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Who Were the Spanish Indians? Part IV: The Fishing Ranchos in the 1830s

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When Florida became a territory of the United States in 1821, many of the Spanish land holdings and citizens were put in unknown legal status. Florida became a slave territory, and that changed the status for many who had been land owners and citizens under Spain, including free blacks. The validity of Spanish land grants would be tested in the courts for decades to come.

This put the Spanish fishing ranchos with an uncertain future too, because the people who fished and traded did not necessarily hold any title to the land they were occupying. Many of them were of mixed race and ethnic background, and might have no legal status for owning land in the United States territory. Many of the people did not seek US citizenship either.

There were four settlements of fishing ranchos on Charlotte Harbor, which was considered the second largest, most active port on the west coast of Florida after Tampa Bay.

The fishing ranchos were still trading with Cuba. This was a major industry in Florida where Cuba was the main recipient. The benefit to the United States was that the ranchos were purchasing a lot of dry goods from Key West.

The first thing the United States government tried to do was establish a customs house to collect taxes from the goods in the international trade.

For the demographics of the ranchos, the families were Spanish who intermarried with Seminoles, as discussed previously. They had relatives among the Seminoles who would often come to trade in the area. But the fishermen from the ranchos rarely ventured more than 10 or 15 miles inland, so were unfamiliar with the country beyond the coast. Col. Persifor Smith with the Louisiana Volunteers in April 1836 hired a local guide from one of the ranchos to go with his expedition up the Myakka River, but the guide was described as useless once they were in the interior.

The Spanish Indians in the ranchos were not included in the previous treaties of Moultrie Creek in 1823, or Paynes Landing in 1832. So they were not given any provision or annuity payment as part of the treaty. But later in the 2nd Seminole War, they were included in the removal.

From all evidence, the ranchos remained peaceful and did not create any disturbance against the other American settlers. Tallahassee had a different opinion. All during the war, officers like General Thomas Jesup looked believed that they were supplying arms to the enemy, although there is no other evidence outside of hearsay.

The territorial government believed the ranchos to be hostile and wanted them removed along with the Seminoles. In 1834 Governor Duval wrote, “I am informed there is a settlement on an island not far southeast of Charlottes harbor, composed of negroes, Indians, and Spaniards; a lawless, motley crew; and that there is similar settlement on the main, in the section of country connected with that harbor.”

Duval was quoting a report from Indian Agent Wiley Thompson, who was quoting two different slave hunters who came from the Creek nation to procure Slaves from the Seminoles in Florida. They spoke Muskogee, and said that the ranchos spoke the Creek language (Muskogee) and that they did not misunderstand them.

Considering the source, it is no wonder that they made a hostile report about the ranchos. John Winslett was a slave hunter from the Creek Nation coordinating capture with Wiley Thompson. He was naturally greeted with hostility when he arrived in Tampa, and did not actually go to Charlotte Harbor. His report said that the Spanish Indians and ranchos were, “a band of desperadoes, runaways, murderers, and thieves (negroes and Indians, a majority runaway slaves) are located on an island thought be southeast of Charlottes Harbor.”

Hillsborough County Judge Augustus Steele wrote Wiley Thompson to explain who the Spanish Indians were. He said that the Spanish Indians were all descended from the Seminoles, but they, “owe no allegiance to, and of whom none is claimed by, the Seminoles, though descended from them. They were born in the different ranchos, or fishing places, mostly speaking Spanish, and in some instances have been baptized in Havana.”

In writing about the Spanish Indians in 1955, Wilfred Neill explains why the Seminoles did not claim kinship with the Spanish Indians. “By disavowing the Spanish Indians, the other Seminole avoided the legal necessity of sharing their annuities with them.”

Charlotte Harbor was not part of the designation Indian reservation in Florida. In April 1835, Major Francis Dade was given the task of removing Indians from the area, but was unable to leave Key West due to unavailability of ships for transportation.

Next: Who Were the Spanish Indians? Part V: William Bunce and the End of the Fishing Ranchos
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