By Lauren Tjaden
Florida has set the stage for historic drama since the dawn of mankind, civilizations that left fascinating evidence of their nomadic and later hunting and agricultural lifestyles. More than a dozen original Native American tribes ruled Florida - Pensacola, Apalachee, Guale, Timucua, Potano, Ocale, Tocobaga, Mayaimi, Ais, Calusa, Jeaga, Tequesta and Matecumbe - each one unique and each leaving their footprints on the state. The modern Miccosukee and Seminole tribes, descendants of the Creek Indians who migrated to the state in the mid-18th century, have their own riveting history as well, proud people who never surrendered.
And you can discover them all in Florida.
Here, you can climb atop a great shell mound at Mound Key Archeological State Park, a towering ceremonial and political center constructed 2,000 years ago by the Calusa, a sophisticated, tall people who dominated South Florida’s water and land; watch an epic battle reenactment of the event that sparked the Second Seminole War at Dade Battlefield Historic State Park; and immerse yourself in the heritage of the Seminole Tribe at the renowned Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum with its reconstructed village and hunting camp.
Here are some Florida museums and parks that illuminate the sometimes uplifting, sometimes woeful, and always fascinating stories of the state's Native American people.
The free-admission Florida Museum of Natural History’s permanent exhibit, South Florida People and Environments, plunges you into the action with hands-on experiences. Wander into a palm-thatched hut and you’ll find yourself in a Calusa leader’s house during a political ceremony in the year 1564. You can snag an up-close and personal look at rare artifacts in the Native American Legacy Gallery, including
a famed 1,000-year-old painting of a woodpecker as well as masks and metalworks. The past flows into the present with the Today’s South Florida Indian People exhibit, where you’ll discover the lifestyle and traditions of the Indian people who live in South Florida today—the Seminole and Miccosukee.
At Mission San Luis, the sound of a pounding blacksmith's hammer and the aroma of customary fare prepared over an open fire conspire to transport you back to the year of 1703, to a recreated hamlet where Apalachee Indians and Spanish immigrants lived together -- including a formidable Apalachee chief and the powerful Spanish deputy governor. Encompassing the biggest historic-period Indian building discovered in the Southeast, the Mission invites you to stroll in the plaza where the Apalachees played their traditional ball games; greet the friar at the church; discover how soldiers lived at the fort; and wonder at the 300-year-old artifacts excavated onsite.
Just a skip and a hop north of Tallahassee, you’ll find this important 13th century site, where you can picnic at a shady table within view of two of its temple mounds. Over eight thousand years ago, Native Americans built what’s now known as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex here, with a village that served as a cultural and religious center, leaving behind items that include repoussé copper plates, copper headdress badges, engraved shell gorgets, pearl beads, copper axes, and stone and ceramic pipes- many complete with an emblem representing the Complex. The park preserves the legacy of this sacred place and the remains of six of its seven known earthen temple mounds.
Nestled within Silver Springs State Park, famed for its glass-bottom boats, this unusual center is a program of Marion County Public Schools. It sheds light on North Central Florida’s past, with blockbuster exhibits that include full-size skeletons of the Pleistocene short faced bear and Columbian Mammoth; preserved Indian canoes; abundant ancient artifacts; and Seminole pieces. Each February, the museum’s Silver River Knap-In brings history to graphic life as expert flint knappers, archaeologists, potters, hide tanners, bow makers and other specialists in prehistoric skills gather from across the U.S. to demonstrate and teach their arts.
For over 5,000 years, this lush, small island sited at the mouth of the St. John’s River has provided the backdrop for humans, including Native Americans and Spanish Colonials as well as a host of later populations- plantation owners and slaves in addition to 1920s jet setters. You can take a walk through history on its three-mile Fairway Loop Trail, a path that reveals a towering ancient dune, a heron rookery and the Kingsley Plantation, a structure that dates to the late 1700s. For a more in-depth view, grab an audio tour from the visitor center and take a two-hour guided driving expedition from the comfort of your car.
A diverse cast of characters has populated Paynes Prairie for over 12,000 years, including historic Potano Indians, Spanish explorers, Seminole Indians and finally Americans from the north. South of Gainesville, the park encompasses 22,000-acres of wet and dry savanna in Micanopy, providing bountiful habitats for both wildlife and livestock. Paynes was the stronghold of the Alachua band of the Seminole tribe under Chief Ahaya the Cowkeeper in the mid-1700s, and the Seminole village of Cuscowilla was located near modern Micanopy. By the 1790s, Cuscowilla had been relocated east of Lake Wauburg and became known as Paynes Town, named – along with the surrounding prairie- for Chief Cowkeeper's son, Paynes. Paynes Town was destroyed by 1813 by troops from Tennessee, but you can still explore the vast wilderness where the drama played out and where bison and wild horses roam even today.
