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Seminole ‘Cowboys’

Editor’s note: On Sept. 3, 2015, National Public Radio (NPR) published an article titled “The Indian Cowboys of Florida,” referring to the Florida Seminole Indians. It was a Q-and-A between NPR writer Linton Weeks and Florida Department of State Director of Communications Meredith Beatrice. The story contained errors of fact, including a miscalculation of the Seminole Indians’ anthropological equity in Florida. Because the Seminole Tribe of Florida did not speak with NPR or Beatrice concerning this story, The Seminole Tribune contacted Patricia Riles Wickman, a leading historian, researcher and anthropologist regarding the Seminole Indians, and asked if she would correct the misinformation in the NPR report and detail the documented history of the Seminole Indians in Florida.

The joke in Florida goes like this: Among the Seminoles, they’re “Cow men,” and not “Cowboys” because in Texas it may only take a boy to handle cattle, but in Florida it takes a man! And this is not a new concept. The ancestors of the Seminole people of Florida were among those standing on the shore when the Spaniards established the first permanent settlement in this part of their “New World” and, so, they soon came into contact with cattle and horses, not to mention all the other things that the Spaniards brought with them to La Florida in the 16th century. Needless to say, there was nothing “new” about this world to the Indians living here, and the Seminoles – the descendants of so many of those First People – still know that. Some of the tribal elders say that white people are white because they are made of the foam of the ocean that threw them upon these shores. Still others say that white people are white because they have no guilt.

But, first things first. In order to understand how long the Indian people of Florida have been associated with cattle, we first have to look clearly at how long the ancestors of today’s citizens of the Seminole Tribe of Florida have lived and traveled the land that has been, only since 1810, viewed as “Florida.” Before that, there were East and West Florida, and before that there was La Florida. And before that, there were Maskókî tribes, and Hitchiti, and Calusa, and Yamásî, and Chicása, and Apalachi, and Timugua, and on and on and on. Sometimes they fought the Spaniards, and sometimes they fought the English, and sometimes they fought the French, and before that, and between those conflicts, they fought each other.

With the establishment of the first permanent European settlement, that is, when the Spaniards created San Agustín (St. Augustine) in 1565, movement and change among the tribal towns became more rapid. As with all the other, later, European colonists, the Spaniards wanted to establish an economic base here, and they wanted to use the Indians as laborers. And, equally important in their eyes, they wanted to convince and, often, force the Indians to accept the Spanish religion. To further these ends, they began to do several things. They sent missionaries and soldiers out across the head of the peninsula. They set up fortifications and established mission villages, and gave out land grants for cattle ranchos (fortified cattle ranches).

The (West Florida) area of Apalachi, and that which the Indians thought of as Talahasi, today’s Tallahassee, soon became an important source of cattle, horses and pigs for the Indians and the Spaniards. By 1675, the area was producing enough cattle, with the labor of the Indians, that the Spaniards were able to send 150 hides and 3,800 pounds of tallow (animal fat) to Cuba for sale. As for the ranchos, the Spaniards chose several areas where they gave land grants for cattle raising. One was near the mouth of the St. Marys River, another was in today’s West Florida. But the largest was what Maskókî speakers called chua – the little pot with a hole in the bottom. In this area, the karst (limestone) land sometimes filled up with water, but about every hundred years some lime rock dissolved, the water drained away, and the land reverted to prairie. The Spaniards added the prefix, la- and called it La Chua, and the later English speakers corrupted that, as they did so many other Maskókî and Hitchiti words, into Latchaway, today’s “Alachua” savannah. From this area, by the later 1600s, the Indians sent cattle to St. Augustine for sale and, despite raids by the English and their Indian allies that did much damage to the ranchos in 1704-05, the Indians continued to favor this rich environment for cattle raising.

It was on this prairie where, almost 60 years later, the word “Seminole” would first enter the English language and, once again, it would be misunderstood. And that misunderstanding persists among non-Indians to this day. In the first half of the 1600s, the Spaniards had seen more and more Indians leaving their villages and their families and their Clans to escape Spanish control. They took refuge and found work at and around the cattle rancho on the Alachua savannah. The Spaniards called them cimarrones, or runaways, because they refused to stay where the Spaniards wanted them to stay. It was a word that the Spaniards had adapted from Caribbean Indians who also had preferred independence to Spanish control. The Florida Indians accepted the word, pronounced it in a manner consistent with their own languages, and the English speakers heard it for the first time in 1765 when they met with the Florida Indians on the Alachua savannah to conclude what we call today a “non-aggression pact.” Thus, the word “Siminolie,” today pronounced “Seminole,” entered the English language. The word, and the Indians, were new to the English speakers, but the Indians knew who they were.

These independent Indians were representatives of a number of Tribes, some of which had long, long equity in the peninsula and others were their cultural kin who had hunted all across this land and knew it well. (It’s important to realize that state boundaries are important to Americans but not so much to Indians.) When the Spaniards were required, by treaty, to relinquish La Florida to the English in 1763, a very few Christianized Indians left with them. But many others, at least hundreds but we have no real way of knowing how many, remained, all over the peninsula. On the Alachua savannah, they took possession of the livestock left behind by the Spaniards. Many already had learned to speak Spanish, and their connections to the Spaniards were apparent in their speech and in their dress, and in their abilities with cattle and horses.

