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Personal Characteristics of Seminole Indians

Native American Nations | Seminole Indians of Florida


It will be convenient for me to describe the Florida Seminole as they present themselves, first as individuals, and next as members of a society. I know it is impossible to separate, really, the individual as such from the individual as a member of society; nevertheless, there is the man as we see him, having certain characteristics which, we call personal, or his own, whence so ever derived, having a certain physique and certain, distinguishing psychical qualities. As such I will first attempt to describe the Seminole. Then we shall be able the better to look at him as he is in his relations with his fellows: in the family, in the community, or in any of the forms of the social life of his tribe.

Physique of the Men

Physically both men and women are remarkable. The men, as a rule, attract attention by their height, fullness and symmetry of development, and the regularity and agreeableness of their features. In muscular power and constitutional ability to endure they excel. While these qualities distinguish, with a few exceptions, the men of the whole tribe, they are particularly characteristic of the two most widely spread of the families of which the tribe is composed. These are the Tiger and Otter clans, which, proud of their lines of descent, have been preserved through a long and tragic past with exceptional freedom from admixture with degrading blood. Today their men might be taken as types of physical excellence. The physique of every Tiger warrior especially I met would furnish proof of this statement. The Tigers are dark, copper-colored fellows, over six feet in height, with limbs in good proportion; their hands and feet well shaped and not very large; their stature erect; their bearing a sign of self-confident power; their movements deliberate, persistent, strong. Their heads are large, and their foreheads full and marked. An almost universal characteristic of the Tiger’s face is its squareness, a widened and protruding under-jawbone giving this effect to it. Of other features, I noticed that under a large forehead are deep set, bright, black eyes, small, but expressive of inquiry and vigilance; the nose is slightly aquiline and sensitively formed about the nostrils; the lips are mobile, sensuous, and not very full, disclosing, when they smile, beautiful regular teeth; and the whole face is expressive of the man’s sense of having extraordinary ability to endure and to achieve. Two of the warriors permitted me to manipulate the muscles of their bodies. Under my touch these were more like rubber than flesh. Noticeable among all are the large calves of their legs, the size of the tendons of their lower limbs, and the strength of their toes. I attribute this exceptional development to the fact that they are not what we would call “horse Indians” and that they hunt barefoot over their wide domain. The same causes, perhaps, account for the only real deformity I noticed in the Seminole physique, namely, the diminutive toe-nails, and for the heavy, cracked, and seamed skin which covers the soles of their feet. The feet being otherwise well formed, the toes have only narrow shells for nails, these lying sunken across the middles of the tough cushions of flesh, which, protuberant about them, form the toe-tips. But, regarded as a whole, in their physique the Seminole warriors, especially the men of the Tiger and Otter gentes, are admirable. Even among the children this physical superiority is seen. To illustrate, one morning Ko-i-ha-tco’s son, Tin-fai-yai-ki, a tall, slender boy, not quite twelve years old, shouldered a heavy “Kentucky” rifle, left our camp, and followed in his father’s long footsteps for a day’s hunt. After tramping all day, at sunset he reappeared in the camp, carrying slung across his shoulders, in addition to rifle and accouterments, a deer weighing perhaps fifty pounds, a weight he had borne for miles. The same boy, in one day, went with some older friends to his permanent home, 20 miles away, and returned. There are, as I have said, exceptions to this rule of unusual physical size and strength, but these are few; so few that, disregarding them, we may pronounce the Seminole men handsome and exceptionally powerful.

Physique of the Women

The women to a large extent share the qualities of the men. Some are proportionally tall and handsome, though, curiously enough, many, perhaps a majority, are rather under than over the average height of women. As a rule, they exhibit great bodily vigor. Large or small, they possess regular and agreeable features, shapely and well developed bodies, and they show themselves capable of long continued and severe physical exertion. Indeed, the only Indian women I have seen with attractive features and forms are among the Seminole. I would even venture to select from among these Indians three persons whom I could, without much fear of contradiction, present as types respectively of a handsome, a pretty, and a comely woman. Among American Indians, I am confident that the Seminole women are of the first rank.

Seminole Clothing

But how is this people clothed? While the clothing of the Seminole is simple and scanty, it is ample for his needs and suitable to the life he leads. The materials of which the clothing is made are now chiefly fabrics manufactured by the white man: calico, cotton cloth, ginghams, and sometimes flannels. They also use some materials prepared by themselves, as deer and other skins. Of ready made articles for wear found in the white trader’s store, they buy small woolen shawls, brilliantly colored cotton handkerchiefs, now and then light woolen blankets, and sometimes, lately, though very seldom, shoes.