This little gem of a museum makes for a spellbinding visit, with displays showcasing intricate Seminole Patchwork, a stunning handwork developed by Seminole women in the 1800s as a necessity for clothing; artifacts from the Timucua; the story of Chief Micanopy, the chief of the Seminole Nation during the 2nd Seminole War for whom the town is named; and a section devoted to other Seminole War Chiefs, including lithographs of original oil paintings of important Indians painted in the 1800s by famed artist Charles Bird King. These irreplaceable portraits were destroyed in the Smithsonian fire of 1865.
Check out more Native American sites in North Florida: Trail of Florida’s Indian Heritage.
Sited on central Florida’s east coast, Tomoka State Park features a half-mile interpretive trail that meanders into a hardwood hammock where Timucuan Indians thrived approximately 1,000 years ago, passing through the ancient Timucuan village site of Nocoroco on the Tomoka River. The community was first discovered by Spanish explorers in the early 1600s, who wrote that the Timucuan were “of goodly stature and covered in many tattoos.” You’ll also find a 40-foot-tall shell midden at Tomoka Point, and at the north parking area, an awe-inspiring sculpture of "Chief Tomokie," created in 1955 by artist Fred Dana Marsh.
Just minutes from Tampa, you’ll find Hillsborough River State Park, a glorious natural wonder that whisks you into the tumultuous past of Fort Foster State Historic Site. At this faithful reproduction of the fort constructed during the Second Seminole War to defend the Hillsborough River bridge, you can join Ranger-led tours; get a glimpse into life at Fort Foster; browse through over 100 displayed artifacts; and discover more about the Seminole nation and US military conflict. Two riveting events, the Fort Foster Rendezvous in January and the Candlelight Experience at Fort Foster in December, bring history to vivid life with re-enactment battles.
This 61-acre National Historic Landmark reveals glimpses of what Florida was like 2,500 years ago. Occupied for nearly 1500 years by Native Americans, the site was a vital religious and political center for regional tribes and contains an imposing six-mound complex that was used as a ceremonial center. Climb the stairs to the peak of a 30-foot temple mound to be rewarded with views of a magnificent vista, a view that Florida’s first people once enjoyed. Don’t miss the visitor center and museum with its fascinating exhibits and artifacts that include traditional pottery, arrow points and jewelry.
On the shores of Old Tampa Bay, Safety Harbor Temple Mound rises behind shelter #2 at Philippe Park, where you can climb to the top of the ancient structure. Constructed of alternating layers of shell and sand by Native Americans known as the Tocobaga, it holds bragging rights as the largest remaining mound in the Tampa Bay area. The remnants of posts imply there was at least one structure atop the mound, perhaps employed for ceremonies or the chief’s dwelling. Archaeologists believe the ramp led to a town center at the mound’s base.
The nearby Safety Harbor Museum and Cultural Center, situated on the site of a Tocobaga Indian mound, displays fascinating artifacts that include fossils, projectile points, shell tools, beads, and pottery that were found in the area, dating back to 1500 to 1700 A.D.
Dade Battlefield Historic State Park, Bushnell
Established in 1921, this National Historic Landmark spins back the wheel of time, preserving and commemorating the site of Dade's Battle of 1835, a fateful event that initiated the longest and most costly American Indian war in U.S. history. Save time to check out the visitor center; it boasts a small museum laden with artifacts and exhibits linked to the Florida Seminole wars, as well as an award-winning, 12-minute video about the battle, "This Land, These Men." If you’re in town in January, don’t miss the park's epic battle reenactment, complete with civilian, soldier and Indian camps and full-scale cannon firing, an event that draws approximately 2,000 people.
Turtle Mound at Canaveral National Seashore, south of New Smyrna Beach
Approximately nine miles south of New Smyrna Beach, in the pristine hideaway of Canaveral National Seashore, you’ll see Turtle Mound—and really, you can’t miss it. Towering 50 feet high and named for its shape, it’s the largest shell midden on the mainland United States and is visible from a whopping seven miles out at sea, a fact that early sailors employed when navigating waters off the coast. It stretches for more than 600 feet against the shores of the Indian River and contains over 35,000 cubic yards of shells. Archaeologists speculate the Timucua used the site as a high-ground refuge during hurricanes. Turtle Mound is accessible via a hiking trail.
