The original Seminole word for themselves is Ikaniύksalki, which means “Peninsula People.” Miccosukee is the Anglicization of Mikosoke, which means “Leaders of the Sokee People.”
During the early and mid-1950s, there was a spat of Seminole-themed movies produced by Hollywood. All were historically inaccurate. All but one, portrayed them as western Plains Indians and were filmed in the deserts and mountains of southern California. Only one, "Seminole!" used real Seminole Indians as extras. it was filmed in the Everglades. All the principal acting roles were played by non-Native Americans. These movies left Americans thinking that all Seminole men were macho warriors, who wrestled alligators for fun . . . while the Seminole women were master dressmakers, who stood and smiled for tourist cameras all day.
Standard references state that the Seminole and Miccosukee Peoples are descended from bands of Creeks who migrated southward into Florida from Alabama and southern Georgia after Florida’s indigenous peoples became virtually extinct. That version of history is partially true, but the story is much more complex. Many Shawnee and Yuchi moved to Florida . . . i.e. Suwannee River. Seminole historians have compelling evidence that remnant bands of indigenous Floridians, who never submitted to Spanish authority, were still living in the interior of the peninsula after the Spanish left. It was these indigenous peoples, who taught the newcomers how to adapt to a sub-tropical climate. The old-timers and newcomers intermarried to become one ethnic group.
Try finding a published academic paper or book on the origins of the Seminoles. Shucks, there jest ain’t none. Perhaps within the anthropology profession, it is a matter of faith that one day a group of people came down from the sky named Seminoles and landed in Florida. Florida academicians begin their papers on the appearance of the ethnic name, Seminole, in the late 1700s. There have been some excellent research projects in recent years from Florida universities on the origins of the Black Seminoles, but not on the original Seminoles. Florida academicians make no effort to trace the names of the original core ethnic groups and towns northward to their homelands.
Official Alabama and Georgia Native American histories generally don’t even mention the Seminoles, even though the word “Seminoles” is plastered across the southern portions of Georgia maps throughout the late 1700s to 1818. Apparently, anthropologists in these states view the study of the Seminoles as the exclusive domain of their brethren to the south.
Even among Oklahoma Creek scholars, one sees little interest in studying the early origins of the Creek Confederacy and Seminole Alliance. Martin and Mauldin’s authoritative Dictionary of Muskogee Creek lists the names of numerous Creek clans and historic tribal towns, whose names have no meaning in contemporary Muskogee. Typically, what professors, Jack Martin and Margaret Mauldin, did was describe them as “Traditional Creek clan” or “Traditional name of a Creek tribal town,” but gave no meaning. Many of those clans and towns carry Itsate animal and plant names . . . the words used in northeast Georgia and Florida, but not in Oklahoma today. Other words are Apalache, Shawnee, Maya or Tupi Guarani.
What one DOES see, though, are Oklahoma Seminole young people pondering their true roots on internet blogs. They are sitting at desks in Tulsa, Muskogee, Oklahoma City, Broken Arrow and Henrietta and wondering about a land far to the east that is so different than where they live today.
Following the trail southward
The big breakthrough came in 2010 when I was camping around the mountains of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. Along the southern face of the Great Smoky Mountains were modern place names associated with the founding tribal members of the Seminole Alliance: Talasee, Taskeke, Chiaha, Okone, Sokee and Suwanee. A little farther south in the mountains were place names derived from the Apalache, Tamale and Yuchi. Was this the homeland of the original Seminoles?
Just by looking at a series of maps, one could see these peoples moving southward and westward across the Southeast’s landscape in the 1700s. Talasee is the Anglicization of Tulase (Tulse in Upper Creek.) The original Itstate Creek word means “Offspring of Tula,” which apparently was the original name of Etowah Mounds. They composed a huge tribe in the late 1600s and 1700s. Their name popped up in many places. Some became associated with the Muskogee-Creek Confederacy and settled along the Chattahoochee River and eastern Alabama. Most remained independent and generally migrated southward.
The Apalache was another large Itsate-speaking ethnic group. Until the early 1700s they were in the Georgia Mountains and Upper Piedmont, then steadily moved southward as their lands were ceded by the Creek Confederacy. The Apalachee shown in central and southeastern Georgia on various maps in the 1700s were Georgia Mountain Apalache, not Florida Apalachee.
