comments by Rick Obermeyer
in 19th Century Seminole Men`s Clothing
What ls Seminole "style?" How can a hobbyist know how much personal preference he can put into his outfit and still be able to say it falls within what is "Seminole?" This is a question often asked in good faith by hobbyists and re-enactors who have the sense not to stay locked into grindingly exact dupllcatlon of any of the few pictures there are, but who also want to have good respect for historical accuracy.
One of the ways people look for solutions is to widen their resource base, and study Creek examples as well. The scarcity of examples from both Creek and Seminole, and the deep blurring between them, makes it imprudent if not impossible for one to overlook the other. "If it's Creek, it must be Seminole," or "Early Seminole is the same as Creek," is an explanation I've heard lots of times. Yes, that IS an appealing approach that "rounds off the answer" to a lot of problems. But, is it always the most appropriate one for a Seminole re-enactor?
True, "Creek = Seminole = Creek" works well for the 18th and turn of the 19th century. The Semlnoles were originally Lower (western Georgia) Creeks who moved in to occupy empty real estate around present-day Tallahassee and Gainesville. Seminole clothing probably reflected and paralleled Creek clothing as closely as, say, colonial American clothing followed contemporary British clothing. Additionally, it appears that, like England to the colonies, it was mostly Creek influence ON Seminole and not the other way around. The Creeks were more numerous than the Seminoles. Movement of people back and forth probably tended to be more from the Creeks in Alabama and Georgia to the Seminoles in Florida, instead of from south to north.
Certainly, regional traits probably developed in Florida as well as, no doubt, within the Lower Creeks and also the Upper Creeks. For example, twined sashes and pouches were common among the Creek, but there are very few identifiably Seminole examples. On the other hand, strips of cloth appliqué were much more common on Seminole long shirts and leggings than among the Creeks.
Remember, though, that we're talking "influence" here, not domination. We shouldn't forget that at least by 1800, and probably by much earlier, Seminole culture was its own mainstream, and Seminoles had a strong consciousness of being similar to, but NOT the same as the Creeks. They emphasized this repeatedly to the British in their treaty-making.
The defeat of the Upper Creeks at the Battle of Horseshow Bend in 1814 meant the inevitable cession of remaining Creek lands bit by bit and their relocation as a people to Oklahoma. The Lower Creeks lost all of Georgia by 1825, and the Upper Creeks had given up Alabama by 1830. Creek cultural traditions in Georgla and Alabama came to an abrupt and complete halt. True, a very few Creeks managed to remain in corners here and there in southern Alabama and in panhandle Florlda, accident of treaty and individual special cases, and those Creeks soon realized they could manage to stay where they were only by keeping a low profile. That is, by de-emphasizing anything that made them distinctive or stand out different from their white neighbors. That usually meant living in out of the way places. It definitely meant subduing their own cultural traditipns. Which certainly ended the influence of Creek styles on Seminole or any other styles.
So, while Creek styles remained the foundation of Seminole styles after the 1820's, they were not a continuing influence after then. Seminole styles begin to drift in their own direction, dropping some elements, adapting others, and adding new ones. The Seminole ways that had been an overflow of Creek cultural traditions now even more so became their own healthy separate culture. Things in Florida which had been local styles within a larger Southeastern pattern now became stylistic trends in their own right.
It's as if Napoleon had successfully invaded Britain and moved its whole population to Poland. With British culture shattered and scattered, wouldn't American styles have developed more individually?
The problem with Creek references arises when we remember that most Seminole re-enactors are NOT primarily interested in PRE-1820's Seminole, when Creek influence was alive. Prior to 1819, Florida wasn't even American, and Seminoles weren't yet a part of American history. Re-enactors are attracted to the times of action and drama, the Second Seminole War (late 1830's) and possibly also to as late as the Third Seminole War (late 1850's). We're talking about time periods ten to thirty years after the termination of Creek culture in the Southeast. The equation "Creek = Seminole = Creek" doesn't work when there aren't any Creeks around anymore to be part of it.
It could be argued that Seminoles continue to show Creek influence for a along time after the 1820's. Of course that's true. But for how long after the end of Creek culture in the Southeast must we expect Seminole culture to continue to copy it? Might not Creek influence be allowed to diminish over time? Sure, many Creek refugees came to Florida and were absorbed by the Seminoles. Some assert that Creek influence continued, based on the fact of this Creek influx. But, how much do refugees tend to influence their sheltering culture, instead of the culture tending to absorb them instead?
To illustrate strong Creek influence on Seminole styles, people show me examples in the McKenney-Hall portraits, and compare the closeness between the two. I invite them to go back and read the fine print next to those portraits. Those engravings were practically all modeled after paintings by Charles Bird King in 1824 - 1826. Sure, I agree with those examples. Yes, Seminole clothing does show strong Creek similiarity in the mid- 1820's. But what about the late 1830's, more than ten years later? Or the late 1850's, more than a generation later? Might not some Seminole styles be allowed to evolve on their own in that time? An example from 1825 might not be completely valid for 1840, and still less so for 1855.
Yet, I will admit that the re-enactor who falls back on 1820's Creek for reference has a couple of strong arguments in his favor. Yes, there are some good reasons to study Creek styles as a general guide to Seminole styles.
The first is extreme conservatism in changes in Seminole clothing. For more than a hundred years, until about the 1880's, the elements of Seminole men and women's clothing remained remarkably the same, both in item and in item construction. The basic list for a man's outfit - moccasins, leggings, breechcloth, plain shirt, long shirt, belt, scarves, soft turban, and plumes was unchanged, with little variation in the basic pattern of each piece. Variations were limited to stylistic changes. For example, the cape on the long shirt might be longer or shorter, but it was always triangular. Gorgets might wander in size and shape, but a well-dressed Seminole always liked wearing more than just a couple at a time. Any Creek influence that was still part of Seminole clothing styles by the 1830's was probably going to remain for a long time.
Another strong argument is Catlin's paintings of that most famous Seminole, the full figure and the bust portrait of Osceola. There aren't many pictures of Seminoles from during the Second Seminole War. Of them all, Catlin's portraits are the most detailed and the most spectacular. A re-enactor might point to a Osceola portrait and exclaim, "There! Osceola has wrist ties, so we know that Seminoles wore wrist ties." We know that's correct for Osceola, but can we extend that to assume it's a generally worn Seminole style? Please remember that Osceola was not born a Florida Seminole. He was born an Upper Creek, and was brought to Florida as a child as one of those refugees from Alabama. Moreover, Brent Weisman in "Like Beads On A String," emphasizes that much of Osceola's prestige as a leader derived from his personal conservatism for the "old ways" in lifestyle. Might we not then be suspicious that his personal clothing reflects his personal conservatism, and not really be a true picture of general Seminole fashion? One more caution: Catlin has always been suspected of being a trifle lazy with his depiction of detail. Compare his head and shoulders portrait of Osceola with another painted very much at the same time by Robert Curtis. Details in the Curtis portrait certainly match existing pieces of Osceola's clothing much more closely. Catlin is a good guide and a useful resource. I do not feel he is an infallible source for what would be general SEMINOLE (not Creek) fashion. Details in Catlin's paintings of Osceola illustrate possibles, not necessarily probables.
So, the answer to the question, "How do you know that's Seminole?" isn't really, "Well, it's Creek, and that's the same thing as Seminole." A better answer would be, "Well, it's Creek, so it could be Seminole."
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