Historians document Seminole Tribe of Florida’s legacy

Posted 12/20/20

The Seminole village chieftain Cha-Chi faced a fateful decision on Nov. 7, 1841, one which would...

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Historians document Seminole Tribe of Florida’s legacy


PALM BEACH COUNTY — The Seminole village chieftain Cha-Chi faced a fateful decision on Nov. 7, 1841, one which would dictate and haunt the remainder of his life.

Two days earlier, Capt. Richard Wade with a picked force of 60 solders in 12 dugout canoes embarked from Fort Lauderdale in response to reports of a Seminole hunting camp on the Hillsborough River. Wade surrounded and raided the camp, capturing 20 Indians and killing eight, shot while trying to escape.

Cha-Chi was questioned by Wade about the location of his main village. As he viewed the bodies of his eight dead villagers, the chieftain made the decision to guide the soldiers to his town with the promise that his mixed-race Spanish wife, Polly, and remaining villagers would be spared and protected.

Cha-Chi knew he had little choice but to negotiate terms with the Army captain. The soldiers were everywhere, and his village was the last in the region that would later be called Palm Beach County.

The Seminole tribe fought two battles along the Loxahatchee River in January 1838, then retreated into the Loxahatchee Slough. Trapped between two armies to the north and west, 527 Seminoles, mainly women and children, surrendered at the newly built stockade named Fort Jupiter.

Lt. W.G. Freeman was the officer in charge of the captive Seminoles. Concerned by overcrowded conditions at Fort Jupiter, he escorted 100 detainees to Fort McRae on Lake Okeechobee until transports arrived to ship the Indians to St. Augustine.

The great medicine chief and war leader Sam Jones (Abaika) was forced to flee south into the Everglades to escape imprisonment at Fort Jupiter and deportation to Oklahoma by the U.S. Army. A few days after the Loxahatchee battles, Maj. William Lauderdale and his Tennessee Mounted Volunteers cleared a “Military Trail” from Fort Jupiter to Fort Dallas (Miami).

Maj. Lauderdale failed to locate Cha-Chi’s village, which was just 4 miles to the east of his new road, but the chieftain knew his good fortune would not last.

In his 1841 official report, Capt. Wade wrote, “Under the guidance of an old Indian, found among our prisoners, who was called Chia-chee (Cha-Chi), I took up a line of march through nearly a mile of deep bog and saw grass, then through a pine barren and some hammock, to a cypress swamp, a distance of some 30 miles northward.”

“Here (on November 8) we were conducted to another village,” Wade reported, “which we surrounded and surprised, and captured 27 Indians, took six rifles and one shotgun, and destroyed a large quantity of provisions and four canoes.”

Cha-Chi’s village was located within the future city of West Palm Beach. Lt. Andrew A. Humphreys, Wade’s topographical engineer, noted the Seminole settlement was located 12.5 miles south of Lake Worth Creek and 1.5 miles west of Lake Worth. The site was probably adjacent to the freshwater chain-of-lakes which today is just east of Interstate 95.

He wrote, “The site of this (town) is on a pretty island, bounded on the northward-east by a deep clear pond half a mile wide, and between a mile and a half and two miles long. On the west and south it is surrounded by a grassy lake.”

“Six miles from the last haulover, on the west side of the lake (Lake Worth),” the topographer wrote, “is Cha-chi’s Landing, a broad trail half a mile in length, formerly led from this place over a spruce scrub toward the villages of the Indians whose gardens were on the opposite shore of the lake, which they reached by hauling their canoes over the trail.”

Reporting on the progress of his expedition, Capt. Wade wrote, “Having seen much in the old man, Chia-chee, to inspire my confidence, I permitted him to go from our camp (on the Hillsborough River) to bring in other Indians, which he promised to do in three or four days. This promise was redeemed, having brought in six at Fort Lauderdale.”

By compiling the total number of Indians captured, killed or surrendering before and after Wade’s raid, Cha-chi’s town had a population of at least 61 Seminoles at the time of its capture in November 1841.

As a result of Wade’s expeditions along Lake Worth (called “Hypoluxo” in the Muscogee dialect) there were few if any Indians remaining in eastern Palm Beach County by the war’s end in 1842. As for Cha-Chi, also known as “George or Old Georgy,” he continued to serve as a guide for the military.

