Seminole Spaces: Florida and Seminole Ancestors
Welcome back to our Seminole Spaces series! In this series, we take a look at places and spaces that are important to Seminole culture, history, and tourism. This week, we are zooming out and looking at all of Florida as a Seminole Space! Often, outdated and western-centered history books state that Seminoles only came to Florida in the 1700s. While the 1700s did bring an influx of Indigenous people from Georgia and Alabama, this is not the whole story. It simplifies a history of occupation in a way that does entire cultures of people a disservice. Join us to look at the earliest Seminole Ancestors, Florida’s First People, and to dispel some myths about Seminole occupation in the Sunshine State.
Often, when looking back at history we are compelled to define, split, and place in boxes the things we do not understand. Florida’s First People, and Seminole ancestors, were not called Seminoles. In fact, “That word would be placed on their descendants by outsiders and only came to be adopted later due to the threat of the common foe that united the Florida people.” To some, this means that the Seminole occupation in Florida is a new thing. But, that does a great disservice to the complex history of occupation that is seen in Florida. Below, we will be exploring some of the many, many Seminole ancestor tribes that have lived in Florida over thousands of years, and opportunities for you to visit and learn about them. We encourage you to consider the Seminole and Indigenous perspective and experience when thinking about history.
Florida’s First People
Seminole ancestors were the first people to occupy Florida. For thousands of years, a vast, interconnected social and trade network dominated. It was “connected by family and culture to others across North America, from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi river, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes.” Now, archaeologists define them as the Mississippian culture. But, even that doesn’t do justice to the vast network that defined the Mississippian. Archaeologist Keith Ashley from the University of North Florida states that “Mississippian World is a term that we’ve kind of superimposed as archaeologists. Basically, these were Chieftain level groups, meaning that they had institutionalized inequality. They had chiefs who controlled more than one village…. They were involved in these far flung trade and exchange networks.” The earliest known archaeological sites are in the Florida Panhandle, but as time went on they pushed further into the Florida peninsula.
Mounds “were formed at community sites, providing elevated locations above the waterline to build structures for living, cooking, and crafting. The coastal mounds were often formed from a layer of oyster shell harvested from local beds, with sand and earth layered above them. These mounds would be occupied over large spans of time, and later would allow for the development of “larger permanent communities such as Tocobaga and Calusa.” These communities were interconnected by trade, and Florida “was interconnected both within the peninsula and to the larger geographic region. Copper from the Great Lakes Region would be fashioned into intricate breastplates buried with leaders of the Tallahassee, cities around Tampa Bay were part of a broader Mississippian culture centered in Cahokia, and shark’s teeth and shell from the Caribbean would be traded as far as Minnesota.”
Early Earthworks in Florida
The remnants of these first people still exist, both in echos seen in Seminole culture and at archaeological sites. They built complex earthwork mounds. Although the archaeological sites listed below do not represent a comprehensive list of all the mounds in Florida, they are easily accessible and open to the public for visitation. North of Tallahassee, the Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park cares for six of seven remaining earthen temple mounds. The largest mound in the park is approximately 36 feet tall, and 278×312 feet at the base. Two of the mounds are available for public viewing, and the park boasts ample bird watching, wildlife viewing, hiking, and tour opportunities. Also outside Tallahassee, the Letchworth-Love Mounds Archaeological State Park boast’s Florida’s tallest mound, clocking in at 51 feet high.
Near Fort Walton Beach, the Indian Temple Mound (also known as the Fort Walton Mound) is 12 feet tall and 223 feet wide at the base. Today, the Indian Temple Mound Museum cares for more than a thousand artifacts from the mound, as well as provides interpretive exhibits that look at over 12,000 years of occupation. By Ormond Beach, Tomoka State Park contains the Tomoka Mound Complex, just south of the Nocoroco village site. Made up of 10 mounds, the site dates to as early as 5000 BCE, and was later occupied by the Timucua until Spanish contact.
The Calusa and the Tequesta
Below, we explore two famous cultures that have been documented in South Florida: the Calusa and the Tequesta. They are not the only Seminole ancestor tribes to make their homes in Florida. But, they have left behind a large amount of archaeological and historic evidence of their occupation. Although not always peaceful with each other, both made their homes in South Florida for thousands of years before Spanish contact. Archaeologists have found the remnants of these cultures at various archaeological sites and through artifacts. After European contact, disease and war decimated these tribes. Who we now know as the Seminole absorbed the fractured tribes, or they fled across the ocean south to the Caribbean.
The Calusa dominated much of Southwest Florida, and had an incredibly complex and robust population and society. When they encountered the Spanish in 1513, it is estimated that their population was in the tens of thousands. Uniquely, the Calusa supported a large population of people without staple crops, and “Although they probably kept small home-gardens, they raised no corn, beans, or manioc.” Instead, they depended entirely on fishing, gathering, and hunting and took advantage of the rich marine resources around them. Dugout canoes, both for fishing and transportation, were incredibly important within the culture. The Calusa dug extensive canals and waterways, which spanned Key Marco and throughout the region. The Calusa resisted all efforts for conversion and control and held fast to their way of life and beliefs as long as possible. Under pressure from Europeans and other tribes, they had been almost wiped out by the 1750s.
