Around the year 1500, the Ancestors first encountered a new and unknown people. Spanish ships were spotted off the coast, and stories of brutal conquest were heard from the Taino people of the Caribbean, many of whom sought refuge with the Calusa and other Florida groups. While the Calusa repelled the first invasion of Florida, delivering a mortal blow to the Conquistador Ponce De Leon, the Spanish would soon return.
Whether as conquerors like Hernando de Soto, colonizers at Saint Augustine and Pensacola, or traders and missionaries sent from Havana, the Spanish goal was to add Florida to their expanding empire. The consequences for the people of Florida were dire. The missions sought to destroy the Ancestors’ culture, slavers carried many away into bondage, and European wars spilled over into America and brought different towns to war as old grievances and new alliances placed the Ancestors at each other’s throats. But perhaps most devastating of all were the new diseases brought from across the ocean. Smallpox, measles, yellow fever, and malaria spread unchecked throughout the Ancestral communities. It is estimated that between 1500 and 1700 AD these new factors killed over ninety percent of the population, not just in Florida, but across the American continents.
The ramifications from this cannot be underestimated. Survivors from different groups joined together or fought against each other. Ancient knowledge was lost, and cultures irrevocably changed as people tried to make new lives and new communities. Colonizers found depopulated lands and pushed their way into them. With Florida being one of the worst hit areas, people from other Muskogee speaking towns who were facing pressure from the English colonies and their allied tribes came south into the region. Here they found the survivors of the Florida tribes who had not joined the Spanish mission system. The Spanish began to call the Native people beyond their control cimarrones, a word the English and later Americans picked up as Seminoles.
While the Spanish claimed Florida for their Empire, in truth, nothing outside the walls of St. Augustine and Pensacola were under their control. Around Pensacola, Seminole towns like Tallahassee and Miccosukee grew and prospered, home to thousands of people. Native leaders like Payne, in Alachua, and Kinache, in Miccosukee, began to trade food and goods with the Spanish and English colonizers for tools and weapons. Domestic cattle had only first arrived with Ponce de Leon’s failed expedition, but the Native people learned quickly how to raise them, and soon the Seminole were the main suppliers of beef to the Spanish colonies. The Ancestors’ world was gone forever, but the people of Florida survived, adapted, and began to flourish anew.
“Seminole” is not a Seminole word. Like many names commonly associated with Indigenous American groups, it was put on them from the outside. During the time of colonization, the Spanish began to use the word Cimarrón for two groups of people: Those who had escaped enslavement, and the Native people of Florida who lived outside their control. The word had come from the Caribbean Taino people, and the Spanish adapted for their own use. It originally meant “runaway livestock”.
Over time the term for the African people who were not enslaved was shortened to maroon. North of Florida, Muskogeean people (such as the Creek) adopted cimarrón from the the Spanish to describe Native people of Florida, however in their dialect it became simaló-ni. Americans would then learn the term from the Creek, and pronounced it as Seminole.
This new title was not initially embraced by the people of Florida, who knew themselves to be people from many towns, connected by clan, and members of a broader Muskogean-speaking culture that was far larger and older than the political borders the European governments tried to enforce. The title was used grudgingly with Europeans and Americans until the Seminole War. During that struggle it became something more, a common identity that united people from disparate backgrounds, but who had a common cause and faced a common invading enemy. It was with pride they then called themselves Seminole.