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The Mission Culture in Florida

While most of Florida's Hispanic population now lives in the south, the state's northern tier was once the seat of Hispanic culture, including a network of Franciscan missions.

About a mile from where visitors to Ichetucknee Springs State Park dip their inner tubes into the Ichetucknee River is a small tributary known as Fig Springs, also known as Mission Springs.

Twenty-five years ago, archaeologists found the remains of a Spanish mission scattered beneath the spring's waters and across the acres that surround it. They dug up 400-year-old pieces of pottery, jewelry, beads and nails and determined where the mission's buildings and plaza were located. They even found the charred wooden support beams and wallboards of the mission's church.

Known as San Martin de Timucua, the settlement was part of a network of more than 100 Franciscan missions that once existed throughout north Florida and south Georgia — a significant but often ignored part of the state's history and early Hispanic heritage.

When Spain's King Philip II authorized explorer Pedro Menendez de Avilés to establish a settlement in Florida, an explicit part of Menendez's contract was a mandate to save the souls of the sun-and-sky-worshipping native Americans. Whatever noble instincts drove the policy, the Spanish king likely also reckoned that the natives' conversion to Christianity might produce an additional military force to help Spain keep control of Florida.

After establishing the settlement that became St. Augustine, Menendez turned to converting native Americans. Jesuit priests, recruited to come to "La Florida," concentrated their efforts on tribes located north of St. Augustine.

The native Americans didn't readily embrace Catholicism. After several Jesuit priests, novices and lay people were murdered at a mission in present-day Virginia, the church's Franciscan order took over the job. The Franciscan friars were known for their vows of poverty and wore simple robes and sandals. They refused to possess property or ride on horseback. The Franciscans had some initial success, and a fresh wave of missionaries came ashore in 1595.

Some tribes were more receptive than others. The Franciscans tried to establish missions with the Calusa, Tequesta, Mayaca and Jororo tribes of south and central Florida but had more success with the Guale, Timucua and Apalachee tribes of north Florida and south Georgia. The friars got a mixed reception even then. In 1597, the son of a Guale tribal chief in south Georgia didn't take kindly to admonitions by his local friar that he shouldn't have more than one wife, as was his tribe's custom. He attacked and killed the priest, then recruited other natives to join him in an uprising against the Franciscans.

The king of Spain nearly pulled the missions out of Florida but was convinced to push forward, concentrating more on the gentler Timucuan and Apalachee tribes in north Florida. Between 1606 and 1633, the number of missions grew to 33 as more natives converted, says Michael Gannon, a historian who wrote a history of the missions in his book "The Cross in the Sand."

Mission life

"Everybody knows something about the California missions, in great part because the missions still stand. They were made of stone. But the missions of Florida were built of clay or wood plank with leaf roofs. By 1655, there were 26,000 Christian Indians (in Florida). That's really remarkable when you stop to think about it." ~ Michael Gannon, distinguished service professor emeritus of history, University of Florida [Gannon was featured in this interview: "Icon: Michael Gannon," January 2010]

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.

End of an era

The mission period ended swiftly as the British began encroaching on Spain's territory beginning in the late 17th century, motivated in part by a lucrative fur trade. The British had their own native American allies, whom they supplied with guns. Spain did not supply natives with firearms, and many missions had few defenses.

Attacks on the missions began in 1680 and escalated between 1702 and 1706. The attacks were gruesome, with scalpings, beheadings and burnings. To the surprise of the Franciscans, many of "their" natives chose to join the English forces, lured by firearms and other material goods. The English also played upon the poor treatment some natives had received from Spain, according to Gannon.

The missions got little help from Spain, which, in a major strategic blunder, had left a force of only about 290 soldiers in Florida, Gannon says. The Florida missions were gone by 1708. The natives scattered, some ending up as slaves to the English and others escaping to St. Augustine.

A brief attempt in the 1720s to reignite the missions failed as Spain focused on protecting its colonies from invasion. All that is left of the 100 years of Spanish missions are archaeological remains at a handful of mission sites including the one at Ichetucknee Springs.

The most notable attempt to portray mission culture is at a living history museum in Tallahassee that re-creates the Mission San Luis, considered the "capital" of Florida's missions; thousands of Apalachee Indians lived there, beginning in 1656, and hundreds are buried on the grounds. The mission, occupied for 48 years at the present-day site, was abandoned in 1704, two days before the English arrived to destroy it.

Today, re-enactors reproduce mission life at the site, which was extensively renovated in 2009.