanged except that at a short distance from Myers it was broken by swamps and ponds. So far as the appearance of the country around as indicated, we could not tell whether we were two miles or twenty from our starting point. Nearly half our way during the first day lay through water, and yet we were in the midst of what is called the winter “dry season.” The water took the shape here of a swamp and there of a pond, but where the swamp or the pond began or ended it was scarcely possible to tell, one passed by almost imperceptible degrees from dry land to moist and from moist land into pool or marsh. Generally, however, the swamps were filled with a growth of cypress trees. These cypress groups were well defined in the pine woods by the closeness of their growth and the sharpness of the boundary of the clusters. Usually, too, the cypress swamps were surrounded by rims of water grasses. Six miles from Myers we crossed a cypress swamp, in which the water at its greatest depth was from one foot to two feet deep. A wagon road had been cut through the dense growth of trees, and the trees were covered with hanging mosses and air plants.

The ponds differed from the swamps only in being treeless. They are open sheets of water surrounded by bands of greater or less width of tall grasses. The third day, between 30 and 40 miles from Myers, we left the pine tree lands and started across what are called in Southern Florida the “prairies.” These are wide stretches covered with grass and with scrub palmetto and dotted at near intervals with what are called pine “islands” or “hammocks” and cypress swamps. The pine island or hammock is a slight elevation of the soil, rising a few inches above the dead level. The cypress swamp, on the contrary, seems to have its origin only in a slight depression in the plain. Where there is a ring of slight depression, inclosing a slight elevation, there is generally a combination of cypress and pine and oak growth. For perhaps 15 miles we traveled that third day over this expanse of grass; most of the way we were in water, among pine islands, skirting cypress swamps and saw-grass marshes, and being jolted through thick clumps of scrub palmetto. Before nightfall we reached the district occupied by the Indians, passing there into what is called the “Bad Country,” an immense expanse of submerged land, with here and there islands rising from it, as from the drier prairies. We had a weird ride that afternoon and night: Now we passed through saw-grass 5 or 6 feet high and were in water 6 to 20 inches in depth; then we encircled some impenetrable jungle of vines and trees, and again we took our way out upon a vast expanse of water and grass. At but one place in a distance of several miles was it dry enough for one to step upon the ground without wetting the feet. We reached that place at nightfall, but found no wood there for making a fire. We were 4 miles then from any good camping ground. Captain Hendry asked our Indian companion whether he could take us through the darkness to a place called the “Buck Pens.” Ko-nip-ha-tco said he could. Under his guidance we started in the twilight, the sky covered with clouds. The night which followed was starless, and soon we were splashing through a country which, to my eyes, was trackless. There were visible to me no landmarks. But our Indian, following a trail made by his own people, about nine o’clock brought us to the object of our search. A black mass suddenly appeared in the darkness. It was the pine island we were seeking, the “Buck Pens.”

On our journey that day we had crossed a stream, so called, the Ak-ho-lo-wa-koo-tci. So level is the country, however, and so sluggish the flow of water there that this river, where we crossed it, was more like a swamp than a stream. Indeed, in Southern Florida the streams, for a long distance from what would be called their sources, are more a succession of swamps than well defined currents confined to channels by banks. They have no real shores until they are well on their way towards the ocean.

Beyond the point I reached, on the edge of the Big Cypress Swamp, lie the Everglades proper, a wide district with, only deeper water and better defined islands than those which mark the “Bad Country” and the “Devil’s Garden” I had entered.

The description I have given refers to that part of the State of Florida lying south of the Caloosahatchee River. It is in this watery prairie and Everglade region that we find the immediate environment of most of the Seminole Indians. Of the surroundings of the Seminole north of the Caloosahatchee there is but little to say in modification of what has already been said. Near the Fish Eating Creek settlement there is a somewhat drier prairie land than that which I have just described. The range of barren sand hills which extends from the north along the middle of Florida to the headwaters of the Kissimmee River ends at Cat Fish Lake. Excepting these modifications, the topography of the whole Indian country of Florida is substantially the same as that which we traversed on the way from Myers into the Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades.

Over this wide and seeming level of land and water, as I have said, there is a subtropical climate. I visited the Seminole in midwinter; yet, for all that my northern senses could discover, we were in the midst of summer. The few deciduous trees there were having a midyear pause, but trees with dense foliage, flowers, fruit, and growing grass were to be seen everywhere. The temperature was that of a northern June. By night we made our beds on the ground without discomfort from cold, and by day we were under the heat of a summer sun. There was certainly nothing in the climate to make one feel the need of more clothing or shelter than would protect from excessive heat or rain.

