THE TEQUESTA PEOPLE OF SOUTHERN FLORIDA
The Tequesta culture occupied the southeastern region of Florida from approximately the 500 BCE (the late Archaic/Glades I period) through Spanish colonization and to the time when Spain turned Florida over to Britain (1763 AD). The chief village, also known as Tequesta, (via early Spanish records) was located at the mouth of the Miami River and Biscayne Bay in what is now Miami-Dade County. Their territory extended to at least the northern half of Broward County and southern and central Palm Beach County.
It is thought they were closely allied to their northern neighbors, the Jaega and Ais, but may have been at odds with the more dominant Calusa tribe of southwestern Florida. Estimates of the number of Tequesta at the time of initial European contact range from 800 to 10,000, while estimates of the number of Calusa range from 2,000 to 20,000. Occupational use of outposts in the Florida Keys may have been shared between the two tribes. Spanish records note a Tequesta village on Cape Sable, but Calusa artifacts outnumber Tequesta artifacts by four to one at the island's archaeological sites.
What we know about the Tequesta tribe comes both from Spanish accounts dating to the sixteenth century and archaeology done in recent decades at the Miami Circle. Like other prehistoric coastal Floridians the Tequesta had no need for agriculture to support a thriving and complex society. Instead, they relied upon the bounty of their environment, hunting, gathering, and utilizing the rich marine resources of the bays, rivers, and ocean. Fishing was a year-round activity and the archaeology of shell middens shows that the Tequesta caught diverse fishes and marine mammals, including mako shark, swordfish, and right whales.
The Tequesta were expert wood carvers, and it is believed that makers of dugout canoes held an honored role. The canoes were used both along the coast, and deep into the Everglades. To maintain political relationships with neighboring tribes, alliances were often sealed by marriages. Artifacts found throughout their territory and particularly at the Miami Circle suggest the Tequesta participated in a far-reaching trade network. They would provide items from the coast such as pumice, marine shells, shark teeth, and dried whale meat in return for items like stone tools and minerals for making paint.
The first record of European contact with the Tequesta was in 1513, by Juan Ponce de León when he discovered the Florida coast. He sailed into a harbor he called "Chequesta", and based on the reported location and description of the people he met, it was Biscayne Bay. In 1565 one of the ships in Pedro Menéndez de Avilés' fleet took refuge from a storm in Biscayne Bay. The main Tequesta village was located there, and Menéndez was well received. So much so, that when they left Tequesta, the chief's nephew journeyed with the Jesuits priests to Havana to be educated. The chief's brother went to Spain with Menéndez, where he converted to Christianity.
In March 1567, Menéndez returned to the Tequesta and established a mission within a stockade, situated near the south bank of the Miami River below the native village. Menendez left a contingent of 30 soldiers and the Jesuit brother Francisco Villareal, who had learned some of the Tequesta language from the chief's nephew in Havana. As Villareal reported some success in converting the docile Tequesta, but for an undocumented reason, the soldiers executed an uncle of the chief. This ruined the trust the Jesuit had established, and Brother Francisco was forced to abandon the mission in 1570.
The indigenous Florida culture called Tequesta constructed the Miami Circle. They chose this site, where the Miami River meets Biscayne Bay and with the Everglades to the west, to build their village. The location gave access to the offshore reefs in the ocean and fish from the river, plus an abundance of plants from the Everglades. With all the resources of food and raw materials for tools, the village became large and occupied both banks of the river.
Dr. Robert S. Carr, who discovered the Miami Circle on the south bank of the Miami River’s mouth in 1998, says the Tequesta settlement may have reached as far west as Miami Avenue and as far north as present Flagler Street. He has been excavating in the area since 2005, and through the course has uncovered extensive village complex, burial grounds, middens, and a circle (Royal Palm Circle) with almost the same dimensions as the Miami Circle. Probably the foundation of a dwelling, Royal Palm Circle (named because it's location is beneath the ruins of Henry Flagler's grand Royal Palm Hotel) is a double ring of postholes and basins, and not as elaborate or substantial as the Miami Circle. However, it's discovery serves as further validation of the context of the 1999 declaration of the age and cultural affiliation of the Miami Circle.