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Seminoles: Power Brokers in the Florida Borderlands

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When I found out that Kluge Fellow John Paul Nuño, who is an Associate Professor of History at California State University, Northridge, was using a borderlands framework to inform his research on socio-political processes affecting Americans Indians, I wanted to learn more about his topic and methodology. In November, which was Native American History Month, John Paul and I chatted over coffee about his fascinating project, “The Wild Ones: Contesting and Negotiating Power in the Florida Borderlands, 1763-1842.”

Giselle: John Paul, can you tell me more about your project?

JP: One of the main threads of my project is looking at how Florida’s Indigenous peoples developed an identity separate from that of the Creeks, a confederation of Native groups living in the U.S. Southeast prior to their removal in the 1830s. The Creeks were located in an area centered on the present-day state of Alabama. When British traders encountered them, they noticed their settlements were near rivers and streams and they called them “Creeks.”

Throughout the mid-to-late 1700s, a number of Creeks left their towns and relocated to northern Florida. They were already familiar with the region after dispersing the Indigenous peoples who had lived there. Groups of Creeks hunted deer in northern Florida and some decided to establish independent towns. They had infrequent contact with the more northerly Creeks, and thus slowly developed a separate identity.

Colonial powers eventually applied the term “Seminoles” to this population. The term may have originated as, or was influenced by, the Spanish term “cimarrón” and/or the Muscogee (Creek) term simanó-li, both of which roughly refer to runaways or anyone operating outside the established political and social order. The Creeks viewed these expatriates as uncontrollable because of their independent nature. Further, the Seminoles developed their own foreign policy and geopolitical strategies for maintaining their autonomy – not just from the Spanish or from the United States – but from the Creeks as well. My work follows the historiographical trend of tracing how native peoples adapted to intrusive colonial processes with innovative strategies designed to protect their autonomy.

G: And what caused them to split off from the Creeks?

JP: Throughout the 1700s, the Creeks, encouraged by the British as well as by market forces, commenced raids into Florida resulting in the enslavement of the region’s native peoples, who had allied themselves with the Spanish. The Creeks gained dominance in the area and utilized its resources, in particular the production of deerskins for trade.

Meanwhile, Florida’s previous native inhabitants either moved closer to Spanish settlements like St. Augustine or were absorbed into the Creek Confederacy. The Spanish were submissive and desperate to establish peaceful relations with the Creeks, a situation that completely upends our understanding of European colonialism, especially during periods and places where indigenous groups wielded considerable power.

By the 1760s, Creek groups inhabited Florida and limited the Spanish presence to a few settlements and outposts near the coast. This allowed migrating Creek groups to form population centers in the Alachua plain and around the present-day city of Tallahassee. While the exact reasons for the relocation of these groups can be difficult to discern, Creek towns were known for splintering off and creating satellite towns over disputes in political leadership, for instance. What made the Creek colonies in Florida unique was that they were located hundreds of miles away. These vast distances likely enhanced the independence of these towns who had sporadic communication with the Creek towns to the north.

G: In your research proposal you mentioned utilizing a “Borderlands framework.” Can you explain more about what this is and how it is helpful?

JP: I did my doctoral degree work at the University of Texas, El Paso, which established one of the first Borderlands History programs in the country. Borderlands is a way of framing historical analysis that serves as a counterweight to a nation-state framework.

Traditionally, historians had framed their arguments in nationalist terms. For instance, historians who studied the history of certain nations tended to limit their analysis and focus to events that occurred within the present-day borders of those nations. Borderlands historians have made a point of tracing important processes that cross borders, be they in the past or the present. For scholars working on the colonial and early national periods, this means tracing connections across the Atlantic World and throughout the Americas.

By restricting our focus to present-day borders we lose sight of important processes and miss the full picture of the historical interactions that occurred. A Borderlands framework encourages scholars to look beyond national borders and to look at movements of materials and intellectual beliefs which provide a more comprehensive idea of what life was like on the ground for people in a particular location.

The other thing that a borderlands framework does in terms of colonial history: it goes against the ingrained idea that Europeans established themselves quickly, then expanded, and native peoples were subjugated. A borderlands perspective illustrates that this was a long process and not necessarily a linear one.

The Florida Borderlands is a great example of this. From the 1730s to the early nineteenth century the Creeks were the ones who put the Spanish in a difficult position. The Lower Creeks and Seminoles were the power brokers shaping developments in the region. Thus, a borderlands framework teaches us not to read the present into the past. Although native peoples were eventually removed from their homelands, this does not mean Europeans had a monopoly on power during the previous period, quite the opposite.

Many of us grew up with the traditional colonial maps of North America that gave the impression that the British, Spanish, and French controlled wide swaths of the continent. However, this is a contradiction to the picture one gets from examining the textual record. It quickly becomes apparent that Native policies and beliefs established the foundation for negotiation and conflict.

