Until very recently, large portions of South Florida were still covered in vast wilderness. Much of it was home to a flourishing network of tropical wetlands that stretched several thousand square miles, ranging north from the Kissimmee River in Central Florida and down to portions of the northern Keys at Florida Bay. As such, these fertile lands were practically untouched and undisturbed. Of course, that was before the arrival of modern civilization. Today, it is only a shadow of what it once was. Human development has altered its natural course, reduced its natural borders, and changed its landscape.
I often try to envision what this region might have looked like thousands of years back, before the high-rise buildings and shopping mall plazas. Occasionally, I am reminded. Remnants of primitive South Florida are scattered throughout Miami. Some street corners and residential neighborhoods bear the mark of South Florida’s past; this can take the form of a wandering alligator patrolling the South Florida canals, a great blue heron groping for fish at a nearby pond, a flock of white ibis skipping about in the front yard of a neighbor’s house, or even a lone cypress tree sitting in the middle of a public parking lot and looking like it has no place being there. For me, these are constant reminders of something special that once was.
To a lesser extent, the global iconic image of South Florida’s sandy white beaches and coconut-giving palm trees are somewhat deceiving, or at the very least, that image doesn’t tell the whole story. Granted that our coastlines, beaches, and cities are world-renowned; the cities themselves are grand works of human innovation of which I am very proud. But the real mystique lies within the peninsula’s interior, beyond the city lights and highways. Many remote areas of South Florida remain unexplored. Experts still consider these lush environments to be the most extensive network of interdependent ecosystems in the entirety of North America, and perhaps beyond. However, only when you cross Krome Avenue at the far west edge of town does this become apparent. Before then, the constant hustle and bustle of the daily commute of a major metropolitan cannot be so easily overlooked. You would never suspect that such a place lay just beyond the city limits, but there it is, and it has a name: we call it the Everglades.
South Florida’s history is one marked by change. Florida’s Everglades is the epitome of that change. Over the years these lands have been witness to a wide variety of living organisms that have adapted well to its subtropical climates and wetland habitats. Many groups of plants and animals come and go with the ever-changing landscape, including its human inhabitants. South Florida and the Everglades have been the recipient of many human cultures, peoples, and explorers of all kinds. This is the story of these lands—its beginnings, its identity, and the inhabitants who called it home.
Chronological History: A Brief Overview
For most of its history, Florida laid submerged in seawater. Approximately 180 million years ago, at a time when Florida was physically connected to the African continent, Florida had experienced prolonged periods above sea level.1 Later, shifting landmasses and climatic changes caused Florida to become a shallow, tropical sea floor.1 It remained much this way through the Jurassic period, Eocene epoch, and onward. Naturally, this history would explain the rich sedimentary rock deposits and the abundance of marine fossils found just beneath the South Florida surface.
The Florida Platform began its transition into an emergent landmass some 28 million years ago.2 Geological surveys reveal that a portion of Florida (the Ocala Platform) was an island prior to it becoming a peninsula; also known as Orange Island, in the early Oligocene epoch. A series of fluctuating climatic changes and receding shorelines would later cause Florida to become much larger, drier, and cooler, bringing with it a mass migration of continental plants and animals. Florida’s Everglades, located in the southern-most region of the peninsula, is much younger by comparison. Several thousand years after the late Wisconsin glaciations, Florida’s Everglades began shaping and molding itself into it a true wetland environment.3 Because of its geological makeup, wetland environments, and geographical location at subtropical latitudes, the Everglades became prime real estate for many semi-aquatic species of plants and animals.
Many of the first land animals that made their way into Florida did not survive the wet transition; the exact cause remains unclear, but some indications point to severe flooding coupled with the arrival of the first human inhabitants. Paleo-Indians hunted large land animals like giant sloth, mammoth, saber-tooth cat, and spectacled bear.3 Several species of animals were eventually driven into extinction. By the time humans arrived in Florida, the environment already felt their impact.
First Human Settlements and the Glades People
The first humans appeared in South Florida roughly 14,000 years ago.3 At the time of their arrival, South Florida was slightly different from how it is today: the terrain was significantly drier, and the climate was much cooler. Much of it probably resembled open savannah prairie and pine rockland. Around 6,500 years ago, the Everglades drastically shifted from semi-arid to semi-aquatic.3 As the climate changed, runoff overflows of water from Lake Okeechobee poured its way south into what is now the Everglades. The natives adapted very well, forming settlements all along stretches of the Florida Keys and other coastal regions. Native Indians developed complex communities and trade systems with neighboring tribes. From these new settlements emerged three main groups that share similar cultures and origins: Okeechobee (named after the lake), Glades, and Caloosahatchee. We will draw our focus mainly on the Glades people, who eventually gave way to the Tequesta and Calusa tribes, the main two Indian cultures of South Florida prior to the arrival of European explorers and conquistadors.
By 3,000 BCE South Florida Indian populations had seen a significant spike.3 The largest concentrated communities were located on the west coast of South Florida. Smaller, scattered bands and groups settled around Lake Okeechobee, the Atlantic coast, the Florida Keys, and the mouth of the Miami River. Trade between neighboring parties was commonplace, which meant that crossing through the Everglades was probably unavoidable.
