16 Feb

World Cultures: The Black Seminoles of Florida

By Thomas Jang

Existing in the present day, formerly enslaved people and their descendants still form semi-independent communities known as maroons in parts of countries across the Americas. The term “Maroon” is derived from the French word “marron” and the Spanish word “cimarrón” for domestic cattle that migrated to the hills on the island of Hispaniola. “Cimarrón” became a term to refer to Indigenous people who liberated themselves from the Spanish. By the 1530’s, maroon was attached to sentiments of “fierceness” and being “unbroken.” 

In order for Maroon communities to survive, they had to be inaccessible, especially in areas that were remote and inhospitable to outsiders. In the southeastern United States, Maroon communities formed a culture that blended aspects of African culture and the native Seminole culture. As groups of the Seminole peoples broke away from the Creek and Muscogee peoples, enslaved Africans liberated themselves from rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia, initially finding refuge in Florida’s north-central region before expanding south to the Everglades. Although slavery was abolished in Florida in 1693 by Spain, their intentions were to solely gather allies and convert self-liberated Africans and their descendants to Catholicism. Shared culture including cuisine and dancing worked as adhesives to the alliance and solidarity between the Maroons and Seminoles. Despite the Maroons speaking Afro-Seminole Creole and the Seminoles speaking Creek, they were able to intermarry and protect the other militarily as well. The early 1700’s saw the formation of the first Maroon communities, such as Fort Mose in 1738. These groups persevered to form an entirely new culture, isolated—and safe—from the Spanish and subsequently US military control. Whereas the Seminole protected Maroons from being taken back into enslavement, the Maroons armed the communities against encroaching Spanish and U.S. militaries during the “Seminole Wars” (1816-1856), which displaced them to Andros Island around 1819 and to “Indian Territory” in 1842. Although the largest remaining Black Seminole group is on Andros Island, the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma continue to persist.