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Indians at the Post Office

Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals

Seminole Indians

Refer to caption
Seminole Indians by Charles Rosen
Palm Beach, Florida Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Seminole Indians by Charles Rosen
Palm Beach, Florida Post Office
Used with the permission of the United States Postal Service®.

Charles Rosen’s “Seminole Indians” (1938) for the Palm Beach, Florida post office is a triptych of scenes from daily life depicting Florida’s Seminole Indians in their Everglades home. At left, a figure holding a fishing spear stands near a dugout canoe floating on the banks of a waterway; at center, a group of five individuals prepare food (likely pounding wild coontie or zamia plant to make flour) and craft dolls near a chickee with roof of thatched palmetto fiber and frame of cypress timber; at right, two men examine a wild turkey, a one-time staple of the Seminole diet. The individuals wear traditional 19th and early 20th century intricate patchword textiles, or strip clothing, created from fabric remnants (“Seminole Food;” Westermark-Many Bad Horses).

The Seminole People, a Federally Recognized Indian tribe and notably “the only tribe in America who never signed a peace treaty,” descended from the Maskókî-speaking peoples of the North American Southeast whose presence in the region has been noted by researchers to date back at least 12,000 years. With the 16th and 17th century arrival of the Europeans to North America, the Maskókî descendants in Florida ultimately began creating communities as refugees from the British colonies and Spanish Catholic missions. The Seminoles incorporated many African people escaped from slavery. By the time Florida was sold by the Spanish to the English in 1763 and the first English speakers entered the southern peninsula, the native peoples of the region had already adopted the name Seminolies or Seminoles, believed to be either an anglicized form of the Spanish cimarrones, or runaways, or an adaptation of the Creek phrase phegee ishti semoli, where Seminole means “wild men” (“Seminole History;” “Seminoles and Miccosukees”). Sadly, a number of wars between the native and new citizens of Florida over land rights ensued throughout the 19th century leaving those that had not been killed or relocated to the Midwest to “live on the fringes of society…as hunters, guides and sometimes, curiosities for the tourists” (Steele). At the start of the 20th century, and despite the US Department of the Interior and then President Taft designating south Florida land as Seminole “reservation,” Florida State Governor William Jennings stirred controversy by initially refusing land rights and citizenship to the Seminoles. However, federal rulings allowing reservations prevailed and these sites soon nurtured preservation of customs, language and self-government (Steele).

Florida’s Seminole Indians faced yet another struggle when in the 1950’s the United States Congress passed legislation to terminate federal tribal programs. In 1957, leaders of the Seminole peoples drafted a Tribal constitution allowing them to attain self-government through the formation of a Tribal Council, and incorporated themselves to oversee the business matters of the Tribe. In the 21st century, the Seminole Tribe of Florida has attained economic stability via the development of gaming, cattle, citrus and other businesses that support a growing infrastructure for the community’s public services, helping make them one of the most successful native business peoples in the United States today (Steele).

With the Palm Beach area of south Florida (located in the southeast, just north of Miami and Ft Lauderdale) one of the original locations of Seminole settlements, it made sense that the coastal island’s post office murals depicted scenes of daily life of the city’s original inhabitants. In fact, the WPA commissioned mural artist Rosen to create three murals as part of its mural project. The first is a map of the Hudson Valley for the Beacon, N.Y., branch; the second a view of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for that city’s post office; and the third a depiction of Florida’s Seminole Indians and intra-coastal waterway, for Palm Beach (Sturrock). Born on a Pennsylvania farm in 1878, Rosen studied painting at New York City’s National Academy of Design with Francis Coates Jones, and at the New York School of Art with William Merritt Chase and Frank Vincent DuMond. He married and moved back to Pennsylvania in 1903 where he earned fame for his Pennsylvania snow scenes. There he enjoyed friendships with numerous other notable artists of the period while further developing his impressionist style, “which often combines a sense of the decorative patterning found in nature, as well as its more dynamic, vigorous aspects” (“Charles Rosen”). He then relocated to Woodstock, New York where he became closely associated with the Woodstock Artists’ Colony and began developing a more modern style which would characterize his work until his death in 1950. Many of Rosen's paintings are currently part of the permanent collection of the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The 2006 publication Form Radiating Life: The Paintings of Charles Rosen was authored by Brian H. Peterson, Senior Curator at the Michener Art Museum, and offers further insight into the artist’s life and work (“Charles Rosen”).

The Spanish-style architecture of the 1936 Palm Beach Post Office building designed by architect Louis Simon and listed on the National Register of Historic Places featured a grand lobby, two-tier Spanish barrel tile roof, marble stairs and brass handrails. Sold in 2011 to an investment firm when the post office was relocated to a new, modern building just down the street, the murals are still intact and still owned by USPS, but are no longer on public display.

By Marlen Elliot Harrison, PhD, MA

Website for tribal nation: www.miccosukeeseminolenation.com


Sources:

“Charles Rosen.” Michenermuseum.org. n.p. n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.

“Seminole Food.” Semtribe.com. n.p. n.d. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

“Seminole History.” Semtribe.com. n.p. n.d. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

“Seminoles and Miccosukees.” PBCHistoryonline.org. n.p. n.d. 13 Sept. 2015.

Steele, Willard. “Brief Summary of Seminole History.” Seminole Tribe of Florida. n.p. n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2015.

Sturrock, Staci. “Palm Beach County’s Secret Post Office Murals Are a Delight.”
Mypalmbeachpost. Cox Media Group, 27 Aug. 2015. Web. 10 Sept. 2015.

Westermark-Many Bad Horses, Victoria. “Seminole Patchwork.” Absolutely Florida Magazine. n.p. 1990. Web. 10 Sept. 2015.