Note: Several of these sites were in the direct path of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28. While they have yet to reopen, we are including them here because they are working hard to recover and return dates are unpredictable.
It’s not a coincidence that the month we celebrate the first Thanksgiving is also Native American Heritage Month.
America’s native people worked for decades to get “an American Indian Day” proclaimed. (In 1914, Red Fox James, a Blackfoot Indian, rode horseback from state to state seeking approval for a day to honor Indians. Finally, in 1990 President George H. W. Bush named November as National American Indian Heritage Month.)
I had lived here a long time before I discovered the rich, fascinating and often tragic history of Native Americans in Florida.
Like a lot of people, I thought “Florida’s Indians” were the Seminoles. But it’s a lot more complicated – and interesting – than that simple story line.
In recent years, however, I have visited some wonderful parks and museums that help tell the stories of that history, and the more I learn, the more interested I am.
If you’re looking for a way to learn a bit about Native Americans in Florida, here are some places to go and things to do, ranging from museums to kayak outings to bike trips.
The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, which is located on the Big Cypress reservation of the Seminole Tribe, opens with a dramatic multi-screen media presentation and its well-designed dioramas and exhibits explain Seminole history and traditions. This is a first-class museum where it’s easy to spend an hour or two.
A highlight for many visitors is a mile-long boardwalk through a spectacular cypress dome adjacent to the museum. Half-way around, there’s a village designed to look like a tourist outpost from last century, where Seminole artisans create and sell such well-known crafts as beadwork, basketry and wood carvings.
Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, 34725 West Boundary Road, Clewiston. 877-902-1113. Admission: $10 adults; $7.50 seniors and students 18 and under.
The Seminoles American Indian Arts Celebration is held every November. It offers tradition — fry bread and alligator wrestling — but also celebrates the diversity of native cultures. In 2022, the highlight was New Zealand’s HAKA Māori Cultural Experience. Here’s more on the celebration
Directions from I-75: Take Exit 49 for Snake Road, and continue for roughly 17 miles into the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation. The museum is on the left at the intersection of Josie Billie Highway and West Boundary Road.
The Miami Circle is a rare saved-from-the-bulldozer story – and a great place to learn about Florida’s early residents.
About 15 years ago, another luxury condo was planned for a prime riverfront location in downtown Miami. During the routine review of the site by county archaeologists, workers discovered a number of holes cut into the Oolitic limestone bedrock. As they explored, they discovered the holes formed a 38-foot circle, what turned out to be a complex and planned architecture unique to the Tequesta Indians. Eventually, the site that got named the Miami Circle was preserved and opened in February 2011 as a small park.
There’s not a lot to it besides signage and a beautiful location, but here’s a guide to visiting it and making a day of walking or bicycling along Biscayne Bay.
The Dade Battlefield Historic Park is just off I-75 north of Tampa, and it illustrates well our changing attitudes toward the Seminole Indians.
This beautiful, peaceful park shaded by huge arching oak trees (some of which are 250 years old!) was the site of a major battle in the Second Seminole War. Maj. Francis L. Dade emerged a hero — he and all but three of his 106 men were killed here in an ambush by Seminole Indians in 1835.
But the park’s video and exhibits tell a fuller story. In the Second Seminole War, the Native Americans were resisting the U.S. government’s attempts to move them to Oklahoma. The Seminoles had welcomed former slaves as brothers, much to the disapproval of the white Southerners trying to force them from their land.
Without telling you what to think, the park’s video and exhibits tell a nuanced story of the people and that war. We are left to think about which side was right as we walk past the historic monument that says: “Here fell Major Dade.”
The 80-acre park preserves the land to look the way it did when the battle occurred. There’s a lovely half-mile trail through pine flatwoods, where you have a good chance of spotting gopher tortoises, woodpeckers, songbirds and hawks. The park has a playground plus a picnic area with covered shelters.
Dade Battlefield Historic Park, 7200 Battlefield Parkway, Bushnell . 352-793-4781. Admission is $3 per vehicle.
Every January there is the annual Dade Battle Re-enactment in early January. The battle is re-enacted at 2 p.m. There is a $5 per person admission charge. The event includes period soldier, Seminole and sutler camps, historic arts and crafts demonstrations, cannon firing and more. Details of the 2023 event are here.
4. Paynes Creek Historic State Park
Paynes Creek Park marks the site of a fort from the Seminole War era. (Don’t be put off, but the fort was abandoned because of the disease carrying mosquitos.) The park preserves an 1895 monument to commemorate the deaths of two settlers at the hands of Seminole Indians.
A small well-done museum tells the story: Basically, it was a convenience store robbery of its days. A few renegade Seminoles killed the settlers manning the trading post. Unfortunately, despite the Seminole’s tribe’s attempt to make amends — they turned in the offenders to authorities — the incident became a way to rationalize efforts to eject the Indians from Florida.
