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Visiting the earliest Floridians

Spanish point at Osprey near Sarasota, one of the state’s premier archaeological sites, has ceremonial mounds dating from 2000 B.C.
[Photo courtesy of Historic Spanish Point]

A family vacation with Florida Indians as its theme offers equal servings of learning and fun. The state's geography changes with the tribes, the spots to visit are stimulating, and they are usually close to additional entertainment.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 1998

Amid Florida's lush hammocks and forests, its rugged, scrubby plains, and even its over-populated urban areas, lies evidence of the peninsula's earliest peoples. Visiting the sites can provide an in-state vacation.

The forebears of Florida's six major Indian tribes probably migrated from Central America and Mexico. The earliest paleo-Indians lived here about 10,000 years ago when the sea level was much lower than it is today and Florida was about twice as large. When Ponce de Leon landed in Florida in 1513, the Indian population stood at about 100,000. By 1750, virtually all native folk here were eradicated by disease, slavery and wars wreaked on them by the Europeans.

Although many sites are undiscovered because they are deeply buried or located off shore, about 100 of these sites are scattered around the state. One, Mission San Luis de Apalachee in Tallahassee, was named this year by Archeology magazine as one of the Southeast's 10 most significant archaeological sites.

Fortunately for parents leading family vacations, many Indian sites are close to traditional, kid-oriented destinations such as zoos, nature preserves and theme parks. Therefore, parents can keep Indian culture as the focus of a tour and still maintain the kind of variety and careless fun that kids require.

Gerold Milanich, curator of the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, recommends that sites be toured in conjunction with museum exhibits showing American Indian culture; many of these are listed below. Florida travel guidebooks will offer more information to help you integrate these sites into a larger vacation plan. Particularly excellent guides are the Florida Heritage Tour Books, prepared for the American Automobile Association by St. Petersburg archaeologist Harry Piper.

Shannon Falk, who has been teaching fourth- graders the American Indian history of Florida for about 20 years, says her students are particularly keen on anything having to do with Indian wars and Indian maidens. Falk said that when it comes to learning numbers -- of soldiers, guns, villages -- the children become visibly excited, and can't ask enough questions.

Here is a selection of sites on the western side of Florida; information resources are listed at the end of the article.

Northern Florida

A rich American Indian culture once extended from the Atlantic to the lower Mississippi River valley, and from Tennessee to the Gulf of Mexico. These people's pyramids and ceremonial towers were similar to those of the early Maya.

The Indian Temple Mound and Museum, in Fort Walton Beach, shows remains of an important settlement dating to the 1300s. The mound is on the National Historic Register. The museum is excellent, with some hands-on exhibits showing distant paleo-Indian culture.

Tallahassee, the state capital, lies in one of the state's premier regions for tracing American Indian heritage. The Apalachees populated the area, to the Gulf Coast, when the first Spanish expeditions arrived in the 1500s. The Spanish established a trail of missions in the mid-1600s, but a combined force of English and Indian soldiers sacked the missions a century later and gave rise to the Indian name "Tallahassee," meaning "abandoned village."

Two of the state's most important archaeological sites are in the area:

n Lake Jackson Mounds State Archaeological Site, one of the country's most important archaeological sites, is a 41-acre excavation. It is thought to have been the political and religious center between 1200 and 1500 A.D. The tallest mound here is more than 35 feet high and can be mounted by visitors for a grand view of the site.

n San Luis de Apalachee is the site of a Spanish mission and fort. The settlement, including numerous buildings, a council house, plaza and cemetery, was destroyed in 1704 by the British, but an unpaved path leads to an archaeological site. This is an ongoing archaeological excavation.

The closest museum is The Museum of Florida History at 500 S Bronough St., which is open daily and is free. Call (850) 487-1902 for information and hours of operation.

St. Augustine was actually the site of Calusa and Timucua villages. It was the Calusas who brutally attacked Ponce de Leon and his soldiers along the coast when they set down in 1513, after which he fled to Cuba where he died of his wounds.

The Timucua Historical and Ecological Preserve, at the Fort Caroline National Memorial, Jacksonville, is operated by the National Parks Service. This gorgeous site along the St. Johns River is steeped in prehistoric and historic Florida culture. The visitor's center houses a new exhibit on ancient Indian culture.

