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Decolonizing the Curriculum, Episode 2: The Seminoles and land grant universities

This is an abridged version of Episode 2 of our Decolonizing the Curriculum podcast. For the full story, listen to the audio above.

The silver river is a five-mile long stretch of spring-fed water that winds through the heart of Florida just east of Ocala in Marion county. Today, kayakers and glass-bottom-boat riders enjoy the crystal clear water and the wildlife teeming just below its surface.

But what most people don’t know is that more than 14,000 years of human history unfolded along this river bank, too.

Dating as far back as the ice age, mastodons and mammoths once walked this shoreline, as proven by fossils found at the bottom of the river. In more recent history, researchers have also discovered ancient dugout canoes -- evidence of a time when Native American ancestors occupied north central Florida.

Around a thousand years ago, Native Americans of Timucua identity settled along this riverbank, a place that was a sacred shrine to the water god they worshiped. Later, Creek Indians from Georgia and Alabama would migrate south and settle in central Florida where they’d become known as the Seminoles.

During the next three hundred years, the united states gained a foothold in Florida. The transatlantic slave trade boomed. And African American men and women risked their lives to escape slavery and arrive in Florida. This all culminated in three Seminole wars, the deadliest and costliest of which had its decisive battles fought alongside the silver river.

In this episode, we’ll meet the Native Americans who first inhabited north central Florida. Then we’ll travel to Fort Mose in historic St. Augustine, where African American men and women escaped slavery to answer the call of freedom. And we’ll learn how all of this plays into the history and decolonization of higher education in the United States.

This podcast is the result of ongoing conversations with K-12 teachers, university scholars and community leaders in Alachua and Marion counties, in an effort to relate the complexity of black lives in Florida. This series is made possible by a Florida Humanities Broadcasting Hope grant.

Native Americans in north central Florida

When Spanish explorers arrived in Florida, they soon discovered that they weren’t the first to occupy the land.

Aaron Broadwell is the elling eide professor of anthropology and the chair of linguistics at the University of Florida.

"As many people listening to this probably know, the city of St. Augustine was founded in 1565, by the Spanish. But of course, there were people living all over north Florida at that time. And so the people who lived in north Florida, sort of in a region from Jacksonville to Gainesville, down is about as far as Ocala and north across the border into Georgia,  about halfway from Gainesville to Tallahassee, that area, that was the region where the Timucua people lived."

Timucua was the dominant native American group in north Florida in the 17th century.

"But by the middle of the 17th century, there were a lot of diseases and plagues happening here, as well as various warfare between the Timucua and other native groups. And this all had the effect of really reducing the population of Timucua people."

By 1700, the Timucua population had dwindled from around three hundred thousand to a mere 1000 people. Today, there are no known descendants of the Timucua tribe.

Even so, UF archaeologist Ken Sassaman says there are ways to recover these traces of Timucua influence in Florida and in Alachua county.

"Timucuan identity and to move one language and to move well, is a culture and language that for all intents and purposes, one might describe as extinct. We have tangible and intangible traces that can be consulted for the continuity that appears to have been disrupted by European incursions and colonialism."

These traces can be linked back to the Timucua using what’s called the Alachua Tradition. Yes, as in Alachua county -- a nod to the heavy Timucua influence that’s been uncovered in the region.

Broadwell explains the Alachua Tradition is a technique used by archaeologists to link artifacts and certain changes made to the environment across long periods of time to the Timucua people

"So you get what are called ceramic traditions, particular ways of making pottery. But there also are other artifacts that have some details that archaeologists use to link people together across time. So that might include certain kinds of burial mounds, for example, certain ways in which villages would have been constructed."

Broadwell points to a few examples in Alachua county and Gainesville.

"We're talking today on the University of Florida campus here in Gainesville. And there was a Timucua village over on the shores of Lake Alice here on the campus. And there's also a burial mound at the UF law school. So we can tell the Timucua people lived here, partly by their village site, partly by their burial site."

This burial mound, in particular, has been traced back to the Potano, a Timucua-speaking tribe that lived in Alachua county.

