The Original Florida Seminoles
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In the spring of 1513, Spanish explorer and conquistador Juan Ponce de León set foot on the southeastern coast of a “New World.” He claimed the land for Spain and named it Pascua Florida in tribute to Spain’s springtime Feast of Flowers. Not only was the land lush with flora, it was also populated by over 100 indigenous tribes, all members of the Maskókî linguistic family. These individuals, whose ancestors had occupied the land for the previous 12,000 years, numbered roughly 200,000, with some estimates reaching 350,000.
Courtesy of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, Catalog No. 2003.15.49
Polly Parker was captured by U.S. Government forces who planned to remove her from Florida, but she hopped from a boat and ducked into the Everglades. Her inspirational example served to reinforce the resolve of fellow Seminoles.
Each tribe that de León encountered possessed a form of government and a strong social system that shaped every aspect of tribe members’ daily lives, but that didn’t stop de León, Hernando de Soto, and other European explorers who would travel to La Florida from pressuring the native people — frequently at the point of a musket — to give up their “heathen” world views and religions.
For the Apalachee, Calusa and other indigenous Woodland-period tribes, conforming to European ideals of civilization meant almost complete annihilation. The Europeans brought foreign diseases with them to which the native people had no immunity. They brought alien weaponry and armor that made them nearly invincible in battle. But perhaps the most dangerous of the European explorers’ accoutrements was the conviction that the land belonged to them. God had placed their monarchs on the throne; and as explorers who had been commissioned by royalty to claim new lands, theirs was a divine right to kill, enslave or displace any person, be he native or otherwise, who prevented European colonization.
Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA/J.N. chamberlain
Indian families take to the Miami River in dugout canoes propelled by forerunners of the modern push pole, used today by fishermen in fiberglass flat
Over the next few centuries, the Spanish, the French and the English laid claim to La Florida at different times. But no matter which European group was in power, the results were disastrous for the native people. As a result, some escaped to the swamps of the southern Florida peninsula to band with other tribes who had settled there, including tribes who claimed the region as their ancestral home. Freed and escaped African slaves sometimes made their way to the swampland, too.
The Spanish lumped these remnant people into one group and called them Cimarrones — “Runaways.” But perhaps the Spanish had gotten it wrong. Perhaps the Cimarrones — a name that would later be anglicized to Seminoles — had not run away. Perhaps they had run toward. Toward each other. Toward a new beginning. Toward a future in which they, the Seminoles, would never be conquered.