He guided Navy Capt. John T. McLaughlin’s “Mosquito Fleet” along the coastal waters of South Florida. Cha-Chi also led Capt. John Rogers Vinton back to the western shore of Lake Worth in 1842 during a futile search for medicine chief Sam Jones.

After the war, the Army kept its word and allowed Cha-Chi and his family to remain in Florida. He moved to the Manatee community in Hillsborough County. He even received an executive order from Florida Gov. Thomas Brown (1848-1853) on Oct. 12, 1852, protecting the former chieftain from his enemies, both white and Native American.

The order stated, “Whereas it has been presented to me by a petition of a number of citizens of the County of Hillsborough that a certain Indian of the tribe of Seminoles now in Florida by the name of ‘Chi’ and his wife have been outlawed by their tribe for the offense of acting as a guide to the United States troops during the period of Indian hostilities in Florida, and that the faith of the general government has been pledged for the protection of the said Chi and his wife...”

Despite the protection of a state proclamation, Cha-Chi continued to live in fear of reprisals by members of his own tribe. After the outbreak of the Third Seminole War, he took his own life.

On June 6, 1856, Lt. Alex S. Webb wrote in his journal: “I forgot to mention the death of Corporal Manning of my company, (and) of Chi the Indian. Chi committed suicide. He evidently felt that he was neither Indian nor white, and he got himself out of this world to avoid meeting parties of Indian scouts.”

The Cow Creek Band of Seminoles: 1835-1930

By the end of the Second Seminole War, the geographical area that became Palm Beach County was nearly devoid of permanent Native American villages and campsites until the arrival of a second wave of Seminole migration in the late 1880s.

What became a branch of the Cow Creek Band of the Seminole nation traces its origins to the Florida-Georgia border, northeast of Tallahassee, in the late 18th century. During the First Seminole War (1817-18), this Muscogee-speaking band of Seminoles were forced south of the Suwannee River by Gen. Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Spanish Florida.

The band of Seminoles, under the leadership of Chipco (Echo Emathla Chopco), settled northeast of Tampa Bay in Pasco County. To their misfortune, the village was near the line of march of Maj. Francis Dade and his U.S. Army command in 1835.

Chipco joined other Seminole leaders in ambushing the two U.S. Army companies. Ma. Dade and 100 soldiers under his command were killed in the so-called “Dade Massacre,” an event that marked the beginning of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842).

During and after the Seminole wars, Chipco and his followers lived a nomadic existence, frequently moving their camps in Central and South Florida to avoid capture and deportation to Oklahoma. These wanderings were traced by Professor. James Covington in a report titled “Federal and State Relations with the Florida Seminoles: 1875-1901.”

“The band led by Chipco did a considerable amount of moving about in the Florida wilderness during this period,” he reported. “Chipco’s band lived in the cypress swamps north of Lake Okeechobee until 1866, when it moved to the Kissimmee River Valley. The band moved again in 1872-73 to Lake Pierce, located northeast of Lake Wales in Polk County, but migrated from there in 1885 to Lake Rosalie.”

Chief Tallahassee succeeded Chipco as leader of his band of Cow Creek Seminoles after the death of his uncle in 1881. Under his leadership, the tribal band increased to 30 “clans” or extended families. Each clan encampment was led by its senior matriarch and had its own totem or natural symbol — such as panther, wind or snake.

A male warrior married into the clan of his wife. For example, when Chief Tallahassee married Martha Tiger he became part of her Tiger (i.e. Wildcat) Clan or extended family. Martha Tiger’s brother, Tom Tiger (Tustenuggee), would later leave her clan when he married into the Snake Clan.

Under pressure from new settlers and ranchers in Central Florida during the late 1880s, the Cow Creek Band of Seminoles, led by Chief Tallahassee, moved east of Lake Okeechobee into the Bluefield and Hungryland region of Palm Beach County. They also settled near a popular trading site on high ground that became known as “Indiantown.”

Beginning in the 1890s, the U.S. government began acquiring parcels that became the nucleus of federal trust lands held for the Seminoles until the reservations were established. The so-called “Indiantown Reservation” of the early 20th century was on public land. It was actually 2,000 acres of land held in trust for use by the Seminoles.

