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The Biggest Indian in Florida

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On: Tue, Nov 4, 2008 at 9:07AM | By: John Paeno

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Cuban fishermen moved to Key West and up the west coast to Charlotte Harbor and Pine Island Sound. One of them, Jose Maria Caldez, started a fishing rancho on Caldez Island (Uncle Seppa’s Island now known as Useppa Island), Cayo Palau, and others in Pine Island Sound. He employed Cuban/Spanish Indians that were fishermen, some were probably originally (Florida Indians) from this area. They could have been native Florida Indians or Creek Indians that had gone to Cuba. They were now in the fish rancho business for Cuba and the connection to Cuba was closer than to any local government on the mainland. These ranchos did a good business catching fish and selling them in Cuba. In the 1830s the Spanish were accused of selling weapons to the Seminoles who were fighting the US over removal from Florida. In 1836 an Indian chief, Wy-hoo-kee, led an attack on Useppa Island; all the residents fled. The fishing ranchos were abandoned. Some of the Spanish and Indians went back to Cuba or the keys, and some went into the interior with the hostiles.

Some of the Spanish wives and children were deported by the US to the Indian territory. In the history of the Seminole Wars, is a story of a renegade Seminole warrior/chief named Chakaika. He appears in 1839 in the Ft. Myers/Cape Coral area. He was called the biggest Indian in Florida, about six feet tall, and over two hundred pounds of a “strong stout build.” His story goes that before the Second Seminole War he came to Florida from one of the Creek tribes that moved south to get away from the whites. He may have said this to keep the Seminole from attacking him; he was not known to the other Creek tribes in Florida at the time. It is said that he led a band of Spanish Indians and Spanish/Indian mix who were fishermen. Chakaika’s people spoke their own language of Spanish and Indian different from the other tribes. They traded with the Spanish and Seminoles in the area. In 1839, an oral peace agreement was reached between one Seminole tribe in south Florida and the government. The military had no intention of honoring this agreement, wanting to move them to the west, and then subdue the Indians remaining in Florida; the Indians soon learned of the military’s plans. Chakaika was then called upon to help the Seminole, or be treated as their enemy. Given little choice, Chakaika decided “to follow.”

A plan was made to attack a military camp/trading post about 15 miles from the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River (near present-day Ft. Myers/Cape Coral). The natives appeared on the south bank one day and made camp, crossed the river, traded with the post, and danced that night. About 4 a.m., the commander of the post, Col. Harney, awoke to shots being fired and found himself in the middle of an Indian attack. He managed flee to safety. Of 25 soldiers, 13 were killed and six captured, Two were later tortured; one was Sandy, one of Harney’s interpreters. By inserting dry slivers of wood into the flesh and setting them on fire, then starting small fires under each foot, the prisoners were kept alive for about 5-6 hours. The remaining four were enslaved (though one, Harney's other interpreter, later escaped). Col. Harney vowed vengeance against Chakaika, swearing to see him and his band all hanged. Chakaika next attacked the trading post at Indian Key in the Keys and killed Dr. Perrine, who ran the post. The doctor’s wife and children climbed into one of the Indian canoes filled with loot, pushed it adrift, and lay hidden in the bottom. The Indians did not bother with, it thinking they could retrieve it at any time. After drifting about a mile, she began paddling. The Indians started to pursue her, but gave up. She was rescued by the military vessel, Vandalia, and taken to Key West. In December 1840, Col. Harney led two dragoons into the swamps to find Chakaika and hang him.

Disguised as Indians, Harney and his men came across the one of Chakaika’s slaves, a 16-year old black slave who had run away into the swamp after being beaten. He volunteered to lead them to Chakaika’s home. Chakaika thought that the military could not get to him in the swamp, that they did not have canoes. So when he saw Indian canoes approaching he thought nothing of it until the first shots were fired. Chakaika was chopping wood and before he could get to a weapon a soldier was there. He tried to escape into the woods but was soon run down. When he stopped, turned, and surrendered he was shot in the face and killed by the soldier. His body and those of the braves the soldiers found were hung from the trees, the woman and children were captured and taken to be relocated. The island (hammock) in the Everglades where Chakaika lived and was killed was from that day called Hanging People Kay, or just Hanging People, by the Seminole. Harney’s treatment of Chakaika and his warriors outraged the Seminole nation because they felt hanging a warrior who died in battle was without honor, like hanging dogs. The legend says that some of Chakaika’s people escaped into the Everglades and eventually to Cuba, or were assimilated into other Seminole tribes, and a few went to the Indian territory in the west. In March of 1841, 24 women and children (no men) Spanish Indians and several Spanish or Spanish mix were shipped from Tampa to New Orleans.

There the Spanish/mix were allowed to find passage to Cuba and the 24 Indians sent to Fort Gibson in Arkansas. Chakaika’s sister and one of his wives was with them. A special note on the Muster Roll states that Col Harney brought them in, having killed all the warriors. They left Fort Gibson as part of the 205 Seminoles belonging to Chief Micanopy’s people and migrated to the Deep Forks River village of Micanopy. Chakaika left no descendants that we know of. When the island “Hanging People” was investigated by archeologist, they found no sign of agriculture, only one citrus tree (unheard of for Creek/Seminole sites of the period). The Creek of the western territory have a legend about some Calusa knowledge and customs that they say come from some of the Spanish Indians that ended up out there. Were the people of Chakaika descendents of the Creek or Spanish and Calusa? He was said to be the biggest Indian in Florida, much like the Calusa. Was he actually Calusa or mix or were any of his people? In the Muster rolls all other Indians are listed by tribal name or family name, but his are the only ones referred to (out of thousands that I reviewed), as Spanish Indians. His name or bloodline does not show up before or after his brief time in history’s light. Are there any of his family line left? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions and may never, but maybe someday. New research and information is coming to light every day. Dr. Perrine is credited (in a conversation with Harney) as the first visionary seeing the Everglades drained and south Florida as a thriving agricultural and vacation capital. This, in part, started today’s conservation movement, although not with today’s meaning. That, however, is another story. If you would like to hear more of Chakaika’s story, come take a tour with me.

If you have found pot shards, shell tools, or items that you believe to be part of an ancient culture, please contact the Randell Research Center or the Florida Museum of Natural History to investigate your find. John Paeno is owner/operator of Calusa Ghost Tours and co-owner of Calusa Backwater Adventures. He also is a staff writer for the Nautical Mile Magazine of Lee, Collier, and Charlotte counties. search Calusa John

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