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Irvin Peithmann remembered for Seminole writings, connections

Irvin Peithmann, at left, with members of the Seminole Tribe, ca. 1956.
(Randolph Society)

An organization in Illinois recently recognized two people for their contributions to Randolph County – located about an hour south of St. Louis, Missouri.

Irvin Peithmann and Ruth Gilster were recently inducted into the Randolph Society’s class of 2020. The group recognizes “prominent persons who have lived in and contributed to Randolph County.”

The two worked together and were good friends. They both had an enduring interest in history, including that of Native Americans.

Irvin Peithmann in Florida, ca. 1950s. (Randolph Society)

However, what will most likely interest Tribal members is the connection Peithmann had with the Seminole Tribe from the 1950s through the 1970s.

It was Peithmann who would eventually move from Illinois to St. Petersburg and spend considerable time writing about, visiting and taking many photos at several Seminole reservations.

One of his books was “The Unconquered Seminole Indians: Pictorial History of the Seminole Indians,” published in 1957 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

“Since I had studied and written about the Indians who had lived in the Midwest, my thoughts turned to the Seminoles and their past,” Peithmann wrote in the book’s foreword. “I returned to the Everglades in December 1955, to study these people and their way of life. I found these Indians, their culture, almost unspoiled by our civilization, still living in much the same manner as their ancestors over a century ago.”

From Irvin Peithmann’s book, an image of Seminole cattlemen on the Brighton Reservation, ca. 1950s. (University of Wisconsin Press).

By all accounts, Tribal members welcomed Peithmann during his visits and assisted him in his research. He was an experienced historian, lecturer and storyteller as well.

“The story I began to piece together was a sad account of a people who have suffered much,” Peithmann wrote. “As Americans we should know the story of how the ancestors of the Seminoles were driven into the Everglades over 100 years ago, a story of historic resistance against the white man and his power. The story of the Seminoles is an epic in American Indian history.”

Peithmann wrote about his interactions with William McKinley Osceola, Charlie Cypress and the Rev. Billy Osceola, among others.

Records show he donated a collection of more than 1,000 Seminole photographs to the State Library and Archives of Florida.

Peithmann, who died in 1981, was born in Washington County, Illinois, in 1904.

He spent his childhood on his father’s farm, learning how to search for artifacts left behind by Indigenous Peoples who used to live and hunt on the same land, according to the Randolph Society.

Irvin Peithmann and Ruth Gilster, date unknown. (Randolph Society)

Gilster was born in Franklin County, Illinois, in 1915. She was heavily involved in preserving the history of her adopted hometown of Chester, located in Randolph County.

Throughout her life, she served on numerous boards and committees devoted to the history of Illinois, according to the Randolph Society. Gilster died in 2008.

“He and Ruth were really good friends. They did a lot of running around together and worked together at [Southern Illinois University in Carbondale],” Marc Kiehna, chair of the Randolph Society Foundation, said. “They were fascinated by the history of the Indians.”

Kiehna said Peithmann’s collection was recently given by his family to the archives at Southern Illinois University’s archeology department.

For the full citation on Peithmann and Gilster, click here.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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