Musa Isle – the first significant Native American attraction in Florida.
First opened in 1907, Musa Isle was one of the earlier tourist attractions in Florida, especially in the Miami area. At the time, Miami’s population was only about 5,000, a tiny population when Jacksonville was more than 10 times and Key West was 4 times the size of Miami. Miami wouldn’t become an emerging vacation destination for more than a decade.
Musa Isle – Home of the Seminole Indians was located on the Miami River at NW 16th Street, near the intersection of 20th Street and 27th Avenue.
Created by John Roop, Musa Isle began as a basic fruit shipping attraction. In 1919, Roop leased part of his property to a Seminole man named Willie Willie. Willie Willie and his father Charlie Willie ran a trading post located to the west of the site and they were looking for a place to sell their items that was closer to Miami.
The two Seminoles invited other Seminoles they knew to move to the property and set up camp over the winter as an additional attraction. It was a success and Musa Isle’s Seminole Indian village was born. Some feel that there were five main families who called the village home, though many other families would come to stay for various lengths of time.
The Seminoles would wear their traditional clothing, practice their crafts and interact among themselves and with the public, all the while living on the grounds. Visitors remember smelling their cooking and hearing the kids laugh and play games. They earned money by selling their finished crafts and displaying skills they cultivated by living in the Everglades sine the mid 19th century.
Probably the most exciting and most popular skill they displayed was alligator wrestling. In reality, alligator wrestling wasn’t exactly a common skill. Certainly the Seminoles hunted alligators for their meat, skin and other products, but they didn’t exactly wrestle them.
It’s believed that alligator wrestling was more or less brought to popular attention at Musa Isle. It was probably invented at some tourism-oriented place prior to Musa Isle, considering that the action had limited use in the real world. Nonetheless, it was obvious that alligator wrestling was highly popular and a money maker for the Seminoles. Typically visitors would stand around the “pit” where the wrestling took place and at the end they’d toss in coins to reward the young men who had placed their lives in danger.
By World War II, the words Seminole and alligator were entwined in the minds of Florida visitors. Not only was Musa Isle a success, but new attractions such as Tropical Hobbyland in Miami and the Seminole “colony” that was part of Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute in Silver Springs were displaying the daily life of Seminoles to thousands of tourists. And this was in addition to the settlements along the Tamiami Trail.
Musa Isle was a successful attraction throughout the 1950s. Today, of course, there are questions about the appropriateness of having the Seminoles live their lives while on public display. It’s clear that the Seminoles made the choice to live and work at Musa Isle and the other attractions. They were able to sell their creations directly to the visitors and accept tips for alligator wrestling and other skills.
In 2019, I communicated with the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Indian Museum, on the Big Cypress Indian Reservation. Opened in 1997, it’s owned and operated by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
In response to questions about how modern Seminoles feel about the postcards and other images that are the remnants of Musa Isle, Tara Backhouse, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki’s Collections Manager wrote: “they represent the tourist camp era of modern Seminole history. They are not considered offensive or culturally insensitive, however they are representations of a particular time and situation. Seminoles at that time were dealing with changing times and landscapes, and they found a new way to thrive in the business and tourism worlds by participating in the tourism enterprises where those images were obtained. While much that occurred there was stereotypical and did not represent real Seminole life, much of it was based on Seminole traditions and Seminole people were able to control what they shared with visitors. Their experiences led to the economic successes we see that the Tribe has today, and many who grew up in that era have fond memories of places like Musa Isle.”
Musa Isle closed in 1964, likely for a number of reasons. By the 1960s, it was located in the center of Miami, instead of on its outskirts. It also didn’t modernize and was a likely victim of the huge number of attractions throughout Florida and especially in the Miami area.
Today, alligator wrestling isn’t the show it once was. Attractions, such as Gatorland in Orlando, still work with alligators in a similar way, but they typically use much smaller ones and even allow kids to pose with them. Other attractions, such as Wild Florida in Kenansville and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, have staff that work in enclosures with large alligators that are potentially dangerous but what they do isn’t really “wrestling”.
To learn about Seminole culture – ancient, modern and even during the time of Musa Isle – visit the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. It’s about 84 miles (135 km) north-west from the Musa Isle site. It has a terrific artifact collection and often has Seminoles working on crafts on its grounds.