Sassaman says that “the law school mound, now been renamed as the Timucuan mound recently and commemorated with a plaque right near the law school there – that's part of the Alachua Tradition. And that mound actually dates to about ad 950, so a little more than 1000 years ago.”

Another way experts can trace Timucua influence in Florida is by studying their shared language.

As is true for many Native American languages, Broadwell says studying the Timucua language is difficult because there are no surviving speakers.

"There are not any speakers of Timucua now. There probably have not been any speakers for about 200 years. But during the 17th century, there were many, many documents written in Timucua. We know that Timucua people wrote letters to each other and to the Spanish in their language. Those letters have been preserved in historic archives."

Broadwell has used these documents to reconstruct the Timucua language and publish a Timucua-English dictionary. Here he reads an excerpt from the Apostle's Creed,  which was used by Spanish missionaries in Florida.

It begins…God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…

"So in Timucua, it goes like this: Dios at me yum, coma rutina a necati. Letter numa matic automatic ureco temi bucha hautala..."

The Seminoles

Within the prominence of the Timucua, and other Native American tribes in Florida, there’s one group that is best remembered today. One that you’ll likely recognize if you’ve watched a Florida State University football game or passed by a Hard Rock Hotel and Casino; A group known today as the Florida Seminoles.

Professor Broadwell says, "there's a group of native people who lived in Georgia and Alabama, mostly called the Creek Confederacy. Within the Creek Confederacy, they spoke a few different languages. There was Muskogee and Miccosukee and a few other languages as well. So, according to our history, what happened is that in the 18th century, various members of the Creek Confederacy, speaking Muskogee or Miccosukee started to emigrate to north Florida. And those people started to be called the Seminole Indians."

"Seminole" was adapted from the Spanish word ‘cimarron’ which can be translated to “runaway.” Sassaman says that translation would play into Florida's reputation as a place of refuge and freedom at the turn of the 19th century and throughout the three Seminole wars to come.

“In many respects, Florida was a land of refuge for native ancestors in their effort to evade the domination of an expanding U.S. nation-state.”

Black Seminoles

A beacon of hope that resounded so loudly that African American men and women risked their lives to answer its call… in St. Augustine, the Spanish government was offering asylum to freed slaves who were willing to convert to the Catholic faith.

UF anthropology scholar Dr. Amanda Concha-Holmes says this led to the founding of the first free black community in present-day America…Fort Mose.

"It was 1693, that the king of Spain decreed that if you can make it to Florida -- so the first underground railroad – then you'll get your freedom. And I think that's why people did so much –despite the possibilities of violence and possibly death– to be able to stay with their families, come down to Florida, and have a life.

Along this dangerous route to freedom, they sought help from Native Americans. Upon arriving in north central Florida, they came into contact with the newly formed Seminole tribe.

What emerged over the next century was a new kind of community, an alliance of freedom seekers unique to Florida's history: a group that would come to be known as the Black Seminoles. And today, some Floridians can trace their heritage back to this very history.

Matthew Griffin, a Black Seminole reenactor from Groveland, Florida, spoke with WUFT reporter Meleah Lyden about uncovering his family’s connection to the Black Seminoles.

“You might not even know it. You pass them on the roads daily. That's their history, and the reason that they are there and that they exist is because somebody had a mind of resistance and a survival instinct. I had a grandfather and grandmother -- so many greats ago – that escaped from a plantation in Alabama, ended up in Florida, near Brooksville, and one of their boys ended up marrying a Seminole from that village, which was chucochatti, or 'red house.'”

Considered to be the birthplace of the Seminole tribe in Florida, the village was weakened and abandoned during the Seminole wars, three conflicts that played out over 40 years between the United States and the Seminoles.

Meleah Lyden spoke with historian and archivist Dr. Anthony Dixon. He says the history of Florida is deeply intertwined with that of the Seminole wars.

"We need to understand. Each time that there's a Seminole war, there's a development within Florida. After the first Seminole war, Florida is ceded from Spain, over to the United States, and it becomes a territory. Now some Seminole Native Americans and their black counterparts agree to migrate out of the area."

