Five Things You May Not Know About The Seminole Tribe of Florida

By Virginia Yarce, Development Assistant

In 2014, I spent five months commuting to the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation working with the Florida Seminole Tourism office, and I always found it worth the drive. It seemed like there was something new every day– panoramic cloud formations, encounters with wildlife, even an occasional stunning dark sky, filled with layers of stars as if looking through 3-D glasses. I wondered why more people did not come out just for the drive, to enter a world away that is really only right around the corner, or to stay for a night in the land of the unconquered.

Figure 1: Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum; Photo Credit: Marty Dawson, Tour Guide
Figure 1: Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum; Photo Credit: Marty Dawson, Tour Guide

Then, when I starting working in the Visitor Services and Development Section at the Museum in January 2015, I again looked forward to what new things I might encounter on the drive to Big Cypress, and what new things I would learn about the Seminole Tribe of Florida. In this short amount of time I have learned that the Seminole story is much more central to Florida’s history than meets the eye, and is certainly no sidebar. There is so much more to the story than a remnant of 300 Seminoles standing their ground through the Wars of Removal in the 19th century to become what is today a thriving community of over 3,000 Tribal members.

So I put together a short list of things I discovered about the Seminole story in my first month at the Museum. Here, then, are five things you may not know about the Seminole Tribe of Florida:

1. There was an alligator clan. When you visit the Big Cypress Reservation, you will pass over the “Eight Clans Bridge”, and on the Museum boardwalk you will find a nice outdoor exhibit of the eight clans: Panther, Bear, Deer, Wind, Bigtown, Bird, Snake, and Otter. After starting at the Museum, however, I was surprised to discover there were many other clans, including Tiger, Bobcat and Alligator. These clans also fought to stay in Florida, but have faded into Florida history as the last matriarch of that clan passed away. The eight clans of today’s Seminole Tribe of Florida are the followers of Sam Jones/Abiaki, the legendary Seminole leader who fiercely protected the remaining Seminoles, taking refuge in the Everglades, where alligators became, instead of a clan, an iconic symbol of Seminole culture.

Figure 2: Fall 2013 AQ featuring Sam Jones/Abiaki
Figure 2: Fall 2013 AQ featuring Sam Jones/Abiaki

2. There is a single person responsible for the Tribe’s presence in Florida today. I knew about Abiaki/Sam Jones, and had visited at least three sculptures honoring his role in Seminole history, including one at the entrance of the Museum. But not until I read the Fall 2013 Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Quarterly (AQ) did I realize his pivotal role in Seminole survival. Abiaki’s name is certain to become more readily recognized in Florida as we continue to celebrate, preserve and interpret Seminole culture and history. While Fort Lauderdale is named after Major William Lauderdale, it was Abiaki’s home in the 1820’s. His clans inhabited the “seven islands” along the Pine Island Ridge, the highest elevation in Broward County, where he defeated Major Lauderdale in battle in 1838. Today the Seminole story is also shared at sites like Long Key Nature Area where Abiaki’s historical lands are recognized.

3. Fort Lauderdale was one of hundreds of military posts built for the Seminole War effort. The United States Congress spent more money during the Seminole Wars than on the Revolutionary War, including building of many forts now familiar to us as city names. These include Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Fort Jupiter, and Fort Pierce to name a few. After 20 years of living in the Fort Lauderdale area I did not associate the name of this city specifically with Seminole history, but their spirit of survival is indelibly linked not only to Fort Lauderdale, but places across the entire peninsula.

4. The Longest War. The three Seminole Wars were the longest, hardest Indian wars in U.S. History. The remaining Seminoles under Sam Jones/Abiaki remained unconquered. What may be surprising is that the Seminole Wars total 13 years of “official” fighting, but the wars were still being waged even during the in-between years. This ranks them among not only the longest Indian wars, but the longest wars in U.S. history altogether, like the Afghan War, which made headlines in 2010 as becoming the “longest war” in U.S. history. Many argued that Vietnam War’s record was not the 10 “official” years, but almost 20 years of U.S. involvement. Along these lines, one understands better the Seminole perspective of the Seminole Wars spanning over 40 years of struggle. What is even more surprising is that during the 2nd Seminole War alone, less than 2,000 Seminole warriors held off over 50,000 U.S. soldiers and volunteer militia for seven years.

5. Cowboys and Indians. No, really – cowboy Indians. Seminoles kept large herds of cattle in Florida before the Seminole Wars, including Chief Ahaya/Cowkeeper in Northern and Central Florida. Ada Tiger in Indiantown owned up to 100 head as late as 1925. The modern Seminole cattle industry started in the 1930’s, and as you drive through the Big Cypress and Brighton Reservations you can enjoy the picturesque prairies dotted with Seminole cattle. The Tribe’s cattle enterprise continues to grow with the purchase of the famous Salacoa breeding herd in northwest Georgia in 2013 and currently ranks number 5 in the United States for Cow & Calf Production with over 13,000 head of cattle. http://seminoletribune.org/famous-salacoa-herd-now-seminole-pride/

Figure 3: Big Cypress Seminole Reservation Cattle Prairie 1
Figure 3: Big Cypress Seminole Reservation Cattle Prairie 1
Figure 4: Big Cypress Seminole Reservation Cattle Prairie 2
Figure 4: Big Cypress Seminole Reservation Cattle Prairie 2

There is always something new happening at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and something new to learn. The boardwalk is renovated; we have new villagers on site making award-winning basketry and other traditional Seminole arts and crafts; the Ahfachkee students have new art on display; we have new birds of prey presentations and new signage in the making. The Museum is vibrant and growing. The best way to stay in touch with new happenings at the Museum is through our Facebook and Twitter sites and through membership at the Museum, so you can visit anytime and enjoy a new and informative AQ publication each quarter. Come by the Museum or give me a call, so I can update you on any new happenings since this blog post, help you plan your next trip to Big Cypress or enroll you in a Museum membership!

Figure 5: Victor Billie Carving a Totem Pole at the Ceremonial Grounds: Photo Credit: Ellen Batchelor, Head of Security
Figure 5: Victor Billie Carving a Totem Pole at the Ceremonial Grounds: Photo Credit: Ellen Batchelor, Head of Security
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