St. Augustine Catholic
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from San Francisco to San Luis

Last month we met Franciscan friar Martín Prieto, who founded the first Christian mission in the Florida interior, San Francisco de Potano. The site was eight miles northwest of present-day Gainesville. The date was spring of 1606, exactly four centuries ago.

Early in the next year Father Martín reconnoitered the Timucua-speaking chiefdoms to the north of Potano. Then, crossing the Aucilla River that divides today’s Taylor and Jefferson counties, he encountered the fierce Apalachee natives, who, Father Martín related, “went about as naked as on the day they were born.”

Despite their reputation for war making, the Apalachee greeted Father Martín peacefully with “cakes of maize (corn).” By his estimation some 30,000 natives assembled to see him, “and I am not surprised, that being the first time they ever saw a Spaniard in their land in these times,” he wrote.

Father Martín took advantage of their good will to mediate a number of disputes that this nation had with Timucua tribes to the south and east. For his success in bringing to a halt the chronic warfare that these disputes had engendered he deserves to be remembered as one of Florida’s first peacemakers. From 1608 forward, the Franciscans kept in touch with the Apalachee, but it was not until 1633 that the Franciscans were able to supply them full-time resident missionaries, the first two being friars Pedro Muñoz and Francisco Martínez; within 24 months they baptized more than 5,000 souls.

It was there in Apalachee, during the remainder of the 17th century, that the friars were to have their greatest evangelical successes. By 1675 no fewer than 13 missions dotted the rolling, fertile hills between the Aucilla and Ochlockonee Rivers.

The Apalachee missions bore such sonorous names as San Antonio de Bacuqua, San Martín de Tomole, San Lorenzo de Ivitachuco, and Santa María de Ayubale. (A mission’s religious name was always followed by the original native place name.)

The principal mission in the province was San Luis (St. Louis) de Talimali, founded in 1656, on the western edge of today’s Tallahassee. Its church, of wood-plank construction, was as large as the parish church at distant St. Augustine. Through recent excavation, analysis, and interpretation archaeologists and historians have identified the original foundations of the church, and a replica, as exact as archaeology can create it, has been erected on the site. As well as a religious center, San Luis also became a political and military headquarters. Among its population of 1,500 people were a Spanish deputy governor, a commander of infantry and artillery, and principal leaders of the Apalachee natives. During San Luis’ near-half century of existence not only was there a general cross-cultural sharing of material objects, foods and food preparation techniques, but marriage between Spaniards and natives was also common, giving rise to children who became known as mestizos.

Of the natives and mestizos a visiting bishop from Cuba in 1675 stated: “As to their religion, they embrace with devotion the mysteries of our holy faith.”

—Michael Gannon, Ph.D.