De Soto National Memorial’s aptly-named Uzita Living History Camp, open from December through April each year, brings the past to spectacular life as rangers and volunteers dressed in period clothing showcase the impact the Spanish arrival in 1539 had on the area’s native people, the Uzita. You can flinch at the bellow of an arquebus—a type of long gun; see the red fire that the blacksmith uses to heat his wares; watch tantalizing cooking demonstrations; and cheer on your favorites in archery contests. You’ll also learn about native crafts and hear the odysseys of the natives and the Spanish. Camp's season closes in April with the popular De Soto landing event.
Check out more Native American sites in Central Florida: Trail of Florida’s Indian Heritage.
Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, west of Fort Lauderdale
Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki means a place to learn and remember, and this museum lives up to its moniker. It tells the story of the understandably proud tribe with the haunting film, ‘We Seminoles,’ and includes accurate displays of how the tribe hunted, prepared meals and made clothes as well as how they traveled, traded, worshipped and celebrated.
A boardwalk immerses you in the tribe’s heritage as it plunges into the Everglades, encircling a cypress dome, leading you to a reconstructed village with modern Seminole artists offering rare crafts and art. The path also reveals a hunting camp showcasing the pelts, plumes and hides that were used and traded by the Seminoles; a Clan Pavilion; and a Ceremonial Grounds. The research center displays artifacts both delightful and heartbreaking; like the 19th Century manifest of tribe members being shipped to Oklahoma.
50 minutes south of Clewiston- hardly a booming metropolis itself- you’ll find Billie Swamp on the Seminole’s Big Cypress Reservation, revealing a primeval landscape and time-honored rituals. The Seminole’s central tourist attraction, it offers tours on speeding airboats and towering swamp buggies, where knowledgeable guides point out soaring osprey and napping alligators. After the tour, you can explore a small gift shop, watch a daring Seminole wrestle an alligator or refuel at the Swamp Water Café, where you can nosh on frog legs, gator tail or, if you’re not feeling quite that plucky, a juicy hamburger. For the ultimate adventure, spend the night inside a classic chickee hut, where you’ll wake to the sounds and sights of alligators, water buffalo, deer, and sand hill cranes.
Accessible only by boat, this remote hideaway is heralded as the ceremonial capital of the Calusa, a civilization of prehistoric Native Americans that ruled the waters of southwest Florida for more than 2,000 years. For a glimpse into the past, explore interpretive displays along the quarter-mile trail that reveals tangles of mangrove forest and carves a path to the top of Mound Key, jutting 33 feet above the waters of Estero Bay.
Miccosukee Indian Village and Miccosukee Airboats, west of Miami
Just 30 minutes west of the Turnpike in the heart of the Florida Everglades, Miccosukee Indian Village invites you to enter a world steeped in tradition, where water and sawgrass stretch in all directions. The Village offers thrilling airboat rides, complete with a stop at an Indian camp that’s over 100 years old; a gift shop brimming with Native American arts and crafts, patchwork, beadwork and jewelry, including offerings from Tribe members; a Village Museum that illuminates the Tribe’s unique lifestyle; heart-stopping alligator demonstrations; plus a restaurant that serves adventure on a plate with dishes like frog legs and gator bites.
Nestled at the outlet of the Miami River in downtown Miami, the archaeological "Brickell Point Site" is thought to be the only cut-in-rock prehistoric structural footprint ever found in eastern North America. Discovered in 1998, it reveals a unique ceremonial site built by the Tequesta people over 2,000 years ago. It’s open 24 hours a day with interpretive signage and an audio tour describing the Circle's discovery, excavation, artifacts, and the Tequesta people.
While you’re in the area, jog over to HistoryMiami Museum to learn more about the small, peaceful Tequesta civilization at their permanent exhibit “Tropical Dreams: A People’s History of South Florida.” The exhibit details the history of south Florida from 10,000 years ago to recent years. The exhibit “First Arrivals: The Archaeology of Southern Florida,” contains artifacts from the Miami Circle.
Take a stroll back through the centuries on the Calusa Heritage Trail at the Randell Research Center, a nearly mile-long interpretive walkway that curves through shell mounds and ancient canals of the Pineland archaeological site. Museum-quality interpretive signs along the Trail provide in depth information about the fierce Calusa Indians who lived here, their culture and the environment, as well as the history of Southwest Florida after the Calusa left. Take in the view atop the site’s tallest shell mound to see this wild place as the Natives did, or cool your heels on a trail-side bench. Guided tours are available from the beginning of December to the end of March each year.
Check out more Native American sites in South Florida: Trail of Florida’s Indian Heritage.
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