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Finding Florida’s Indian heritage

Florida’s places to learn, to remember its first people

Kayaking into a mangrove tunnel off Weedon Island, Fla.Ellen Albanese for The Boston Globe

ST. PETERSBURG — At Weedon Island Preserve, I saw the biggest butterfly I have ever seen, its wings so fluid they looked like swatches of yellow silk rippling in the hot, still air. It danced ahead of me down the boardwalk trail over the mangrove swamps to an overlook where I watched kayakers glide by and disappear into a mangrove tunnel. It wasn’t hard to imagine the early inhabitants of this island, a peaceful people who developed a sophisticated style of ceramics characterized by ornate punctated, incised, or stamped designs on sand-tempered pottery.

Precious little remains of Florida’s Native American people, but in pockets across the state, the richness and diversity of these early cultures — from the Timucua in the northeast and the Tocobaga around Tampa Bay to the legendary Calusa of Pine Island and the modern-day Seminoles of South Florida — come to life. The blueprint to this informal network of archeological sites, nature preserves, parks, and museums is the Trail of Florida’s Indian Heritage (www.trailoffloridasindianheritage.org), a map and brochure produced by a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to promoting responsible site visits and education about the state’s earliest inhabitants.


“Most people think there was no one in Florida until the pioneers came,” said Martha “Marty” Ardren, the organization’s cofounder and membership chair. “That’s precisely why my colleagues and I founded the trail back in 1999. We were giving tours of the Portavant ceremonial complex [in Palmetto] and people who came were just blown away — both visitors and locals. They would ask: ‘Is there anything else like this in Florida?’ ”

There are 72 sites on the trail so far, and new sites are always being added. A handful are designated as “feature sites”; these provide an outstanding visitor experience, represent a wide geographic distribution, and cover a range of time periods, Ardren said.


A 3,200-acre nature preserve on Old Tampa Bay, Weedon Island, which is now a peninsula, is probably best known for the ornate pottery produced by members of the Weeden Island Culture some 1,000 to 1,800 years ago (the cultural period is spelled differently from the island). The curved exterior wall of the preserve’s Cultural & Natural History Center, a building designed with the help of Native Americans, is decorated to represent the distinctive pottery. Inside, exhibits describe the natural ecosystems of the island and the processes of archeological excavation. A virtual tour exhibit connects visitors to the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of island artifacts. Outside are hiking trails and a boat launch for kayaks and canoes (bring your own or rent on site).

The center is celebrating the unveiling of Florida’s only existing ancient saltwater dugout canoe, which was discovered on an island beach in 2001 and excavated in 2011. The 1,100-year-old canoe is the centerpiece of a new exhibit, “Navigating Tampa Bay’s Maritime Past,” which opened last week.

One of the finest displays of Weeden Island pottery is the Tallant Collection at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton. The ceramics here run the gamut from the highly artistic Weeden Island work to the plainer Safety Harbor vessels to the distinctly utilitarian artifacts of the Caloosahatchee cultural period. The museum has an excellent gallery of artifacts from several of the state’s early native tribes, as well as metals and jewelry brought by European explorers or salvaged from shipwrecks.


Crystal River Archaeological State Park, a featured site on the trail and a national historic landmark, was the ceremonial center of the hunter-gatherer-fisher peoples who lived along Crystal River and the adjacent coastal marshes and estuaries. For 1,600 years people traveled to the complex from great distances to bury their dead and conduct trade. Today this 61-acre site has burial mounds, temple mounds, a plaza area, and a substantial midden, or discard mound. A wooden stairway leads to the top of the tallest temple mound, which affords a view over the estuary. A small museum in the visitors center contains exhibits displaying artifacts related to this site and others in the area.

“It’s interesting to know about the life that was here before — before we all took over,” said Jill Stephenson of Milan, N.H., who was visiting the site with her stepfather, Leo DesGroseilliers of Inglis, Fla., and her son, Simon, 8. “I just like to see where we all came from. I just find it amazing.”

At the De Soto National Memorial in Bradenton, administered by the National Park Service, visitors learn about the native peoples that Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto encountered on his 1539 expedition. “Our job is to relate their stories even though the natives didn’t leave any recorded history,” said lead ranger Dan Stephens, forcing researchers to depend on archeology and documents left by the Spanish. The presence of nine middens, or discard mounds, verifies the existence of a village at the site at the time of the Spanish conquest, he said.


A movie in the visitors center traces de Soto’s journey. We were surprised to learn that he and his men traveled as far north as North Carolina over almost three years in a fruitless search for gold. In season, costumed reenactors in a replica Spanish camp demonstrate how weapons were used and food was prepared in the village de Soto used as his first base camp.

An interpreter at the De Soto National Memorial shows visitors replicas of 16th-century Spanish armor. Ellen Albanese for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Farther south, the Randell Research Center at Pineland on Pine Island focuses on the archeology, history, and ecology of the Calusa Indians. Once the most powerful people in all of South Florida, the Calusa amassed huge shell mounds, engineered canals, and sustained tens of thousands of people from the fish and shellfish found in the rich estuaries west and south of Fort Myers. In this remote site that dates from about 100 BC, visitors can tour the Calusa Heritage Trail, a 3,700-foot interpretive walkway that leads through the mounds and by remnants of canals. Illustrated signs along the trail describe the Calusa kingdom and its shell tool technology. The site is open for self-guided tours year round; guided tours are offered during peak season (January-April).

Materials excavated from the Pineland site between 1988 and today comprise the Pineland Collection at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville (the Randell center is affiliated with the museum). It’s the largest systematic collection from a major Calusa town site. Artifacts include Native American pottery sherds; tools and decorative objects made of shell, bone, shark teeth, and stone; Spanish-derived glass, metal, and ceramic objects; and waterlogged wood, seeds, and other organic materials. Museum visitors can also see models of Calusa earthworks and middens and enter a Calusa leader’s palm-thatched house during a political ceremony in the year 1564, complete with life-size models in elaborate ceremonial dress.


Like most of the early Florida Native Americans, the Calusa were gone by the mid-1700s, wiped out by war and disease. In its South Florida gallery, the natural history museum also tells the story of the state’s modern Native American tribes, the Seminole and Miccosukee. Examples of Seminole silver work, weaving, bead work, and other ornamental arts are stunning. It was here that we learned that “Seminole” comes from the Spanish “cimarrones,” which means wild or untamed; it was a term the Spanish applied broadly to all the native tribes.

The Knight Collection at the Tampa Bay History Center in Tampa offers another impressive display of Seminole objects and materials, including brightly colored clothing in geometric patterns, deerskin leggings and shoes, wood cooking tools, sweetgrass baskets, and dolls. It’s part of the museum’s larger focus on Florida’s first people and European exploration.

In south-central Florida, close to the Everglades, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in Clewiston tells the Seminoles’ story in their own words. Loosely translated, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki means “a place to learn, a place to remember.” It is another of the featured sites on the Trail of Florida’s Indian Heritage.

An orientation film provides an introduction to Seminole history and culture. In round galleries, full-size models set against colorful dioramas depict scenes from Seminole life in Florida in the 1890s, including a wedding ceremony, the catfish dance, and a stickball game. Beautiful clothing, beadwork, and other handmade crafts are on display and available in the gift shop.

One of the loveliest features of the museum is a mile-long boardwalk that winds through a 60-acre cypress dome. It’s a peaceful walk that invites reflection not only on the Seminoles of today but also on all the tribes lost to history.

A stairway leads to the top of the highest temple mound at the Crystal River Archaeological State Park.Ellen Albanese for The Boston Globe

Ellen Albanese can be reached at ellen.albanese@gmail.com.