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Seminole business savvy traced to trading post era

Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum director Gordon “Ollie” Wareham talks about the tribe’s trading post era in the Dorothy S. Osceola Memorial Library on the Hollywood Reservation on May 24. (Damon Scott)

HOLLYWOOD – Entrepreneurship within the Seminole Tribe didn’t start when it officially acquired Hard Rock International in 2007, it began more than 100 years before that during what’s known as the trading post era. Not only that, said Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum director Gordon “Ollie” Wareham, but the tribe’s resilience helped to develop what are now flourishing cities across Florida by sparking business and tourism.

Wareham gave a presentation on the significance of Seminole trade and tourism in the late 1800s and early 1900s on May 24 at the Dorothy S. Osceola Memorial Library on the Hollywood Reservation. It was part of a series of workshops and presentations by the Education Department that has been funded by a recurring grant award.

Wareham said Seminole men hunted to collect animal skins and bird feathers to trade for goods like tea, coffee, gunpowder, beans, pots and pans – anything they needed back home.

Trading posts were located in Naples, Everglades City, Fort Pierce, West Palm Beach, Jupiter, Miami, and at places like the Stranahan House along the New River in Fort Lauderdale, which was one of the Seminoles main trading sites.

“If you look at all these places that had trading posts – they are now tourism spots and major hubs where Seminoles went to do their trades,” Wareham said. “We kind of take credit for that – we helped make those cities grow.”

Trading turned into tourism and showcased the Seminoles strong ability to adapt to the times. Wareham used the emergence of alligator wrestling as an example. Seminole men caught alligators on the shoreline, and tourists would stop on the side of the road to watch. The tourists mistook what was happening as alligator wrestling, instead of a Seminole catching food for dinner. They’d throw money on the ground as a way of appreciating the entertainment of it.

Wareham said eventually a white man saw what was happening and had the idea to create a show that featured the techniques Seminoles would use on the alligator – termed alligator wrestling.

“Coins turn into dollars,” Wareham said. “You could take the gator home for your meal and have some extra money in your pocket too. They adapted for what the audience wanted to see.”

Wareham said it wasn’t only alligator wrestling the tourists wanted to see, but Seminoles themselves, and their patchwork designs. He said the long shirts Seminole men first wore were considered mostly practical for the environment. But as tourists began to notice the unique patterns and symbols, and after sewing machines became available, Seminole women made elaborate and colorful designs that brought more customers and higher prices.

“The store owners started to realize that the longer the Seminoles were in the [trading posts], it would bring more people in the doors,” Wareham said. “Better deals were afforded to the Seminole traders and patchwork makers and tourists would come more often.”

Seminoles would eventually operate their own trading posts as well, especially in the Fort Lauderdale and Miami areas. They’d also learn enough English to communicate effectively with the tourists. Wareham said it’s an early example of the business acumen Seminoles achieved.

Charlie Tigertail operated a trading post at Rock Creek in the lower Everglades and Charlie Willie and his son Willie Willie operated one west of Miami. There were others, and the tribe would open its own Oaklee Village in Hollywood in the 1960s.

“You go from coming out of the Everglades, to knowing people want to see you and know about you, and adapting to the times,” Wareham said. “The acquisition of the Hard Rock is just a part of that story. Trading posts, becoming [federally] established in 1957, being independent, adapting your clothing and showing your culture, but still retaining that part of you – Seminole history and culture shows that you can almost accomplish anything.”

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