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The Seminole Indians in 1896

The early pioneers living around Lake Worth interacted peacefully with the Seminoles.  In 1896 Ruby Andrews Myers provided a first-hand picture of the Seminoles and the attitudes of white settlers and the U.S. Government toward them, in The Lake Worth Historian [edited]:

Only a remnant of the great Seminole Indian tribe is now to be found in Florida, where 60 years ago they played such sad havoc among the Americans who had goaded them to desperation. There in the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp, the tribe now numbers only about 1,500, perhaps somewhat less, though during the last few years there has been a large increase among them. 

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A Seminole family and visitors, early 1900s.

Courtesy HSPBC.

They are shy and suspicious of the whites naturally; especially are the older ones reserved. Young men and women and boys are freer, somewhat more approachable, but tradition is strong among them and the majority follow the example of their elders. A few whites have access to their villages and camps, however, and having gradually won the esteem and confidence of the Indians, the intercourse between the two races, while limited, is friendly and even cordial. 

For many years after Osceola’s capture, the Indians regarded the whites with very bitter hatred, and their refusal to leave this state for the western reservation furnished by the United States government augmented the mutual ill-feeling. They … kept their homes in the … swamp and creek, living on fish, game and wild fruits, supplemented by pumpkins, peas, corn and potatoes, raised by themselves.

As time has advanced and civilization has been making rapid strides along the Florida coast, the Seminole has … retreated ... towards the interior of the state, until now he inhabits the central portion of the Everglades, visiting white settlements at rarer intervals and keeping his whereabouts and numbers diligently concealed.

Only during the past five years has any attempt been made by church, state or general government to better [the Seminoles’] condition or to look after them in any manner, though several individuals have time and again manifested an interest in the Indians’ welfare. Within that time, though, considerable effort has been kept up to get their social and educational training well under way.

 The association bought some land for a station [which] the government in time bought. Over 400 acres of land, forty-three miles southeast of the town of Fort Myers and near the Everglades, compose the Indian station of Florida.

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Little Tiger at the Jupiter Inlet 
Lighthouse, 1879. Courtesy HSPBC.

No government reservation has ever been set aside for them in Florida, but the governor of the state has appointed three commissioners to select 5,000 acres of state lands for [one]. The general government has sent an agent among them … and the Woman’s National Indian Association has selected the [agent’s] wife as its representative among the Indians. The Episcopal Church, through Bishop Gray of the southern diocese of Florida … appointed a resident missionary, so that now [they] are all united in an effort to educate the Seminole Indian. 

Besides a dwelling for the instructors have been built a large house especially for visiting Indians, a blacksmith shop, a sawmill operated for Indians exclusively, and needful outhouses. A large garden is cultivated, wagons and horses are kept for use, and whenever possible or practicable, the Indians are pressed into service that they may have the benefit of the experience. At first they were very shy, refusing even to cross the grounds of the agency, but now they will frequently come in to “help.” They buy … things [that are] useful and convenient; several have bought wagons, and when these are out of repair they bring them in to the blacksmith and intelligently assist him in the work of mending. They also use garden tools, they seem to like the buzz and whirr of the little sawmill, and are becoming helpful in its operation.

The hope is that by first teaching them useful methods of self-help, they may be gradually approached for other purposes. Indeed, the workers have had to take hold where they could: the Indians are attainable only in this way, for they … continue to resist strenuously all school and church instruction. A chapel and schoolhouse will be built … but the Indians at present cannot be induced to try either, so their material progress is being attended to first as a stepping-stone.

Efforts are being made to teach them useful, homely arts, and in this the agents are succeeding. The women sew on machines, and they are beginning to use conventional cooking utensils and tableware, as well as household furniture, while the men learn the use of farm tools, etc. But they oppose all effort to teach them English. Contact with the whites, however, … has [produced] a very great improvement in “manners,” … largely due to [the doctor’s wife].

Six thousand dollars a year is what Florida’s Indian fund amounts to. Half of this goes to keeping up the station … while the other half is used to buy land to build new and necessary houses.  

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A Seminole village in the Everglades, ca. 1920.

Courtesy HSPBC.

The Seminole as he exists in Florida today … is healthy, clean, industrious, moral, just. What better elements of good citizenship could be desired? He is kind to his women and children, honest as a general thing, proud, and a stickler for tribal customs.

Fifty or more families live in a camp or village, which is movable. A favorite dish is one of cracked corn … which they call “sofkee.” One spoon is put into the pot, around which are gathered the men. These take a mouthful at a time, in turn, from the same spoon, the feast beginning with the most important man present, continuing along the graduated scale. Round after round is thus eaten until they are satisfied. Then the women and children come and finish what the men have left.

The men wear ready-made shirts and vests, sometimes leggings and moccasins, and not infrequently pantaloons, their shirts … hanging loose outside the pants. Numbers of red “bandana” handkerchiefs are used by them as personal decoration wherever one can be put … even torn into strips and sewed around the “tails” of the shirts. The headdress is a turban, the frame made of rattan and covered with these red handkerchiefs arranged in fold upon fold, not at all unbecoming. Both men and women wear the front hair “banged” … in the “fringe” so popular among civilized belles a decade ago. Fine rifles and knives are their weapons. The bow and arrow seem to be almost outgrown.  

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A Seminole family, ca 1920s. Courtesy HSPBC.

The women wear gay calico dresses, the skirts of which are made very full and trimmed with bands of a contrasting color. The waist is a short jacket, … allowing two or three inches of the body to be exposed, and there are quantities of beads and coins about their necks. They are modest and clean and very affectionate. The children wear a calico shirt, that is, the boys do; the girls’ dresses are smaller patterns of their mothers’.

 

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