Saturday, September 22, 2012

Kanapaha Prairie: Recalling a Legacy of Freedom

                                    Kanapaha Prairie: Recalling a Legacy of Freedom

Kanapaha is one of many ancient depressional prairies in North Central Florida. The largest and famous of these is, of course, Payne's Prairie, immediately south of Gainesville-- described extensively by William Bartram in the 18th century as "The Alachua Savanna".

One of my field site: Kanapaha Prairie (picture (c) Chris Wilson 2012)

 Bartram extolled this part of Florida as a landscape dotted by numerous such grassy savanna's, but dominated by pine savanna and mixed hardwood hammocks-- full of oaks, magnolias, hickories, wild citrus and so on. The Seminole Indians, descendents of lower Creek groups, moved into the area in the early 1700's, displacing the last of the Floridian tribe remnants (e.g. Timicuans) and the Spanish outposts that had earlier assured their demise through disease, and attrition. 

Hardwood Hammock adjacent prairie (picture (c) Chris Wilson 2012)

The Seminole thrived in this land of great abundance of wild game, birds and fish- replete with numerous freshwater springs and healthy, clear-running rivers. They became great cattle and horse people as well, herding the naturalized populations of these beasts originally introduced by Ponce De Leon in the early 1500's. Forage for their beasts was furnished primarily by these numerous savanna openings. These resources were supplemented by the grazing available in the open pine savannas, and the edges around the hardwood hammocks. Bartram described the horses and cattle as small and sleek- admirably adapted to the vagaries of this environment.

Cracker Cattle at Kanapaha (picture (c) Chris Wilson 2012)

The cattle shown in these pictures are "pure stock" of the "Spanish Colonial Cattle", otherwise known as "Cracker Cattle", the most direct descendants of the Seminole cattle, and a link to this cultural history. Like their forebears, they are small, horned, and hardy animals. They calve easily without assistance and their mothering instincts are strong and effective. These beasts know how to stay alive in a tough, predator-rich environment.

As the plantation economies grew in the Cherokee lands to the north, in Georgia, the political role of Florida’s Seminole territory became significant. They were a fierce, proud people- passionately devoted to their hard-won lands. Numerous African slaves began to escape their lot in Georgia and North Carolina, as the conditions of their chattel slavery became more brutal. Over the decades, a large population of these escaped “maroons” established themselves alongside the Seminole in North Florida.

Great old Live Oak (picture (c) Chris Wilson 2012)

Together, the maroons and Seminole hunted, fished, managed their lands with frequent fires, and practiced traditional polycultural field agriculture. The Seminole, too, sometimes practiced slavery, but the terms were ordinarily relaxed. “Slaves” were most often allowed to set up shop, marry, and profit from the proceeds of their own work- so long as they paid a moderate tax to their erstwhile masters.

For the span of a few decades, Florida was thus a potent symbol of freedom and resistance. For many, it represented the chance to create a new society and lead a dignified and free life. The US government’s war on the Seminole in the early-mid 1800’s stretched for decades as the joint resistance of the fierce Seminole and their Maroon allies proved difficult to overcome.

Whenever I set foot in one of these Prairies in my new home, I recall this legacy of freedom and resistance set amidst a tough yet abundant landscape.  For me, it symbolizes the enduring connection between human prosperity, freedom and the health of the land. 

Twin Live Oaks on Prairie (picture (c) Chris Wilson 2012)

Recommended Reading:

-William Bartram’s Travels. (Available freely online)

-Riordan, Patrick (1996). “Finding Freedom in Florida: Native Peoples, African-Americans, and Colonists, 1670-1816”. The Florida Historical Quarterly 75(1): 24-43.

-Mann, Charles (2011). 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Knopf: New York.

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