Payne’s Creek Park has many hiking trails. The park preserves lovely little Paynes’ Creek, which flows into the Peace River, which provides opportunities for canoeing, kayaking, and fishing. It’s also fun to walk across a bouncy suspension bridge and gaze into the clear creek and cypress forest.
Paynes Creek Historic State Park, 888 Lake Branch Road , Bowling Green, 863-375-4717
Admission is $3 per vehicle.
Here’s a guide to a scenic drive through Florida Cracker country that includes Paynes Creek Historic Park.
5. Mound Key State Archaeological Park and Mound House
Note: Hurricane Ian made a direct hit on the Fort Myers Beach area. As of Jan. 11, 2023, Mound House remains closed. Mound Key State Park is open.
Before the Seminoles came to Florida, the state was home to more than a half dozen tribes whose people were largely wiped out.
Southwest Florida, from what is now Sarasota to Marco Island, was home to the Calusa Indians, who were great sailors and fishermen.
The Calusa were a thriving, sophisticated civilization when the Spanish landed in the 1500s and their capital was located on what is now a small wild island off Fort Myers Beach — Mound Key State Archaeological Park. Because it is accessible only by boat and is located in beautiful Estero Bay, it makes an outstanding kayak destination.
The Calusa Indians built this island up to its towering 30 foot height with seashells, fish bones and pottery.
The best way to reach Mound Key is to kayak from Lovers Key State Park, where you can rent kayaks and get maps and directions. The water here is full of wildlife: We saw dolphins and many birds, from osprey to roseate spoonbills.
Mound Key is a great outing, but signage and interpretation is slim. Go, though, for the experience of imagining this island as the center of a whole world now vanished.
For a good spot nearby to learn more about the Calusa, visit Mound House in Fort Myers Beach, which has an excellent small museum about the Calusa.
Mound Key is best accessed by boat from either Koreshan State Park, 3800 Corkscrew Rd
Estero, FL 33928, or Lovers Key State Park, 8700 Estero Blvd, Fort Myers Beach, which remains closed becasue of damages from Hurricane Ian. There is no admission to Mound Key.
You’ve probably seen Indian burial mounds and shell middens, but have you walked inside one?
You can at Historic Spanish Point in Osprey (about halfway between Venice and Sarasota.) There are shell middens all over Florida, but this is the only one that was cut in half, enclosed in glass and put on public display.
This “Window To The Past” is enclosed within the walls of a small museum where ancient history is exposed in words and pictures. And then you look through the glass and imagine what life was like thousands of years ago.The excavation is a cutaway of life. Amid the pile of shells, you’ll find remnants of prehistoric pottery and tools the Indians used in their daily life. Learn more about Historic Spanish Point.
7. Randell Research Center, Bokeelia
Note: Hurricane Ian made a direct hit on Pine Island on Sept. 28, 2022. On Jan. 11, 2023 Randell Research Center reopened the first 1,000 feet of the Calusa Heritage Trail to visitors. Efforts are underway to restore the remainder of the trail.
The best place I’ve been to learn about the Calusa is on Pine Island Key at the Randell Research Center, 13810 Waterfront Drive, Bokeelia.
This is a very much out-of-the-way location, near one of my favorite Florida towns, funky Matlacha – it’s pronounced mat-la-SHAY — a former fishing village now full of galleries, shops and restaurants.
We recommend walking the Calusa Heritage Trail at the Randell Research Center. The trail is full of interesting information about the Calusa Indian community.
You’ll see towering shell mounds, which were built by a people who dug and engineered canals and supported a population of 50,000 throughout Southwest Florida by fishing and harvesting the bounty of these coastal waters.
When the Spanish arrived, they considered the Calusa a fierce tribe. By the late 1700s, however, the Calusa were gone – victims of disease or captured and enslaved.
We learned a lot of surprising facts about the Calusa on our walk through this facility. (Archeologists found the Calusa had papayas and chili peppers – rare in early Florida – and they used shark liver oil as a mosquito repellent, for example.)
The information on the signage and trail maps is clear, informative and fascinating.
Randell Research Center, 13810 Waterfront Drive, Pineland, 239-283-2062. Admission is by donation. They suggest $7 for adults. https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/rrc/
There are dozens of other great places to explore and there’s a terrific website with a map and more information about The Trail of Florida’s Indian Heritage.
Recommended video for American Indian Heritage Month
Finally, in honor of Native American Heritage Month, I recommend you watch this video from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “The Invention of Thanksgiving” is 5 minutes long and well worth your time.
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The information in this article was accurate when published, but changes may occur.
The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.