It was a pattern followed by most of the ethnic groups that eventually became the Seminoles. They either moved southward from the mountains and kept their original culture or westward then assimilated with the Muskogees. Until after the American Revolution, the majority of people in Georgia spoke Itsate (Hitchiti) - not English or Muskogee. Now Itsate is virtually an extinct language. Only the Miccosukee and some Koasati speak Itsate dialects. The reason is that all Creek land cessions until 1814 were areas occupied primarily by non-Muskogee speakers.
Seminole master farmers
The modern day pop culture image of the Seminoles being backward alligator wrestlers is totally undeserved. Historical accounts from the late 1700s and early 1800s give an entirely different perspective. Their ancestors, when living in southern Georgia and northern Florida were very skilled farmers and herdsmen. When economic opportunities arose from the development of towns and plantations, the proto-Seminoles saw an opportunity. They shifted from subsistence agriculture to a diversified agriculture that produced excess produce and livestock. They also learned how to prepare dishes from the roots of a sub-tropical plant known as the coontie.
The men became full time farmers and herdsmen, while many Muskogee men to the northwest still attempted to maintain traditional lifestyles. The Seminole’s excess agricultural production was sold to white towns and plantations, which were becoming increasingly specialized in cotton production. The new form of agriculture made the Seminole farmers generally more affluent than their Cracker neighbors to the north. It also made these neighbors exceedingly jealous.
Some of the Creeks and Yuchi, who moved south, did not practice wholesome lifestyles. During the 1700s certain bands along the Oconee River in northeast Georgia had become horse and cattle thieves. Their military tradition of guerilla warfare made them quite skilled at this nefarious task. All Creeks and Seminoles were blamed for the cattle and horse raids. Georgia planters also never forgave the Creeks for giving protection to runaway slaves. Hatred between the Seminoles and the Georgians were worsened by the use of Seminole raiders by Great Britain during the American Revolution.
The First Seminole War had much more complex causes than the initial battles between Seminoles and American soldiers on the frontier that are mentioned in references. There was long term resentment by the Itsate Creeks (later Seminoles) toward the Muskogee Creeks for the land cessions. Georgia Crackers wanted the improved Seminole farm lands, while the planter aristocracy wanted to completely eliminate free blacks from Florida.
The First Seminole War pushed the surviving Florida Seminoles southward into sandy or swampy lands that were not as well suited for large scale vegetable and grain production. This is when the Seminoles made another change in their agricultural practices. They apparently came in contact with the indigenous peoples of Florida during this period. Seminole farmers began growing both their traditional crops plus tropical fruits introduced by the Spaniards in raised bed gardens. The tropical fruits included oranges, lemons, pineapples, mangos and bananas. They also learned how to grow cassava as a supplement for corn. It is quite possible that the Talasee Creeks used raised beds while they lived on islands in the Okefenokee Swamp, but widespread application of intensive raised bed agriculture by the Seminoles did not occur until they moved into areas with limited tillable land.
Traditional Itsate architecture also evolved as the Seminole’s ancestors moved southward. Their homeland was called the Snowy Mountains, because during the early Colonial era, the Georgia and North Carolina Mountains stayed snow-covered throughout much of the winter. Here they built heavily insulated houses that were called the Totonac word for house, chiki, or the Itza Maya word for warm, choko. After they moved to southern Georgia, the Seminole’s ancestors built wooden split-plank houses like those of their Apalachicola Creek neighbors. When pushed southward into the lower Florida Peninsula, they began living in open sided shelters erected on timber stilts like those of their indigenous neighbors. They still called this form of house, the chiki. North Americans know it today as the chikee.
The transition of the Seminole People from town-dwelling, mound builders in the temperate Southern Appalachians to tropical gardeners in the lower Florida Peninsula is remarkable. The earliest proto-Seminole bands probably did not leave the Smoky Mountains until around 1715 or later. They are still on the maps at that location in that era. The last bands of Highland Talasee Creeks did not migrate southward out of the Georgia Mountains until 1785 when their homeland was given to the Cherokees as hunting territory. Yet, certainly by 1830, the Seminoles had evolved into a very different culture. The Seminoles, by then, maintained their language and many cultural traditions, but practiced lifestyles more akin to the Caribbean Islands.