When the Spanish arrived in the early 1500′s, it is estimated that up to 300,000 indigenous people occupied Florida. These Indian cultures were powerful chiefdom societies that built villages characterized by temple mounds, burial mounds, and middens (trash heaps). After contact by Ponce de Leon, Hernando de Soto, and other explorers, the natives endured decades of stress from warfare, starvation, and diseases such as smallpox and measles. With no natural immunity, disease initially wiped out up to 95% of the native population; within 150 years, virtually all indigenous people were gone from Florida. The few remaining Native Americans eventually merged to become the present day Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes.
Although long gone, the original natives left behind a wealth of evidence that their civilizations flourished. Today, the non-profit Trail of Florida’s Indian Heritage has created a network of archaeological sites, museums and heritage interpreters committed to responsible site visitation and public education of Florida’s Indian heritage. This network encompasses 28 sites across the State, including the following:
The Museum of Florida History, Tallahassee (panhandle)
Collections include 19th century lithographic prints of Native America leaders in Florida, Seminole and Miccosukee patchwork clothing, traditional arts and crafts such as dolls and wood carvings, and 20th century ceremonial artifacts.
Mount Royal Archaeological Site, Welaka (NE Florida)
Site of native American burial ground, earthworks, a village, and evidence of a Spanish mission. Excavations have turned up embossed copper breast plate, polished stone tools, pearl and shell beads, and decorated ceramic vessels.
Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center, Ocala (north central)
Highlights are the full-size skeletons of the Pleistocene Short Faced Bear and Mastodon, as well as ancient Indian canoes and artifacts.
Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center, St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay)
A 3,700-acre nature preserve on Old Tampa Bay that was home to at least four prehistoric cultures, including the Weeden Island Culture, which was known for its distinctive ornate pottery. Public programs, guided hikes, and exhibits interpret the archeological history of the preserve.
Polk County Historical Museum, Bartow (central Florida)
Native American heritage exhibits include a dugout canoe and projectile point specimens in the Paleo-Indian Gallery and Seminole Tribe history.
De Soto National Memorial, Bradenton (south of Tampa Bay)
A film and daily living history presentations, held from two weeks before Christmas through Easter Sunday, inform about Native American culture and the effects of early European contact.
Historic Spanish Point, Osprey, Sarasota County (central Gulf Coast, south of Tampa Bay)
Enter “A Window To The Past,” a 15-foot shell midden, and be surrounded by the evidence of thousands of years of human occupation.
Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum, Jupiter (SE coastal Florida)
Exhibits interpret 5,000 years of prehistoric life on the Loxahatchee River and feature ancient Native American mounds and artifacts including shell and stone tools, points, potsherds, and ornamentation and ceremonial objects.
Mound House, Fort Myers Beach (SW coastal Florida)
The oldest standing structure on Estero Island, the Mound House sits atop a Calusa Indian shell mound constructed between 1,400 and 2,000 years ago. View or participate in an ongoing archeological excavation to create a walk-in exhibit inside the shell mound.
Collier County Museum, Naples (SW coastal Florida)
Learn about Mastodons and fierce Saber cats, Calusa and Seminole Indians, and the rugged pioneers who settled one of America’s last frontiers.
Collection holds 6,830 archeological artifacts from ancient Florida and the Caribbean, and the museum is the sole repository and exhibition venue for artifacts from the famous Miami Circle.
Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum at Okalee, Hollywood (SE coastal Florida)
Museum highlights the history, art, and culture of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation (so. central Florida)
Dioramas depicting Seminole life at the turn of the century; features a one-mile raised boardwalk that winds through a 66-acre cypress dome.
For more information, or to request a brochure listing all 30 sites, visit Trail of Florida’s Indian Heritage.
Photo credit: Trail of Florida’s Indian Heritage
Article by Barbara Weibel at Hole In The Donut Travels