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Who Were the Spanish Indians? Part III: The Spanish Fishing Ranchos

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Further reading John Lee Williams, “The Territory of Florida,” (pp.289-300) there were Seminole towns and settlements firmly established in southwest Florida before the 2nd Seminole War. An exploration in 1832 went from the Ten Thousand Islands, explored a few of the creeks or rivers east of Cape Romano and Marco Island, the Caloosahatchee River, the Peace River, the islands from Sanibel Island to Boca Grande, and even up to Tampa Bay. Almost anywhere they visited, the travelers met Seminoles. They also saw fields of corn, melons, and squash. They heard about a large town up the Caloosahatchee River where the Seminoles had many cattle and horses. In one town they met a woman who was 100 years old.

Photo below: From a book of George Catlin illustrations. The top is of a Pine Barren. The bottom is a Seminole encampment on the coast drying fish.

The travelers described by Williams also met the Spanish Indians. They stayed at a major settlement of 60 individuals in Charlotte Harbor, and it was not the only one. One of the Spaniards who was head of a community on Ussepa Island in Charlotte Harbor was 90 years old in 1832. He had been there for about 45 years and would regularly sail to Havana. He left in 1836 for Cuba when his settlement was burned by the Seminoles during the war.

If you go to the small museum in Boca Grande Lighthouse at Gasparilla State Park, there is a small exhibit on the Fishing ranchos that were on the island.

But who were the Spanish Indians?

Dr. Brent Wiseman said that after 25 years of archaeology / anthropology research, he is still confused about who the Spanish Indians were, as are all of us. Reading the accounts in the 2nd Seminole War sources, they seem to be identified more as Spanish than anything else.

There is one article that seems to cover it the best, and that is by Wilfred T. Neill in "The Florida Anthropologist" Vol. VIII, No. 2, June 1955, "The Identity of Florida's Spanish Indians." I think this article is still the best attempt on the subject, even after 55 years. Fortunately you can print out a copy from the UF library website.

From what all sources seem to indicate are that the Spanish Indians were mostly from Creek or Seminole on the Native side, intermarried with the Spaniards. From what I have heard from Dr. John Worth who went to Cuba to research the Spanish Indians, he claims that many of them were Muskogees from Coweta Town. That is the same Creek Town where William McIntosh was from. They had Muskogee names, and immigrated to Cuba when the Spanish departed Florida in 1763. 500 of them were baptized into the Catholic faith and received Spanish names at one chapel near Havana. Neill talks about an attorney from the Creek Nation in Oklahoma who visited the Spanish Indians in the 1833 and could communicate with them totally in the Muskogee Creek language.

The Spanish had been fishing in Florida since before Ponce de Leon arrived in 1513. After more Spanish arrived, they established fishing ranchos. Just like the Spanish cattle ranches where the Timucuans and later the Seminoles helped raise cattle, the Spaniards sought the local natives to help work for them on the fishing ranchos. Fishing became a big industry, where the ranchos would be in business from August to March where fish were dried and salted before being shipped to Cuba.

The fishing communities were simple living, with thatched huts, gardens, and nets hung out to dry. The appearance does not seem to be much different than what would be a Seminole community at the same time.

This was one of the largest economic industries in Florida before the 2nd Seminole War. Even after Florida became a US territory, the ranchos continued to send fish to Cuba, despite the United State's attempt to tax them and take some of the money. They probably became a thorn in the side of the US, where an industry was trading and sending all the goods to Cuba instead of New Orleans.

Another problem it presented to the United States was that the ranchos were an integrated society. The communities were a multi-cultural and multi-racial community of Seminole, Spanish, and Blacks or even escaped slaves. They had intermarried, with some families being in place in the communities for generations. A mixed racial community that existed in harmony and worked together went against the grain of a US slave territory.

Similar examples can be seen with the French in New Orleans and Fort Toulouse, and the British deer skin trading houses with Panton-Leslie. You had an industry or outpost started by the controlling European country. They depended on support from the natives, so well that they intermarried and had children together. So you had many Creek families around Fort Toulouse who started to look very French or European after a couple generations. You had Creek and Cherokee people who started to look very English after a period of time working with the deer skin traders. So it would naturally happen that the Indians who worked at the Spanish fishing ranchos would start to look like Spaniards in culture and language. There were even Spanish Indians who worked on ships and in shipyards, and that is about all they had done their whole life. Because they were so strongly attached to the Spanish ranchos, their culture and identity became Spanish fishermen. They started to look distinctly different from the Seminoles and Miccosukee in the interior of Florida, although the Seminoles interacted with the Spanish Indians and even had kin among them.

The ties the Seminoles have with the Spanish are very strong in history. In 1900 there was a census attempted of the Seminoles in Florida. At the time, few of them spoke English. But apparently there were more Seminoles in Florida who spoke Spanish than those who could speak English.

Next part: the Spanish ranchos during the 2nd Seminole War.
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