Upon the death of Chief Tallahassee, his brother-in-law, Tom Tiger, assumed a leadership role in the Cow Creek Band. He married Mary Tiger (i.e. Mary Tustenuggee), matriarch of the Snake Clan, which settled about 4 miles from Indiantown in the 1890s, and thus he also became part of her extended family.

As a young man, Tom Tiger fought in the Third Seminole War (1855-58). However, after the war he became a valued friend to American settlers in Southeast Florida. Tom Tiger had an endless curiosity about his new neighbors and their many strange inventions. He would often make unexpected visits to West Palm Beach, Stuart and Fort Pierce to trade or just observe what was happening in the growing communities.

When a farmer stole one of his horses, advocates for Tom Tiger went to court for justice. It became the first case of a member of Seminole tribe seeking redress in a Florida court of law.

Tom Tiger was struck by lightning and died while carving a dugout canoe near Big Mound City in Palm Beach County. Members of his clan buried him under the canoe. In 1907 an amateur archaeologist from Pennsylvania persuaded a guide to take him to the grave site. He stole Tom Tiger’s bones and tried to sell them to the Smithsonian Institution. When that failed, he placed them on public display in his home state.

The Cow Creek Band was outraged by the theft, with a few warriors threatening to start a “Fourth Seminole War” unless the remains were returned to Florida. In what became one of first federal acts of repatriation of native American remains, Tom Tiger’s bones were soon returned. His clan buried his remains in an undisclosed site.

In another notable legal case involving members of the Cow Creek Band, DeSoto Tiger of the Snake Clan was killed in December 1911 by John Ashley, leader of the notorious Ashley Gang. Ashley robbed him of his otter pelts valued at $1,200. He was brought to trial four years later in March 1915.

Two members of the Seminole tribe, Wilson Cypress and Henry Clay, attended the court hearing in West Palm Beach to witness whether justice was served. Ironically, they were arrested and charged with illegal possession of protected Everglades bird plumes.

Ashley cut a deal with the State of Florida to plead guilty to a lesser charge of robbery instead of murder. He soon escaped from jail and continued his crime spree for another nine years.

DeSoto Tiger was the brother of Ada Tiger, who became the matriarch of the Snake Clan after the death of her mother, Mary Tiger Tustenuggee. Their brother, Jimmy Gopher, was the medicine chief of the Snake Clan.

Ada Tiger’s daughter, Betty Mae Tiger Jumper, was born in April 1923 in Indiantown. Later in her life she would be elected as the first chairwoman of the “Seminole Tribe of Florida” in 1962. She died in 2011. Betty Mae’s brother, Howard Tiger (born in 1925), became the first member of the Seminole nation to enlist for service in World War II.

The Snake Clan prospered during the first quarter of 20th century on land set aside for the tribe near Indiantown. By the year 1926, Ada Tiger was raising a herd of 100 cattle on the open range.

Another important member of the Seminole tribe, who lived part of his childhood in a temporary camp near Indiantown, was Billy Osceola (1920-74). He became the first elected chief of the Seminole Tribe of Florida after its reorganization in 1957. He died Aug. 1, 1974, in Boynton Beach.

When Palm Beach County was established in 1909, it included what later became Martin County and the southern third of Okeechobee County. Several Seminole camps were located in Palm Beach County, including the Indiantown “reservation,” according to a report published by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1932 titled as a “Survey of the Seminole Indians of Florida.”

The detailed 90-page document provided a final social, demographic and economic profile of the Seminole tribe in the 1920s, before the reservation system was established in Florida. The author was Roy Nash, the U.S. government’s “Special Commissioner to Negotiate with the Indians,” who spent several years compiling information about the tribe.

The document was first presented to Congress in 1930 as a “Report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs Concerning Conditions Among the Seminole Indians of Florida.” Among the findings, Nash and other Indian agents reported a total population of 578 Seminoles living in Florida, of whom 125 lived in 12 camps located east of Lake Okeechobee from St. Lucie County south to Loxahatchee Farms in Palm Beach County.

The main threat to the health of the Seminole nation in the 1920s was malaria. The survey reported there were 279 cases in the 10-year period between 1921-30, sickening nearly 50 percent of the tribe.

