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Florida’s Native People

Some surprising facts about Florida’s Native Peoples

This article is related to the history of the Seminoles, Creeks, Choctaws, Shawnees, Yuchi’s, Cherokees, Arawaks and Mayas.
Oh . . . and also the Irish and the Norse . . . a big surprise at the end.

In a recent issue, we discussed the gross misrepresentation of the Seminole People during the last two centuries by newspapers, books and political cartoonists. While being portrayed as a savage race of alligator wrestlers, they actually are the descendants of the sophisticated mound builders, who greeted Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo, when they were exploring the Southern Appalachian Mountains in the 1500s. They were master farmers, who were exporting their produce and livestock to customers in the Southeast and Cuba, until brutally driven off their farms in Florida by federal troops and militia units.

There are many more surprises about the Seminoles, though. Did you know that they were also skilled sailors and commercial fishermen?

Flag of the Creek Confederacy Navy (1791-1812)

Flag of the Creek Confederacy Navy (1791-1812)

1. Original use of word, Seminole: While putting in the last details of my book on the South Atlantic Coast, I stumbled upon a fascinating fact that has been left out of the rubber-stamped references. All Muskogeans in Florida were originally labeled as “Creeks.” Although maps began to call the Creeks in southern Georgia and northern Florida, “Seminoles,” in the late 1700s, those people considered themselves Creeks until after the Redstick War, when the United States government persuaded “Friendly Creeks” in Georgia and Alabama to assist federal troops in their wars against the Florida Creeks.

During the mid-1700s, bands of restless young Creek and Yuchi men living on the frontier in Georgia, would defy the authority of town elders and go on expeditions to steal cattle and horses grazing away from the frontier farmsteads. During this era, there were few fenced pastures in Georgia. The “proper” Creeks called these outlaw gangs, Semvnole (wild, non-domesticated.) This pejorative label referred both to the “boys gone wild” and to the livestock that they were rustling from the open range. Even as late as 1776, William Bartram referred to Creeks living in towns in northern Florida and southern Georgia as “Creeks” while labeling the “wild boys,” Seminoles.

2. Slave Raiders, Seminole Sailors, Creek lighthouses and a Creek Navy: Throughout the last quarter of the 17th century and all of the 18th century, Apalachicola and Itsate (Hitchiti) Creeks, living on the Lower Chattahoochee, made raids along the Florida Gulf Coast in large dugout canoes, fashioned from giant cypress trees. They were Vikings in every since of the word, except DNA. They plundered missions, coastal villages and brought home slaves to sell to the South Carolinians, plus booty to decorate their homes.

The Cherokees were landlubbers, but they were incredible long distance hikers. Everyone of them had their Boy Scout Hiking Merit Badge. Their slave raids ranged as far north as Lake Erie and as far west as the Mississippi River. However, they also sent raiding parties into the Florida Panhandle and as far south as Lake Okeechobee. The Yamasee cleaned out the missions and isolated villages in northeastern and north-central Florida. The Yuchi made slave raids along the Choctawhatchee River, but decided to stay in the Florida Panhandle.

Between Spanish abuses, Spanish weapons, European diseases and English sponsored slave raids, the indigenous peoples of Florida were virtually extinct by 1720. When the Spanish finally decided to provide firearms to the Apalachee, it was too late. The Creeks, Cherokees and Yuchi were much more experienced marksmen. The surviving indigenous peoples of Florida either moved to Cuba in 1763 or joined the Creeks, who were penetrating farther and farther south.

Something else happened in the process. The Apalachicola Creeks on the Lower Chattahoochee got their sea legs! They learned how to sail in European style boats and began trading as far as Havana, Cuba. Some Creeks settled along the Gulf Coast and became commercial fishermen. By this time, Gringos were calling them Seminoles. They sold their smoked, salted fish to buyers in Havana, Pensacola, Mobile and New Orleans. That created a problem.

Some low down whites decided to be Vikings . . . well, we call them pirates today. We’ll get to the real Norsemen later on. They began stealing the fish and produce from the Seminole traders in coastal waters. The Creek Confederacy couldn’t hangle that, so it created the first Native American Navy. A fleet of Creek gunboats patrolled the Gulf Coast and major rivers in order to provide a permanent solution to the Gringo Pirate Problem. NOW . . . having the nation’s largest Indian tribe with its own navy and Injuns, who could sink ships with their cannons, scared the willies out of the Gringos. However, Creek maritime activities increased. Creek mariners and their Spanish Floridian partners began smuggling contraband goods between Cuba, Florida and the southern states. However, the uncharted, sparsely inhabited, coast lines were a problem. Several Creek merchant boats sunk.

What does every red-blooded American Indian tribe do when they lose too many merchant ships in coastal waters? Of course, they build lighthouses. Between around 1799 and 1801 the Creek Confederacy built a chain of light houses. The most southerly one was at Cedar Key.

Now having a mega-tribe of Injuns, who could sail boats, fire cannons, trade with foreign nations, smuggle contraband and build lighthouses REALLY gave Southern planters the willies. The Creeks and Seminoles also had this bad habit of giving sanctuary to runaway slaves. It was an intolerable situation for the Anglo-Saxon master race.

During the War of 1812, General Jackson’s Army of Injun Lovers (small joke) seized the western end of the Florida Panhandle and never left. That was Choctaw territory, but the Choctaws were booted out, even though they had been allies of the United States.

From 1814 till 1820, the United States bullied the Kingdom of Spain until it agreed to cede Florida. Spain was terribly weakened by the Napoleonic Wars and received little income from Florida. One of the first actions taken by the United States after officially owning Florida was to unilaterally evict all Creeks and Seminoles from lands within 30 miles of the Gulf Coast. Their boats, docks and warehouses were seized.

