SPANISH MISSIONS IN FLORIDA
Efforts began to Christianize the Native American population within the first few years after Pedro Menendez’s victory over the French in Florida and his establishment of the city of St. Augustine. At this time, native people far outnumbered European settlers, and all were surrounded by forests, estuaries, marsh, swamps and rivers. In their new colony, the Spanish were responsible for setting up a productive, profitable and Catholic settlement. Not all Spaniards had the same agendas in Florida. Some wished to use the Native Americans as laborers and important allies for the new colony, while some were genuinely devoted to the ideal of saving their souls through religious conversion. Many probably fell somewhere in the middle. Missionaries eagerly began their work. Most Native Americans in north Florida were semi-nomadic (meaning they moved their settlement from time to time) and were dispersed throughout the countryside. In order to convert them, missionaries needed to gather the Native Americans into permanent settlements. By the 1580s, Spanish Franciscan friars set up a system of missions throughout Florida. Missions were Spanish-style self-sufficient villages. Native Americans lived in and around these villages, where they could be observed and taught Catholic and European beliefs and customs. Often these missions were located at or near important native villages and towns.
SAN JUAN DEL PUERTO
One important mission that existed within today’s Preserve boundaries was San Juan del Puerto, on Fort George Island. The mission was established sometime in the 1570s and was one of the largest missions, serving nine smaller villages. The mission was one of many set up by the Franciscans throughout the new colony of Florida.
San Juan del Puerto served the Timucua, who already had a large village on the island. It is believed that the mission was built on or near the site of the existing village, along the west side of the island. Not much is known about life at San Juan del Puerto. No standing buildings remain at the mission. Limited archaeological work has been done, and there are documents left by the friars that shed some light on life at San Juan del Puerto.
THE TIMUCUA AND FRIAR FRANSISCO PAREJA
Father Francisco Pareja was one of the most prominent Franciscans at the north Florida missions. He served as a spokesman for his fellow Franciscans, declaring that “we are the ones who bear the burden and the heats, and we are the ones who are subduing and conquering the land.” Pareja is remembered for his work in writing down the Timucua language and producing religious works in both Timucua and Spanish to help the missionaries and their converts communicate. He published three catechisms, one confession, and other religious documents, as well as a grammar of the Timucua language. Since Pareja lived at San Juan del Puerto for most of his time in Florida, the people who lived at that mission worked closely with him and his books. Pareja wrote that “many Indian men and women have learned to read in less than six months, and they write letters to one another in their own language.” Since there are no Timucua speakers alive today, Pareja’s works are the only source we have for understanding the Timucua language.
LIFE AT THE MISSIONS
For the Timucua and other Native American people, life at a mission village was substantially different from life outside it. At the mission, a sedentary, non-nomadic way of life was promoted, with a focus on farming and labor. Corn, wheat and vegetables were raised, and part of the Natives’ crops was taken as tribute to the colonial government. Not much is known about the daily life of the men, women and children who lived in and near the mission villages, while working and receiving religious instruction. The Timucua from the missions were drafted to work as transporters, couriers, cattle ranchers, or river pilots. It is difficult to determine what the Timucua thought of mission life and the colonial government. Some were drawn to the missions for protection from other tribes, and some embraced the new life and teachings. Some likely pretended to conform to Catholic life while still maintaining Timucua religious beliefs. Some accepted the Spanish religious authorities but rejected the political and military authorities. In the 1650s, many Timucua, including some from San Juan del Puerto, rebelled against the Spanish military. This rebellion was led by chiefs and nobles attempting to regain the power and provinces they and their ancestors had once controlled. The rebellion was violent, but ultimately unsuccessful. By this time, the population of Timucua had already begun to decline, due largely to diseases like smallpox brought over by the Europeans.
THE END OF THE MISSIONS IN NORTH FLORIDA
Population decline among the Timucua practically emptied the missions, even San Juan del Puerto, which was one of the largest missions. Guale people from Georgia traveled south and settled into the depopulated missions of Northeast Florida. The British began attacking Florida in the 1760s with the intention of gaining some territory as a colony, and enslaved some of the Natives captured in the attacks. Missions, being concentrations of people and symbols of Spanish power, were frequently targeted, and fear spread that the British wanted to enslave all natives. Smaller missions closed, and larger missions moved closer to the city of St. Augustine for protection. In 1736 San Juan del Puerto, now quite small because of population decline, was attacked and destroyed, its wood buildings dismantled or burned. The former inhabitants gathered and reformed the mission outside the walls of St. Augustine. A few years later, the mission closed forever. Today there are no Timucua left in Florida. There are no standing structures on Fort George Island to bear witness to the large mission of San Juan del Puerto.
Francisco Pareja to the Spanish Crown, St. Augustine 8 March 1599, Archivo General des Indias, Seville, Spain, 54-5-20/6 (photocopy in the Stetson Collection, P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, Gainesville, Florida), as quoted in Daniel Stowell, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve Historic Resource Study, National Park Service, 1999.
For more information on current mission archaeology taking place in the Preserve click here.
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Last updated: July 17, 2020