Mission San Luis functioned as the capital of the western missions in La Florida from 1656 to 1704. Populated by more than 1,500 residents, including one of the most powerful Apalachee chiefs and the Spanish deputy governor, San Luis was one of early Florida's largest colonial outposts.
The Apalachee Indians
The people who lived in the area around present-day Tallahassee, were among the most advanced and powerful of the Florida tribes that were met by early explorers. Before contact with Europeans, the Apalachee Indians planted corn (maize), beans, and squash, adding to this diet wild game, fish, wild fruits, berries, and nuts. These farmers built groups of palm-thatched huts close to agricultural fields where men, women, and children tended crops. In fact, the word Tallahassee is derived from the Muskogean language's word for "old fields."
Most work was assigned by gender and custom. Women did most of the farming, gathering of food, and food preparation. Men hunted wild game, fought in wars, and assisted in building and maintaining the villages. Childrearing was shared though much of the burden fell to women. Children worked alongside the adults, learning skills needed for everyday life. Still, children had time to play – boys shot arrows from bows; girls made baskets and clay pots. Everyone played ballgames, even the women.
Apalachee society was well-organized and ruled by "chiefs" (holatas) who inherited their positions and were guided by priests. Gods representing natural forces guided the Apalachee religious beliefs and worship ceremonies. The sun, moon, rain, and thunder were thought to be divine since these were needed for growing food. They built large villages that included earthen "platform" mounds and plazas where religious and cultural ceremonies were conducted. They participated in a far-reaching trading network that brought them things made or gathered by other Native Americans beyond Apalachee Province – the metal copper is one example.
An Apalachee family placed more importance on the mother's relatives than the father's kin as was usually the custom in Europe. Native clans or extended families took the names of animals – deer, bear, snake – or natural forces – wind clan, for example. When an Apalachee man married, he resided with his wife's clan.
Chiefs traced their inherited positions of power through their female relatives. When a chief died, his oldest sister's oldest son inherited the position of chief. This custom granted more cultural status to Apalachee women than European women. Before their Christian conversion, chiefs might also have been the religious leaders of their people. The Apalachee chiefs governed villages and nearby fields and forests. The chief of San Luis was one of the most important in the province. Europeans described the size of San Luis as extending for miles around. They lived between the Aucilla River and Ochlockonee River, at the head of Apalachee Bay, an area known to Europeans as the Apalachee Province. They spoke a Muskogean language called Apalachee, which is now extinct.
A Game of Skill and Courage
Sometimes known as the "Apalachee ball game", described in detail by Spaniards in the 17th century. No indigenous name for the game has been preserved. The Spanish referred to it as el juego de la pelota, "the ballgame." The game involved kicking a small, hard ball against a single goal post. The same game was also played by the western Timucua, and was as significant among them as it was among the Apalachee. A related but distinct game was played by the eastern Timucua; René Goulaine de Laudonnière recorded seeing this played by the Saturiwa of what is now Jacksonville, Florida in 1564. Goal posts similar to those used by the Apalachee were also seen in the Coosa chiefdom of present-day in Alabama during the 16th century, suggesting that similar ball games were played across much of the region.
A village would challenge another village to a game, and the two villages would then negotiate a day and place for the match. After the Spanish missions were established, the games usually took place on a Sunday afternoon, from about noon until dark. The two teams kicked a small ball (not much bigger than a musket ball), made by wrapping buckskin around dried mud, trying to hit the goalpost. The single goal post was triangular, flat, and taller than it was wide, on a long post. There were snail shells, a nest and a stuffed eagle on top of the goalpost. Benches, and sometimes arbors to shade them, were placed at the edges of the field for the two teams. Spectators gambled heavily on the games. As the Apalachee did not normally use money, their bets were made with personal goods.
Each team consisted of 40 to 50 men. The best players were highly prized, and villages gave them houses, planted their fields for them, and overlooked their misdeeds in an effort to keep such players on their teams. Players scored one point if they hit the goalpost with the ball, and two points if the ball landed in the nest. Eleven points won the game. Play was rough: players would pile on fallen players, walk on them, kick them, including in the face, pull on arms and legs and stuff dirt in each other's mouths. Players were told to die before letting go of the ball. They would try to hide the ball in their mouths; other players would choke them or kick them in the stomach to force the ball out. Arms and legs were broken. Players laid out on the ground would be revived by a bucket of cold water. There were occasional deaths.
Religious missionaries to Spain's colonies taught the Christian faith and maintained the people's loyalty to the King. During Florida's first Spanish colonial era (1513-1763), Catholic friars and priests founded over 100 missions in the southeast region of North America. Most of these wilderness churches were in small villages located along El Camino Real (Royal Road) between St. Augustine and Apalachee Province more than 200 miles to the west.
