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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Seminole Trail—Connections Made

Image: by D L Ennis, Mother and Daughter dance at a Monacan Powwow in Amherst County, Virginia.

How did the “Seminole Trail" along US Route 29 in Virginia, get its name? Good question and it will likely remain a mystery forever. We know that in 1928, Virginia's General Assembly voted to name route 29 the Seminole Trail. “Ann L. Miller, a Virginia Department of Transportation historian, said the act -- Senate Bill 64 -- gives no clue why they picked that name or who initiated the proposal.”

The Answer Man, as he’s called, of the Washington Post says,

Many early roads followed old Indian trails, so you might expect that to be the case here. There's just one hitch: The Seminoles aren't a Virginia tribe. They never have been. They're mostly connected to Florida, where they were born from the fragments of earlier tribes that had sparred with colonists as well as runaway slaves who were looking for freedom.

He’s right that, “Many early roads followed old Indian trails…” He is also right that, “The Seminoles aren't a Virginia tribe.” However, is has been argued by, Joseph Opala, an anthropologist at James Madison University in Virginia, (who has studied the Seminole since the 1970s) that the Seminoles were a multiethnic tribe from their beginning. This is to say that the Seminoles are a permutation of various tribes as well as runaway slaves.

The Seminole were originally part of the Creek, and they began to migrate from Southern Georgia to Northern Florida in the later half of the eighteenth century. Other tribes that mixed with the Seminole were the Timuquan, Calusan, and Muskhogean. Other tribes in the area were the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Yuchi, Yamassee and Apalachicola and it is likely that members of these tribes also came to be with the Seminole.

Now back to the fact that the Seminole were never a Virginia tribe and speculation as to why route 29 in Virginia would be named the Seminole Trail.

Though the Seminole were never a Virginia tribe there are some things that connect them to Virginia. The first, and probably most obvious, would be the Cherokee. The Cherokee originally inhabited most of the southeast of the United States, including Virginia, Georgia, and Florida.

The next connecting factor would be the runaway slaves who runaway and took shelter with people who accepted them, the Seminole. It is known to be fact that slaves from as far north as Virginia fled and joined the Seminole some even intermarried with the Seminole. There is some speculation that the Seminole actually enslaved the runaway black slaves themselves at first, but I could not find enough proof in my research to see this as fact.

The most important connection between Virginia Indian tribes and the Seminole, I found very interesting and to me shows an element of proof that there was a definite substantial connection at some point in their history. This all important connection is language.

The Monacan tribe of Amherst County, Virginia spoke a form of Siouan. The Seminole spoke Hokan-Siouan. The fact that a Virginia tribe, the Monacan, and tribes from Georgia who we know became part of the Seminole, such as the Muskogean, both spoke a form of the Siouan language is an unarguable connection.

The Answer Man, of the Washington Post says,

So why name a Virginia road after them? Though historians aren't certain, it appears it was an act of 1920s boosterism. Officials wanted to remind people that Route 29 wasn't just for getting from Culpeper to Ruckersville -- it was also the road that leads all the way to the sun and fun of Florida, the Seminole state.
I don’t think that the Answer Mans theory of boosterism carries as much weight as the other connections that I have shown here. During the 1920’s roads were few and of low quality, not to mention that travel was still relatively slow, so people would not likely travel far out of their way to use one road as opposed to another. I think that boosterism in this case would have been a ridiculous reason for naming route 29 The Seminole Trail. Instead, I think that the most reasonable reason for the name would be the fact that Indians, runaway slaves and others used the same trail for ease of travel and that The Seminole Trail earned its name long before the need for modern numbered roads.

The Seminole Trail was a road to some semblance of a free life for many, through the turbulent times of America’s the 18th and 19th centuries, leading to the Seminole. Let’s give credit to those who forged the trail in question for the suffering they endured in doing so.

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