Massacre of the Whites by the Indians and Blacks in Florida, 1836. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division

In West and East Florida, the Spanish controlled St. Augustine, Pensacola, and a couple of forts, but native towns controlled nearly all of the interior areas. In parts of California, New Mexico, Texas, and during an earlier period in Florida, the Spanish had established missions designed to alter native lifeways and culture, but they did not even attempt to do this to the Creeks and Seminoles. Rather, the Spanish had to participate in reciprocal gift exchanges to cement alliances and even grudgingly outsourced the “Indian trade” to a British company who could more effectively meet the trading expectations of the Indigenous population. When murders crossed ethnic and political lines, the Spanish could not simply extend their legal jurisdiction but had to consult and adhere to Native notions of recompense and justice. These processes become apparent when we shift our focus from the handful of colonial settlements to the borderlands areas and the Native-controlled interior in order to flip the traditional script of colonial history, thus demonstrating the power that Native peoples possessed.

G: You mentioned that these Native American groups were often joined by small contingents of runaway African slaves, escaping from British, Spanish, and American owners. Can you expand on this?

JP:  A borderlands framework is often centered on the fact that there are no completely dominant groups. Even if Native peoples control the interior spaces, the separate interests of each town and of the various groups means that divisions nonetheless existed, which means that power was fragmented. Consequently, you typically find different groups engaged in a host of interactions ranging from negotiation and conflict and everything in between. This kind of fluidity can represent an opportunity for individuals and groups able to cross physical and social boundaries. In Florida, quite often, Africans, enslaved by the British, Spanish, and Americans, were sometimes able to utilize borderlands spaces in an effort to improve their situation. A number of runaway slaves escaped to Native settlements seeking to start new lives.

However, their political and social status was complex. Slaves, and for that matter any non-member of the community, were outside the Creek/Seminole kinship system and thus had no protections in terms of how they could be treated. Membership in a clan was based on matrilineal line of descent, and individuals without a Creek/Seminole mother were outside the system unless they were adopted into a clan.

Without clan membership and protection, an extreme range of possible outcomes existed for runaway slaves, with the polar extremes being full adoption into a clan to being a potential victim of violence. Further, slaves could also become enslaved to their Native hosts, although this form of slavery differed from chattel slavery, which was typically the dominant form of slavery in colonial European societies. Consequently, Creek/Seminole slaves were not treated as property but sometimes lived in their own villages while producing forms of tribute. An important caveat to this were a small group of Creeks who started to adopt aspects of chattel slavery, but most Creeks and Seminoles continued to practice Native forms of enslavement.

G: What collections are you using at the Library and what is the research process like?

JP: Among the collections that I am using are the Papeles de Cuba and the East Florida Papers. There are also a couple of smaller collections like the Archivo General de Simancas, the Peter Gerhard Collection, the Papers of Panton, Leslie, and Company, and the William R. Shepherd Papers, all located in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.

I look at court cases, military officers’ reports to the colonial governors, and reports from the governors to the captain general, who was stationed in Havana, Cuba. Among all the details of the mundane everyday functioning of the colony’s administration are snippets of information that speak to power relations.

The general public would likely be surprised how much time and effort the Spanish invested in their relations with Florida’s native peoples. Since potential conflicts with the Creeks and Seminoles could lead to economic and political instability and deal the Florida colonies a mortal wound, the Spanish were quite interested in what Native leaders did or thought. They realized how much power they had, and, conversely, how vulnerable the colonies were.

G: In closing, can you share an anecdote or a story about an interesting experience at the Kluge Center and what advice you would give to a future applicant?

JP: My most meaningful experience at the Kluge Center was the honor and privilege of attending Joy Harjo’s inaugural poetry reading at the Library of Congress in her capacity as the first Native American Poet Laureate of the United States. Principal Chief James Floyd and Robin Soweka, a medicine maker from the town of Hickory Ground (Oklahoma) speaking in the Muscogee language, introduced Harjo, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

The laureate’s poems celebrated the resilience, vibrancy, and survival of Indigenous peoples throughout North America. For everyone in the auditorium this was an extremely moving event, especially because of the symbolism involved with a Native celebration of life being held in the capital of the United States. This amazing event served to remind the non-Native attendees that Indigenous peoples continue their struggle for autonomy and sovereignty not only through political methods but also through cultural expression.

Talking specifically about the Kluge Center, I assumed I would only be working alongside scholars from the rest of the country. But the center also hosts a number of international scholars, particularly from England, Scotland, Italy, Germany, Holland, among others. I have enjoyed listening to their insightful perspectives on U.S. history and their comparative analyses based on similar events from their national histories. Their interpretations are often different than mine and force me to reconsider my own assumptions and positions. Further, many of these scholars see value in a borderlands framework and its potential explanatory power for historical events beyond North America.

If asked to provide advice to another Kluge scholar, I would warn that time, no matter how long, is fleeting because of the sheer size of the library’s resources and materials. I recommend a tight focus on the writing process, and to consult and utilize the collections as needed. Considering the depth and value of the collections, a scholar can easily fall into a rabbit hole and be taken into fascinating, but not always productive, avenues of primary source research. My advice, as in any large project, would be to remain as focused as possible.

That aside, the Kluge Center is the perfect environment for a scholar because it provides: the resources of the Library of Congress, space to think and write, the flexibility to manage your own schedule, collegiality with great scholars, thoughtful events and speakers, and the autonomy to work on your project.

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