Seminole Costume of the Men

The costume of the Seminole warrior at home consists of a shirt, a neckerchief, a turban, a breech cloth, and, very rarely, moccasins. On but one Indian in camp did I see more than this; on many, less. The shirt is made of some figured or striped cotton cloth, generally of quiet colors. It hangs from the neck to the knees, the narrow, rolling collar being closely buttoned about the neck, the narrow wristbands of the roomy sleeves buttoned about the wrists. The garment opens in front for a few inches, downward from the collar, and is pocketless. A belt of leather or buckskin usually engirdled the man’s waist, and from it are suspended one or more pouches, in which powder, bullets, pocket knife, a piece of flint, a small quantity of paper, and like things for use in hunting are carried. From the belt hang also one or more hunting knives, each nearly 10 inches in length. I questioned one of the Indians about having no pockets in his shirt, pointing out to him the wealth in this respect of the white man’s garments, and tried to show him how, on his shirt, as on mine, these convenient receptacles could be placed, and to what straits he was put to carry his pipe, money, and trinkets. He showed little interest in my proposed improvement on his dress.

Having no pockets, the Seminole is obliged to submit to several inconveniences; for instance, he wears his handkerchief about his neck. I have seen as many as six, even eight, handkerchiefs tied around his throat, their knotted ends pendant over his breast; as a rule, they are bright red and yellow things, of whose possession and number he is quite proud. Having no pockets, the Seminole, only here and there, one excepted, carries whatever

money he obtains from time to time in a knotted corner of one or more of his handkerchiefs.

Fig. 61 Seminole Costume

The next article of the man’s ordinary costume is the turban. This is a remarkable structure and gives to its wearer much of his unique appearance. At present it is made of one or more small shawls. These shawls are generally woolen and copied in figure and color from the plaid of some Scotch clan. They are so folded that they are about 3 inches wide and as long as the diagonal of the fabric. They are then, one or more of them successively, wrapped tightly around the head, the top of the head remaining bare; the last end of the last shawl is tucked skillfully and firmly away, without the use of pins, somewhere in the many folds of the turban. The structure when finished looks like a section of a decorated cylinder crowded down upon the man’s head. I examined one of these turbans and found it a rather firm piece of work, made of several shawls wound into seven concentric rings. It was over 20 inches in diameter, the shell of the cylinder being perhaps 7 inches thick and 3 in width. This head-dress, at the southern settlements, is regularly worn in the camps and sometimes on the hunt. While hunting, however, it seems to be the general custom, for the warriors to go bareheaded. At the northern camps, a kerchief bound about the head frequently takes the place of the turban in everyday life, but on dress or festival occasions, at both the northern and the southern settlements, this curious turban is the customary covering for the head of the Seminole brave. Having no pockets in his dress, he has discovered that the folds of his turban may be put to a pocket’s uses. Those who use tobacco (I say “those” because the tobacco habit is by no means universal among the red men of Florida) frequently carry their pipes and other articles in their turbans.

Fig. 62. Key West Billy

When the Seminole warrior makes his rare visits to the white man’s settlements, he frequently adds to his scanty camp dress leggings and moccasins.

In the camps I saw but one Indian wearing leggings (Fig. 62); he, however, is in every way a peculiar character among his people, and is objectionably favorable to the white man and the white man’s ways. He is called by the white men “Key West Billy,” having received this name because he once made a voyage in a canoe out of the Everglades and along the line of keys south of the Florida mainland to Key West, where he remained for some time. The act itself was so extraordinary, and it was so unusual for a Seminole to enter a white man’s town and remain there for any length of time, that a commemorative name was bestowed upon him. The materials of which the leggings of the Seminole are usually made is buckskin. I saw, however, one pair of leggings made of a bright red flannel, and ornamented along the outer seams with a blue and white cross striped braid. The moccasins, also, are made of buckskin, of either a yellow or dark red color. They are made to lace high about the lower part of the leg, the lacing running from below the instep upward. As showing what changes are going on among the Seminole, I may mention that a few of them possess shoes, and one is even the owner of a pair of frontier store boots. The blanket is not often worn by the Florida Indians. Occasionally, in their cool weather, a small shawl, of the kind made to do service in the turban, is thrown about the shoulders. Oftener a piece of calico or white cotton cloth, gathered about the neck, becomes the extra protection against mild coolness in their winters.

