Long thought of as adversaries in conventional American history, cowboys and Native Americans in Florida not only lived side-by-side, they lived — and continue to live — in the same person's skin. For ages, the Seminole cowboy has ranched and roped and ridden the ranges of the Sunshine State.
To better understand the history of these cowboys, we engaged Meredith M. Beatrice of the Florida Department of State in a question-and-answer session, lightly edited:
NPR: So just what is the origin of the Seminole cowboy tradition?
Beatrice: Europeans introduced livestock, such as beef cattle and swine, to the region in the early 16th century. Native Americans known as "Seminoles" migrated into Florida in the 18th century and incorporated livestock into their culture. By the middle of the 18th century, Seminole cattlemen worked large herds in northern and peninsular Florida.
The largest documented concentration of Seminole cattle roamed the wet prairies known as Alachua, near modern-day Gainesville. The English naturalist William Bartram visited this area in the 1770s and witnessed "innumerable droves of cattle" tended by Native American cattlemen.
NPR: Are there vestiges today of that early cattle culture?
Beatrice: Surviving old-Florida place names attest to Seminole cattle operations. For example, Wacahoota — pronounced Wack-a-hoo-tee, now a crossroads near Gainesville — means "cowpens" in one of the dialects spoken by the Seminoles. Jacksonville was once known as Waca-Palatka, or "cowford" — a place cows crossed the St. Johns River. ... Both terms include "waca," which is derived from "vaca" — the Spanish term for cow.
Like their fellow Anglo-American cattlemen of the era, Seminoles allowed their animals to range freely, giving rise to the term "cow hunters" to describe the methods of both Native American and pre-fence law-era cracker cowboys."
(Florida cowboys were called "crackers" because the long, braided-leather whips they used to drive cattle made a cracking sound, according to the Florida Center for Instructional Technology's Exploring Florida.)
NPR: What happened when the United States took over?
Beatrice: The acquisition of Florida from Spain by the United States in 1821 signaled the end of an era for Seminole cattlemen. During the three Seminole Wars — 1817-18, 1835-42, and 1855-58 — the U.S. military systematically rounded up and confiscated the vast majority of Seminole herds.
The Seminole Wars also resulted in the deportation of the vast majority of Seminoles and their allies — including the Black Seminoles — from Florida. Estimates range, but there were likely less than 500 Seminoles remaining in Florida by the end of the Third Seminole War in 1858.
Although it is not well-documented for the period prior to the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were not only Seminole "cowboys," but also "cowgirls," or, more appropriately, cattlemen and cattlewomen.
NPR: These cattle ranchers owned property?
Beatrice: Like many other indigenous Southerners, the Seminoles are a matrilineal-based society. In short, lineage, and to a certain extent power, passes through the mother's and not the father's line. According to tradition, property, including livestock, does not "belong" to men, but rather is controlled by women — more accurately by matrilineal clans, or lineages of related women.
Though strict adherence to these traditions has been tempered somewhat in the recent past by greater exposure to Western norms, matrilineal notions about property and power are still very important to tribal members today and must be understood to accurately portray and understand their culture.
The federal government introduced new beef cattle to Florida for use by the Seminoles in the 1930s, as part of the Works Progress Administration's so-called "Indian New Deal." These programs proved to be incredibly successful in the long run.
Today, the federally recognized Seminole Tribe of Florida (STOF) operates one of the largest cattle operations in the state. The STOF has also emerged as a leader in the use of technology to track animals for sale and also to market bulls. Working cattle is a firmly established part of modern Seminole culture. Many tribal members work their own herds and also contribute to STOF operations.
Betty Mae Jumper, first female chairperson of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, in 1967.
Courtesy of Florida Memory, State Library & Archives of Florida
NPR: Were the Seminole cowboys part of — or apart from — the other Florida cowboys, and how so?
Beatrice: Seminole cattlemen were deliberately excluded during the era which saw the emergence of the so-called "cracker cowboys" of Florida. The Seminoles were largely absent from Florida's cattle economy between circa 1860 and circa 1930, on account of their herds being decimated during the Seminole Wars. The one exception to this was an extended family group who lived in the vicinity of Indiantown until the 1920s. This family, which included future tribal matriarch Betty Mae Jumper, moved to the federal reservation at Dania — later Hollywood — in the mid- to late 1920s when forced from their land and separated from their animals.
By the early 20th century, some young men and women from the Brighton area — and later Big Cypress — started to find work with ranchers in places like Okeechobee and west of Fort Pierce. From that point forward, Seminole cattlemen — and cattlewomen — became intertwined with the culture and economy of other Florida cattlemen.
NPR: Whatever happened to the "Indian cowboys"? Do they still operate?
Beatrice: Today the STOF and its members are considered among the vanguard of Florida's cattle industry. The "Indian cowboy" is a fully modern cattleman or cattlewoman who operates at the cutting edge of the industry, with a history rooted in traditions stretching back nearly 500 years.
(Follow-up. In reporting this story, NPR sought the input of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, but officials didn't respond. We then turned to the Florida Department of State's Division of Historical Sources. After the piece was posted, the Seminole Tribe of Florida challenged some of the statements by the Florida Department of State and posted this essay on its news site. A spokesperson for the Seminole Tribe of Florida also tells us there will be a conference on the subject, "Who Are The Seminoles? Their Culture and Equity in the State of Florida", on Saturday, Dec. 12 in Tallahassee.)