When Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, and “discovered” the Americas, he brought many changes. Over the next seventy years, the Spanish sent ships up the east coast of North America, but focused on Florida’s west coast and Central and South America. Although the Spanish did meet the Timucuas, much of our information about these Native Americans comes from the French. The French explorers lived in the Jacksonville area, near Chief Saturiwa and his people, for a little over a year.
The Timucuas ruled by Chief Saturiwa lived east of the St. Johns River in Florida and south Georgia. In 1562, French explorer Jean Ribault, met and exchanged presents with several Timucua chiefs, but did not stay. Two years later, the French returned to Florida and were well-received by the Timucuas. These Saturiwa Timucuas traded peacefully with the French until the French leader, Laudonniere, made a treaty with their enemies (other Timucuas west of the river).
The Saturiwa Timucuas realized that their treaty didn’t mean much to the French. Jacques le Moyne, who drew many of the pictures we have of the Timucuas today, was in Florida at this time (1564). Since the Timucuas no longer trusted the French, they would not give them food. The French tried to steal food and even kidnapped a Timucua chief (Outina) and tried to ransom him for food.
Spain had claimed Florida as its territory, so Spanish soldiers burned down the French fort (Fort Caroline), to make the French leave. Some French escaped, but many were killed. Most of Jacques le Moyne’s drawings were burned up. Later, he tried to redraw as many of these pictures as he could from memory. (This means there were probably many mistakes, because no one’s memory is perfect. Later, a man named Theodore de Bry, who had never met the Timucuas, engraved the pictures and changed a lot of things. Today, we can’t always be sure which parts of the pictures are true and which parts aren’t.)
Before and after this short-lived French expedition, many Spaniards explored Florida, looking for gold and other trade goods. They never found gold, even though they marched all the way to Tennessee, stealing food from the Timucuas, the Apalachee, the Guale, and many other Native American groups. Everywhere they went, they left behind diseases like small pox, measles, and influenza. The Native Americans had no immunity against these diseases, and whole villages were wiped out.
The Spanish government gave their soldiers permission to steal from the native peoples, but the soldiers also had to make sure the Indians were taught about Christianity. Many missions were set up, with Franciscan friars to teach the Timucuas. The friars brought good things and bad things. They taught some Timucuas to read and write. This allowed Timucuas to send letters to others who lived far away.
But the friars also tried to get the Timucuas to give up their own culture: their names, the way they lived, and how they thought about the world. In time, the Timucuas settled in small villages near each mission. They grew crops to feed themselves and the friars. But they also had to give part of the corn they grew each year to the Spanish in St. Augustine. They became less and less like Timucuas, and more like Catholic Spaniards.
Sometimes, the men had to leave their villages and go to work in St. Augustine, building houses or carrying corn. Often, they were not even paid. But when they were paid, they could get very useful things like metal axes, hoes, and fishhooks. These tools made life much easier. The Timucuas that lived close to the Spanish had better access to these tools.
Unfortunately, being close to Spanish cities also meant being closer to disease. Thousands of Timucuas died, and their villages were getting very small. The Spanish started moving their missions and the tiny villages into a line across Florida. This line made a road called the Camino Real (Ka-mee-no Reh-al), which connected St. Augustine with the Tallahassee area, where the Apalachee Indians lived. Since there weren’t enough Timucuas left to plant corn for the Spanish at St. Augustine, the Apalachee had to do it.
The Timucuas and the missions guarded the Camino Real, so corn could be carried from Apalachee to St. Augustine. Some Timucuas were servants to the Spanish in St. Augustine. Others worked on Spanish cattle ranches. Now that the Timucuas all lived in a small area, there was plenty of land for the Spanish to take for raising cattle.
Meanwhile, the British had set up colonies in the Carolinas. They decided that they wanted to have Georgia and Florida too. So, they got the Yamasee Indians (who had lived in South Carolina before the British moved in) to raid the Spanish missions. The Yamasee destroyed the buildings and took thousands of native slaves, including Timucua, Apalachee, and Guale. They attacked the missions along the Camino Real, so no corn or food could be taken to St. Augustine. Now that the Camino Real wasn’t safe, many of the mission villages moved close to the fort at St. Augustine for protection.
The Spanish knew their fort was going to be attacked by the British, so they ordered the Timucuas to help them build a stronger one of stone and coquina. They also called for Timucua men to come and form a militia (army) to fight the British. When the British attacked, the fort stayed strong, and it is still here today. But most of the Indians were killed or taken as slaves to be sold in the British Carolinas.
Finally, in 1763, Spain made a treaty with the British, giving Florida to them. The Spanish left the fort at St. Augustine and took the 89 remaining Indians to Cuba where they would be safe. No more than 12 of these were Timucuas. Juan Alonso Cabale was the very last Timucua Indian. He died in 1767, and the Timucua culture died with him.
None of the historic period Indian cultures of Florida survive today. The Seminole were originally of Creek stock, from Georgia and Alabama. They began to move into Florida during the 1700’s, living in the spaces that Florida Indians had left behind. The name, Seminole, comes from the Spanish word “cimarrone” which means something like “renegade.” According to a 1990 census, 36,000 Floridians claim Native American ancestry, including 48 different groups.