UF Researcher Finds Mission Indians Played Bigger Role In Florida History

Published: March 18 1999

Category:Florida, Natural History, Research, Sciences

GAINESVILLE — The Spanish would never have survived to give Florida its name and heritage in the 17th century without the Indians who lived at missions strung out across the state, says a University of Florida researcher.

In new research based on archaeological excavations and material in the Spanish archives, UF anthropologist Jerald Milanich has found that the mission Indians played a greater role than previously thought in the colonization of La Florida, Spain’s name for what then was the Southeastern United States.

“The Spanish simply would not have had a presence here without the missions,” said Milanich, author of the new book “Laboring in the Fields of the Lord: Spanish Missions and Southeastern Indians.” “The missions were a clever way to harness and pacify very large numbers of native peoples, and it cost the Spaniards relatively little.”

The Spaniards had tremendous problems getting supplies into St. Augustine because of the uncertainties of trans-Atlantic shipping and grew to depend heavily on the Indians for food and labor, he said.

Mission Indians also cut and hauled the timber used in Spanish buildings in St. Augustine, and they manned the canoes that ferried Spaniards across the St. Johns and Suwannee rivers, making it possible to travel through northern Florida, Milanich said. They also helped build and repair the Camino Real, the road that connected the missions to St. Augustine, he said.

“Indians from northern Florida and southern Georgia literally provided the food and labor to sustain the Spaniards, even mining the coquina stone used to build the fort (the Castillo de San Marcos) in St. Augustine,” he said.

Citing the work of biological anthropologists at UF and elsewhere, Milanich said significant numbers of mission Indians had broken arms, probably from the hardship and mistreatment they suffered laboring for the Spaniards. At the same time, the mission Indians were more robust than their prehistoric ancestors, apparently the result of being forced to carry heavy loads, he said.

Telltale signs in the bones confirm the deadly toll of epidemics and secondary infection that Spanish documents report among the Native Americans, he said.

Disease may be at the root of one of the mysteries Milanich is trying to solve about rapid changes in pottery among 17th-century mission Indians in north Florida. The emergence of vessel decorations and shapes that suddenly resemble those in South Georgia may be the result of Indians to the north suddenly being enticed to move south to repopulate the missions after disease wiped out nearly all the original inhabitants, he said.

Much is still unknown about the more than 150 mission churches that once dotted north Florida and south Georgia, in contrast to the more famous system in California, even though the southeastern settlements are older, Milanich said.

“People don’t realize there was a mission called San Francisco in Florida 150 years before there was one in California and that it existed for nearly a century,” he said. “Santa Cruz, Santa Catalina, San Diego — all of these missions existed in 17th-century Spanish Florida, long before there were missions in 18th-century California.”

Unlike the Western states, Florida’s mission history has faded from public view, largely because of the absence of above-ground ruins, Milanich said.

Instead of stone or mortar, the buildings were made of wood or thatch, which deteriorated over time, leaving only the Castillo de San Marcos and a handful of other structural features in and around St. Augustine as architectural testimony of the past, he said.


Cathy Keen, ckeen@ufl.edu, (352) 392-0186
Jerald Milanich

Category:Florida, Natural History, Research, Sciences