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Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
March 2020

Patsy West chronicles the Seminoles, from Abiaka to Chief Jim Billie

PWest_1atsy West was slowly absorbing her life’s work as her pioneer grandmother Ethel tucked her into bed nearly 70 years ago.

She was beguiled by tales of the interwoven lives of Ethel’s own childhood, when new settlers and the established Seminoles mingled along the Little River’s south bank. Ethel’s father (Patsy’s great-grandfather), William Freeman of Little River, as he was known, settled there in 1887, raised his family and set up a home, trading post, and packing business.

“We were just people and they were people,” says West, age 72. “My great-granddad just liked them. Had we lived inland and not on the creek, we wouldn’t have had that relationship. I don’t know another family that interacted with the Seminoles as much as we did.”

Her grandmother’s stories ignited West’s interest and her half-century of work as ethno-historian, curator, author, K-12 teacher at the Seminole Indian Reservation, advocate for the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes, and 50-year friendship and alliance with James E. Billie, known as Chief Jim Billie, the game-changing chair of the Seminole Tribe of Florida from 1979 to 2001 and 2011 to 2016.

West’s life and history earned her the respect of the close-knit Seminole community and the ability to tell the tribe’s story on its own terms.

This past December she was awarded a Knight Foundation Arts Challenge grant to create an exhibit tentatively titled “People of Mikasuki-Speaking Heritage,” scheduled to open in March 2021 at HistoryMiami.

Its defining personage: Abiaka, or Sam Jones, the warrior chief and central figure of the Second Seminole War. The exhibit will cover tribal history from the first European encounters in 1540 to the present day.

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William Freeman of Little River was a Pennsylvania native and Civil War veteran who’d moved from Illinois in 1883 to farm south of Ocala. Seeking to escape crop freezes, he was prompted by an article about Ralph Middleton Munroe, a yacht designer and early Coconut Grove settler, to move to Biscayne Bay, a mile north of fledgling Lemon City. His journey meant traveling by train to Punta Gorda, steamship to Key West, and schooner the rest of the way. He brought his wife, Adaline, and their three children, Rebecca, Cara, and George. Ethel was born in 1888, her brother Edison in 1891.

Enterprising and energetic, Freeman built Freeman’s Landing, consisting of a dock and 12-by-14-foot frame house that doubled as a trading post near the corner of today’s NE 82nd Street and NE 4th Avenue. He offered a ferry service across the river before the first bridge and road came in 1891-92.

He hunted and fished with the Seminoles, who paddled in to visit and trade. He learned to traverse the inland waterways among the hammocks in high water to their Pine Island settlement more than 20 miles to the north, sharing meals and holidays, and absorbing the customs and rituals. He also made profitable use of his Montgomery Ward catalogue to order tools, cooking pots, sewing machines, or guns for paying customers. He fixed canoes and built boats.

Freeman acquired hundreds of acres of land as a homesteader, and grew tomatoes along the ridge near the present NE 119th Street and NE 2nd Avenue, and throughout northeast Miami-Dade County, expanding it into a profitable packing business.

By 1896 the family had completed a two-story frame house built of slash pine and painted in red ochre with white window frames. The home was a social center for neighbors, visiting scientists and naturalists, and Seminole elders and traders. The older sisters played violin and guitar. A shipbuilder pegged together a staircase and bannister, which Seminole and pioneer children alike slid down with glee.

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Great-grandfather Freeman passed away just before his 79th birthday in 1921, after which some family members decamped 20 miles north along the New River in Fort Lauderdale, west of the present I-95. Patsy West grew up there, in a house her father designed and built by hand in 1948. Over time, she collected 14,000 images from generations of pioneers. She has bequeathed them to HistoryMiami.

Last summer, amid concern over worsening hurricanes, she moved 300 miles north to Gainesville to continue her scholarship at 140 feet above sea level.

That work centers on the heirs of the Mikasuki language common to all Miccosukees and nearly two-thirds of the Seminoles, denoting those who remained in South Florida throughout the three Seminole wars: c. 1816-1819, 1835-1842, 1855-1858.

In the past several years, West has unearthed new scholarship on Abiaka, who fought and evaded the U.S. Army, refused to surrender, and kept his tribal core in South Florida. His group of Miccosukees and Seminoles stayed and resisted as other tribes across the Southeast were marched or were shipped to present-day Oklahoma after the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

“Abiaka is more responsible than anyone for the continued existence of the tribes in South Florida today,” West says.

“These people have always been sovereign. They have always known who they were. They have never put up with being put down. They have always spoken out. They were a strong people who, for religious reasons and others, fought together as one under that leadership.”

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For West, the Seminole tribal story is visible from the air on landing from the west at Fort Lauderdale airport, bracketed by the T-shaped Pine Island Ridge in Davie on the west and the new 450-foot-tall guitar at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino just a few miles southeast on the Seminole reservation in Hollywood.