The American naturalist William Bartram, who visited Alachua in the 1770s, observed: “The manners and customs of the Alachuas, and most of the lower Creeks or Siminoles appear evidently tinctured with Spanish civilization. Their religious and civil usages manifest a predilection for the Spanish customs. There are several Christians among them, many of whom wear little silver crucifixes, affixed to a wampum collar round their necks, or suspended by a small chain upon their breast. These are said to be baptized, and notwithstanding most of them speak and understand Spanish, yet they have been the most bitter and formidable Indian enemies the Spaniards ever had.” A few Spanish borrow words still are in common use today, in Hitchiti (now known as Miccosukee) and in Maskókî (commonly called Creek). For example, waki(t) is from the Spanish vaca for cow, and kawáyî is from caballo or horse, although the older terms for horse, icho thlacco and ichî chobi, or big deer, are also used.

Horses, cattle and pigs would be sources of great wealth for the Florida Indians for all of the centuries of the Spanish occupation of Florida, as well as for the short British period and beyond. In fact, descendants of the Andalucian long horn cattle still survive in Florida today. Bernard Romans, the assistant surveyor for the Southern District, wrote in 1775 that there were between 7,000 and 10,000 head of livestock grazing on the Alachua prairie. Ahaye, called “Cow Driver” by the English, or later, Cowkeeper by Americans, was a prominent miko anbopi(t) or keeper of domesticated animals. The descendants of his family, which included some of the most prominent Indians in Florida’s modern history – Boleck or Billy Bowlegs (I) and Billy Bowlegs (II), “King Payne,” Philip, Micanopy (another miko anbopi(t) who was a tastanaki of halpata Clan, and Coe cuchî (wildcat) – still remember this today. And the memories of the Florida people are a great deal longer than that. One family carries the tradition that they are tall because of an Apalachee ancestor. Others remember the people the Spaniards called the Calusa and have carried their “songs” into the 20th century. Small wonder, then, that their memories of cattle raising should be equally as long.

The Alachua people went in and out of St. Augustine or to the St. Marys River frequently to sell their livestock, although the beginnings of the American Revolution would cause many Georgians and Indians to raid herds back and forth. One major result of this period was to force the survivors further down the peninsula – the ichi bome(t) or nose of the deer as some knew it, or the ekon fuskei(t), the pointed land, as it is also viewed. Americans began to move into the Indians’ lands and take over their hardy scrub cattle.

The 1800s would prove to be a time of even more difficulty for Florida’s Indians. White men’s wars would try hard to push them out of their home; taking more of their cattle and livestock away and forcing several thousand to remove all the way to Indian Territory on their own Trail of Tears. Despite the determination of the U.S. government and the force of the white soldiers, however, a few hundred stalwart Florida Indians managed to remain. Hunting and driving scrub cattle would keep them alive and feed their families into the first half of the 20th century. The tough strain of cattle and horses introduced to Florida by the Spaniards had proven to be capable of surviving the ticks and other problems created by life in the Florida scrub. Even today, not every breed is so hardy.

In 1936, the U.S. government, in yet another act of paternalism predicated on their continuing determination to force Florida’s Indians to assimilate, brought a herd of bedraggled, drought-stricken cattle to Brighton Reservation in South Florida from the western Dust Bowl, and the “Seminoles” as they were still known collectively to outsiders, were once again in the cattle business. It was a rocky start. The sickly cattle were in such poor condition when they reached the Brighton Rez that many did not survive, but the Indians had centuries-worth of knowledge to draw upon. A Spanish descendant, Fred Montsdeoca, was an early guide, and Frank Shore, Charlie Micco, Naha Tiger and Willie Gopher Sr. worked hard to revive the Tribe’s traditions.

But it took years. Elders from the other reservations recall what they knew as “The Sad Time,” when, in the 1940s, the state began its programs of tick fever eradication and ended open range for cattle herds in an effort to curb cattle rustling around the state. The new fences severely restricted the movements of Seminole hunters who needed to be able to move freely in the Florida bush to feed their families. The men remember their Clan uncles and fathers sitting around the camp fires, with their rifles across their knees, feeling that they had lost their value because they had lost their traditional roles as hunters. It was this moment that pushed many Seminole women out into the labor-for-hire market as agricultural workers. But cattle raising survived. Clans divided the herds and spread increasing numbers out to other reservations; the Tribe began to invest its meager funds in the industry; and the Seminoles began to look outward, determined to compete in a huge national and international market.

The long effort, combined with their centuries of experience, have brought today’s Seminole Tribe of Florida to a position of prominence, nationally and internationally, in the cattle industry. Their herds are among the largest in the state and, despite their willingness to apply technology to their management of the herds, some things have never changed. Women of the cattle-owning Clans still go out into the fields periodically to cook over open fires for the men who tend the herds. Women also tend their own herds, although many of the cattlemen and – women – bounce across the fields in pickup trucks rather than on horseback. The spirit is the same, however, and the tradition remains the same, and their half-a-millennium of experience and expertise have never failed the Seminole people.

Patricia Riles Wickman, Ph.D., has worked in the fields of Florida history of the Southeast, public history and cultural preservation for 40 years, serving with the Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board, the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, the Museum of Florida History, Division of Historical Resources and the Florida Department of State, where she was Senior Historian for the state of Florida. She spent 16 years living among and working with the Seminole people of Florida and Oklahoma, at the invitation of the Tribes, teaching and recording Native American history.