Indigenous South Florida and the American Revolution

This post is a part of our “Native American Revolutions” Series.

By Andrew K. Frank

The Revolution cannot be explained without Native Americans. Native Americans were not hidden figures in this era, but rather they came straight from central casting. This is especially true as scholars embrace a “Vast Early America.” If we need Native Americans to understand the history of the American Revolution, the question remains whether we need the American Revolution to understand the history of Native Americans. After researching and writing Before the Pioneers: Indians, Settlers, Slaves, and the Founding of Miami, an exploration of the early history of Indigenous south Florida, I have my doubts.

For the Seminole, Miccosukee, and other Indigenous residents of Florida’s southern peninsula, the American Revolution had a minimal direct impact, and these Indians certainly played no discernable role in the conflict. The long-term effects of the Revolution, of course, shaped the history of the Indigenous peoples in south Florida, but the connections are largely indirect and over the long term. Although no Native communities were isolated from the eighteenth-century empires, some were more connected than others. One community, located on the north bank of the Miami River and Biscayne Bay, illuminates the limits of the Revolution’s hemispheric or global effects.

The north bank community originally began as a Tequesta village in the Archaic age, and its connections with the Atlantic and Caribbean worlds predated the arrival of Europeans. These maritime connections intensified in the early sixteenth century. After Ponce de Léon visited the site in 1513, the Spanish attempted to missionize its inhabitants on two later occasions. Spanish diplomats repeatedly returned on other occasions in order to rescue survivors of various shipwrecks in Biscayne Bay. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, slave raiders from the north further connected the Tequesta village to the outside world. These raiders, primarily Creek Indians, captured and extracted their human prey, and pushed new refugees from neighboring villages into the north bank community. The Tequesta, for their part, regularly engaged with Bahamians who came to the region in order to obtain supplies (especially fresh water, limes, and lumber).

With its population reduced to fewer than one hundred, the north bank community survived by incorporating refugees from across Florida and by trading with other Indigenous Floridians in the region. It welcomed Indigenous peoples from various backgrounds. Some were recently arrived Muskogee and Hitchiti, while others were survivors of the largely vanquished Tequesta, Calusa, and other ancient Indigenous Florida communities. These neighbors lived along the coasts and in the interior. Their communities swelled with the arrival of multiethnic newcomers, and they frequently travelled to neighboring islands and coastal Indian towns in order to access various resources.

The revolutionary experiences of the Creek communities in the north contrasted with the isolation of those to the south. Creeks in the north allied and often fought alongside the imperial powers, as they pursued immediate and long-term ambitions. Indigenous south Florida, however, remained largely untouched by the War of Independence. There is no evidence that the Spanish, British, French, or United States attempted to arm, ally, or conquer their communities, and it is hard to imagine why they would. None of the navies patrolled the area, and they largely ignored the occasional shipwreck that occurred in the bay. The Indians on Biscayne Bay continued to trade with Bahamian mariners that worked outside of regulations, and the communities continued as if the continental struggle was not occurring.

Sometime after Florida returned to Spanish control in 1783, a small paramilitary force under the leadership of William Augustus Bowles brought the tumult of the Revolution to Biscayne Bay. Bowles—a British loyalist and self-described “Director General of the Muskogee Nation”—led a paramilitary group of loyalists, runaway slaves, and Native Americans against the emerging status quo in Creek society and northern Florida. They came to find temporary refuge and a base to travel to the Bahamas to obtain supplies in this campaign.

Bowles’ journey to south Florida, though, was remarkably unremarkable. On the north bank, Bowles and others met with the community of Indians that had long made the area home. The local Indians, who travelled throughout the region to harvest coontie (a plant with a tuberous root that can be ground into flour) and shellfish, traded with the newcomers. Bowles’ band also took advantage of the site’s fresh water, lumber, and fruit trees, and, after a short stay, they set off on an attempt to recapture north Florida. Notably, Bowles did not seem to obtain any additional supporters in his attempt to rewrite the post-Revolutionary south. He could not rally support against a new order that the residents of the north bank did not actually know.

The Indigenous history of Miami does not need the Revolution. In south Florida, and I imagine elsewhere in Indian country, the conflict between empires occurred on a distant frontier. Their geographic isolation and their limited martial abilities allowed them to live through the era without being consumed by it.  Native Americans in this region would feel the repercussions in the decades that followed, but they otherwise avoided involvement in the Revolution.

Andrew K. Frank is the Allen Morris Associate Professor of History at Florida State University.  He is the author of several books including Before the Pioneers: Indians, Settlers, Slaves, and the Founding of Miami (2017) and Creeks and Southerners: Biculturalism on the Early American Frontier (2005).  He is currently finishing a history of the Indians of Florida tentatively entitled Those Who Camp at a Distance: An Indigenous History of the Florida Seminoles.

Title image: Detail – Geographical, statistical, and historical map of Florida, 1827

Further readings:

Andrew K. Frank, Before the Pioneers: Indians, Settlers, Slaves, and the Founding of Miami (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2017); William McGoun, Ancient Miamians: The Tequesta of South Florida (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002); David Narrett, Adventurism and Empire: The Struggle for Mastery in the Louisiana-Florida Borderlands, 1762-1803 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

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