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Collier County and the Seminole Wars Part 4 Fishing Ranchos

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I am posting my talk from a recent program I gave at the Marco Island Historical Society. Several people who could not attend wanted to hear it, so I am posting the entire talk here.

The Adams-Onis Treaty in 1819 transferred Florida from Spain to the United States. But it meant little to the people that were here in southwest Florida—fishermen and fishing communities. Politics and changes in government mattered little to them. They had not been bothered for years; why should that change?

The Spanish fishing ranchos presented a problem to the United States because they did not hold any title to the land they had occupied for many years, possibly even a couple generations. These people were not American citizens, and did not seek citizenship once the territory came under the US. They also included either escaped slaves or free blacks, which was not allowed in the new US slave territory.

John Lee Williams wrote in his book, “The Territory of Florida,” in 1837, that Seminole towns and settlements were 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 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.

The travelers described by Williams also met the Spanish Indians where they stayed at a 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.

The “Spanish Indians” in Charlotte Harbor seem to be more Spanish than Indians. They would often be baptized as Catholics, and would send their children to Havana for education. Like many Latinos today, they were Hispanics with native ancestors. Their culture was Spanish, but they could also speak the Muskogee Creek language and had relatives among the Seminoles; as was found when an attorney for the Muskogee Creek Nation visited them in 1833 and was able to speak with them in fluent Muskogee. Seminole Chief Micanopy had a cousin who married a Spanish Indian wife, and lived and fished among them for many years before the 2nd Seminole War.

But the fishing communities did not exactly fit the definition of society once the area because US territory. The people were racially integrated and mixed of Spanish, Indian, and African ancestry, and had worked together and intermarried for generations. They lived in thatched dwellings like the Seminoles. A mixed racial community was not considered acceptable for southern US states and territories, like it had been when Florida was Spanish territory.

[Below: Tariva Padilla and family, 1901. Spaniards actually came back to the area and fished in the late 19th century.]

Just like the Choctaw in New Orleans or the Creeks at Fort Toulouse and Charleston, a couple generations of the Native people would start to resemble the culture of the main influence where they lived. So Choctaw in New Orleans started to look French or Creole. The Creeks near Savannah or Charleston started to look British. So the Seminoles who were at fishing ranchos started to look Spanish. Later, a census attempted of the Florida Seminoles in 1900 found that more of them spoke Spanish than English.

A problem that the United States had with the fishing ranchos was that they were a large economic business going to Cuba. Except the residents of Key West, who appreciated them because they spent their earnings and brought supplies in Key West. But for the United States, import and export taxes had to be collected.

The United States established a customs house in Charlotte Harbor to collect taxes from the fishing ranchos. As you can imagine, this was unpopular among the previously untaxed fishermen. We will get back to that in a minute.

In 1823, the United States government negotiated the Treaty of Moultrie Creek with the Florida Indians. This established a Seminole reservation inside the Florida peninsula. The boundaries were south of what is today Gainesville, and within twenty miles of the coastline. The southern boundary was undefined, which was unexplored or unsurveyed. The Spanish Indians, although having many relatives among the Florida Seminole, were not included in the treaty negotiation, and were not considered part of the tribe. All the coastal area where the Spanish Indians lived was excluded from the reservation. Although they were excluded from the treaty, they were not excluded from removal.

From all evidence, the ranchos remained peaceful and did not create any disturbance against the other American settlers. Plantation owners who controlled the territorial government in Tallahassee, and those who wanted to exploit the territory, had a different opinion. All during the war, officers like General Thomas Jesup believed that the ranchos were supplying arms to the enemy, although there was little evidence.

The territorial government believed the ranchos to be hostile and wanted them removed along with the Seminoles. In 1834 Florida territorial Governor William 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 capture Slaves from the Seminoles in Florida.
Considering the source, it is no wonder that it was a negative report. John Winslett, a slave hunter from the Creek Nation coordinating capture with Wiley Thompson, said that he was greeted with hostility by the locals 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.” (Provided by the 1823 Treaty of Moultrie Creek.)
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