In 1823, some Seminole leaders signed a treaty that required them to leave the fertile region of north central Florida – with trees, lakes and prairies – and move farther south to a reservation between present-day Alachua and Tampa that was less valuable and harder to work and depend on.

Dr. Dixon says that “so many Native Americans were disgruntled about this agreement to leave north Florida. And they began to come back.”

Tensions rose again, and what followed was the longest, deadliest and costliest war ever waged against the Seminoles by the United States.

The Second Seminole War was incited by a disagreement over a treaty that would, once again, require the Seminoles to forfeit their land. And, this time, force them to move west of the Mississippi River.

“And so Florida now wants to use the Indian removal policy, to get rid of the Native Americans and the Seminoles that are in la Florida now, what we now call Florida because Florida is now a U.S. territory,” Dixon says.

In 1834, a delegation of Seminole chiefs met to discuss the U.S. demands of removal from silver springs.

Among them was Seminole leader Osceola, who famously swayed the council against removal and thrust a knife through the treaty. Today, a statue of him stabbing the document stands on the shoreline of the Silver River at Silver Springs State Park.

The plaque reads, “this was the real beginning of the Great Seminole War of 1835 to 1842.”

By the end of the second war, the Seminoles had not surrendered, and a peace treaty was never declared. But still, around 3,000 Seminoles were removed west.

Soon after, Florida joined the Union. And a decade later, the third and final Seminole war came to a head – a series of skirmishes between the united states and the small number of remaining Seminoles in southwest Florida.

"And so here again, they go into a war over the land.  The war ended at the point where they felt like there weren't enough Seminole Native Americans to impede their progress,” Dixon says.

In the end, only a small band of Seminoles remained in Florida — hidden in the big cypress swamp outside of the Everglades. And millions of acres of land were now open for settlement in Florida.

White settlement of Florida

Only one problem remained for the united states: there were no settlers.

During the Seminole wars, Florida's population as a U.S. territory had lagged far behind that of northern states.

UF archaeologist Ken Sassaman says U.S. national policy at this time was crafted to change that, driven by the ideas of manifest destiny and settler colonialism.

“The manifest destiny ethos of  'this is a big continent, and we’ve colonized it, now we’re going to settle it.' And so settler colonialism, I think is a term that's appropriate for that. An expanding nation in the 19th century was propelled by a number of legislative initiatives, like the Armed Occupation Act, which coincides with the end of the Second Seminole War in 1842."

To attract migrants to the new territory, the Armed Occupation Act made around 200,000 acres of land available for grants. If you were a white man eighteen or older living in the united states, you could apply for a free plot of land.

"Land that was basically vacated by the removal of Seminole into south Florida, from places like north central Florida, where the University of Florida is. [The law] really just enabled anyone who was willing to take up arms and defend the land to take a piece of that territory, and develop it, make it their farm, make it their livelihood," Sassaman says.

The catch: you had to clear and cultivate at least five acres of land, build a home within a year and bear arms to defend the property against any Native American rebellion.

In a year’s time, hundreds of permits were distributed to almost 1300 settlers, including many Seminole War veterans, beginning an influx of white slaveholding families to north central Florida; in particular, to Marion county.

Land-grant universities

This is the backdrop upon which the history of higher education in Florida unfolds, too.

In 1851, Florida's governor signed a bill to create two state-funded schools: the East Florida Seminary and the West Florida Seminary. These schools, which later become the University of Florida and Florida State University, were first financed by the state’s seminary land fund: money that was acquired via the sale of nearly 100,000 acres of Seminole land.

"And, and the leases of that former Seminole land, dispossessed through the Armed Occupation Act, at the end of the Second Seminole War were the funds that were necessary to get that operation up and running," Sassaman says.

In 1853, the East Florida Seminary opened its doors in Ocala, where it was largely operated and attended by prominent slaveholding families who settled in Marion County. Collectively, they owned almost 200 slaves.

Leslie Harris, a professor of African American history at Northwestern University, says this is a shared characteristic among many American universities founded prior to the civil war.