Seminole Costume of the Women

The costume of the women is hardly more complex than that of the men. It consists, apparently, of but two garments, one of which, for lack of a better English word, I name a short shirt, the other a long skirt. The shirt is cut quite low at the neck and is just long enough to cover the breasts. Its sleeves are buttoned close about the wrists. The garment is otherwise buttonless, being wide enough at the neck for it to be easily put on or taken off over the head. The conservatism of the Seminole Indian is shown in nothing more clearly than in the use, by the women, of this much abbreviated covering for the upper part of their bodies. The women are noticeably modest, yet it does not seem to have occurred to them that by making a slight change in their upper garment they might free themselves from frequent embarrassment. In going about their work they were constantly engaged in what our street boys would call “pulling down their vests.” This may have been done because a stranger’s eyes were upon them; but I noticed that in rising or in sitting down, or at work, it was a perpetually renewed effort on their part to lengthen by a pull the scanty covering hanging over their breasts. Gathered about the waist is the other garment, the skirt, extending to the feet and often touching the ground. This is usually made of some dark colored calico or gingham. The cord by which the petticoat is fastened is often drawn so tightly about the waist that it gives to that part of the body a rather uncomfortable appearance. This is especially noticeable because the shirt is so short that a space of two or more inches on the body is left uncovered between it and the skirt. I saw no woman wearing moccasins, and I was told that the women never wear them. For head wear the women have nothing, unless the cotton cloth, or small shawl, used about the shoulders in cool weather, and which at times is thrown or drawn over the head, may be called that. (Fig. 63.)

Fig. 63. Seminole costume

Girls from seven to ten years old are clothed with only a petticoat, and boys about the same age wear only a shirt. Younger children are, as a rule, entirely naked. If clothed at anytime, it is only during exceptionally cool weather or when taken by their parents on a journey to the homes of the palefaces.

Seminole Personal Adornment

The love of personal adornment shows itself among the Seminole as among other human beings.

Hair Dressing

Fig. 64. Manner of wearing the hair

The coarse, brilliant, black hair of which they are possessors is taken care of in an odd manner. The men cut all their hair close to the head, except a strip about an inch wide, running over the front of the scalp from temple to temple, and another strip, of about the same width, perpendicular to the former, crossing the crown of the head to the nape of the neck. At each temple a heavy tuft is allowed to hang to the bottom of the lobe of the ear. The long hair of the strip crossing to the neck is generally gathered and braided into two ornamental queues. I did not learn that these Indians are in the habit of plucking the hair from their faces. I noticed, however, that the moustache is commonly worn among them and that a few of them are endowed with a rather bold looking combination of moustache and imperial. As an exception to the uniform style of cutting the hair of the men, I recall the comical appearance of a small negro half breed at the Big Cypress Swamp. His brilliant wool was twisted into many little
sharp cones, which stuck out over his head like so many spikes on an ancient battle club. For some reason there seems to be a much greater neglect of the care of the hair, and, indeed, of the whole person, in the northern than in the southern camps.

The women dress their hair more simply than the men. From a line crossing the head from ear to ear the hair is gathered up and bound, just above the neck, into a knot somewhat like that often made by the civilized woman, the Indian woman’s hair being wrought more into the shape of a cone, sometimes quite elongated and sharp at the apex. A piece of bright ribbon is commonly used at the end as a finish to the structure. The front hair hangs down over the forehead and along the cheeks in front of the ears, being what we call “banged.” The only exception to this style of hair dressing I saw was the manner in which Ci-ha-ne, a Negress, had disposed of her long crisp tresses. Hers was a veritable Medusa head. A score or more of dangling, snaky plaits, hanging down over her black face and shoulders gave her a most repulsive appearance. Among the little Indian girls the hair is simply braided into a queue and tied with a ribbon, as we often see the hair upon the heads of our school children.

Ornamentation of Clothing

The clothing of both men and women is ordinarily more or less ornamented. Braids and strips of cloth of various colors are used and wrought upon the garments into odd and sometimes quite tasteful shapes. The upper parts of the shirts of the women are usually embroidered with yellow, red, and brown braids. Sometimes as many as five of these braids lie side by side, parallel with the upper edge of the garment or dropping into a sharp angle between the shoulders. Occasionally a very narrow cape, attached, I think, to the shirt, and much ornamented with braids or stripes, hangs just over the shoulders and back. The same kinds of material used for ornamenting the shirt are also used in decorating the skirt above the lower edge of the petticoat. The women embroider along this edge, with their braids and the narrow colored stripes, a border of diamond and square shaped figures, which is often an elaborate decoration to the dress. In like manner many of the shirts of the men are made pleasing to the eye. I saw no ornamentation in curves: it was always in straight lines and angles.

