Native American Tribes: The Seminoles

Figure 1.--Here a Seminole mother is pictured with her four children fressed in brightly colored traditional clothing. Their camp can be seen in the bckground. The girls wear full length dresses. The boys wear knee-length dresses called "long shirts". Source: Libarey of Congress.

The history of the Seminoles is intertwined with that of the history of Florida. The Seminoles were not an ethnically based Native American tribe. Rather they are a composit tribe. The primary component are members of the the Georgia tribes that migrated south. This include individuals from several different tribes. Smaller numbers of individuals included the indigenous Native American population of Florida and escaped African slaves. The Seminoles usually accepted the runaways which was a matter of concern to the slave hilders in Georgia, especially after the Revolution and the creation of the new American Republic. It is not clear when the term Seminole was first used, but the first written record appeared in the 1770s. The Seminoles prospered under British and French rule, in part because relatively few settlers camne to Florida. This changed after the Revolutionary War and the expansion of the United States. American pressure in particular increased after the United states acquired Florida (1819). This led to one of the most costly and difficult wars that the United States Army waged with Native Americans.

Ancient Native Americans

Archeologusts believe that Ntive Americans arrived in Florida about 10,000 BC. Anthroplogists call these people Paleo-Indians. At the time, the North American ice shelf was retreating opening a vast land rich in wildlife to the waves of Ntive Ameican people crossing the Bearing land bridge and migrating south. Archaeologists have found three later periods (Archaic, Woodland, and Mississipian) of Native American culture. The historic period begins with the discovery the America by Columbus (1492). Florida was discovered by Juan Ponce de Leopn (1513).

Spanish Exploration

Spanish explorers found many Native American Indian tribes in wat is now the American southeast. These tribes later became referred to as the "The Creek Confederacy". The names of these tribes are generally what the Europeans called them, not what they called themselves. The rribes encountered in Florida were the Timucua in the northeast, the Apalachee in the northwest, the Calusa (various spellings) in the southwest and the Tequesta in the southeast. None of the early accounts mention the Seminoles. There was no gold in Florida, it was not a major priority for the Spanish. Thus not a lot is known about the tribes there. It is believed that when Puerto Rican governor Ponce de Leon (1460-1521) explored Florida, there was a Native American population of about 100,000 people.


The Spanish led by Ponce de Leopn explored Florida (16th century). Ponce de Leon himself died as a result of of fighting with the Native Americans in Florida. Other expeditions (Narváez and Desoto), slavers and shipwrecked Europeans provided more information on Florida. France contested Spanish possession of Florida. Spanish colonization began when Menéndez de Avilées defeated the French and founded St. aUgustuine (1565). The original Native American tribes were affected by Spanish efforts to enslave them and diseases inadvetedly spread by the Europeans. Thus the Native American population declined substantially.The only permanent Spanish settlements, however, were St. Augustine and Pensacola. At the time of the French and Indian War ( -1763), Florida was a Spanish colony. At the end of the War, Spain transferred Florida to Britain in exchange for Havana which had been taken. At this time the Spanish population in Florida went to Cuba and this appears to have included what remained of the indigenous Florida Native American population. Some appeared to have remained, mostly those who had intermarried with migrating Native Americans from Georgia. Some may have remained in the Everglades and Keys. But very few of the indegenous Native American population in Florida survived at the time of the Revolutionary war. For a short time Florida was a British Colony, but in the Revolutinary war settlement, the British transferred Florida to Spain. The British motives are unclear. American negotiators had sought to claim Florida as part of the Briitish North American territory, but as Georgia had no claim on the colony, the American claim was weak. Thus when America became independent, its southern border was with the Spanish colony of Florida. Only a few Spaniards came to Florida and some British traders. The climate was semi-tropical which the Europeans did not consider healty. Thus unlike the situation the the north, there was in the 18th century less pressure on the Native Americans that had migrated into Florida.

English Colonies

The English establish colonies further north (17th century). One of the greatest dangers to the early English settlers were Spanish military expeditions launched from Florida. The first English colony was at Jamestown, Virgina (1607). Gradually as the English became well established, colonies were founded further south. Georgia and South Carlina were two of the original American colonies. Georgia had developed into a kind of buffer zone between the English colonists in the Carolinas and the Native American tribes south and west. Georgia was finally also founded (1732). The colonization of Georgia displsaced more Native Americans.

