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Florida Seminoles and world history

Housed within the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s collection is an obscure old book about Florida and the Seminoles that not many people seem to know about, but it was immeasurably influential in shaping the course of human events. In 1773, botanist William Bartram set out on an exploration of the Southeast of what would become the United States. He turned his notes into the 1791 book, “Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws; Containing an Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions, Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians.”

Bartram was the first to conduct a popular multidisciplinary survey of the interior areas of the Southeast which were then considered “wilderness” and “Indian Country.” At that time, settlers established ports at places such as Cow Ford (present day Jacksonville) and Charles Town (Charleston), and trade with the tribes in those places was big business. While the Europeans and the Native Americans had a relatively respectful relationship worked out with the trade system, the two groups largely kept their distance. Bartram was advised not to go into the interior because of the possibility of hostilities between the two groups, but he went anyway.

Bartram was a pacifist and a Quaker. He stayed with the Seminoles at the Alachua Savannah (Paynes Prairie). Amused at Bartram’s preoccupation of sketching flowers, Cowkeeper nicknamed him ‘Puc Puggy,’ which meant “flower hunter.” He documented soil types, cataloged the abundant plants and animals and developed good relationships with the Native Americans.

Bartram’s book became very popular in the U.S. and throughout Europe. The book’s influence would end up becoming both terrible and great. Bartram was interested in developing settlements in the South, but he envisioned them to be like the small family farmsteads he was familiar with in the Quaker country of Pennsylvania.

ndustrialists, however, inspired by his descriptions of fertile soils from Mississippi to South Carolina, envisioned large scale plantations. This, of course, led to the invasion of Indian lands, wars, genocide, the rise of the slave economy on a massive scale, and the destruction of the natural landscape.

Meanwhile in Europe, the Romantic writers and poets were all reading Bartram’s adventures as if he was the modern Marco Polo. His colorful writing style combined with his love of nature led to his descriptions of lush landscapes being places of Paradise. One of the most published poems in history, “Kubla Khan,” directly borrows Bartram’s descriptions of Florida’s Blue Sink, Manatee Springs and Salt Springs to describe the mythical river Alph in the paradise garden of Xanadu.

Bartram’s accounts of his interactions with the Seminoles in Florida would go on to directly inspire the meditations of Henry David Thoreau, the science of Charles Darwin, the explorations of Lewis and Clark, the “land ethic” of Aldo Leopold, and the art and conservation efforts of John James Audubon. Before this, wilderness and forests were considered bad places that needed to be conquered and tamed. While capitalists seized the science in Bartram’s writings and utilized it in unintended ways in the early days of the American experiment, his and the Seminoles’ long term humanitarian influence can be seen in the ways that Western society is currently re-evaluating its own relationships with the natural world in a more holistic way.

To view this book or one of its many incarnations, visit or call the Museum library at 863-902-1113, ext. 12252.

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