Use of Beads

My attention was called to the remarkable use of beads among these Indian women, young and old. It seems to be the ambition of the Seminole squaws to gather about their necks as many strings of beads as can be hung there and as they can carry. They are particular as to the quality of the beads they wear. They are satisfied with nothing meaner than a cut glass bead, about a quarter of an inch or more in length, generally of some shade of blue, and costing (so I was told by a trader at Miami) $1.75 a pound. Sometimes, but not often, one sees beads of an inferior quality worn.

These beads must be burdensome to their wearers. In the Big Cypress Swamp settlement one day, to gratify my curiosity as to how many strings of beads these women can wear, I tried to count those worn by “Young Tiger Tail’s” wife, number one, Mo-ki, who had come through the Everglades to visit her relatives. She was the proud wearer of certainly not fewer than two hundred strings of good sized beads. She had six quarts (probably a peck of the beads) gathered about her neck, hanging down her back, down upon her breasts, filling the space under her chin, and covering her neck up to her ears. It was an effort for her to move her head. She, however, was only a little, if any, better off in her possessions than most of the others. Others were about equally burdened. Even girl babies are favored by their proud mammas with a varying quantity of the coveted neck wear. The cumbersome beads are said to be worn by night as well as by day.

Silver Disks

Conspicuous among the other ornaments worn by women are silver disks, suspended in a curve across the shirt fronts, under and below the beads. As many as ten or more are worn by one woman. These disks are made by men, who may be called “jewelers to the tribe,” from silver quarters and half dollars. The pieces of money are pounded quite thin, made concave, pierced with holes, and ornamented by a groove lying just inside the circumference. Large disks made from half dollars may be called “breast shields.” They are suspended, one over each breast. Among the disks other ornaments are often suspended. One young woman I noticed gratifying her vanity with not only eight disks made of silver quarters, but also with three polished copper rifle shells, one bright brass thimble, and a buckle hanging among them. Of course the possession of these and like treasures depends upon the ability and desire of one and another to secure them.

Ear Rings

Ear rings are not generally worn by the Seminole. Those worn are usually made of silver and are of home manufacture. The ears of most of the Indians, however, appear to be pierced, and, as a rule, the ears of the women are pierced many times; for what purpose I did not discover. Along and in the upper edges of the ears of the women from one to ten or more small holes have been made. In most of these holes I noticed bits of palmetto wood, about a fifth of an inch in length and in diameter the size of a large pin. Seemingly they were not placed there to remain only while the puncture was healing. (Fig. 65.)

Piercing the ears excepted, the Florida Indians do not now mutilate their bodies for beauty’s sake. They no longer pierce the lips or the nose; nor do they use paint upon their persons, I am told, except at their great annual festival, the Green Corn Dance, and upon the faces of their dead.

Fig. 65. Manner of piercing the ear.

Finger Rings

Nor is the wearing of finger rings more common than that of rings for the ears. The finger rings I saw were all made of silver and showed good workmanship. Most of them were made with large elliptical tablets on them, extending from knuckle to knuckle. These also were home-made.

Silver Vs. Gold

I saw no gold ornaments. Gold, even gold money, does not seem to be considered of much value by the Seminole. He is a monometalist, and his precious metal is silver. I was told by a cattle dealer of an Indian who once gave him a twenty dollar gold piece for $17 in silver, although assured that the gold piece was worth more than the silver, and in my own intercourse with the Seminole I found them to manifest, with few exceptions, a decided preference for silver. I was told that the Seminole are peculiar in wishing to possess nothing that is not genuine of its apparent kind. Traders told me that, so far as the Indians know, they will buy of them only what is the best either of food or of material for wear or ornament.

Crescents, Wristlets, and Belts

The ornaments worn by the men which are most worthy of attention are crescents, varying in size and value. These are generally about five inches long, an inch in width at the widest part, and of the thickness of ordinary tin. These articles are also made from silver coins and are of home manufacture. They are worn suspended from the neck by cords, in the cusps of the crescents, one below another, at distances apart of perhaps two and a half inches. Silver wristlets are used by the men for their adornment. They are fastened about the wrists by cords or thongs passing through holes in the ends of the metal. Belts, and turbans too, are often ornamented with fanciful devices wrought out of silver. It is not customary for the Indian men to wear these ornaments in everyday camp life. They appear with them on a festival occasion or when they visit some trading post.

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The Seminole Indians of Florida, Clay MacCauley, 1664

Seminole Indians of Florida


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