Native American Migration South

As English colonists established colonies in the south, pressure on the southern seabord tribes increased. At this time a poorly document migration of Native Americans began into Florida where there was few settlers. One such migration of the Yamassee from Georgia is well documented (1716). Most Native Americans moved west. A smaller number moved south which essentially meant that they were cut off from the larger group which moved west. The Florida border was wide open and the Spanis made no real effort to reist the influx of Native Americans. The migration took place along the many rivers flowing from Georgia south into Florida.

The Seminoles

Native American tribes in Florida in the 16th century when the Spanish arrived were the Calusa, Matecumbe, Tequesta, Tocobaga, Timucan, abnd others. By the beginning of the 18th century these tribes had disappeared oir been badly depleted and it is probably more accurate to begin referring to the Seminole Alliance, meaning primarily migrants from the displaced Mikasuki, Creek, Yamassee, Yuchi, Oconee, and others. The Seminoles were not an ethnically based Native American tribe. Rather they are a composit tribe. The primary component are members of the the Georgia tribes that migrated south. This include individuals from several different tribes. Smaller numbers of individuals included the indigenous Native American population of Florida and escaped African slaves. The Seminoles usually accepted the runaways which was a matter of concern to the slave hilders in Georgia, especially after the Revolution and the creation of the new American Republic. It is not clear when the term Seminole was first used, but the first written record appeared in the 1770s. It was used by the British during their brief occupation of Florida (1763-83). Nor do we know the origins of the term. One theory suggests the Creek term "ishi semoli" meaning “the people whom the Sun God does not love", perhaps used to describe a separated group. Another possibility is the Spanish word "Cimarron", meaning a formerly domesticated animal that has become ferral. Two different dialects of a common language developed--Muskogee and Hitchiti. Muskogee was the dominant dialect. Another source suggests the Spanish term for 'fugative'. The Seminole Alliance had migrated south reaching even southern Florida by the 1760s. This is highlighted when a small band of Yuchis attacked Spaniards in Key West (February 1762). A group of Lower Creeks were reported in the Tampa area (1770s). The Seminoles prospered both during the English (1763-83)and last Spanish period (1783-1819). They traded with both the English and Spanish and there was little pressure from European settlers, except in disputed West Florida.

British Rule (1763-83)

The British obtained Florida in the settlement of the Seven Years War/French and Indian War. In return the British returned Havana to the Spanish. They diviided the colony between an eastern province with a capital at St. Augustine and a western province with a capital at Pensacola. The western province include the French territory of Louisana east of the Mississppi. (Under a separate treaty, the French transferred the rest of Louisiana to Spain.) The British moved the boundary of West Florida north (1764)

Revolutionary War (1776-83)

One of the issues which lead to the American Revolutionary War was the British effort to limit settlement to east of the Apalachins. This many tribes supported the British in the War. Spain joined France in supporting the American colonists. Spain had joined the French and Dutch in supporting the United States. A Spanish force seized St. Augustine. The small British populaion in Florida remained lyal to the Crown. Britain lost two field armies during the War and finally decided to ceed independence. American negotiators manahed to obtain all British territory east of the Mississippi. The sole exception was Florida. As part of the peace settlement, Britain transferred Florida to Spain, in part to limit the new United States. The boundary of West Florida was, however, not specified. Spain at the time was no longer a major European power. The Spanish population of Florida was never large and most left when the the colony was transferred to Britain (1763). Few Britions settled Florida and few Spanish came after Florida was returned (1783). Nor did the Spanish deploy any sizeable military force. This there was virtually no Spanish control on Florida's borders. Runaway slaves if they escaped could easily pass tover the border.

United States

The American victory in the War was a disaster for the Native Americans. The policy of the new United States was to support settlement and western movement. Many treaties were negotiated with Native Ameicans, but when settler populations increased, the policy of the United States became to remove Native Americans beyond the Mississippi. Cotton had been a minor crop in the 18th century. The intensive labor needed to remove the seeds made it unprofitable. The invention of the cotton gin (1793) radically changed the economics of cotton agriculture. The prime agricultural lands to the west of Georgia and South Carolina and south of Tennesee thus became extremely valuable. Cotton also transformed the economics of slavery which at the time the Constitution was ratified (1789) had been seen as a dieing institution.