Then the abundance of food, both animal and vegetable, obtainable in that region seemed to me to do away with the necessity, on the part of the people living there, for a struggle for existence. As I have already stated, the soil is quite barren over a large part of the district; but, on the other hand, there is also in many places a fertility of soil that cannot be surpassed. Plantings are followed by superabundant harvests, and the hunter is richly rewarded. But I need not repeat what has already been said; it suffices to note that the natural environment of the Seminole is such that ordinary effort serves to supply them, physically, with more than they need.

Man

When we consider, in connection with these facts, what I have also before said, that these Indians are in no exceptional danger from wild animals or poisonous reptiles, that they need not specially guard against epidemic disease, and when we remember that they are native to whatever influences might affect injuriously persons from other parts of the country, we can easily see how much more favorably situated for physical prosperity they are than others of their kind. In fact, nature has made physical life so easy to them that their great danger lies in the possible want or decadence of the moral, strength needed to maintain them in a vigorous use of their powers. This moral strength to some degree they have, but in large measure it had its origin in and has been preserved by their struggles with man rather than with nature. The wars of their ancestors, extending over nearly two centuries, did the most to make them the brave and proud people they are. It is through the effects of these chiefly that they have been kept from becoming indolent and effeminate. They are now strong, fearless, haughty, and independent. But the near future is to initiate a new epoch in their history, an era in which their career may be the reverse of what it has been. Man is becoming a factor of new importance in their environment. The moving lines of the white population are closing in upon the land of the Seminole. There is no farther retreat to which they can go. It is their impulse to resist the intruders, but some of them are at last becoming wise enough to know that they cannot contend successfully with the white man. It is possible that even their few warriors may make an effort to stay the oncoming hosts, but ultimately they will either perish in the futile attempt or they will have to submit to a civilization which, until now, they have been able to repel and whose injurious accompaniments may degrade and destroy them. Hitherto the white man’s influence has been comparatively of no effect except in arousing in the Indian his more violent passions, and in exciting him to open hostility. For more than three centuries the European has been face to face with the Florida Indian and the two have never really been friends. Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the peninsula was the scene of frequently renewed warfare. Spaniard, Frenchman, Englishman, and Spaniard, in turn, kept the country in an unsettled state, and when the American Union received the province from Spain, sixty years ago, it received with it, in the tribe of the Seminole, an embittered and determined race of hostile subjects. This people our Government has never been able to conciliate or to conquer. A different Indian policy, or a different administration of it, might have prevented the disastrous wars of the last half century; but, as all know, the Seminole have always lived within our borders as aliens. It is only of late years, and through natural necessities, that any friendly intercourse of white man and Indian has been secured. The Indian has become too weak to contend successfully against his neighbor and the white man has learned enough to refrain from arousing the vindictiveness of the savage. The few white men now on the border line in Florida are, with only some exceptions, cattle dealers or traders seeking barter with the red men. The cattlemen sometimes meet the Indians on the prairies and are friendly with them for the sake of their stock, which often strays into the Seminole country. The other places of contact of the whites and Seminole are the settlements of Myers, Miami, Bartow, Fort Meade, and Tampa, all, however, centers of comparatively small population. To these places, at infrequent intervals., the Indians go for purposes of trade.

The Indians have appropriated for their service some of the products of European civilization, such as weapons, implements, domestic utensils, fabrics for clothing, &c. Mentally, excepting a few religious ideas which they received long ago from the teaching of Spanish missionaries and, in the southern settlements, excepting some few Spanish words, the Seminole have accepted and appropriated practically nothing from, the white man. The two peoples remain, as they always have been, separate and independent. Up to the present, therefore, the human environment has had no effect upon the Indians aside from that which has just been noticed, except to arouse them to war and to produce among them war’s consequences.

But soon a great and rapid change must take place. The large immigration of a white population into Florida, and especially the attempts at present being made to drain Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, make it certain, as I have said, that the Seminole is about to enter a future unlike any past he has known. But now that new factors are beginning to direct his career, now that he can no longer retreat, now that he can no longer successfully contend, now that he is to be forced into close, unavoidable contact with men he has known only as enemies, what will he become? If we anger him, he still can do much harm before we can conquer him; but if we seek, by a proper policy, to do him justice, he yet may be made our friend and ally. Already, to the dislike of the old men of the tribe, some young braves show a willingness to break down the ancient barriers between them and our people, and I believe it possible that with encouragement, at a time not far distant, all these Indians may become our friends, forgetting their tragic past in a peaceful and prosperous future.


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The Seminole Indians of Florida, Clay MacCauley, 1664

Seminole Indians of Florida

 

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