Culture & Heritage

Florida's Native American Heritage spans more than 12,000 years. Indigenous peoples occupied the Sunshine State long before the Europeans arrived and their cultures are both historically marked and practiced today. Indeed, 95% of Florida’s past occurred before the Europeans arrived. Names such as Pensacola, Miami, Okeechobee, Caloosahatchee and Tallahassee are reminders of the Paleo-Indians who first lived here. Florida's early inhabitants built monuments from the most readily available materials - shells and sand and sometimes, clay. Prehistoric middens and mounds are found in numerous historic sites across the state.

heritage trail booklet

Florida Native American Heritage Trail.

A copy of the eBook is on line at FloridaMemory

"Florida Native American Heritage Trail"  which is published by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources.

Indian Temple Mound Museum. Ft. Walton Beach, FL.

Known also as the Heritage Park and Cultural Center. Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa County. (850.833.9595) theIndian Temple Mound Museum is located next to the National Historic Landmark Temple Mound that gave name to the impressive Fort Walton Period ceramics. There is a short trail to the mound. Exhibits reflect the spiritual, technological, and artistic achievements of the Native American people from 12,000 years ago through Spanish contact in the early 1500s.

Creek Handmade Arrows.

museum display of arrowsThe arrows in the photo are part of the display of the Native American Collection on exhibit at Baker Block Museum. Nathan Chessher made them by hand, using products of the local environment in Okaloosa County, exclusively.

Of the six arrows, the top three are made of shoots from the "beloved tree of the Creek Indians," Yaupon Holly. The three arrows on the bottom are made of switch cane, this was favored for arrow shafts.

The arrows are fletched with wild turkey feathers. Only the stiff primary flight feathers are used and because of the direction of curl, feathers from the same side wing must be used on an individual arrow -- right and left wing feathers must not be mixed on an individual arrow. The feathers and points are tied on with sinew from whitetail deer. Ron Fowler made the arrow points.

Black Drink.

youpon holly

"Black drink" was the name given by colonists to a ritual beverage called Asi, brewed by Native Americans in the Southeastern United States.

It was prepared from the roasted leaves and stems of the Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria), native to the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. The active ingredient in the drink was caffeine. The beverage was often used as a substitute for coffee and tea by colonists under the name cassine or cassina.

Prior to the 19th century, the black drink was consumed during the daily deliberations of the village councils and at all other important council meetings. Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws, and others believed it purified the drinker and purged him of anger and falsehoods. Black drink was prepared by special village officials and served in large communal cups, frequently made of whelk shell. The men in council were served in order of precedence, starting with important visitors. (Creek Indians called it a white drink because it symbolizes purity and purifying. Europeans called it the 'black drink' because of its color)

Ceremonial Objects & Traditions

"Whelk Conch Shell"

whelk on graveThe whelk conch or "lightning" whelk as it was called, is the only shell that grows with a left hand spiral. When the inner part of the shell is removed, it forms a dipper. The shell dipper held the "black drink".

The shells were collected from the waters of the gulf, then brought to the north end of the (Okaloosa) county. These sacred objects were placed on graves. This was a common practice here until the 1940s.



This traditional gorget necklace was made by Nathan Chessher. Gorgets of this type were common to pre-historic southeastern Native Americans. It is made from the flat part of the lip of a large whelk shell. It was carved into a circular shape (4-5 inch diameter) and often, religious symbols were depicted on them. The carved depictions were highly stylized because of the native people's beliefs and their highly developed artistic skills.

This gorget necklace is on display at the museum Courtesy of Nathan Chessher.

"Square Ground"

The Creek Indians kept the village ceremonial fire burning in the center of the square ground which was in the center of the village.  It was put out each year and rekindled because during the year it was the fire that received the offenses of the people.  A new fire had to be started to receive the offenses of the coming year - the black drink was a part of this ceremony.


The culture of the Creek people demanded that every one in the village take a bath in the creek or river every morning regardless of the weather or they would be punished.  This is one of the reasons that the Muscogee people were called Creek Indians, and because they always lived near running water.  Native prehistoric peoples made offerings to the water spirits.  They tossed their best arrowheads into the stream as an offering to the feared spirits in the water.  It is no wonder that, today, we find old arrowheads in or near streams in our area.

