THE NATIVE CULTURES OF THE EAST ATLANTIC FLORIDA COAST
At the time of the Spanish discovery of Florida, the Jeaga (“hay-gwa”) lived along Florida’s east coast in the modern St. Lucie County area. They utilized the rich coastal resources as well as the flatlands inland from the coast for 10 -20 miles, possibly further. The Jeaga were masters at carving dugout canoes from cypress trees and expertly navigated Florida’s waterways to Lake Okeechobee and throughout South Florida to trade with other tribes. The extensive shell mounds they once built along the river system, now nearly vanished, record the evidence of their lives and diet. Sharks, manatees, deer, squirrel, sea turtles, mullet, snapper, sea grapes, coco plums, and saw palmetto berries were some of nature’s resources that fed the early people. Archaeologists studying the Jupiter Inlet area have found stone tools, pottery, and shell and bone tools and adornments. Many of these artifacts are on display in the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse & Museum.
Complex chiefdoms and political alliances existed among the first Florida tribes, not unlike the monarchies of Europe. The Jeaga were part of an alliance of tribes on the central Florida coast, a political confederation based on extended households and kinship. Marriages between the families of leaders, such as the one between the cacique of the Jeaga and the cacique of the Ais to the north, were used to expand territories of influence and allies. The Jobe Indians of the Jupiter Inlet area were most likely a subgroup of the larger Jeaga tribe to the south. They may have paid tribute in the form of baskets of palm berries or a share of shipwreck loot. Sometime in the 1600s the status of the Jobe may have strengthened, perhaps due to the wealth provided by many valuable shipwrecks in their territory. Only a few written records from the Spanish and English remain today with descriptions of the Jobe and Jeaga. Jonathan Dickinson’s Journal provides an outsider's glimpse of the Jobe people after he was shipwrecked at Jupiter Island. Several times in Dickinson's journal, there is more importance placed on the salvaged cargo than on the castaways' lives, so perhaps the Indians traded shipwreck salvage with the Spanish for European goods.
The Jeaga and Ais did not practice any agriculture. Living along coastal inlets and tidal lagoons, they were hunters and gatherers, relying on a rich bounty of marine resources. Accomplished at spear fishing, the Jeaga hunted from dugout canoes along the coastal waterways and in the Atlantic Ocean. Based on archaeological evidence, the most common larger fish the Jeaga ate was the blackfin tuna and small sharks. Fish weirs and nets were used to catch smaller fish in the shallows. Oysters and clams were the staples of the Jeaga diet. Sea Turtle was common, and may have been cooked using the meat for a stew or soup. Sea grapes, palm berries, coco plums, and cabbage palm were also important resources. The Coco Plum, (Chrysobalanus icaco) is a distant relative of the nectarine and bears edible fruit almost all year. Native to southern Florida, it grows typically near the beach.
Woven palm and grass fiber provided men with breechcloths; women made skirts of deerskin or woven fiber. Dickinson described Jeaga villages as a cluster of dome-shaped family wigwams, roofed with palm fronds. A larger central structure served as council house and may also have been the chief’s residence. Almost anything that the Jeaga caught or harvested had multiple uses. Shark teeth were mounted on wood or bone handles and used like a knife or drill. Although there were no deposits of chert (flint) in south Florida, large chert dart points have been found at a Jeaga site, indicating trade with northern Indians. The Jeaga also used wood, bone, and shell to manufacture tools and weapons. Large shells such as conch were made into dippers, cups, and hammers. Parts of the shell were used for the head of an axe or adz (used for chipping and smoothing wood), or for jewelry beads. Woodworkers made bowls and other objects from pine and cypress. Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) leaves were not only used for thatching homes, but Indians through time have used the young hearts of the leaves for eating and medicine. According to Dickinson the leaves were also used to serve cooked fish on.
This photograph depicts the DuBois shell mound in the 1890’s. The mound is a shell midden representing centuries of habitation and subsistence activities. Composed of tens of thousands of shell refuse and other cultural deposits, some of the mound was likely deliberately constructed creating vistas and high ground for supporting residential structures including the chief’s house. Less than 5% of Florida’s shell middens have survived modern development. Jupiter shell mounds were largely destroyed as a result of their use as road fill. Today laws protect these important sites preserving the animal bones, shell refuse, and artifacts associated with prehistoric life. Fortunately a few of the original middens have survived. This one is located in DuBois County Park on the south side of the inlet opposite the lighthouse. Close examination of the ground reveals shells discarded by Indians hundreds of years ago. Florida Archaeologist, Dr. Robert S. Carr of Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, Inc., determined that the Lighthouse stands on a natural sand ridge. However he also found that there was an ancient midden located atop the sand ridge, which contained shells and pottery sherds.
LISTEN TO AN EXPERT ON THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF
THE LOXAHATCHEE RIVER AND JUPITER INLET
Dr. Robert S. Carr, Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, Inc.