Most Seminole villages in the 1920s still consisted of the traditional open-air, palm-thatched “chickees” (a Muscogee word for home). Fertile Everglades hammocks were used as agricultural sites each spring to plant corn, pumpkins and potatoes. The tribe’s main source of outside income in the 1920s was the fur trade.

The 1930 survey estimated the Seminole tribe’s annual income as $38,145. The fur trade accounted for $25,000, with native arts and crafts earning $8,945. The Cow Creek Band sold its raccoon furs, otter pelts, deer buckskin and alligator hides to agents in Canal Point, Okeechobee City, and occasionally along the coastal cities. Canal Point agent J.E. Carter, for example, earned an average of $6,000 to $7,000 annually from the Seminole fur trade with his associate in Arcadia.

The Seminole village sites in the 1920s were mainly located on public land, but a few such as the Loxahatchee Farms camp, were allowed on private property with the consent of the landowners. According to the survey, Ella Montgomery enticed Charlie Cypress and his family to abandoned their home in the Big Cypress Swamp and move to Loxahatchee Farms with a gift of a Ford automobile.

Montgomery, related by marriage to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward Douglass White (1910-21), was one of many well-meaning citizens and organizations in Florida that sought to help the Seminole tribe. Charlie Cypress, age 55, was born in 1875 and head of the household that built their camp adjoining the Montgomery home just 10 miles west of West Palm Beach, according to the 1930 Census.

The Florida “Land Boom” of the 1920s, together with the opening of first official Seminole Reservation in Dania, placed additional pressure on the tribe to abandon their traditional way of life. Such was the sad case of the Snake Clan of Indiantown.

The Forced Removal of the ‘Snake Clan’: 1926.

Capt. Lucien A. Spencer, special commissioner and Indian agent for the Seminole tribe in Southeast Florida (1913-27), was determined to move members of Cow Creek Band from their remote camps in Palm Beach and Martin counties to the new Dania Seminole Reservation, the first of its kind to open in 1926.

He arrived in Florida as a Baptist missionary with the title of “The Rev. Lucien Spencer.” As the new special commissioner, he viewed his mission as one to enlighten the Seminoles with the twin virtues of the American education system and the Christian faith.

The Rev. Spencer joined a Florida National Guard regiment sent to the Texas border in 1916 to protect U.S. settlements from raids by Pancho Villa and other Mexican revolutionaries. When he returned to Florida, the Indian agent no longer used the title of “Reverend.” He became “Captain Spencer” to both friend and foe.

The main target of his reservation relocation plan was the Snake Clan, the wealthiest and most influential extended family unit in the Cow Creek Band. Snake Clan matriarch Ada Tiger and medicine chief Jimmy Gopher converted to Christianity in 1920 when a native American team of Oklahoma Creek Southern Baptist missionaries visited their camp.

Capt. Spencer assumed the Snake Clan leaders would willingly move to the Dania Reservation since it offered both an Indian school and church. He was wrong. Both the Snake Clan and its larger Cow Creek Band of Seminoles opposed the removal of tribal members to Broward County.

In response, Spencer later wrote, “The Indian camp I was preparing to move here (to Dania) refused to come on the account of the above (Cow Creek Band) interference, and I properly cut off their ration supply.”

“At the end of three weeks of starvation, they moved here and placed their children in school,” the Indian agent reported. The Snake Clan’s Indiantown camp was closed.

Capt. Spencer’s inhumane action against the Snake Clan was noted by Roy Nash in his survey, and is reported in the Congressional Record, U.S. Senate Document 314, 71st Congress, 3rd Session.

Most of the Cow Creek Seminoles living east of Lake Okeechobee relocated to the 36,600-acre Brighton Reservation after it opened in 1938 in Glades County. Others moved to the new Fort Pierce Reservation. The 2010 Census recorded 694 Seminoles living in Brighton.

In the well-meaning but inaccurate conclusion to his 1930 survey, Special Commissioner Roy Nash wrote, “Fifty years hence no one will question that Seminole Indians are full-fledged citizens of Florida. Seminoles each standing tall on his own feet will have become Floridians. The original American, now a social outcast, will again be an American.”

In historical hindsight, the conclusion should have said despite three wars, forced deportations and decades of government mismanagement, today the Seminole nation continues to survive and thrive in Florida.

seminoles, Cha-Chi, battle, snake clan, cow creek band