Florida’s native american nations

When most people think of “Florida Indians”, they think of the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes. But in reality these were late arrivals who didn’t enter Florida until the 18th century. Before then, there were a number of Native American Nations that occupied portions of the Sunshine State. Today, however, almost none of them still exists.

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Appalachee Council House, Tallahassee FL

Apalachee

One of the most numerous and powerful of the Florida tribes was the Apalachee, who occupied the Panhandle area around modern-day Tallahassee.

The soil here was extraordinarily fertile, and the Apalachee were able to live a sedentary agricultural lifestyle. Fields of maize, squash and beans, supplemented by wild deer, provided an abundant supply of food.

The steady food stores allowed the Apalachee to establish large towns. At this time, many Native tribes in North America were “mound builders” who constructed large ceremonial artificial hills from dirt or sand, painstakingly built up one basketful at a time. These were used as burial mounds, as ceremonial temple sites, and to elevate the residence of the local ruler.

Appalachee towns most often took the form of a flat central plaza surrounded by several mounds topped by temples. At one end was another mound where the chief lived. There would also be a large thatched “council house” for community gatherings.

Because of their abundant agricultural economy and the large number of warriors that could be summoned by the resulting population, the other Florida tribes considered the Appalachee to be wealthy and powerful.

When the Spanish arrived, they established a number of Catholic Missions in the area and converted many Apalachees to Christianity. But in 1704 the British colonists to the north invaded the area and burned nearly all of the Apalachee towns. A small band of Natives escaped to Louisiana, where about 400 of them still live today, forming the Tamimali Band of the Apalachee Nation. They are the only still-existing survivors from Florida’s pre-contact Native American Nations.

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Deer bone with Timucuan stone point embedded in it

Timucuans

The Timucua Nation occupied the northern Atlantic Coast of Florida, in the area of present-day Jacksonville and extending up into modern Georgia.

The Timucuans placed their villages along rivers, and while they usually had small fields of maize and vegetables, they lived mostly by fishing and hunting. Fish, berries and oysters made up much of the diet. Many bands would spend the winter in their villages, and then migrate in the summer to temporary camps along the seashore where they could gather shellfish.

The political structure of the Timucuans was also different from the Apallachee. While the Appalachee had a well-organized hierarchy with each village leader under the authority of a head chief, each Timucuan village was led by a ruler who had much independent authority. Each village contained a few hundred people at most, living in small huts thatched with palm leaves. There would also be a much larger ceremonial Council House.

After the arrival of the Spanish, the Timucuans were devastated by introduced diseases like smallpox, diptheria, and measles. By 1700 the entire tribe was virtually extinct.

Ais

The Ais Nation inhabited the Atlantic coastal area around modern Cape Canaveral.

Not much is known about the Ais, and nearly all of our information comes from surviving accounts of shipwrecked Spanish sailors. The Natives were said to be fierce warriors who zealously protected their land, and it was widely believed by the Spanish that the Ais would kill any European who reached their shores. Later, however, the Ais reached an agreement with the Spanish Governors in the Caribbean that they would rescue shipwrecked Spanish sailors in exchange for payment in tobacco and other trade items.

The Ais lived in small villages along the seashore. By Spanish accounts they did not practice any form of agriculture but made their living solely by spearing fish and by gathering oysters and other seafoods as well as palm nuts and sea grapes.

These Spanish accounts also give us the earliest description of what later became known as “the black drink”, a strong tea made from the leaves of the Yaupon Holly. Like the use of ceremonial mounds, the black drink was a cultural trait that was shared by virtually all of Florida’s natives. Although the dark tea was used as an everyday beverage, a specially-brewed stronger version had a ceremonial role as an emetic with which to ritually cleanse oneself for religious reasons.

By the 1700’s, slavers from the British colony in South Carolina had begun raiding the Ais country and taking captives back to sell in the Charleston slave markets. They also introduced European diseases which wiped the natives out. By the 1750’s the Ais disappear from the historical record.

Tequesta

The Tequesta Nation held the area of southern Florida around modern-day Miami.

This is another group about which we know little. It was apparently not a very large tribe, and by some accounts it had established a relationship with the nearby Calusa confederation, though it is not clear if this was an independent alliance or if the Tequesta were subordinate to the Calusa. The Spanish established trade relations with the Tequesta, but were never successful in “Christianizing” them, partly because the Tequesta had such a powerful ally in the Calusa.

Contemporary accounts describe small villages consisting of circular huts with conical thatched palm roofs. Each village had a larger square building where the bones of the dead were ceremonially stored. The Tequesta lived by gathering seafood from the Bay of Biscayne and from the nearby Miami River.

By the 1750s, however, diseases and European raids had reduced the Tequesta to less than a hundred people. In 1763, when Florida was turned over to the British, the remaining Natives asked the Spanish to relocate them to Havana. They were absorbed there into the local population, and today the Tequesta no longer exist.

Calusa

The Calusa were a large and powerful group which controlled most of southwest Florida around Ft Meyers.

We know much more about the Calusa than we do about other Florida Natives, partially because they were such a large and widespread culture and left more archaeological sites, and also because the Spanish had extensive relations with them and left behind many accounts.

