The Florida Seminole and Their Horses Lesson Created by: Jan Cubbage If you have ever watched a Florida Seminoles football game you may have shared the excitement of eighty thousand frantic, cheering Florida State University fans as the FSU mascot, a Native American and his spotted Appaloosa horse, Renegade, charge up the middle of the field. It was in September of 1968 at a home game against Oklahoma State that “Chief Osceola” first planted his burning spear into the turf of Doak Stadium. FSU won the game and now had a new and accepted mascot that has become the best known mascot team in college sports. When Osceola and his horse, Renegade were adopted as the official FSU mascots many people wondered if the famed Seminole Indian warrior, Osceola, was indeed a horseman. There were several portraits painted of Osceola after his capture in October of 1837 by the US Army during the second Seminole War (1835-1842). No paintings or drawings of Osceola mounted on a horse were made. Most of our common depictions of the Seminole Indians of Florida are drawings of Indians standing next to their palm frond and wood post chickee huts or a stout, strong armed, dark haired man wrestling an alligator. According to firsthand accounts by nineteenth century journalists who visited the Seminoles in their original homeland of north-central Florida, the Seminole were indeed excellent horsemen. Not only were they horsemen, but tribal villages were keepers of large herds of cattle and horses. The Seminole men and boys rode hearty, small horses left behind by the Spanish colonists who vacated Florida in 1763. Once captured, the horses were trained by the Seminole to herd cattle. The Seminole horses were feral but once they were penned and tamed they became useful and willing partners. The horses were indispensable to the Indians for herding cattle, hunting hogs and wild deer as well as for use as pack animals. Deer hides were an important trade commodity by which the Seminole obtained rifles, metal knives, glass beads and colored textiles from British and American traders. Though the Seminole ponies were not large, they could carry loads of one hundred fifty pounds easily.
© Florida Agriculture in the Classroom, Inc.
The Seminole horses were descendants of the sturdy Spanish Andalusian breed and most likely the lighter framed Spanish horses called “jennets”. These useful horses were actually large- pony sized by today’s standards. Horses imported to Florida had a small body frame, were often long backed and had attractive broad heads with large eyes and nostrils. It was noted that the Seminole horses possessed long flowing manes and tails. The jennets had been selectively bred in Spain to produce a light, easy to ride, pacing gait. The average Spanish man of this era was about five foot, two inches to five foot, four inches. The Spaniards who hoped to settle Florida did not import large horses that would be hard to mount or horses that would need much in the way of feed. The Spanish transported their livestock to their new colonies from the established Spanish ranches on the Caribbean islands, notably Puerto Rico and Cuba. This was a much safer and shorter journey than a ship ride across the Atlantic Ocean from Spain. Dr. David Ramsey wrote a history of South Carolina, published in 1808. Ramsey told of the great numbers of Spanish descendent horses that were caught and tamed by the Indians and sold to the traders. They (Seminole) made great use of them for pack horses to bring their peltry to market and afterwards sold them in the low country (British colony of South Carolina).” Dr. Ramsey goes on to state “These horses in general were handsome, active and hardy, but small; seldom exceeding thirteen and a half hands (one hand equals four inches). In 1774, William Bartram, America’s early, famous naturalist and writer, visited a Seminole village named Cuscowilla. Bartram was born in Philadelphia and traveled widely throughout the British colonies to obtain and describe plant specimens. At the time of William Bartram’s journeys in north Florida, Florida was a British colony, ceded by the Spanish to Britain in 1763. The Spanish never really “settled” Florida. The Spaniards were beaten down by huge swarms of killer mosquitoes, hurricanes, diseases and savage raids by Indians. The natives were hostile because the Spanish tried to enslave them. When the Spanish finally abandoned Florida in 1863, only a couple of thousand Spanish, including over three hundred African slaves, were living in St. Augustine, Spanish Florida’s capital city for over two hundred years. The wandering botanist, William Bartram, was a long way from his home when he came upon Cuscowilla, the central village of the Alachua tribe of the Seminole. The location of this village would be near an area we today call “Paynes Prairie Preserve”, a beautiful Florida state park just west of Gainesville, Alachua County. Bartram observed while visiting the Alachua savanna “innumerable droves of cattle” and “squadrons of beautiful fleet Seminole horses”. The Seminole of Alachua spoke a dialect of the Creek Indian language called “Muscogule” and their word for horse was “echo clucco” meaning “great deer”. © Florida Agriculture in the Classroom, Inc.
The Seminole are still here in Florida and they still are ranchers. In fact, they are very successful cattle producers residing on the thousands of acres of reservation lands near Lake Okeechobee. The Seminole tribe of Florida supports FSU on their use of the Seminole warrior, Osceola, as their regal mascot. As contemporary ranchers, the Seminole have adopted the American Quarter horse breed as working “cow horses.” The Quarter Horse is a taller and stouter breed than the original Seminole horses. The cowboys are larger and so are the beef cattle of today. In an effort to preserve the descendants of Spanish Colonial horses in Florida, which are now known as “Cracker Horses”, the Florida Cracker Horse Association (FCHA) was formed by concerned cattlemen in 1989. The term “Cracker” refers to the early American cowboys of Florida (1850s onward) who adopted the practice of the Seminole of using the feral horses of Florida as working ranch horses. The “crack” of a large black whip aided the cattle drovers in moving cattle out of dense brush, and led to the term “Crackers” to refer to cattle drovers. The Florida Cracker Horse is Florida’s official state horse. It must be said that these sturdy horses have certainly earned that title as true natives of Florida that have carried our state’s history on their backs for over four hundred years.
© Florida Agriculture in the Classroom, Inc.