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Seminole Industries

Native American Nations | Seminole Indians of Florida

                     

Agriculture

Prominent among the industries is agriculture. The Florida Indians have brought one hundred or more acres of excellent land under a rude sort of cultivation. To each family belong, by right of use and agreement with other Indians, fields of from one to four acres in extent. The only agricultural implement they have is the single bladed hoe common on the southern plantation. However, nothing more than this is required.

Soil

The ground they select is generally in the interiors of the rich, hammocks which abound in the swamps and prairies of Southern Florida. There, with a soil unsurpassed in fertility and needing only to be cleared of trees, vines, underbrush, &c., one has but to plant corn, sweet potatoes, melons, or any thing else suited to the climate, and keep weeds from the growing vegetation, that he may gather a manifold return. The soil is wholly without gravel, stones, or rocks. It is soft, black, and very fertile. To what extent the Indians carry agriculture I do not know. I am under the impression, however, that they do not attempt to grow enough to provide much against the future. But, as they have no season in the year wholly unproductive and for which they must make special provision, their improvidence is not followed by serious consequences.

Corn

The chief product of their agriculture is corn. This becomes edible in the months of May and June and at this time it is eaten in great quantities. Then it is that the annual festival called the “Green Corn Dance” is celebrated. When the corn ripens, a quantity of it is laid aside and gradually used in the form of hominy and of what I heard described as an “exceedingly beautiful meal, white as the finest wheat flour.” This meal is produced by a slow and tedious process. The corn is hulled and the germ cut out, so that there is only a pure white residue. This is then reduced by mortar and pestle to an almost impalpable dust. From this flour a cake is made, which, is said to be very pleasant to the taste.

Sugar cane

Another product of their agriculture is the sugar cane. In growing this they are the producers of perhaps the finest sugar cane grown in America; but they are not wise enough to make it a source of profit to themselves. It seems to be cultivated more as a passing luxury. It was at “Old Tommy’s” sugar field I met the forty-eight of the people of the Big Cypress Swamp settlement already mentioned. They had left their homes that they might have a pleasuring for a few weeks together, “camping out” and making and eating syrup. The cane which had been grown there was the largest I or my companion, Capt. F. A. Hendry, of Myers, had ever seen. It was two inches or more in diameter, and, as we guessed, seventeen feet or more in length. To obtain the syrup the Indians had constructed two rude mills, the cylinders of which, however, were so loosely adjusted that full half the juice was lost in the process of crushing the cane. The juice was caught in various kinds of iron and tin vessels, kettles, pails, and cans, and after having been, strained was boiled until the proper consistency was reached.


Fig. 68. Sugar cane crusher.

At the time we were at the camp quite a quantity of the syrup had been made. It stood around the boiling place in kettles, large and small, and in cans bearing the labels of well known Boston and New York packers, which had been purchased at Myers. Of special interest to me was a platform near the boiling place, on which lay several deer skins, that had been taken as nearly whole as possible from the bodies of the animals, and utilized as holders of the syrup. They were filled with the sweet stuff, and the ground beneath was well covered by a slow leakage from them. “Key West Billy” offered me some of the cane juice to drink. It was clean looking and served in a silver gold lined cup of spotless brilliancy. It made a welcome and delicious drink. I tasted some of the syrup also, eating it Indian fashion, i.e., I pared some of their small boiled wild potatoes and, dipping them into the sweet liquid, ate them. The potato itself tastes somewhat like a boiled chestnut.

The sugar cane mill was a poor imitation of a machine the Indians had seen among the whites. Its cylinders were made of live oak; the driving cogs were cut from a much harder wood, the mastic, I was told; and these were so loosely set into the cylinders that I could take them out with thumb and forefinger. (Fig. 68.)

It is not necessary to speak in particular of the culture of sweet potatoes, beans, melons, &c. At best it is very primitive. It is, however, deserving of mention that the Seminole have around their houses at least a thousand banana plants. When it is remembered that a hundred bananas are not an overlarge yield for one plant, it is seen how well off, so far as this fruit is concerned, these Indians are.

Hunting

Next in importance as an industry of the tribe (if it may be so called) is hunting. Southern Florida abounds in game and the Indians have only to seek in order to find it. For this purpose they use the rifle. The bow and arrow are no longer used for hunting purposes except by the smaller children. The rifles are almost all the long, heavy, small bore “Kentucky” rifle. This is economical of powder and lead, and for this reason is preferred by many to even the modern improved weapons which carry fixed ammunition. The Seminole sees the white man so seldom and lives so far from trading posts that he is not willing to be confined to the use of the prepared cartridge.

A few breech loading rifles are owned in the tribe. The shot gun is much disliked by the Seminole. There is only one among them, and that is a combination of shot gun with rifle. I made a careful count of their fire arms, and found that they own, of “Kentucky” rifles, 63; breech loading rifles, 8; shot gun and rifle, 1; revolvers, 2 total, 74.