Like many other Florida Natives, the Calusa were not agrarian, but they had a rich source of food: the estuary of the Caloosahatchee River (the name means “River of the Calusa”) which provided an abundance of fish and seafoods, especially oysters. In some villages, shellfish made up as much as 90% of the diet.

The Calusa were one of the few human cultures who were able to produce enough of a food surplus to support a complex stratified social structure with enough political and military power to control a vast territory and form partnerships with other tribes. The Calusa controlled territory from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic coast and down to the Keys (roughly one-third of the Florida peninsula), and their overland trade network provided materials and goods from as far away as the Great Lakes. Large cypress dugout canoes, meanwhile, were capable of sailing even to Cuba or the Bahamas for trade.

The Calusa were not one people, but, like their contemporary Iroquois in the northeastern US, were a confederation of several different people. The entire society was led by a “cacique” or “king”, who inherited his title through his mother’s line. There were around fifty different Calusa towns and villages at the heart of their territory, each under the leadership of a local cacique who in turn was responsible to the “king”. The rest of the territory consisted of aligned tribes who owed loyalty to the Calusa, and beyond that were independent nations like the Ais, Tequesta and Tocobaga, who had trade relationships (and were perhaps subject to Calusa political influence).

With this large highly-organized population and surplus of material wealth, the Calusa were able to make advances not seen elsewhere in Florida. Large towns appeared with populations that rivaled some cities in Europe. Public-works projects included extensive and large ceremonial mound plazas with temples, food storage buildings, and even canals that were several hundred feet long, built as fish traps as well as transportation.

When the Spanish arrived, they found the Calusa to be a powerful force. In armed conflicts with the Spaniards, the Calusa were able to hold them off despite the advantages held by the armed and armored Europeans. (The famed conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon was fatally wounded by a poisoned arrow in one of these battles, in 1521.) It wasn’t until 1566 that the Spanish under Pedro Menendez de Aviles (who had founded the Spanish city of St Augustine a year earlier) were able to work out a peace with the Calusa leader “Carlos”, which was sealed, in Calusa fashion, when Carlos offered his sister to Aviles in marriage. This peace lasted until 1614, when the Spanish intervened in a conflict between the Calusa and the Tocobaga. The result was another 100 years of hostility.

But the Europeans had brought two things that even the Calusa confederation could not deal with—guns and germs. Smallpox epidemics raced through the area, wiping out entire villages at a stroke. Native American Creek raiders from the Carolina colonies, allied with the British, came to take slaves. The Creeks were armed with muskets, which the Calusa, who had cut themselves off from European contact, did not have. By 1711, the Calusa had been reduced to just a few hundred survivors, and many of these finally fled to the Caribbean. By the time the British took control of Florida in 1763, the once-powerful Calusa no longer existed.

Tocobaga

The Tocobaga Nation was located in western Florida around present-day Tampa Bay.

Like the Calusa, the Tocobaga Nation, which made up most of what is known today as the Safety Harbor Culture, was actually a confederation of several smaller tribes that inhabited the Tampa Bay are, also including the Pohoy, Mococo, Guacozo, Vicela, Tocaste, Luca, and Uzita. The Tocobaga were never able to become as powerful as their southern neighbors, though—partially because they were themselves hemmed in by the Calusa and the Apalachee.

There were about 20 large Tocobaga towns and villages. At the center was the ceremonial mound with a religious temple on top. At the other end of the flat plaza was another mound with the chief’s residence. The houses of the high-ranking nobility surrounded the plaza, and this was flanked by a low earthen bank that kept out floodwaters during Florida’s frequent hurricanes.

At the center of Tocobaga life, both physically and culturally, was Tampa Bay. This shallow protected bay was perfect for fishing (using nets made from twined yucca or palm fibers) and for gathering oysters, crabs and other seafoods, and since there was little stone available that was suitable for making tools, the Natives pressed shells into service as knives, arrowheads and utensils. Dugout canoes were made from cypress logs by building fires inside them and scraping away the charred ashes.

Like the Calusa, the Tocobaga fiercely resisted the Spanish incursions into their land, launching a series of raids against any Spanish settlements that were within reach. But European diseases took their toll, and in 1612 the Pohoy rebelled against the Tocobaga, provoking another conflict with Spain. In 1763, when the British won the French and Indian War and took control of Florida, the few remaining Tocobaga left with the Spanish, fled to the Caribbean, and disappeared there. Today no Tocobaga remain.

By 1763, when Florida was given to Britain in 1763 under the treaty ending the Seven Years War with France and Spain, the peninsula was virtually empty and was considered worthless swampland. When the American Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Florida, the “fourteenth colony”, remained loyal to the Crown and became a source of Royalist militia who launched raids into the rebellious colony of Georgia. In 1783, as part of the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 (which also granted independence to the United States), Florida was returned to Spanish control.

After gaining their independence from England, American settlers began pouring into the territories in Georgia and Alabama that were held by the Creek nations of Native Americans, and bands of Creeks, as well as refugees from other tribes including Choctaw, Shawnee and Yuchi, moved south into Florida.  By 1800 there were some 5,000 of these Native Americans in Florida. Here they took up a farming and ranching lifestyle, formed their own distinct culture, and became known as “Seminoles”.

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