JENSEN BEACH — Florida is a state steeped in unique history. It’s much more than Disney World and spring break.
Ronald Grenville Frazer knows a thing or two about it and does his best to share the history not only with his students, but with anyone who is interested. It’s been something of a decades long mission (and counting).
Frazer is a teacher at Port St. Lucie High School and adjunct professor in the humanities department at Indian River State College. He moved to Port St. Lucie 16 years ago from Worcester. It’s immediately clear where he’s from when you hear his western Massachusetts accent.
Frazer has made it a point to say yes to requests for his presentations on the history of Florida’s first residents – early Indians and Native Americans. He does so for free; his talks often fill a room and he says he considers it all a public service. He estimates he does about 15 public lectures or presentations a year.
Most recently, he presented as part of the Florida History Lecture Series hosted by the Friends of the Martin County Library System. Frazer’s March 9 talk at the Hoke Library in Jensen Beach tackled a sizable topic in about an hour: “Seminole Wars, Culture and Florida’s Early People.”
Before the Seminoles
Frazer said Florida’s original residents were here at least 13,000 years ago, and one of the earliest-known was the Ais (or Ays) Indians.
It was a trip to the House of Refuge Museum in Stuart where Frazer would immerse himself in the history of Florida’s first residents and he’d discover information about the Ais.
He would end up being a volunteer there – one of 10 refuges that were built along the east coast of Florida for shipwrecked sailors and travelers.
He studied the food preparation sites, modes of transportation (dugout canoes) and hunting and gathering methods of the Ais.
“It’s not unusual to find [Ais] clay pottery with intricate designs right in the river bed,” Frazer said.
In fact, today’s Indian River used to be called the Ais River, he said.
Frazer said the Ais primarily lived on Florida’s Atlantic Coast (from present day Cape Canaveral to the St. Lucie Inlet). One of the earliest observations of the tribe was in the late 17th century by merchant Jonathan Dickinson.
But like the fate of so many Indigenous People, Frazer said disease, warfare and slavery brought by the Europeans would do them in.
The history of the Seminoles would begin years later with the Creeks who were from Georgia and Alabama and migrated to Florida in the 1700s.
Florida Indians would collectively become known as Seminoles in the 1770s, said Frazer, with the addition of runaway slaves who found refuge and joined them – known as Black Seminoles.
While the Seminoles faced “all kinds of issues and traumas,” Frazer said they endured and thrived, even as their numbers dwindled to about 200 – those who managed to elude capture by the U.S. Army in the 19th century after the Third Seminole War ended in 1858.
Part of Frazer’s Seminole section of his presentation goes into well-known warriors and leaders like Osceola (born Billy Powell), Sam Jones (known as Abiaka) and Chief Billy Bowlegs.
Those at Frazer’s lectures get a brief overview of the three Seminole Wars, including its significant battles.
On surviving Andrew Jackson’s army, Frazer said: “Seminoles knew the lay of the land. They could survive in the climate. They could hide in the Everglades. They used the cover of darkness.”
Those in the audience can sense Frazer’s amazement at how far the Seminole Tribe has come, not only through wars and battles, but up to and beyond federal recognition in 1957; from poverty to today’s economic independence.
“Seminoles are a unique Tribe; unique to Florida culture and to the fabric of this state,” Frazer said.
He thinks the Seminoles and other Native people have always been environmentalists, before it was cool: “Native Americans throughout our country and history always respected the lands; respected nature. It’s not until the Europeans and whites began encroaching on the land that we began to have issues,” Frazer said.
Frazer is a teacher and historian, and presents an objective view of events, but that doesn’t stop him from having a visceral reaction about the horrific treatment Native Americans have received over the years.
“What’s interesting about all the Native Americans in our culture going all the way back to before Christopher Columbus is their ancient ancestral lands they grew up on were taken away. Their cultural identity was taken away; they were pushed off the lands as the westward expansion took place,” Frazer said.
The same will happen to the Seminoles. “They are pushed and pushed and pushed until there’s a reaction and that reaction is a series of wars against the encroaching white men.”
“The Seminole are The Unconquered People; a very proud people,” Frazer said. “Think about it: the Native Americans of this country were the first Americans, and they are not given their credit.”