Florida Seminoles and Musa Isle

Three Seminole medicine men: Musa Isle, Miami, Florida, ca. late 1910s

Three Seminole medicine men: Musa Isle, Miami, Florida, ca. late 1910s

The above photograph was taken in the late 1910s or early 1920s at Musa Isle, near Miami, Florida. The individuals in the photograph are described as “medicine men,” but are otherwise unidentified in the catalog record from the State Archives of Florida.

Musa Isle was a tourist attraction started by John Roop in 1907 on property he purchased on the Miami River from A. J. Richardson. In 1919, Roop leased a section of his property to a Seminole man named Willie Willie. Willie Willie and his father, Charlie Willie, operated a trading post west of Miami. They brought animal commodities to Musa Isle and sold them directly to wholesalers.

Chief and Princess Willie Willie at a Seminole Indian village: Hialeah, Florida, ca. 1920

Chief and Princess Willie Willie at a Seminole Indian village: Hialeah, Florida, ca. 1920

Seminoles and Tourism
Willie Willie encouraged other Seminoles to camp at Musa Isle during the winter tourist season. Willie Willie’s interests in Musa Isle came under the control of Bert Lasher in 1922. However, Seminoles continued to frequent the site for several decades thereafter. Until Musa Isle closed in the 1960s, Seminoles were an integral part of this early Florida tourist attraction.

At Musa Isle and similar venues, Seminoles wrestled alligators, made and sold crafts and performed aspects of their daily life, such as making coonti bread and patchwork clothing. In addition to frequenting attractions in southeastern Florida, Seminoles traveled widely throughout the state to work in the tourism trade. One group of Seminoles even traveled to the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago.

Seminole Indians wrestling alligators: Musa Isle, Miami, Florida (ca. 1940s)

Seminole Indians wrestling alligators: Musa Isle, Miami, Florida (ca. 1940s)

Entrepreneurial Spirit
Musa Isle represented an early entrepreneurial effort on the part of Seminoles to engage the tourism economy. At the same time as Seminoles worked at Musa Isle, families living near the Tamiami Trail operated similar attractions catering to tourists. From camps alongside the Tamiami Trail, Seminoles guided hunting expeditions, gave airboat tours, made and sold crafts and demonstrated their skills in handling wild animals. Some of the Tamiami Trail businesses remain active today.

Seminole village: Royal Palm Hammock, Tamiami Trail (ca. 1920s)

Seminole village: Royal Palm Hammock, Tamiami Trail (ca. 1920s)

Presently, the Seminole Tribe of Florida operates several tourism-related enterprises. These businesses carry on traditions stretching back to the founding of Musa Isle’s Seminole Indian village by Willie Willie in the late 1910s.

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6 thoughts on “Florida Seminoles and Musa Isle

  1. I was always interested in the science behind medicine men. Are they actually skilled in medical areas or do they merely rely on ritualistic enchantments?

    • In recent years, scholars have come to understand both the medicinal properties and the psychology behind traditional healing practices. Medicine men (and women) often employ various plants and herbal remedies which have medical value. Western doctors have long acknowledged the value of natural medicine. Less understood are the psychological effects of believing in the power of ritual to impact health. Belief, in these cases, may be just as powerful as the medicine itself.

      If you’re interested, we have recordings of a Seminole woman named Susie Billie explaining the healing process.

      For more information on medicinal plants and the Florida Seminoles see: Alice Micco Snow and Susan Enns Stans, Healing Plants: Medicine of the Florida Seminole Indians (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001).

  2. For more information on the Florida Seminoles and tourism see: Patsy West, The Enduring Seminoles: From Alligator Wrestling to Casino Gaming (University of Florida Press, 2008).

  3. It is interesting how the seminoles were the center of a tourist attraction where the exhibit their life style, which was an influence of the Americans ways. The alligator wrestling and patch work was not part of the early Indians life but picked up later by influence of Europeans.

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