3. Shawnees in Florida: There is a reason why Florida’s longest river is named the Suwanee, the Creek word for Shawnee. Southern Shawnee villages relocated there after being forced out of the Asheville, NC area in 1763. This region was formerly the frontier between the Apalachee and provinces in northeast Florida, who spoke languages containing South American and Caribbean words. I am highly suspicious that the Yustanagi, who lived between the Suwannee and Santa Fe Rivers were actually Southern Shawnee. Very few of their words were recorded by the Spanish. The Spanish did say that they spoke a different language than the provinces that the Spanish called Timucuan.

South of the mouth of the Suwanee River down to Charlotte Harbor were peoples, who had traditions that certainly seemed to be influenced by the Hopewell Culture. The best known of these provinces was occupied by the Tocobago. They built platform mounds as bases for mortuary temples. The cadavers of the elite were smoked like hams then “Buzzard Men” scraped off the mummified flesh. The bones were then placed in wooden chests and maintained in other temples.

4. The “Mayas in Florida” Thing: The Tupi and Satee peoples living around Fort Caroline told René de Laudonnière that the Mayakoa (Mayaqua in French) People occupied what is now the Macon, GA region. They were intermediaries in the vigorous trade between the Appalachians and the Georgia Coast. Both the Tupi and the Sati were originally from South America, so Mayakoa means “Maya People.” They also said that the Mayakoa and Mayami lived in south-central Florida in the vicinity of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. Between 300 AD and 900 AD, this was the most culturally advanced region, north of Mexico. There is a connection with Ocmulgee National Monument.

Around 900 AD three provinces, the Calusa, the Mayami and the Tekesta combined into one culture, with its probable capital at Wakate, near Lake Okeechobee. Waka or Wakate (Waka People in Itsa Maya) is also the probable name of Ocmulgee. The Wakate Kingdom thrived from around 900 AD to around 1150 AD then all of the many towns on the canal system near Lake Okeechobee were suddenly abandoned. Was it a hurricane or invaders, we don’t know. What we do know is that Ocmulgee’s acropolis thrived from around 900 AD until around 1150 AD then it was suddenly abandoned.

1527 Norman Villa

1527 Norman Villa

5. Norse village names on the South Atlantic Coast: In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazzano was hired by King Francis I of France to explore the coast of North America and claim it for France. This he did. Wikipedia will tell you that he sailed no farther south than the Carolinas. The always Wikipedia anonymous author obviously flunked Dixie Geography 101.

A map of Verrazzano’s voyage was drawn by Italian cartographer, Visconte Maggiolo in 1527. The map clearly shows Cape Hatteras and then much farther south, it labels the barrier islands on the coast between Charleston Bay, SC and St. Marys Sound, GA. The south side of St. Marys Sound is labeled Cape François. South of there some distance is the Bay of San Juan (St. Augustine Bay) and at the bottom Cape Canaveral.

Wikipedia tells readers that none of the geographical place names given by Verrazzano were seen in later maps. That is not true. Many of the place names describe by René de Laudonnière were created by Verrazzano, not Jean Ribault. Ribault apparently used the Maggiola Map to find Cape François.

There was a bigger surprise south of Cape François. Most of the place names assigned by Verrazzano were either Italian or Italianized indigenous words. However, there they are, somewhere on the southern tip of Georgia or northeast Florida, towns named Normanvilla and Longvilla. Norman means “Norse” in English and “Long” means “long” in English and Scandinavian. The Italian word would have been Largovilla for “Long Town.” What in the world was going on?

I did some more research and found that the earliest colonists on the coast of South Carolina and Georgia encountered people with fair skin, brown or red hair, plus gray, blue or hazel eyes, who spoke Gaelic! Apparently, because the British really didn’t like the Irish, this information was erased out of most history books, but mentioned by William Bacon Stephens, the author of the first History of Georgia.

More sleuthing found contemporary accounts in the late 1100s, from both Ireland and France, of Irish emigrants having just been transported to Whitemansland across the Atlantic by Norse merchant ships. Both the Irish and the Norse were escaping persecution by the Roman Catholic Church. Bishops appointed by Rome were using the forerunner of the Inquisition to oppress Irish and Norse Christians, who insisted on worshiping in the original traditions of the Christianity of Ireland and Scandinavia. Worship services there were originally very simple. They were structured around the reading of scriptures and an informal Holy Communion. Congregations and monastic communities were semi-autonomous and most parishes followed the edict of St. Paul that all bishops should be married to one woman.

The Gregorian “reforms” between 1050 and 80 AD were aimed directly at the Gaelic and Norse churches. Clerical celibacy would henceforth be strictly enforced. Until the end of the Renaissance, bishops, cardinals or popes usually kept mistresses or teenage boys, but they could not marry.

Priests and parishioners, who defied the new reforms could be excommunicated or even burned at the stake. So these forgotten Irish and Norse colonists were really the forerunner of Protestants. Like many Jews, Protestants and Roman Catholics five centuries in the future, they were coming to America to escape governments, who only tolerated one form of worship.

The leaders of the Reformed Church of France (Huguenots) were extremely well educated. I think that they read the same early medieval chronicles that I did. I believe that it is no accident that Jean Ribault targeted his fleet to first sight land exactly where Norse Christians had settled. His fleet left France exactly four centuries after the Irish and Norse refugees left Europe. The reason that de Laudonnière settled slightly north of there was that the new location was better suited for agriculture.

And now you know!

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

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