For centuries, the Seminole Tribe in Florida have been expert cattlemen and an important part of our cattle ranching history and industry. Forget what you may have seen on popular western movies, because Native Americans were anything but ‘sidekicks’ to cowboy heroes. They were (and still are) some of the most talented cattle ranching communities in the State of Florida.
In this article, we’d like to pay some tribute and share some of the fascinating history of the Seminole Tribe as cattlemen (and woman) in our state.
When Did the Seminole Tribe Start Ranching Cattle in Florida?
On our blog, we talked in a few articles about how the Florida industry began in the 1500s with the arrival of Spanish explorers, who brought beef cattle with them. We’re still amazed how the Spaniards even accomplished the transportation feat of large live cattle on old galleons, or wooden sailing ships. But they did it, and the breed of cattle they brought with them flourished from the moment they arrived in Florida.
Now, the first recorded participation in organized cattle ranching by the Seminole Tribe occurred in the 1740s. After the Spanish left Florida, the wild herds of beef cattle that remained were gathered by some Seminole communities. At that time the Creek Indians in Alabama and Georgian were already engaged in cattle production, so it is presumed that the Seminole Tribe learned best methods from other successful tribes.
Ahaya Secoffee the Seminole Leader Known as ‘Cowkeeper’
The Seminole Native Americans had numerous conflicts against European-American frontier settlers. If you can imagine, there was a bit of a scramble for the wild cattle and many land disputes over grazing access. By 1775 there was a prominent leader called Cowkeeper and he built a community in the Oconee Creek region, and created what was at that time, the largest settlement in Florida in the Alachua area.
His name was actually Ahaya Secoffee, and he was the first recorded chief of the Alachua band of the Seminole Tribe. He had a learned hatred of the Spanish invaders, as the Spaniards had tried to enslave the Seminole Tribe into serving as laborers, or involuntary members of their army and militia. When James Oglethorpe (Governor of Georgia) asked for help with an English raid against the Spanish held capital St. Augustine, Ahaya took 45 of his best warriors and helped the effort.
By 1750 Ahaya the “Cowkeeper” had led his community to what many historians believe is the ruins of the Timucua village of Potano. On the Northwest shore of Lake Tuscawilla, where Micanopy stands today, was the thriving Seminole village called Cuscowilla. His community continued to breed and tend the native Cracker Cattle for beef production.
The Fighting Begins Over Florida Beef Cattle
In 1775 there are records that report the Seminole Tribe was working a massive herd of 7,000 to 10,000 cattle on Paynes Prairie. They also actively used trained cow dogs, which later became known as the Florida Cracker Curs, when they were adopted by other non-tribal ranchers in the area.
During the Civil War (as we’ve written about before) there was kind of a mad dash to collect wild cattle. But unfortunately, that also ushered in the age of the cattle rustler, and theft of cattle began to skyrocket with the post-Civil War demand for food and resources. The Seminole Tribes around Big Cypress and Lake Okeechobee continued to raise cattle with pressure and violence from rustlers. Briefly, the Seminole Tribe stopped raising cattle because it was viewed as a threat to their safety.
If you are thinking that the Seminole Tribe conflicted with our historical Cracker Cowboys of Florida, you would be wrong. The two communities actually got along very well and cooperated with each other. Ranchers frequently chose to hire Seminole cattlemen because they knew the country so well, and because they were talented cattle herding experts. They knew the best pastures and how (and when) to rotate herds to optimize beef production.
Conflict and regulations, and the establishment of Native American reservations across the United States had a negative impact on the thriving operations of the Seminole cattle ranching communities. In the 1930s the Seminole Natives were limited to reservation areas, and at one point the Tribe owned as little as 400 animals. But from that set-back, their cattle operation grew. The Indian Livestock Association was created in 1939, and in 1944 the Seminole Tribe created separate ranch operations in Brighton and Big Cypress, which were supervised by the Central Tribal Cattle Organization.
Today, the Seminole Tribe is recognized as one of Florida’s leading beef producers. Utilizing video auctions, other tribal cattle herds are promoted across the country for sale, and the communities work together for mutual economic benefit, through the National American Indian Cattlemen’s Association.
The First Seminole President of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association
In 2018, Alex Johns was named the Florida Cattlemen’s Association President. This was historically significant because in spite of the fact that Seminole Tribe members had been the cornerstone of Florida beef production for centuries, Alex was the first to be given the leadership role.
Alex Johns was an amazing choice for the year that he led the Association. His family could trace their roots back to 1541 when cattle were first introduced to Florida. He was a member of the Brighton Reservation, and had spent his life ranching cattle. He also served in a number of leadership roles within the FCA, which represents almost one million head of cattle in Florida and over $700 million in beef sales annually.
When Alex Johns served as a natural resources’ director, he guided the Seminole Tribe’s cattle program and urged the purchase of Salacoa Valley Farms in Georgia. A move that further improved the quality of the Seminole beef production and herd. Johns has been and still is, an advocate for the conservation of pastural lands in Florida and environmental protection.
We hope you enjoyed this article about the important contributions of the Seminole Tribe, their history and their expertise as some of the most successful cattle ranchers in Florida. We encourage everyone to visit a Seminole cattle ranching operation to learn more about the Tribal history and way of life, as part of the rich fabric of our local heritage.