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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20 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).

    • I’m reading this book right now. I got it at the Key West library. Very interesting. It tells the story of how the Seminoles migrated from the camps along the Miami River to their own land once Tamiami Trail was built. They were very resourceful and entrepreneurial.

  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.

      • The State Archives provides access to a variety of genealogical resources, including census records, selected local county records on microfilm, an extensive library of local history books, and other helpful tools. Access to the larger databases like Ancestry.com and Fold3 is also available in our research room at the R.A. Gray Building in Tallahassee. We recommend you stop by for a visit and let our reference staff get you started!

  4. We thought perhaps that “Alligator Joe”, the Florida Cracker character that owned the place, may have been the first Alligator wrestler. A Florida history student at the University of South Florida wrote us and says that the Seminoles started alligator wrestling at Musa Isle.

    • Hello. You must be related to me as Bert Lasher is also my great grandfather. My grandmother, Alberta Lasher Walker, was from his first marriage. I would like to know more about the other villages he ran. I only learned about him a couple years ago and never knew about him growing up. Guessing because got remarried to someone else and so that was scandalous back then for sure.

    • Hello Patrick, this is Debra from Ohio. How interesting that your Great Grandfather was Bert Lasher, who ran Musa Isle! How I wish such a place still remained. I HATE how the U.S.A. Destroys most all of Our Historic Places…then many Travel to Europe to See The Past! Ding Dong, how Stupid! I recently came across a piece of Memorabilia from Musa Isle. My late husband was just a child, when relatives visited there, and Mailed him a Small U.S. Mail pouch, with black & white photos of Musa Isle and it’s Indians. The Stamp was 2 Cents! Must have been from around 1945? Not many people today would appreciate such History, but I do. Have you ever saw what I’m speaking about? Did your Parents tell you all about your Great Grandfather and those Good Ole days? Just curious. ?Well, back to “Treasure Hunting” in the Attic! Take Care. Sincerely, Debra

  5. I attended Citrus grove school from 1946-1955 or so. We often had Seminole attend classes at Citrus grove. They would come for a while then leave , one girl attended and her name was Nany. She wore the most beautiful cloths. The. Top and skirt were beautiful patch work. I’ve always wondered what happened to her

  6. My parents owned Musa Isle from 1955 until it closed. They bought it from my grandparents and you can read about them in Patsy West’s book, The Enduring Seminoles.

  7. I was born January 6, 1943 in Allapattah. The house my father build and I was born in is now a slum. But I remember going to Musa Isle, watching the alligator wrestling, buying tiny dolls with hand-made Seminole patchwork dresses and the ‘sun bonnet’ hairdo. The ladies sewed the patchwork using hand-powered sewing machines.
    Now I can’t even find where it was. On 22nd Avenue, just south of the Miami River bridge? Anyone know the address?
    Some of my mom’s old black and white pix are in storage. It would be fun to dig them out.

  8. My folks moved to Miami early 1948 from CT with six month old “Me”. Grew up in Miami when air conditioning was rare. Many Northern relatives visited us in 50’s & 60’s, so we became accidental South Florida tour guides. Musa Isle was a fun trip up the Miami River to mingle with Native Americans, entertained by alligator wrestling as well as snake & “swamp critter” handling. I loved growing up in Miami. There were so many fascinating things & experiences (still are). Recently moved back to SoFlo from AZ, and having a blast rediscovering Florida, as well as marveling at the awesome transformation of what once was a kind of “hick town” into an International showcase of modern infrastructure.

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