Cowkeeper (ca 1710 – 1783) is the English name of the first recorded chief of the Alachua band of the Seminole tribe. His traditional name was Ahaya.

His tribe, the Oconee, were originally from central Georgia but people settled along the Chattahoochee River in North Florida when he was a small boy. By his mid-twenties, Ahaya was chief of his village, and had developed a passionate hatred for the Spaniards who ruled over Florida. When James Oglethorpe of Georgia launched an English raid against the Spanish capital at St. Augustine in 1740, he found Ahaya and his thirty warriors were willing allies. About the year 1750, Ahaya led his people south to what is now Paynes Prairie, possibly near the ruins of the Timucua village of Potano. They found abundant game and fish, as well as many wild cows. His people rounded-up the cattle to form a vast herd, earning their chief his English byname "Cowkeeper."

By 1757, the Cowkeeper's people had a thriving village of their own called Cuscowilla, on the northwest shore of Lake Tuscawilla where the modern town of Micanopy now stands. That year, the chief visited the Governor of Georgia and expressed his hatred both for the Spanish and for any Indian tribes allied with them. His hatred, he explained, came from a vision that he would not find peace in the afterlife unless he killed one hundred Spaniards. In 1763, when Spain ceded Florida to the British, Cowkeeper was overjoyed. He even traveled to St. Augustine for the inauguration of the new British governor Patrick Tonyn. The British treated his people as separate and distinct from the other native people of Florida, calling them "Seminoles," a name derived from the Spanish word 'cimarones' or 'runaways', 'maroons'. Eventually, this name was applied to all the tribes.

In 1774, naturalist William Bartram of Philadelphia visited Cowkeeper at Cuskowilla. He was honored with a great feast featuring a number of the Alachua band's finest cattle. When Bartram explained to his host that he was interested in studying the local plants and animals, Cowkeeper was amused. He called the American scientist "Puc-puggee," or "the flower hunter." But, he also gave him free rein to explore his lands. In the same year, a Georgia settler named John Bryan attempted to trick the Creek chiefs in that colony to sign away the tribe's rights to lands in Florida. Cowkeeper was shocked when the bold man traveled as far south as Payne's Prairie to carve his name into a red oak tree, but his allies quickly intervened. Governor James Wright of Georgia informed the Creeks of Bryan's trickery, and Governor Tonyn of Florida issued an arrest warrant for the scoundrel.

In 1783, when the British had to cede Florida back to Spain, Cowkeeper saw a chance to fulfill his vision of killing a hundred Spaniards before his death. He organized a war party to attack St. Augustine, but quickly fell ill. Knowing his end was near, he summoned his sons Payne and Bowlegs to his side to confess that he had only killed eighty-six Spaniards and asked them to kill the remaining fourteen in his name.

Preceded by
Leading chief of the Seminoles
Succeeded by
King Payne

Further reading

  • Paynes Prairie: A History of the Great Savanna, by Lars Andersen. Pineapple Press, Inc., Sarasota, Florida, 2001.

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