The Guana Pine State Park and Wildlife Management Area, on A1A between Jacksonville Beach and St. Augustine, is a beautiful preserve totaling nearly 25 acres along the Atlantic Ocean. Trails pass numerous shell middens and mounds, but there are no exhibits.

The closest museum is the Museum of Science and History, 1025 Museum Circle, Jacksonville (open daily, call (904) 396-7061 for hours and information). This is a good hands-on museum with exhibits on the paleo-Indian and St. Johns River Indian cultures.

Central Florida

The Timucua, a confederation of 15 tribes, and the Calusa occupied a territory running down the southwest coast and inland as far as Lake Okeechobee. The Timucua were a warring tribe; they lived in dome-shaped, thatched huts surrounding a central building.

In Cedar Key, on the gulf coast about 60 miles from Gainesville, remnants of Indian oyster-shell and sand burial mounds can be seen in the southwest part of town, between E and G streets from the waterfront to Seventh Street; on the south side of Second Street, west side of G Street and west end of Sixth Street. At Sixth and F streets, a sand burial mounds stands in the front parking lot of the Lions Club building.

The five-acre shell mound at Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, about eight miles from Cedar Key, is the largest on the central Gulf Coast. It was created over the course of more than 3,000 years and dates to 2,500 B.C.

The Florida Museum of Natural History, on the campus of the University of Florida, Museum Road and Newell Drive, is open Tuesday-Sunday; call (352) 392-1721 for times and information. This museum, the largest in the South, has extraordinary displays of prehistoric and historic American Indian cultures. It also has a replica of a Mayan palace and million-year-old fossils.

The village of Cedar Key is the site of the Cedar Key Historical Society Museum, Second Street and State Road 24 (open Sunday-Friday), and the Cedar Key State Museum, 1710 Museum Drive (open Thursday-Monday; call (352) 543-5350).

The Crystal River State Archaeological Site, about 70 miles northwest of Tampa, is a premier location for appreciating the state's Indian past and Florida's natural beauty. The site on the Crystal River includes mounds, as well as important stones probably used in ceremonies. Americans Indians inhabited the site from about 500 B.C to 1400 A.D.

Kids who love playing soldier will like the Dade Battlefield State Park, about 50 miles north of Tampa at Bushnell. It was here that the U.S. Army was defeated by the Seminoles.

The Suncoast area has a rich American Indian history going back 10,000 years. Probably the area's most unusual ancient people are now known as the Weedon Island Culture. By about 500 B.C. a group living along the lower St. Johns River joined another culture and developed a fairly sophisticated civilization that included ceremonial, defensive and astronomical-observation mounds. These people lived along the Gulf Coast as far south as what is now St. Petersburg and as far north as Georgia and Alabama. Their culture was absorbed by Indian invaders from the north between 800 A.D and 1000 A.D.

The Seminole Indian tribe populated the area in the 19th century.

Weedon Island, at the northeastern edge of St. Petersburg, on Tampa Bay, offers insight into ancient Indians' habitat, although mounds are not available for observation. Trails and observation decks were recently renovated.

At the south end of Pinellas County is Fort De Soto County Park. Ponce de Leon anchored off shore here in 1513. Indians attacked his boat. Although the museum exhibit focuses on the fort, which was built but never used during the Spanish American War, Fort De Soto is great for camping, swimming and fishing, and kids will get a real feeling for what it was like to arrive in Florida when the Indians controlled it.

The Safety Harbor Museum of Regional History, 329 Bayshore Blvd., Safety Harbor (open Tuesday-Sunday), houses an array of paleo-Indian artifacts such as tools and pottery.

Southwest Florida

One of the state's premier archaeological sites is Spanish Point, on U.S. 41 at Osprey, near Sarasota. Located at this 30-acre preserve overlooking Sarasota Bay are shell middens, ceremonial mounds dating from 2000 B.C., and an excellent exhibit.

At the western edge of the Everglades, what is now the Naples area was home to paleo-Indians and more recently, the Calusa. Evidence of their lives and habitats is perhaps best seen in this varied region, which includes the phenomenal Everglades. In the middle of the Everglades (called "Payayokee" or the "River of Grass" by American Indians) are the enormous Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, and in Everglades City, the Miccosukee Indian Village.

The Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and Visitors' Center on Sanibel Island is acclaimed as a bird refuge, but it also offers an excellent overview of the large Calusa Indian presence on Sanibel and outlying islands.

One of the largest Indian sites in Florida, the Ortona Indian Mound Park, just east of La Belle on the Caloosahatchee River, extends over five acres.

A state park has been created around a 19th century Seminoles village in the Everglades. An exhibit at the Collier Seminole State Park, about 20 miles south of Naples, represents a Seminole War period blockhouse and illustrates the tribe's culture.

Meanwhile, modern-day Miccosukees, a branch of the Seminoles, settled about 150 years ago farther south. They still live in traditional thatched-roofed huts called chickees. The tribe sells its brightly colored clothes, vestiges of an earlier time when they traded animal skins for cloth and sewing machines.

In 1996, the Seminole Tribe opened the Ah.Tha.Thi.Ki Museum in its Big Cypress Reservation, midway between Fort Lauderdale and Naples. (It is open Tuesdays-Sundays.) The name of the museum comes from the Miccosukee for a place for learning and contemplation. The museum's focus is Seminole tribe history.

St. Petersburg resident Rhonda Sonnenberg is the author of Still We Danced Forward: World War II and the Writer's Life, by Brassey's Inc.

If you go

  • The Indian Temple Mound and Museum, 139 Miracle Strip Parkway, Fort Walton Beach (Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. (850) 833-9595).
  • Lake Jackson Mounds State Archaeological Site, 1313 Crowder Road. (Seven miles from downtown Tallahassee.) 8 a.m.-sundown. Free. (850) 562-0042.)
  • San Luis de Apalachee, 2020 W Mission Road. (Four miles from downtown Tallahassee) Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Sunday and holidays, noon-4:30 p.m. (850) 487-3711.)
  • Timucua Historical and Ecological Preserve, at Fort Caroline National Memorial, Jacksonville. Open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Free. (904) 641-7155.)
  • Guana Pine State Park and Wildlife Management Area, on A1A between Jacksonville Beach and St. Augustine. Open daily, 8 a.m.-sunset, admission $2 per vehicle, (904) 825-5071.
  • Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, Shell Mound, about eight miles from Cedar Key.
  • Crystal River State Archaeological Site, about 70 miles northwest of Tampa, 2 miles west of U.S. 19 on North Museum Point. Visitors center open daily; call (352) 795-3817.
  • Dade Battlefield State Park, Bushnell, about 50 miles north of Tampa. Open daily; call (352) 793-4781 for information, hours.
  • Weedon Island, 1500 Weedon Island Drive, St. Petersburg (off 83rd Avenue and Fourth Street, just south of Gandy Boulevard and east of Fourth Street N).
  • Fort De Soto, Mullet Key, due south of St. Petersburg off the Bayway approach to St. Pete Beach. The county park is open 7 a.m. to sundown daily, (813) 866-2484).
  • Spanish Point, 500 N Tamiami Trail, U.S. 41, Osprey (near Sarasota). It is open daily; call (941) 966-5214 for hours and information.
  • Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and Visitors' Center, Sanibel Island. Open Thursday-Saturday; call (941) 472-1100) for hours and information.
  • Ortona Indian Mound Park, just east of La Belle on the Caloosahatchee River. Open daily, sunrise tc sunset.
  • Collier Seminole State Park in the Everglades, junction of U.S. 41, and S.R. 92, about 20 miles south of Naples. Open daily; call (941) 394-3397.
  • Miccosukee Indian Village, U.S. 41, near Everglades City. For general information on Everglades sites, contact the Everglades Area Chamber of Commerce at (305) 223-8380.

For more information: Numerous Internet websites offer information concerning Florida's native peoples. A partial list:

  • http://www.nativeweb.org -- one of 20 education Websites on EDSITEment, a joint project of the National Endowment of the Humanities, Council of Great City Schools, MCI, and the National Trust for the Humanities.
  • http://www.seminoletribe.com- -- concerns the Seminole tribe in Florida, its history and culture.


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