Burial Houses.

    grave house of Creeks         

Tribal Elder, Nathan Chessher,  has studied our local Native American culture and history for more than twenty-six years.  He has compiled points of history, artifacts, read copious documents and taken interviews as part of his research.  He was particularily interested in the burial houses and, over a three-year period, pieced together their history and purpose in our area. What follows is a portion of  his detailed, lengthy documented research which he has  allowed us to use.

"Building a shelter or 'house' over a grave was both a historic and prehistoric practice of the Muscogee (Creek) Tribes.  Nearly every cemetery in north Okaloosa County had some of these 'houses.'  Mr. Chessher continues,  "When I was a child in the 1940s they were still being built.  The house survived because Christian Creeks built them in church graveyards where they were protected and maintained.  (The houses were made from the resinous heart  wood of the old growth southern  long-leaf  pine tree which is impervious to rot and insects.   These trees were almost erridicated by the white settlers.  Today, this tree is being re-introduced into our local forests).

 The diamond shapes on the fence posts indicate a male was buried there; a circle was used for females.  The whelk shell was considered to be a sacred object.They were  often placed on top of gravesites; accompanied by other smaller shells covering the entire grave top."   In recent years Mr. Raymond Halford has repaired some of the burial houses in the area by tacking original wooden pieces back in place. However, major repairs are problematic because there are no longer trees of large enough girth to be harvested to replace the sidings.

   whelk at gravesite     
There are other explanations for these burial houses.  Though we favor the one already noted above.  Some say they were built to keep wild stock or animals off of the grave. Others say their purpose was to keep the rain off the grave top. Still others say the houses were used to provide shade and a resting place for family members to visit. They may have also been built to provide a memorial for loved ones - a baby or honored person. Others believe the structures were to provide comfort to the spirit of the dead or a 'home' for the spirit. More photos of these burial houses can be viewed in the Heritage Collection of the MyFlorida website.

Henry Rushing Cook FamilyThe Henry Rushing Cook family observed this custom

Henry was born in 1869 to Matthew M. Cook and Eliza Ann Steele. His mother, Eliza, was a descendant of the Muscogee Nation. The family was among prominent traders in the Creek Nation. Read their family story in the Heritage of Okaloosa County, Florida.  This photo is of Henry and family -Nannie, Susie and Minnie. They were on their way to the gulf coast (some 20 miles or so) - at the time this photo was taken they were going to get shells to adorn gravesites.

Leader and Warrior ranks.

Title and rank among Native Americans had two separate categories - one for war-fighting and battle and a separate title for a tribal leader or healer.

  • We believe that "Timpoochee" was a title which appears before Kinnard's name (not his first name as the settlers would have assumed). There is debate about the various people named Kinnard or Barnard who bear the name (or moniker) of , "Timpoochee." We encourage you to do your own research and decide.
  • "Mico" a title for chief.


Lineage and family heritage.

Most native peoples were matrilineal - trace their lineage through the mother. However, they had no written records.  The European traders who married Indian women kept records and it is through these records that bloodlines back to the father and mother are traced. It is important not to confuse "matrilineal"(birth; bloodline) with "matriarichal" (power, position).  

Another effect lineage had on native peoples is that it sometimes determined whether an Indian was 'removed' or not.  On some occasions exceptions were made if the father of an Indian child was a prominent white settler in the community.  Other times it was a simple matter of keeping mother and child together, thus, sending both to a reservation.

As it happened throughout the Southeast United States, native peoples resorted to 'hiding' their true bloodlines in order to remain in their homeland (often just to survive at all) - and to avoid removal.  Black Dutch, Mulatto, Portuguese, among others, were terms used by full and mixed blood native peoples in order to disguise their identity in the white settlers world.  Research these terms to learn more about the assimilation of native peoples into the predominate culture of the 19th and 20th centuries in this country.

Notable warriors are prominent in blood lines - some had white mothers, others had white fathers, thus, the term "half blood" or "mixed blood" are sometimes used to describe their lineage. These terms may be helpful to discuss the past, but they can also be hurtful when used as a label.  It is always best to determine the context and intent of your discussion when using these terms.

Baker Block Museum Educational Services.  Corner Hwy 4 & Rt. 189. Baker, FL. 32531. (850) 537-5714