Seminole Ball, 1823
July 21st, 2015 by Red Hills
published in Tallahassee Democrat 6/14/14
In June 1823, after two sessions of alternating between St. Augustine and Pensacola for meetings of the territorial council, Governor William P. Duval appointed commissioners to select a more permanent seat of government for the Florida Territory. The two men chosen for the mission, John Lee Williams and Dr. William Simmons, each wrote accounts of their travels that help to reconstruct the physical and cultural geography of Tallahassee at the time when the United States assumed control over the Red Hills. Williams and Simmons did not traverse an unpopulated frontier, but instead found the region inhabited by Native American immigrants—collectively known as Seminoles—and a landscape still bearing physical reminders of societies vanquished long before their time.
After setting out from opposite ends of the territory Williams and Simmons met near the ferry over the Ochlockonee River, twenty miles north of Wakulla Springs. The trip had taken its toll on Dr. Simmons, who nearly abandoned the mission shortly before Williams arrived. On October 28, Williams described the country on their approach to the “new Tallahassee village,” the residence of Neamathla, a principal Seminole leader:
“The land continually improving…it rose into a delightful high rolling country, clothed with excellent oak, hickory and dogwood timber on a soil chocolate colored loam. We here often observed traces of the old Spanish highway…”
At first, Neamathla was very suspicious of the visitors, but soon “took me [Williams] to his shed and offered me cigars and roasted nuts…Neomathla directed our horses to be turned loose in his field and our baggage was deposited in one of his council houses, which we afterwards occupied.” Native American settlements in the area were still recovering from Andrew Jackson’s campaign when the commissioners arrived. U.S. government surveys conducted in the wake of the First Seminole War, as Jackson’s campaign of 1818 is known today, counted upwards of 1,000 inhabitants between the Ochlockonee and Aucilla Rivers, with the largest concentrations at Tallahassee and near Lake Miccosukee.
While enjoying Neamathla’s hospitality, Williams and his Anglo-American traveling companions witnessed an important ritual from the southeastern Indians’ traditional world:
“In the afternoon his [Neamathla’s] young men and women played ball against each other with great spirit. Their ball ground is a large circle in which is placed a large pole; against this each party threw the ball; if caught on the rebound by the party who threw it, they tallied two. They were all naked to the waist and males and females exerted themselves with nearly equal energy. The women threw the ball with their hands, the men threw and caught it with their bat sticks. Many scuffles occurred between the parties to catch or prevent the ball from being caught, but all ended in perfect good humor. The men evidently gave the advantage to the females, who, in the end, won the game. The men were sentenced to bring lightwood to the council fire, which being procured they brought in to the great square, singing all the while.”
Williams’ account documented an event practiced in the Red Hills for several hundred years, if not longer, before his arrival. Two centuries earlier, Spanish friars documented a similar practice among the Apalachee at a site very near where Williams now stood witness. Father Juan de Paiva described the game as he saw it in Apalachee in the 1670s:
“…they fall upon one another at full tilt. And the last to arrive climb up over their bodies, using them as stairs. And, to enter, others [step on] their faces, heads, or bellies, as they encounter them, taking no notice [of them] and aiming kicks without any concern whether it is to the face or to the body, while in other places still others pull at arms or legs with no concern as to whether they may be dislocated or not, while still others have their mouths filled with dirt. When this pileup begins to become untangled, they are accustomed to find four or five stretched out like tuna; over there are others gasping for breath, because, inasmuch as some are wont to swallow the ball, they are made to vomit it up by squeezing their windpipe or by kicks to the stomach.”
The game, practiced in various forms by Native Americans throughout the southeast at the time of first contact with Europeans and Africans in the early 16th century, remained part of Seminole and Miccosukee culture among the few who evaded capture and eviction by the U.S. Army in the 1830s and 40s. State folklorists working with the Seminole Tribe in the late-1980s documented the continuity of the game, and captured vivid images of tribal youth practicing what their elders helped to perpetuate.
Although the origins of the game are unclear, scholars believe it served multiple purposes. One of these was as a means of settling disputes without going to war. For the Choctaw, whom George Catlin painted in the 1830s, the game was known as the “little brother of war.” In reality, what Williams and other Euro-Americans witnessed was more than just a game – it was an important part of Native culture and revealed much about their political and social relations. Today, it is a symbol of the remarkable ability of Native peoples to retain and adapt aspects of their traditional culture while coping, as all communities do, with the constant pressure of modernization.
Williams and Simmons ultimately recommended that the area known as Tallahassee become the seat of the territorial government. They selected a site “about a mile southwest of the old deserted fields of Tallahassé [sic], about a half mile south of the Oke-lock-o-ney [sic] and Tallahassé trail, at a point where the old Spanish road is intersected by a small trail running southwardly.”
Shortly after the commissioners submitted their recommendations to Gov. Duval, Neamathla and the other Native American residents of the Tallahassee area reluctantly moved to reservations created by the Treaty of Moultrie Creek (1823). During negotiations over the treaty, Neamathla told the American delegation:
“[W]e rely upon your justice and humanity; we hope that you will not send us south, to a country where neither the hickory nut, the acorn, nor the persimmon grows…I am old and poor, too poor to move from my village to the south. My cabins have been built with my own hands; my fields cultivated by only myself. I am attached to the spot improved by my own labor, and cannot believe that my friends will drive me from it.”
Seminole resistance to this and subsequent agreements culminated in the longest and costliest Anglo-Native American war in U.S. history – the Second Seminole War – and the expulsion of the vast majority of Florida Indians from their native land.
Johnathan H. Grandage is a Doctoral Candidate in History at Florida State University. His research focuses on the Florida Seminole and Miccosukee people in the 19th and 20th centuries. Grandage works for the Florida Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources, where he is the Executive Director of The Grove.