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San Luis de Talimali
Spanish colonists established their western Florida capital and local Catholic mission in 1656 at an Apalachee Indian village in the Tallahassee Red Hills. Called San Luis de Talimali, this Spanish colonial town was the social, administrative, religious, and military center for the region’s colonists and equal in size to St. Augustine at the time. The Spanish and their Apalachee allies lived at San Luis, present-day Tallahassee, until a British invasion from the north forced them to abandon their village. Today, the site of the San Luis’ political and religious center is a National Historic Landmark and an important archeological resource. The State of Florida bought the land in 1983 and two decades later established a historical park, where visitors can learn about the history and explore recreations of Spanish and Apalachee buildings as they looked during the 17th century.
The Spanish settled permanently in Florida in the 1560s when Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, governor of Florida, founded the city of St. Augustine. The Spanish were slow to colonize the peninsula because Florida lacked the mineral wealth of the other colonies, like silver-rich Peru and Mexico. However, colonial outposts in inland Florida and along the eastern coastline gave the Spanish a strategic position to protect their ships from pirates and to preserve American Indian alliances against French and English competition. Like other Spanish colonies, Florida also gave Spain an opportunity to convert American Indians to Christianity. To preserve Spain’s claim to the colony and to perform their religious duty, the Spaniards founded missions throughout Spanish Florida from the eastern coast of present-day Georgia to Pensacola. San Luis de Talimali was part of this chain.
San Luis was Florida’s second most important colonial town, after St. Augustine. The large Spanish population there included a deputy governor, soldiers, Franciscan friars, and civilians. Spanish families in San Luis farmed and raised domesticated animals, like pigs and cattle. Residents of San Luis maintained strong trade ties to Cuba, where they sent wheat and other agricultural goods, and they imported goods from around the world. San Luis was also the home of the Apalachee chiefs, and the Apalachee council house there was the largest Native American building at the time in what is now the Southeastern United States.
According to one Spanish traveler who passed through San Luis in 1690, though on the edge of the frontier, San Luis looked like a Spanish city. The community had a large central plaza, Apalachee council house, chiefs house, a Spanish village, a Franciscan religious complex (with a church, friary and detached kitchen), and a Spanish fort. The Apalachee resided in the countryside around the town center to be near their fields.
Between 1656 and 1704, Spanish colonists and Apalachee Indians lived together at San Luis de Talimali. The community had an impressive population for a colonial outpost -- as many as 1,500 people lived there at one time. In 1702, a war between Spain, England, and their European and American Indian allies spread to Florida. Governor James Moore, a South Carolinian British officer, led British and Creek soldiers into Spanish territory to assault Florida’s missions and forts. Even though his siege of St. Augustine failed, Moore’s invasion destroyed five Apalachee missions and crippled the Spanish colony. Moore’s men imprisoned thousands of Apalachee and took them back to South Carolina as slaves. In 1704, the remaining Spanish colonists, who believed a British attack on San Luis was inevitable, destroyed the town before the British had a chance to sack it. The Apalachee leaders took 800 American Indian residents of San Luis west to Pensacola, and the remaining Spanish population moved to St. Augustine.
Archeological evidence suggests that, unlike other American Indians living in Spanish missions in the Americas, the Apalachee at San Luis kept their political organizations and some of their culture during the Spanish occupation. European culture did not replace Apalachee culture but existed alongside it and sometimes mixed with it. Research at the site and studies of documents reveal that Apalachee leaders requested that Spanish friars move to their village, perhaps for strategic as well as religious reasons. By the 17th century, disease and violent clashes with the Spanish devastated Florida’s native population leaving those who remained politically, economically, and militarily weakened. For the Apalachee, who had both Native and European enemies, an alliance with Spain became a practical choice. Though the Apalachee at San Luis kept their own cultural traditions at the Council House, the Spanish described them as “thoroughly Christianized.” The descendents of the 16th and 17th century Apalachee, who migrated west after the mission fell, are still practicing Catholics and are able to trace their ancestry back to San Luis through parish records.
Abandoned but not forgotten, San Luis is the only Apalachee mission whose name and location are definitively known, and surface evidence of the mission was visible into the early 19th century. Under the topsoil at San Luis are remnants of San Luis undisrupted by human occupation over the centuries since the Spanish left. This makes San Luis a valuable archeological research site. Prior to Florida purchasing the land, archeologists had studied the site intensively. John W. Griffin, Hale G. Smith, and Charles H. Fairbanks – all leading Floridian archeologists – investigated the site of San Luis in the 1940s and ‘50s. Today, a full-time research staff of archeologists and historians works at Mission San Luis.
When archeologists began digging at San Luis, there was no evidence of the original buildings and structures on the surface. Their work revealed what the center of San Luis looked like when the Spanish occupied it. Since the 1980s, excavations have uncovered the locations of the mission church, Apalachee council house, mission convent, Spanish and Apalachee dwellings, Spanish military complex, and the San Luis cemetery. The belief is that many of the buildings at San Luis were of wood or wattle and daub. Wattle and daub was a simple form of architecture imported by Spain, in which walls made of woven wood panels are insulated by mud, clay, or animal dung. Excavations also revealed that San Luis was an exceptional place of cultural mixing in the Spanish colonies. San Luis is the only known site in any Spanish-occupied area that contains sacred and secular artifacts from both Native and European societies, including Native and Spanish pottery, crucifixes, remnants of beans and corn, imported glass beads, and Apalachee quartz crystal beads and pendants.
After 50 years of research at San Luis de Talimali, the State of Florida took advantage of the growing wealth of information about the mission and reconstructed the Apalachee mission town near its historic site. In Tallahassee today, Mission San Luis is a living history park where visitors can learn about Spanish colonial and Apalachee history at the permanent museum exhibits, enter reconstructed Spanish and Apalachee buildings and structures, and talk to costumed interpreters about the lives of the people who lived there. For its exceptional work in heritage education and historical recreation, Mission San Luis received Preserve America’s Presidential Award for heritage tourism in 2006. Among the many reconstructed buildings are the large Apalachee council house, mission church, Apalachee ball court, and Fort San Luis. The Spanish colonists and Apalachee destroyed their houses and public buildings at San Luis de Talimali in 1704, but thanks to the work of archeologists, visitor can explore the village reconstructed to look as it did at the height of the mission’s influence.