The Tequesta of Biscayne Bay

Tequesta (tuh-KES-tuh)









Did you know the Tequesta Indians ate Manatee? It's true. We're not sure, but we think they taste like chicken.

Like the other tribes in South Florida, the Tequesta were hunters and gatherers. They relied mainly on fish, shellfish, nuts, and berries for food. The men caught sharks, sailfish, sea cows, and porpoises in the waters of Biscayne Bay and the Miami River, while the women and children collected clams, conchs, oysters, and turtle eggs in the shallow waters. The sea cow (manatee) was considered a delicacy and served mainly to the chiefs and other prominent leaders.











The area shaded in gray is where the Tequesta called home.

Unfortunately, Tequesta sites are becoming very scarce. Often located on the coast or along rivers, these sites are on property that is very attractive to developers. Biscayne National Park is fortunate to have several well-preserved Tequesta sites within its borders.

The Tequesta lived in little wigwams made by bending poles over and tying them in the center and covering them with palm fronds.

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The Tequesta of Biscayne Bay

Let's take a trip to Miami. Miami of around the year 1200 AD. We'd meet some interesting people.

The Tequesta were a small, peaceful, Native American tribe. They settled near Biscayne Bay in present-day Miami. They built many villages at the mouth of the Miami River and along the coastal islands. This is some very expensive real estate today!

The chief lived in the main village at the mouth of the Miami River. The Tequesta were one of the earliest groups to establish permanent villages in southeast Florida. Prior groups of Paleo-Indian and Archaic period Indians left few large sites in South Florida to study. However, the Tequesta developed a culture and subsistence that was tremendously successful.

One day a couple of years ago, an apartment building on the Miami River was scheduled for demolition. When the crew bringing the old apartment house down noticed some strange holes under the foundation that was being cleared away. Little did they realize then a legal storm was brewing.

The picture at right is a nice view of the Miami Circle. The State of Florida bought the site. It is now a protected area.

Archaeologists working at the mouth of the Miami River have discovered a prehistoric circle cut into bedrock. The feature measuring 38 feet in diameter, is the only site of this type known to exist in Florida. Twenty or so irregular basins and several hundred smaller “postholes” form a perfect circle that is clearly visible when viewed from above. Artifacts found at the site indicate that it was occupied for approximately 2,000 years by a Native American group known as the Tequesta.

At right is an aerial view of the Miami Circle. It is almost 38' in diameter. That trench through the right edge was cut in the not so distant past for a water pipe that went right through the circle!

Most experts agree to its possible use as an astronomical tool to signal the summer and winter solstice. While an awareness of astronomical events was not unique to the Tequesta, this site represents a unique opportunity to study their culture. The Miami Circle site is part of a larger village that existed across the river and may have served as the focus of religious and political activity, as well as a trading center.

Exploiting the rich marine and coastal environment along Biscayne Bay allowed the development of a complex social chiefdom without an agricultural base. This group shares the distinction of being one of only two groups to do so in North America.

The Tequesta also gathered palmetto berries, coco plums, sea grapes, and palm nuts to eat. In the Everglades, they hunted bear, deer, wild boar, and small mammals. The Tequesta made flour by grinding up the roots of certain plants. Unfortunately, these food sources were not very plentiful along the southern coast, so the Tequesta never became a large or powerful tribe compared to their western neighbors, the Calusa.

At right is an artist's rendering of what the Miami Circle might have looked like 800 years ago. Keep in mind, it's only one person's idea--this could be way off!

The Tequesta used shells and sharks' teeth for a variety of tools. These included hammers, chisels, fishhooks, drinking cups, and spearheads. Sharks' teeth were used to carve out logs to make canoes.

During the 1500s, Europeans began arriving in Florida. At first, the Tequesta did not welcome these new visitors. But before long, the Europeans won their friendship by bringing gifts of colored cloth, knives, and rum.

The Tequesta numbered about 800, but they started to die out as a result of settlement battles, slavery, and disease. By the 1800s, the Tequesta tribe had only a few survivors.

The Tequesta shaman had a special ceremony to stay on the chief's good side. Whenever a chief died, the shaman extracted the larger bones from his carcass and set them aside to be worshipped. The chiefs just loved that idea. The shaman also had a trick to gain favor with young mothers. Whenever he cut into the forehead of a sick person and sucked the evil spirit out, he'd spit the blood into a bowl. Then he'd give the dribbly phlegm to pregnant women and nursing mothers to drink. The shaman told them it was good for their babies.

The shaman was also responsible for overseeing the women who made the Black Drink used in ceremonies. His first job was to make sure no menstruating woman came near the big cook pot or the whole pot would have to be dumped out and started over again. Leaves and stems from Yaupon holly were collected, roasted, and crushed into a pot of boiling water. The concoction was boiled for hours to strengthen the caffeine then strained. Councilmen sat upon a dais and drank copious quantities of the hot frothy drink from a large whelk shell cup. Then each stood and vomited the liquid as far as he could, patted his stomach, and shouted Ummmm!

(It had to be a guy thing.)