"As with many of those early campuses, the town and the campus grew together. And so faculty and of course, any laborers, enslaved and free, you know, we're part of that relatively small community."

At this time, Harris says slavery was the engine of the economy and the backbone of social structure in the United States.

"Many of our early institutions were related, intimately related, to churches, and ours was Methodism. Many of the people who founded the institution owned slaves or had some relationship to slavery. Of course, many of the students who came, came perhaps from slave-owning families. I'll say that even people, whites in the south who didn't own slaves often aspire to own slaves. It was the way to wealth, very recognizably the way to wealth, and certainly in the south at this time."

Marion County was no exception. The white settlers were willing to die to preserve their way of life.

Today, the only surviving document from the East Florida Seminary is its final commencement program dated July 12, 1861 -- three months after the civil war began. On it are the names of principal Robert Bryce and the graduating class of seminary boys, almost all of whom went on to fight and die for the confederacy– a blow from which the seminary in Ocala would never recover.

Then came another piece of federal legislation in 1862…that Sassaman says ushered in a new chapter of higher education across the country.

"Another piece of legislation that's heralded as the watershed moment in democratizing higher education, [is] the Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862, signed by Abraham Lincoln during the civil war. It really created the economic foundation for state universities to crop up all over the nation."

In effect, the federal government provided additional funding for existing universities from the sale of Native American lands west of the Mississippi. States were awarded “land-grant” status so long as they used the funds to endow colleges dedicated to the studies of agriculture or mechanical arts.

In 1881, Florida took advantage of these federal funds to build the Florida Agricultural College in Lake City. And in 1905, under the Buckman Act, this college joined the early East Florida Seminary to reopen in Gainesville as the University of Florida.

"It turns out, for instance, that the University of Florida, was founded on the scrip of 90,000 plus acres, from nearly 1000 parcels of Native American land west of the Mississippi River. This is land in California, Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, South Dakota and Wisconsin."

Sassaman says that UF is not alone in this complicated history.

Modern efforts in understanding this history

In 2020, an investigation by high country news found that almost 11 million acres of indigenous land endowed over 50 public institutions across the nation. And today, many universities are beginning to grapple with these histories: both of indigenous land removal and of early ties to slavery.

Historian and professor Dr. Leslie Harris spearheaded this work at her former institution, Emory University. She talks about how these projects often begin as a grassroots effort on college campuses.

"They often began out of a persistent sense in institutions that something was not quite right, in terms of stated goals of diversity and people's experiences of the institution."

She says, for many colleges, 2020 was a sort of wake-up call to begin chronicling the most difficult parts of their institution’s history.

"You know, the George Floyd, murder in 2020 had a lot of institutions and a lot of people who wanted to do something positive, to push back against the horror of those moments."

But Harris says it shouldn’t end there.

"It's not only when we see the worst possible outcome, that we should be proactive. We should be proactive because it's part of being a better institution. I think that still continues to be the challenge of making this part of the ordinary daily work of our institutions of our administrators."

Today, there are almost 100 institutions of higher learning that have publicly joined the universities studying slavery consortium, or USS – a group of colleges led by the University of Virginia committed to investigating these histories.

Harris says some colleges are now documenting lesser-told chapters of their history beyond slavery, too.

"So many of the universities who began studying slavery [now have projects that] extend into the Jim Crow era. Others have addressed other racial groups, not just African Americans. I mentioned Jewish histories of exclusion. For example, of course, if we go to the west coast, we'll be dealing with immigration [and] the exclusion of  Asian Americans, and others. And so I think that another aspect of this history that's being uncovered is the expropriation of land from Native American people for land grant institutions, and in general, the history of Native Americans in higher education. Many institutions have particular histories related to their geography and their history. And I think we're going to continue to see an expansion of those kinds of research projects."

Related coverage: 

Funding for this program was provided through a Broadcasting Hope Public Media grant from Florida Humanities with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent those of Florida Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Gabriella Paul is a reporter for WUFT. She can be reached at gabbympaul@ufl.edu.