In 1607 some Apalachee Indians asked for Catholic friars to minister among the native peoples. By 1633, two Franciscan friars, Pedro Munóz and Francisco Martínez, founded the first two permanent missions in the province, and five years later the first Spanish soldiers arrived. San Luis, originally named San Luis de Inhayca, was probably among the first missions to be founded. The twin powers of church and state set about converting the province's native peoples to Christianity and collecting wealth in the form of food grown in Apalachee to feed St. Augustine's soldiers and settlers.
It isn't known why, but in 1656 Mission San Luis was moved to the second highest hill in present-day Tallahassee. Seeking to continue his political and military alliance with the Spanish, the chief of San Luis agreed to move his village and also to build a fortified house (casa fuerte) for a small garrison of soldiers. By 1675, this secondary location of the mission was called San Luis de Talimali.
The Catholic Church and its friary (convento) with detached kitchen (cocina) completed the main public buildings surrounding the central plaza. The church entry and the council house door faced each other across the circular plaza. This was a symbol of respect the Spanish government accorded Apalachee society and its leaders. The fort complex with its blockhouse and protective log wall (palisade) were a short distance away.
Spanish and Indian Community
Mission San Luis became the capital of the western Spanish missions and the Apalachee nation in La Florida from 1656 to 1704. It was the only settlement beyond St. Augustine where several hundred Spanish residents lived among Florida's native peoples for three generations. The Spanish deputy governor and one of the most powerful Apalachee chiefs were among more than 1,400 residents. Spanish and Indian farmers, ranchers, merchants, and other trades people worked to survive and thrive in frontier Florida.
When San Luis was built in 1656, the village resembled those that existed before Europeans arrived. The Apalachee leaders and their families lived in round, palm-thatched houses bordering the central plaza where ceremonies, business dealings, and ballgames were held. The largest Apalachee building by far was the council house that could hold 2,000 to 3,000 people. In the council house, the Apalachee and their chiefs met to govern the village, consider complaints, administer justice, conduct traditional rituals, and receive visitors. Apalachee families built groups of palm-thatched, single-room dwellings away from the plaza. These clusters of huts were closer to farm fields and inhabited by people who were related each to the other by marriage or birth. Living some distance away, these Apalachees journeyed to the central plaza for Saturday evening prayers, Sunday Mass, ball games, and other special events.
Spanish families, who began to arrive in significant numbers after 1675, lived in small, rectangular houses made of wattle-and-daub or wood planking with palm-thatched roofs. The Hispanic settlers built these two-room cottages (casitas) closer to the central plaza than the Apalachee dwellings. The Hispanic settlers spent more time indoors. Both probably often cooked outdoors over open fires. Only the friary had an indoor kitchen.
Most Apalachee men worked for the landowners as farmers, ranch hands, semi-skilled laborers, and possibly at a few skilled trades. Indian men served with Spanish soldiers in the San Luis military garrison, protecting the Apalachee Province from rival tribes and their English colonial allies. These laborers worked long days at very tiring tasks and often without payment. Apalachee women were treated a little better. They were Spanish house servants, unmarried companions, and even wives in Spanish and mestizo families. The children of an Indian-Spanish marriage were not forced to perform manual labor. Mestizo families held higher social esteem than Indian families.
Heritage of Blended Culture
During the three generations of contact at San Luis, Apalachee society and culture began to favor European customs and fashions. When Spanish men married Indian women, their mestizo children and grandchildren favored Spanish language, custom, religion, and clothing over Apalachee traditions. A few Indians, mainly chiefs and their mestizo descendants, learned to read and write in Spanish. The mixing of European and Native American blood and customs at San Luis marked a blending of cultures that still exists throughout Hispanic American countries. Throughout the Spanish colonies, the Catholic Church used the power of Christianity to "civilize" native populations.
This process of religious conversion was accompanied by native peoples adopting Hispanic customs, beliefs, and practices. In making the Catholic doctrine more attractive, the Church allowed some native religious beliefs and customs to continue. This occurred even as European Catholics were punished for the slightest deviation from strict doctrine. At San Luis for example, Father Paiva wrote down his objections to the Apalachee ballgame, especially the gambling that took place. However, at San Luis and other villages in Apalachee Province, the traditional ballgame dedicated to the gods of rain and thunder continued even after the majority of native people worshiped Christian beliefs.