West Florida Controversy

After the Revolution, a controversy developed between the United States and Spain over the northern and western boundary of West Florida. Britain returned Florida to Spain, but the boundary was not defined. The boundary was finally fixed by negotiations between Spain and the United states. Spain wanted the 1764 boundary that the British pushed north. The United States demanded that the boundary be the original 31st parallel. The Treaty of San Lorenzo set the boundary at the 31st parallel (1795). Spain and France signed the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso (1800). Spain agreed to return France's Louisiana colony, but no boundaries were defined. The West Florida controvery was revived when the United States purchased the Louisana Terrirory from Farnce (1803). The United States claimed the former French Louisana territory east of the Mississippi (the Perdido River west to the Mississippi River). The Spanish claimed the that they continued administered that area and it was not returned to France in 1800. The issue was gradually settled de facto as American settlers moved into the lightly populated area. After a short-lived rebellion, the former French portion of West Florida was annexed by President James Madison, who claimed the region as part of the Louisiana Purchase (October 27, 1810).

Creek Conferation

The native American tribes to the north of Florida were given names such as Creek, Mikasuki, Yamassee, Yuchi, Oconee, Guale, Eufala, and others. The Seminoles are not one of the tribes mentioned in early accounts.

Southern Indian Wars (1813-14)

The southern Indian Wars developed as part of the War of 1812. The British sought Native Anerican allies and the Creeks sided with the British in an effort to stop the wesern expansion of the United States. An American expedition was led by General Andrew Jackson in the Creek War (1813-1814). Jackson decisively defeated the Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (March 27, 1814) catapulting him to national prominance. The Creeks were forced to cede two-thirds of their territory. Many Creeks, especilly the “Red Stick” tribe fled south into Florida joining the Seminoles.

War of 1812

The British strategy in the War of 1812 was to use the Royal Navy to best advantage. Part of this was an amphibious attack on New Orleans. This was a port of emense importance. The commerce of the United States west of the Apalachins flowed through New Orleans. British possession of New Orleans would have emperoled the entire Western movement. Somehow General Andrew Jackson, fresh from victories over the Creeks cobbeled together a defense of the city and defeated a professional British army (1815). Had the British succeeded in seizing New Orleans it may have undone the Treaty of Ghent which had ended the War. It also made Jackson the most popular man in the United states.

First Seminole War (1817-19)

As the American population in Georgia and Alabama increased, conflicts with the Seminoles over the poorly defined border increased. The precise details are murky. Some reports suggest that Spanish settkers raided Seminole villages. Other reports indicate Seminole raids on American settlements in southern Georgia. Theur are reports of Spanish and British intrigues. The U.S. Army for its parts conducted raids into northern Florida, in part to capture escaped slaves. Seminole chief Neamathla disturbed by encrochments on the tribe's hunting grounds threatened U.S. troops. An American force of about 250 soldiers attacked his village, launching the First Seminole War (1817-19). The tribe then attacked a boat carrying 40 U.S. soldiers. General Jackson responded with a major invasion of western Florida. This essentially was an act of war with Spain, but that country had no desire for war with the United States. Jackson captured St. Mark's (April 7, 1818) and Pensacola (May 24). Spain protested. President Monroe's Secretary of State John Quincy Adams accused Spain of violating treaty obligations by failing to control the Seminole. Jacksons forray essentially left the United States in control of much of East Florida, adding to his national stature.

United States Acquires Florida (1819)

Spain under considerable pressure from the Monroe Admisistration sold Florida to America for $ 5 million under the terms of the Adams-Onís Treaty (1819). The money was used to settle damage claims U.S. citizes had lodged against Spain. The treaty went into effect making Florida a U.S. territory with the current boundary (1821). A provision of the Treaty was that the United States renonced all claims to Texas, at the time part of the Spanish colony of Mexixo. When the United States acquired Florida, there were 34 importantb Seminole settlements, 31 were Native American and 3 were African. Slaves escaping from plantations in Georgia managed to reach Florida where they were usually accepted.

Territorial Government

President Monroe appointed Jackson the military govenor of Florida. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams issued three commoissions to Jackson (March 12, 1821). He ordered the General to: 1) receive, possess and occupy the ceded lands, (2) to govern Florida, (3) and to establish a territorial government. Jacksn to fulfill his ordrs had to deal with the Seminoles. Governor William DuVal met with 70 Seminole chiefs near St. Augustine (September 6, 1823). The United States formally recognized the Seminoles as an Indian Nation. The primary issue was, however, to discuss their removal. A reservation was created in central Florida.

American Indian Policy

The American policy toward Native Americans was essentially one of displacement. Treaties were signed with the various tribes, but repeated violated once settler populations increased the pressure for land. The treaties had the force of law, but in the rare instances that courts found in favor of the Native Americans, Federal and state officials refused to enforce the decesions. The best example here is the Cherokee renovals. The wars with the Native Americans were extremely brutal on both sides, approaching efforts at extermination. The bower balance was so overwealming on the side of the Americans that it was the Native Americans who were most severely affected. Military campaigns offten included attacks on villages in which women and children wre killed.