Pine Island Ridge was an ancient hunting ground of the Tequesta, and eastern redoubt for Abiaka and the Miccosukee, with the western Miccosukee quarters at Big Cypress, 50 miles to the west. Historian John Lee Williams documented the Miccosukee presence after exploring there in 1828, seven years before the start of the Second Seminole War. It remained a significant Seminole settlement until 1900, as white settlers encroached.

It was the site of the Battle of Pine Island Ridge on March 22, 1838, when Major William Lauderdale and his troops launched a surprise attack on Abiaka’s stronghold. Abiaka and his warriors returned fire, evacuated the women and children, and then slipped eastward in canoes and later returned when Lauderdale’s troops left.

West’s 48-page monograph “Abiaka of Sam Jones in Context: The Mikasuki Ethnogenesis through the Third Seminole War,” published in the Florida Historical Quarterly (Winter 2016), is the basis both for her sixth book, in progress, and the upcoming exhibit.Today the ridge is accessible from Tree Tops Park at 3900 SW 100th Ave. in Davie. It’s the highest natural point in Broward County, at 29 feet, a green berm stretching 2.5 miles along 243 acres. Just behind the visitors center, a life-size statue of Abiaka, leading a woman and infant to safety, points the way toward the ridge.

The ridge remains undeveloped behind a tangle of live oaks amid a cluster of terra-cotta-roofed subdivision homes, thanks to a successful 1989 effort in the Florida Legislature to prevent a golf course development. Chief Jim Billie and West helped lead that quest.

Fifty miles to the west, north of I-75 in Hendry County, a larger, monumental statue of Abiaka, commissioned by Chief Jim Billie in 2003, towers over the Big Cypress Reservation, Abiaka’s western stronghold, where the modern Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum (translation: place to learn) tells the Seminole story in greater detail.

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The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Hollywood stands just a few miles southeast of Pine Island Ridge, with its newly opened 450-foot guitar and 638 guestrooms on 35 floors, as part of a $1.5-billion tribal expansion. In a nod to the great warrior, a new restaurant at the Hard Rock complex is called Abiaka.

Since Chief Jim Billie ushered the tribe into the gaming business in 1979 -- ultimately prevailing in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996 -- the Seminoles have expanded their reach nationally and globally.

In 2007 the tribe acquired Hard Rock International Inc., from the British-based Rank Group, and moved the headquarters from Orlando to Davie in 2018. Hard Rock boasts venues in 76 countries, including 183 restaurants, 31 hotels, and 12 casinos. More than 4200 members of the Seminole tribe and 1000 Miccosukees live on and off reservations in Florida and benefit from casino revenues.

West emphasizes in her scholarship that the Seminoles were never “driven back” into the Everglades after the second Seminole War. Born in Georgia, Abiaka himself traveled extensively around the state following the First Seminole War, posing as a fishmonger while gathering intelligence on federal troops.

Abiaka died at about the age of 85 in 1866, West notes, two years after the birth of his last daughter. (A Wikipedia account, she says, incorrectly pegs his death at 100 around 1860.)

By this time, West writes, the Seminoles were entering an economic upswing as they hunted raccoon, otters, deer, and alligators for an international hide market, and birds for the growing hat trade. Seminole women maintained droves of hogs and manufactured the native starch coonti, selling both commodities to area settlers and in markets as far away as Key West.

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That was the world the Freemans encountered as they embarked on a new life as Biscayne Bay pioneers. That life is preserved in two histories by the late Thelma Peters, herself of a pioneer family, who memorialized Biscayne Bay pioneer life in the books Lemon City: Pioneering on Biscayne Bay in 1976 and Biscayne Country 1870-1926 in 1981. “As original pioneers, we all stuck together,” West says of her friend Peters.

The Seminoles soon drifted away from Little River, settling into reservations and surviving through tourist attractions across South Florida with wilderness tours, handcraft sales, and alligator wrestling, as chronicled in West’s 2008 edition, The Enduring Seminoles: From Alligator Wrestling to Casino Gaming.

West blended her advocacy, writing, and teaching with curatorial work, launching the Seminole/Miccosukee Archive in 1972, with long stints at HistoryMiami, the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society, and Broward County Historical Commission.

The 1896 two-story Little River house was demolished in the early 1960s. Patsy’s grandmother Ethel lived into her 80s. Before the house was torn down, Patsy’s father carefully unpegged the staircase and sliding bannister Ethel remembered with such delight. It remains in Patsy West’s possession and may be part of the exhibit.

West hails Chief Jim Billie, a Vietnam vet, champion alligator wrestler, and tribal visionary, as the tribe’s modern savior for leading the Seminoles and Miccosukees into prosperity through gaming and resorts.

“Chief James Billie is the present-day Abiaka,” West says. “If he hadn’t done that, the Seminoles would be in poverty today. That move is responsible for the prosperity the tribe now enjoys. Tribes now have a future.”

 

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