Widespread adoption of Christianity left physical evidence at Mission San Luis, too. Archaeologists found many rosary beads, crucifixes, and other ritual items, supporting the written history of Christian conversions among the Apalachees. Most important was the discovery of the Christian graveyard. Christianized Indians adopted Catholic burial ritual, choosing to be buried beneath the floor of the Mission San Luis church. More than 700 native burials have been estimated in that location. Some burials were close to the church altar, a place usually set aside for friars and priests. Those individuals might have been Apalachee chiefs and other important natives. The native practice of including valuable personal items in graves was forbidden by church doctrine. However, traditional items such as shell beads and other personal ornaments were placed in the graves of Christian natives. This is another example of the cultural blending taking place at San Luis and throughout the Apalachee Province during the 1600s.
RECONSTRUCTING MISSION SAN LUIS
The Franciscan Church
The size and proportional system of the church at Mission San Luis was identical to its counterpart in St. Augustine, dispelling the popular belief that all Florida missions were simply primitive outposts. The most challenging aspect of the excavation and reconstruction of the church was avoiding any damage to the cemetery located beneath the church’s floor. An estimated 900 mission residents are buried there.
The Friary Complex
This complex consisted of a friary that was divided into public and private spaces. Since the friars took vows of poverty, very few personal possessions were recovered from this structure. There was also a detached kitchen that was connected to the friary by a covered walkway. All excavations at Mission San Luis have been guided by detailed research combined with a strong preservation ethic. Archaeological remains were sufficiently exposed and sectioned to gather necessary data, however, they were subsequently capped with clean fill and protected prior to reconstruction.
The Hispanic Village
The pueblo or Hispanic residential area reflected the European belief that civilized people lived in fixed, orderly communities. It consisted of at least fifty homes, along with numerous outbuildings, corrals, activity areas, and trash pits. Artifacts recovered from Spanish households have illuminated the trade patterns of its residents who exported locally produced agricultural goods in exchange for imports from Mexico, Europe, and the Orient.
The Castillo de San Luis
The final and largest blockhouse at Mission San Luis was completed in 1697. A palisade and moat were added in 1702 in response to British incursions into Spanish Florida. The 70 ft by 40 ft blockhouse probably garrisoned about 45 soldiers near the end of the mission era. There was evidence of internal rooms within the blockhouse and a probable stairway leading to a second story, reflecting the "high and low quarters" mentioned in historic documents.
The Apalachee Council House
One of the largest historic Indian structures in the Southeast, the Apalachee Council House, was an important community center for both the Spanish and Native American inhabitants of Mission San Luis in the 17th Century. Often playing the role of "civic auditorium," it was capable of accommodating between 2,000 and 3,000 people. All of Mission San Luis was intentionally burnt down in 1704 so that there would be nothing left for the invading British to find. For hundreds of years, the only evidence of its existence lay hidden under the rolling hills of what we now know as Tallahassee.
Archaeological excavations were conducted at the Council House in 1985. The data gathered from these excavations, combined with research conducted at similar sites, provided the basis for reconstructing the Council House. The symmetrical orientation of the Council House allowed archaeologists to approximate the location of postholes and other features based on those found in the archaeological record. The Council House was eventually reconstructed atop these units after they were filled in. When you visit Mission San Luis, take the opportunity to imagine all of the undiscovered artifacts that lie in the ground beneath your feet.
The council house served as the city hall, ceremonial center, and lodge for the more than 1500 Apalachee residents at Mission San Luis. Archaeology and reconstruction revealed the Apalachees’ sophisticated knowledge of geometry and their retention of native architectural and material traditions even after three generations of missionization. At over 140 feet in diameter, five stories high, and 72’ rafters weighing more than 1000 pounds each, the reconstruction of the Apalachee council house required lumber from out of state and the largest crane available in Florida. Zulus from South Africa used more than 100,000 palm fronds to thatch the council house.
How We Know What We Know About Mission San Luis
Beginning in the 1980s, archaeologists excavated the floors of Spanish houses and San Luis trash pits. These scientists discovered and studied the remains left behind by the Apalachee and Spanish villagers. These artifacts and biological debris added to the history of changes in traditions, practices, and resources during the 50 years San Luis existed.
Most of the Mission San Luis story told so far has been written in Spanish reports, letters, and other historical documents and preserved in Spanish archives. These writings reported on military actions, government decrees, court decisions, and religious activities of the time. The Catholic friars with Apalachee assistance wrote down native customs, ceremonies, and spiritual practices. Physical evidence found and studied at Mission San Luis sheds light on the routines and customs of everyday life in the village. It is the artifacts and biological remains studied by Mission San Luis’ archaeologists that documented how the Apalachee and Spanish learned to live together. For 50 years at San Luis, Native American and Spanish traditions and customs blended together in a shared Hispanic heritage. This is best seen in how each culture began growing the traditional foods of the other. And how those foods were cooked and eaten by the Spanish and Spanish-Indian families.