Treaty of 1832

American settlement gradually expanded after the United States acquired Florida. The settlers demanded that Federal government remove the Seminoles Not only did they want their land, but the Blacl Seminoles were another issue. The wars with the Seminoles impeded the development of Florida. The Seminoles had taken in many runaway slaves. Georgia slave owners wanted to return the Balack seminoles to slavery, including the maroons. Under the terms of the Treaty, the Seminoles were to be removed west of the Mississippi.

Second Seminole War (1835-42)

The United States government signed the Treaty of Paynes Landing with some of the Seminole chiefs. They were granted land west of the Mississippi River if they agreed to accept relocation and depart Florida voluntarily (1832). The seminole were led by a man of great natural gifts--named Billy Powell at birth, and known to history as Osceola--as varied in his background as the tribe he led." Book review quote. Many Seminoles led by Osceola rejected the Treaty and refused relocation. The Seminoles retreated into remote camps in the wet wilderness areas of southern Florida. The two most important Seminole leaders were Osceola and Abiaka. Osceolla was the best known. Sminole warrior Oceola along with Tecumseh until Geronimo and Sitting Bull was peraps the best known Native Amerian. The Seminoles were not an actual American tribe, but rather a grouping of surviving remanents of defeated Southeastern tribes (especially the Creeks) and runaway slaves. Oceola was born into the Creek Tribe and escaped into Spanish Florida after General Andrew Jackson defeated the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend. There he joined the developing Seminoles. After Florida joined the Union and President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act which authorized the removl of the Seminoles and other Eastern tribes beyond the Mississppi, Oceola and some Seminoles decalared war on the United States. The result was the longest, most deadly, and expensive of all the American wars wih Native Americans. Oceola's guerrila tactics embarassed U.S. army officers and led to the deaths of large number of troops. His reputation grew amoh his people and even caught the attention of the prss and public. Nany questined his betrayal on the battlefield. Seminole medicine man Abiaka may have been even more important than Osceola. The remaining Seminoles braced for war. the U.S. Army was deployed to enforce the treaty (1835). The initial force was about 6,000 soldiers, but this eventually rose to 9,000. Osceola led the small Seminole force. The remaining Seminole population amounted to about 4,000 Native Americans and 800 Black Seminoles. Osceola had a force of about 1,400 warriors, more than Jackson estimated. Osceola adopted guerilla tactics in the swappy terraine of cetral Florida. The Army arrested Osecola who had come for peace talks under a truce flag (1837). He died in jail a year later. The Seminoles continued the War under warchiefs including Halleck Tustenuggee, Jumper, and Black Seminoles Abraham and John Horse. President John Tyler finally ordered the Army to cease of military action against the Seminoles (May 10, 1842). The Federal Government had spent more than $20 million, an enormous amount. About 1,500 American soldiers and an unknown number of militamen had been killed. Most of the Seminoles were relocated west of the Mississippi River. But despite the effort the Seminoles had refused to surrender and a small number (perhaps less than 100 Seminoles) continued to holdout in the Everglades. President Tyler decided to let the small remaining group be.

Statehood (1845)

Florida was admitted as the 27th state (1845). The population was relatively small. It was admitted as a slave state in the midst of rising sectional division in the United States. Florida suceeded from the Union to join the Condederacy (1861). The geography of a peninsula made in vulnerable to rapidkly expanding Federal naval power. The Federal Navy helped seize forts along the coast during the War. Thus important areas of Florida were taken by Federal forces despite Florida being the most southerly state. Florida was readmitted to the Union (1868).


Here a Seminole mother is pictured with her four children fressed in brightly colored traditional clothing. Their camp can be seen in the bckground. The girls wear full length dresses. I am not sure about the origins of the garments, but there seems to be a Spanish influence. The boys wear knee-length dresses called "long shirts". Usually the skirts were knee-length or slightly below the knee. Some were calf length. These garments for men and boys are called long shirts. These traditional garments were still quite common as late as the 1920s. These traditional garments gradually declined in popularity. By the 1950s only a few old men and very young boys wore the old-time skirted garments.


Hatch, Thom. Oceola and the Great Seminole War: A Struggle for Justice and Freedom (2012), 336p.


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Created: 5:21 PM 5/25/2007
Last updated: 3:03 AM 5/27/2013