Methods of hunting

The Seminole always hunt their game on foot. They can approach a deer to within sixty yards by their method of rapidly nearing him while he is feeding, and standing perfectly still when he raises his head. They say that they are able to discover by certain movements on the part of the deer when the head is about to be lifted. They stand side to the animal. They believe that they can thus deceive the deer, appearing to them as stumps or trees. They lure turkeys within shooting distance by an imitation of the calls of the bird. They leave small game, such as birds, to the children. One day, while some of our party were walking near Horse Creek with Ka-tca-la-ni, a covey of quail whirred out of the grass. By a quick jerk the Indian threw his ramrod among the birds and billed one. He appeared to regard this feat as neither accidental nor remarkable.

I sought to discover how many deer the Seminole annually kill, but could get no number which I can call trustworthy. I venture twenty-five hundred as somewhere near a correct estimate.

Otter hunting is another of the Seminole industries. This animal has been pursued with the rifle and with the bow and arrow. Lately the Indians have heard of the trap. When we left Horse Creek, a request was made by one of them to our guide to purchase for him six otter traps for use in the Cat Fish Lake camp.

Fishing

Fishing is also a profitable industry. For this the hook and line are often used; some also use the spoon hook. But it is a common practice among them to kill the fish with bow and arrow, and in this they are quite skillful. One morning some boys brought me a bass, weighing perhaps sis pounds, which one of them had shot with an arrow.

Stock Raising

Stock raising, in a small way, may be called a Seminole industry. I found that at least fifty cattle, and probably more, are owned by members of the tribe and that the Seminole probably possess a thousand swine and five hundred chickens. The latter are of an excellent breed. At Cat Fish Lake an unusual interest in horses seems now to be developing. I found there twenty horses. I was told that there are twelve horses at Fish Eating Creek, and I judge that between thirty-five and forty of these animals are now in possession of the tribe.

Koonti

The unique industry, in the more limited sense of the word, of the Seminole is the making of the Koonti flour. Koonti is a root containing a large percentage of starch. It is said to yield a starch equal to that of the best Bermuda arrowroot. White men call it the “Indian bread root,” and lately its worth as an article of commerce has been recognized by the whites. There are now at least two factories in operation in Southern Florida in which the Koonti is made into a flour for the white man’s market. I was at one such factory at Miami and saw another near Orlando. I ate of a Koonti pudding at Miami, and can say that, as it was there prepared and served with milk and guava jelly, it was delicious. As might be supposed, the Koonti industry, as carried on by the whites, produces a far finer flour than that which the Indians manufacture. The Indian process, as I watched it at Horse Creek, was this: The roots were gathered, the earth was washed from them, and they were laid in heaps near the “Koonti log.”


Fig. 69. Koonti log.

The Koonti log, so called, was the trunk of a large pine tree, in which a number of holes, about nine inches square at the top, their sides sloping downward to a point, had been cut side by side. Each of these holes was the property of some one of the squaws or of the children of the camp. For each of the holes, which were to serve as mortars, a pestle made of some hard wood had been furnished. (Fig. 69.)


Fig. 70. Koonti pestles

The first step in the process was to reduce the washed Koonti to a kind of pulp. This was done by chopping it into small pieces and filling with it one of the mortars and pounding it with a pestle. The contents of the mortar were then laid upon a small platform. Each worker had a platform. When a sufficient quantity of the root had been pounded the whole mass was taken to the creek near by and thoroughly saturated with water in a vessel made of bark.


Fig. 71. Koonti mash vessel

The pulp was then washed in a straining cloth, the starch of the Koonti draining into a deer hide suspended below.


Fig. 72. Koonti strainer

When the starch had been thoroughly washed from the mass the latter was thrown away, and the starchy sediment in the water in the deerskin left to ferment. After some days the sediment was taken from the water and spread upon palmetto leaves to dry. When dried, it was a yellowish white flour, ready for use. In the factory at Miami substantially this process is followed, the chief variation from it being that the Koonti is passed through several successive fermentations, thereby making it purer and whiter than the Indian product. Improved appliances for the manufacture are used by the white man.

The Koonti bread, as I saw it among the Indians, was of a bright orange color, and rather insipid, though not unpleasant to the taste. It was saltless. Its yellow color was owing to the fact that the flour had had but one fermentation.

Industrial Statistics

The following is a summary of the results of the industries now engaged in by the Florida Indians. It shows what is approximately true of these at the present time:
 

Acres under cultivation   100
Corn raised bushels 500
Sugarcane  gallons 1,500
Cattle number owned 50
Swine do.  number owned 1,000
Chickens number owned 500
Horses number owned 35
Koonti bushels 5,000
Sweet potatoes bushels  
Melons number 3,000

 


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

The Seminole Indians of Florida, Clay MacCauley, 1664

Seminole Indians of Florida

 

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