Tequesta and Calusa were already the two most recognizable tribes at the time that the Spaniards settled Cuba. Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon first made contact with the Calusa tribe in 1513, and he was later mortally wounded by Calusa tribesmen on his second voyage to Florida.4 Calusa territory was located on the southwestern regions of South Florida. The Calusa tribe was greater in size and had political influence over their rivals, the Tequesta, but it is the Tequesta tribe that is historically revered for their hostility toward foreigners, unusual cruelty, and tribal rituals that included sacrificing infant children.5 The Tequesta did not have cultivated agriculture like the Calusa, but they were banded hunter-gatherer types who relied on large game like deer, alligator, fish, turtle, and the occasional manatee. Their diet also included bread made of different types of roots. They wore little or no clothing, as described by Bishop Diaz Vara Calderon in the 1600s; they preferred clothing consisting of breechcloth made of Palmetto brush for men and skirts made of Spanish moss for women. 6
The Tequesta village was said to be located at the mouth of the Miami River. Much in the way of archeology has been recovered from a site in downtown Miami. The archeological remains of the Calusa are widely scattered along the southwestern coast of Florida, including portions of the Ten Thousand Islands. Today, many travelers still come across pieces of pottery left by the Calusa.
European Settlers and the Seminole Wars
The first documented case of contact between Europeans and native Floridians occurred sometime in the year 1513.9 However, because Ponce de Leon and his crew encountered indigenous tribesmen that already spoke Spanish, it is often argued that contact may have occurred earlier; perhaps resulting from trade relations with the remaining Indians of Spanish-occupied Cuba.10 Nevertheless, De Leon’s historical voyage in 1513 is still widely accepted as the first European arrival to the continental United States.9
De Leon’s discovery of Florida soon after brought a slew of Spanish and French expeditions, which led to the establishment of several European settlements in and around the Floridian peninsula—most notably St. Augustine, the first incorporated colony in the North American continent. Some later attempts at establishing colonies were unsuccessful and abandoned, especially to the south where native tribes were more proactive in rejecting the European newcomers.9
By the early 1700s, Spain had complete control over the peninsula, including its native inhabitants. Like in other places of Central and South America, the Spanish incorporated a Christian policy of mass conversion on the native tribes, and they almost succeeded in doing so. But their efforts were fuddle or little to none, as English colonies to the north began arming rebellious Creek tribesmen against Spain.10 The English were also responsible for dealing several attacks to St. Augustine. Later, Great Britain went on to obtain Florida from Spain, only to lose it back to the Spanish after the American War of Independence.
Two hundred years after the first arrival of the Spanish in Florida, the original South Floridian tribes had been greatly reduced in numbers. Much of it was the direct cause of disease, famine, and relocation. It was also around this time period when many African slaves were making their way south into Florida, escaping the tyrannical clutches of the American South. The Spanish accommodated many of these refugees, granting them freedom but converting them to Roman Catholicism. Some former slaves settled alongside Indian communities in Florida, even joining tribes in some cases. By this time, the tension between the Spanish of Florida (who now sided with the Seminole and Creek tribes) and the newly founded American establishment to the north reached an all-time high. The early part of the 1800s saw Seminole tribesmen cross over into Georgia from Florida, raiding settlements at will; these attacks were likely encouraged and supported by their Spanish allies.11
This led American Colonel Andrew Jackson to arm a campaign against the Seminole Indians of Florida. In 1817 Jackson led his army into Florida in pursuit of the Creek and Seminole culprits, and it resulted in the destruction of Tallahassee and Miccosukee, the two largest Indian towns of northern Florida at the time.11 Even by now, the British were still pestering the Americans. On the west coast of Florida, British rebels began arming Creek and Seminole warriors for their defense against the invading American troops, but this also fell in vein. In April 1818, Jackson’s armies overwhelmed the Seminole-Spanish resistance at the Spanish fort of St. Marks; this decisive victory marked the end of the First Seminole War. The United States now controlled most of north and eastern Florida.
Shortly after the first war, Spain sold the rights to Florida. The longtime Spanish-owned colony became property of the United States. The following decade brought several attempts at treaties meant for the relocation of Indian tribes in Florida, but this discourse was met with intense revolt. Many surviving Creek and Seminole tribesmen made their way into south and central Florida. Between 1830 and 1850, the Second and Third Seminole Wars were fought on Florida soil, but this time the battle was fought on much different ground—the Florida swamps.
It was during the Third Seminole War that Seminole warriors retreated into the Everglades. Here, they found refuge among the tropical hardwood hammocks, swamps, and prairies of today’s Big Cypress National Preserve. The Seminoles proved to be resilient throughout the war, outlasting the American armies in the harsh South Florida climate. The war came to an end on May 8, 1858, when Colonel declared victory on the Seminoles. At the time, it was thought that only one hundred Seminoles remained in hiding,11 but the Americans miscalculated their numbers. Even to this day, the Seminole tribes of Florida and related Miccosukee factions still reside in communities within the Everglades.