This series looks at the etymology of Florida place names derived from the Muskogee and Hitchiti languages.
Many Florida place names owe their origins to Muskogee and Hitchiti, two of the languages spoken by members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida. The persistence of Muskogee and Hitchiti words as modern Florida place names reflects the prominent role played by Native Americans in the region’s history.
Today’s term is Okeechobee, meaning “big water.” The word is a combination of okee (water) and chobee (big).
Okeechobee is perhaps the best known Muskogee language place name in Florida. Prior to the 19th century, however, the lake was known by a succession of different names. For example, in the map below the lake is labeled as “Lac du St. Esprit,” a French version of the Spanish imposed name Laguna Espiritu Santo (Lagoon of the Holy Spirit).
Another name for the lake used by Europeans in the late 1700s was Lake Mayaco, as shown on the map below by English cartographer Bernard Romans. The term Mayaco is possibly derived from Mayaimi, a name for an indigenous tribe that occupied the area at the time of first contact with Europeans and Africans.
Maps from early territorial Florida also used forms of the ancient term, such as Macaco in the below example by H.S. Tanner.
The Americans learned a great deal about the geography of southern Florida during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). Sometime in the early stages of that conflict, U.S. Army topographers started using Okeechobee as the name for the large, shallow lake that serves as the headwaters of the Everglades. The area around Lake Okeechobee witnessed significant combat during the Seminole Wars, especially during the Battles of Lake Okeechobee (December 25, 1837) and Loxahatchee (January 24, 1838).
Seminole families reoccupied the region near Lake Okeechobee following the conclusion of the Seminole Wars. As late as the 1920s and 1930s, Seminole camps in the area extended from as far north as Sawgrass Lake in western Brevard County, to as far south as the Palm Beach canal, and at several spots along the northern rim of Lake Okeechobee, from west of Fort Pierce to the Indian Prairie. Many of these camps moved to the Brighton Reservation after 1936. The Indiantown families moved to Dania (now Hollywood) in about 1928.
The majority of Seminoles in the early 20th century lived south of Lake Okeechobee, near the Big Cypress Swamp and along the Tamiami Trail. These southern bands of Seminoles, predominately Mikasuki-speakers, were sometimes known as either the Cypress or Miami Indians. Their counterparts living north of Lake Okeechobee were sometimes known as the “Cow Creeks,” after a small stream west of Fort Pierce that flows into the great lake.
On the map above, Seminole camps near Lake Okeechobee circa 1930 are marked by numbered circles: 1. Billie Smith; 2. Sam Jones (not included on excerpt above); 3. Billie Buster; 4. Naha Tiger; 5. Joe Bowers; 6. Summerlin; 7. Willie Johns; 8. Charlie Micco; 9. Billy Bowlegs; 10. Billie Stewart; 11. Dan Parker; 12. Ella Montgomery.
Despite the tendency for Seminoles to live in matrilocal camps during the period depicted in Nash’s map, many outsiders, including government officials, assigned settlement names according to the resident elder male. This reflected an ongoing misunderstanding of the Seminoles’ social organization and a tendency to recognize men alone as suitable heads of household.
To learn more, see Bertha E. Bloodworth and Alton C. Morris, Places in the Sun: The History and Romance of Florida Place Names (University Presses of Florida, 1978); John K. Mahon, History of the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842 (University of Florida Press, 1991 ); Jack B. Martin and Margaret McKane Mauldin, A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee, with Notes on the Florida and Oklahoma Seminole Dialects of Creek (University of Nebraska Press, 2004); Roy Nash, “Survey of the Seminole Indians of Florida,” 71st U.S. Congress, 3rd sess., Senate Document 314 (Washington, D.C.: Govt. Print. Office, 1931); John T. Sprague, The Origins, Progress, and Conclusion of the Florida War (University of Tampa Press, 2000 ); John R. Swanton, Early History of the Creek Indians and Their Neighbors (University of Florida Press, 1998 ).