Here is what archaeologists found: the bones of pigs, chickens, cattle, sheep, and horses in trash pits at Mission San Luis. The Spanish added farm animals, olive oil, and wheat to the three main Indian foods – corn, beans, and squash. Also, Apalachees and Spaniards ate fish, domestic animals like cattle and pigs, and wild game, and added to their diet by gathering berries, fruits, and wild plants. European herbs and spices—some locally grown, others imported—flavored foods prepared for Spanish and Spanish-Indian meals. Families grew food and spices in small "kitchen" gardens, and used herbs as medicines. Catholic friars tended small gardens, assisted by their Indian servants, but relied on food taken as tribute (tithes) from the villagers and prepared by Indian or mestiza servants. Archaeologists found Indian pots shaped like Spanish cooking pots. This "colonoware" showed the influence of Spanish fashion by changing the shape and function of Indian pottery used to cook and serve meals. Pottery made and imported from Spain and its colonies was found, too.
Mission San Luis consists of 60 acres of largely undisturbed 17th century archaeological deposits including the remains from well-documented religious, secular, public, and residential areas of the site. In 2002, an 8,100 sq. ft. state-of-the-art archaeology laboratory was constructed for the conservation, analysis and curation of all site materials including artifacts, records, maps, slides, negatives, and fieldnotes. Following more than two decades of fieldwork, the archaeological collections at Mission San Luis represent one of the largest and most diverse collections of 17th century Spanish and Apalachee materials available anywhere. These remains include more than 950,000 artifacts and 16 tons of building materials recovered from controlled excavations at a wide range of Apalachee and Spanish contexts.
In recognition of its historical significance, this site received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1960. Today, Mission San Luis is the only reconstructed Spanish mission in Florida. As a living history museum it is devoted to sharing the stories of its former Apalachee and Spanish residents. Knowledge of life at San Luis over three centuries ago comes from intensive archaeological and historical research—the site is the most thoroughly investigated mission in the southeastern United States.
A visit to Mission San Luis transports you back to 1703. Your destination is a community where Apalachee Indians and newcomers from Spain lived together.
Hear the ring of the blacksmith's hammer, smell traditional foods being cooked over an open fire, and walk the plaza where the Apalachees played their traditional ball games. Experience the largest historic-period Indian building found in the Southeast and greet the friar at the church. Learn about a soldier's life at the fort, and explore 300-year-old artifacts excavated onsite. Or just enjoy the beautiful outdoor setting with a picnic lunch or nature walk. Escape to another time, and share the spirit of Mission San Luis with friends and family!
Mission San Luis brings history to life for students with programs that encourage critical thinking and emphasize learning by doing hands-on and interactive activities. All programs correlate with Sunshine State Standards and are designed to enhance skills assessed by the FCAT. A Teacher's Guide, lesson plans, and other grade-specific educational resources designed to enhance and enrich the visit to Mission San Luis are available. San Luis Highlights Tour (1-1 1/2 hours) will lead a group through a selection of the reconstructed colonial buildings and touch on the important themes of the site. Journey to the Past Tour (2-2 1/2 hours) features a more comprehensive experience, including the introductory video and all areas of the historic village. Please contact Mission San Luis staff at firstname.lastname@example.org to book programs or receive more information.
Mission San Luis offers a wide range of educational programming for adults, also. Workshops provide the opportunity to learn about 17th century Spanish and Native American crafts and lifestyles while expressing creativity. Participants will gain the skills needed to craft materials or cook foods similar to those made by 17th century mission residents. CHECK IT OUT AND REGISTER FOR A WORKSHOP
Mission San Luis Artifacts and History
Visit the exhibit gallery, where the history of this 17th-century western capital of Spanish Florida is interpreted. See replicated archaeological profiles, a three-dimensional topographic site map, and Apalachee and Spanish artifacts discovered at Mission San Luis over decades of archaeology.
Spanish Colonial Art and Artifacts from the Calynne and Lou Hill Collection
Also on display in the exhibit gallery are period devotional objects in the Roman Catholic tradition, including santos (three-dimensional carved figures) and retablos (two-dimensional flat panels/enclosures on which images of saints were painted). Similar items were probably used in the altarpiece of the 17th-century Mission church.
PLAN YOUR VISIT
2100 West Tennessee Street, Tallahassee, FL 32304
PHONE: (850) 245-6406
HOURS: Tuesday - Sunday 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.
Closed on Mondays, January 1, Easter, July 4, Thanksgiving, December 24 & December 25
page information credit: Mission San Luis, Florida Division of Historical Resources, John C. Hann, Jerald T. Milanich, Bonnie McEwan, Visit Florida, TripAdvisor, John's Military History, University of Florida
photos from the sources listed above, as well as publicly posted online sites with thanks to the contributors