Above, you can see a bird effigy from the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Collection. The effigy is a Calusa artifact, and Brad Cooley donated it to the Museum.. The Calusa carved intricate wooden masks and other wooden objects. Many have been lost to time and Florida’s harsh environment. A Smithsonian sponsored archaeological excavation uncovered a number of incredible artifacts from Key Marco in 1896. The Key Marco Cat, below, is especially recognizable. Although the bulk of the recovered artifacts are not in Florida, the Key Marco Cat and other related artifacts have returned through 2026. You can view them at the Marco Island Historical Museum on Marco Island.
Mound Key and the Mound House
Mound Key is located on Estero Bay, on what was originally most likely a flat, mangrove-laden oyster bar. Then, the Calusa built it up by over 2,000 years of occupation. The Calusa utilized Mound Key as the ceremonial and cultural heart of their people, known as Calos. Mound Key has an elevation of more than 30 feet. Mangroves and the remains of steep shell middens dominate Mound Key. Today, Mound Key Archaeological State Park is located on the site. The park is only accessible by boat, and there are no facilities or amenities. Two popular launch points are Koreshan State Park or Lovers Key State Park. The final owners of the Key were the Koreshan Unity, a religious group that purchased the key in 1905. Below, you can see a group of Koreshans on Mound Key in the early 1900s.
Not too far from Mound Key on Fort Myers Beach, the Mound House is also an important Calusa archaeological site and shell mound. With interpretive displays, exhibits, and kayak, guided, and educational tours, the Mound House has a large number of offerings for its visitors. Unfortunately, after the devastation of Hurricane Ian in 2022, the underground exhibit Stories Beneath Our Feet remains closed for repairs.
The Miami Circle Site and the Tequesta
In 1998, excavation prior to downtown construction of two high-rises in Miami revealed an intact black earth midden, a circle of holes cut into the limestone bedrock, and numerous “Glades culture and Tequesta artifacts of shell, stone, bone, and pottery.” Continued excavation found 24 cut in holes, creating a circle 38 feet in diameter. It became known as the Miami Circle. Later, archaeologists suggested that the circle was the remains of a structure built by the Tequesta. The National Register of Historic Places listed the Brickell Point Site in 2002. Later, the NRHP listed the Miami Circle in 2007. The National Park Service named the Miami Circle at Brickell Point a National Historic Landmark in 2009. The archaeological site is located at the mouth of the Miami River in Miami, Florida.
The Tequesta occupied the area around Miami and Biscayne Bay from approximately 500 BCE through Spanish Contact. Predominantly a coastal culture, they supported a thriving and complex culture through hunting and fishing the rich marine estuaries of the bays, rivers, and oceans of Southeast Florida. Shell middens show “that the Tequesta caught diverse fishes and marine mammals, including mako shark, swordfish, and right whales.” They also utilized canoes both in the oceans as well as deep into the Everglades. Middens also show that they were part of a vast trade network, providing “items from the coast such as pumice, marine shells, shark teeth, and dried whale meat in return for items like stone tools and minerals for making paint.” Ponce de Leon recorded the first European contact with the Tequesta in 1513. Below, you can see the Miami Circle Site from above.
The Impact of Spanish Contact
Historians have written about the origins of Seminole ancestors many times. But, most information is taken from letters, documentation, and first-hand accounts from a colonizer’s perspective. The Spanish viewed the people of Florida as a monolith, reducing their cultures down to merely the “other.” In our featured image this week, you can see an early map of the Florida Peninsula from 1591. Spanish contact occurred in South Florida in 1513, and this contact began a slow decimation of Florida’s First People. It is important to remember that many of the historic perspectives of these Seminole Ancestors, like this map, are from a colonizer’s view-point.
But, in reality “The Seminole Ancestors who lived in Florida and made contact with the early Spanish colonizers, while interconnected, had multiple languages, outlooks, and cultures. The Spanish recorded names for these people without fully understanding this. Their initial biases led to a great deal of misinformation about the Florida Ancestors that has been passed on.” The political changes that came with European contact spelled the end for many of these rich, complex, and powerful cultures. Through war (both with other tribal groups and European pressure), disease, and assimilation, many fractured only a few hundred years after contact. The impact of European contact “cannot be underestimated. Survivors from different groups joined together or fought against each other. Ancient knowledge was lost, and cultures irrevocably changed as people tried to make new lives and new communities.”
Thus, not only are Seminoles descendant from the Creek moving down into Florida in the 1700s, but also draw on the many, fragmented cultures that already existed in Florida. Through the archaeological record and Seminole oral histories, many are now working to correct this narrative and provide a more complete picture of this history of occupation and ancestry.
Originally from Washington state, Deanna Butler received her BA in Archaeological Sciences from the University of Washington in 2014. Deanna moved to South Florida in 2016. Soon, she began working for the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office. Deanna was the THPO’s Archaeological Collections Assistant from 2017-2021. While at the THPO, Deanna worked to preserve, support, and process the Tribe’s archaeological collection. She often wrote the popular Artifact of the Month series, and worked on many community and educational outreach programs. She lives in Fort Myers, FL with her husband, son, and dog.