Meeting Florida's Seminoles Through Rediscovered Photos

Apr 7, 2013
Originally published on April 8, 2013 4:07 pm

The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Indian Museum on the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation in Florida has a new exhibit that gives patrons a rare glimpse into the past.

Taken by photographer Julian Dimock during a 1910 expedition across the undrained and untamed landscape of tropical wetlands and cypress hammocks of southern Florida, the photos show everyday activities and portraits of the Seminole people he encountered.

At the time, Florida was the final frontier for settlers and explorers — there were no roads to take through the alligator-, snake- and mosquito-infested wetlands. Dimock and his party waded and canoed their way for miles through the back country. They hoped to photograph Seminole subjects who, only 50 years earlier, had been fighting a guerrilla war against the U.S. government — and had never surrendered.

In addition to the topological challenges, Dimock also had to lug heavy photography equipment, including a big box camera and glass lantern slides for negatives. Anytime he wanted a shot, he had to hop out of the dugout canoe and set up. Then he had to get his glass slides all the way back to New York in one piece.

Dimock's photos sat in storage at the American Museum of Natural History for nearly a century before they were rediscovered. Now, descendents may finally see the faces of their Seminole ancestors, and view their everyday lives.

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This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Coming up, NPR music producer Tom Huizenga tells us what's hot in classical music.

But first, for some years now, I've spent a little time each spring in the Florida Everglades. Even inside the Everglades, there's nothing quite as evocative as the Florida of mangrove swamps and inhospitable terrain that you find in the Seminole territories where, at a place like Big Cypress Reservation in southwest Florida, you can still get a sense of what it was like a century ago. For one thing, not a road existed then between the east and west coasts.

WILLIE JOHNS: This is it. This was the frontier, the final frontier.

LYDEN: Willie Johns is a member of the Panther clan of the Cow Creek Seminole people. He's also outreach coordinator for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Reservation in southern Florida. This year, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki is hosting an archive of photographs from an early 20th century expedition - glass plate, box camera photos of everyday life that were previously unknown.

JOHNS: This is a wagon, and it's full of supplies. And just down - miles from here is Brown's Trading Post, and that's where they're headed.

LYDEN: The photographs have been provided by curators at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who'd preserved them since they were donated by the photographer in the 1920s.

REBECCA FELL: All of these images were taken by Julian Dimock on a particular expedition in 1910.

LYDEN: Rebecca Fell is the exhibit's coordinator at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki. She and everyone else at the museum were surprised to learn of the existence of these photographs.

FELL: The American Museum of Natural History did not, for a long time, realize what they had. And when this - the archives got switched over from one department to another, they started going through it and, like, oh.

LYDEN: Oh, indeed. In the early 1900s, Julian Dimock and his father, A.W., decided to travel through Florida to document the Seminole Indians. This was only 50 years after the last Seminole war when the Seminoles fought against forced removal by the U.S. government.

FELL: This is a period of history that there isn't a whole lot of information. And so these images actually give a great snapshot of how Seminoles, particularly Miccosukee Seminoles, were living in the Everglades.

LYDEN: The photographs at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki give us a roughly west to east journey across the Everglades. Willie Johns points out to me one of his favorite photos of three men wading next to a covered wagon pulled through a swamp by a team of oxen.

JOHNS: And they're coming from Fort Myers going back to the settlement over here at Brown's Landing.

LYDEN: And what are they walking in? It looks like they're walking in a canal or river.

JOHNS: They're walking in water about knee - ankle deep. This is a tall man, so you can see that it's very wet period.

LYDEN: They're barefoot, of course.

JOHNS: Mm-hmm.

LYDEN: Boy, oh, boy. It looks dangerous. There must have been snakes in that water.

JOHNS: Oh, yeah. Alligators, you know, and all the subtropical species out there that'll eat you, you know?

LYDEN: Yeah. Is this the way that, besides canoe, that people got around? There weren't any roads, right?

JOHNS: Yeah, this is it.

LYDEN: The difficulty of getting these shots was extraordinary. Expedition members wrote of their skin being scored by insect bites, and Julian often had to stand in the swamp to get a shot. Here's curator Rebecca Fell.

FELL: Julian Dimock had a big box camera on a tripod, and he used glass lantern slides for the negatives. So he obviously had to take the moment to set everything up, often standing in the water, as well, and then to have all these glass lanterns to make it all the way back to New York, just that whole process. You know, it wasn't straightforward. Nowadays, we pull out our cellphone and take a real quick shot. This was truly a process to obtain these images.

LYDEN: But until these photos were made available to the tribe, few modern-day Seminoles had ever actually seen their ancestors' faces, as Willie Johns himself realized.

JOHNS: You know how you hear about your relatives and you never - but you never put a face to them, you know, that you've always heard about them, and then all of a sudden, here's Wilson Cypress, who's a great-uncle to one of my nieces' husband, and he's named after him, so he got to see the features. And they all look alike, you know, all the Cypress guys.

FELL: We do have people coming in, and they recognize maybe a great-grandmother, that kind of thing.

LYDEN: One striking portrait subject looks like she could be a great-grandmother. Again, Rebecca Fell.

FELL: This is the widow of Tigertail, and he was one of the important leaders of the Second Seminole War. Her features, she's clearly lived a long and interesting life.

LYDEN: Tigertail's widow looks weathered and yet strong, and Willie Johns agrees she'd have to be.

JOHNS: All she's known is war - Second Seminole, the Third, the Civil War, all on down.

LYDEN: Not just the Seminole wars of resistance against the U.S. government, but their ultimate forced removal, a common story for American Indians in the 19th century.

JOHNS: Except ours wasn't a trail of tears. Ours was to the fort, to the ship. Then, you went straight to New Orleans, put on a steamer there and ship right into Arkansas.

LYDEN: Some of the photos are stunning portraits. Some are costume photos of everyday life.

JOHNS: You see a family here in a dugout canoe. And this was a real typical travel in this area because, you know, this is the headwaters of the Everglades, so it always stayed wet. And you could use these things, these canoes.

LYDEN: You see a man standing here in traditional dress. And beside him is a woman that's probably - it says here that this is George Osceola, his wife, Ruby. Seminole women wore elaborately coiffed hair and full-length patchwork dresses. Men wore billowing tunics, belts and feathered hats. The ultra-bright Florida sun brings out gray tones so intense you can almost see the true colors.

FELL: Even though we know they're wearing some of their best clothes in a lot of these pictures, you still see them doing what they do on a daily basis. But it says a lot about the lifestyle and what's going on at that time.

LYDEN: Not long after the trip, Julian Dimock gave up photography, and the photographs went into storage. They'll be up for the rest of the year at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Big Cypress, Florida, where Seminoles and the rest of the public can connect with history. To see some of these photographs without leaving home, visit our webpage, and click on The Picture Show blog. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.