The Mission Culture in Florida
North Florida was once the seat of Hispanic culture in Florida.
The Franciscans usually set up their missions right in the natives' villages, adding a church and a friary. The largest missions had native-built council houses, in which hundreds could gather for meetings or services. The natives lived side-by-side with Spanish priests, soldiers and settlers, sometimes intermarrying. Franciscan friars usually allowed the natives to maintain customs that didn't conflict with Christianity.
One controversial practice was a brutal sport known as the "ball game," which had its roots in traditional native American beliefs associated with worshipping nature to ensure good crops. Some friars were shocked at the game's violence. Historian John Hann quotes a friar who wrote about human pile-ups that left some men looking like "stretched out tuna." It was not unusual for men to be seriously injured or killed in the game, and most friars moved to ban it.
Conditions were demanding. Native Americans would retreat to the woods to collect berries, roots and acorns. The Franciscans would follow, ministering to them in the woods, Gannon says. The natives were accustomed to foraging, but Franciscans describe periods of mild starvation when supplies from New Spain (Mexico) never arrived or came late. Archaelogist Bonnie
McEwan says the missions sparked a period of agricultural growth.
The friars set high standards for conversion. Natives had to prove they knew basic theology before they could be baptized. Some newly baptized natives were so well versed in their new faith that they lectured to one another and took part in Sunday Mass, Gannon says. They were taught Spanish, and some religious material was written in their own language.
The missions also struggled from time to time with uprisings, prompted sometimes by Spanish soldiers' harsh treatment of the natives. One group of native Americans rebelled in 1656 after a forced labor program required them to carry corn and other supplies like mules, Gannon says.
Native Americans were also unhappy about the placement of garrisons on their land as well as the Spanish taking their land. Forced labor programs were ended after Franciscans complained to the king of Spain.
An accurate count of how many missions existed in Florida is difficult. In 1674, a bishop traveling through Florida counted 36, stretching as far south as the Gainesville area, west to Apalachicola and along the Atlantic coast up to Savannah. By 1680, the number of missions had grown to 52. Historians believe there were as many as 100 missions in Florida, though not all existed simultaneously.