Florida and History: Mission San Luis


San Xavier del Bac in Arizona, San Juan Capistrano along the California mission trail, The Alamo, Mission San Jose, and Mission Conception in the Texas Hill Country: these often come to mind when Spanish missions and history are mentioned. But what about Mission San Luis, in the Florida hill country?

Wait, you may be thinking, Florida has a hill country?

Indeed it does, in the northwestern part of the state. The Big Bend area, from the Georgia line south to the Gulf of Mexico, is a place of rolling hills. Four centuries ago, it was home to an American Indian tribe called the Apalachee. They farmed corn, squash, and beans in these hills, gathered fruits and berries, hunted deer and turkey, and were good at it, too, so good that they supplied food to Saint Augustine, the Spanish stronghold on the Atlantic Coast.

Early in the seventeenth century, these Apalachee decided to ask the Spaniards to send out priests to set up a mission. After some hesitation, two friars came, and not long after, soldiers and other Spanish settlers. In what is now the northwestern side of Tallahassee, a church was built — not of stone as were those in the southwest, this was a church made of wood, but impressive nonetheless. Across a plaza, the church faced the Apalachee council house, a sign of respect on both sides for other ways of life.

Though there were certainly disagreements — one of the priests strongly disapproved of the Natives’ ball games and the gambling that went along with the contests, for example, and there’s a record of a Spanish woman slapping a Native for not delivering a fish to her on time — for the most part the intermingling of Spanish and Natives was peaceful. Most of the Indians converted to Christianity, and older customs lived on side by side with the newer faith. There were those ball games, and the ritual drinking of black drink, a heavily caffeinated beverage that often accompanied games and dances. Though Christian burials were observed, archeologists have found that the placing of shell necklaces in graves, a Native tradition that goes back into the mists of time, was present in seventeenth century San Luis.

So they farmed, and sent goods and foods to Saint Augustine and to Havana, and received in return materials from Spain and Cuba, and from other parts of North America as well. That was seventeenth century San Luis. What happened to it? and what about twenty first century San Luis?

Today, it is a National Historic Landmark, home of a thriving archaeological laboratory, and a place where you may readily get a sense of what life was like in this remote settlement all those years ago. The imposing Apalachee council house, as tall as a five story building, has been recreated, and facing it, so has the church. Near the church, the small friary reconstruction gives insight into the daily lives of these missionary priests who came out to north Florida in centuries past.

There is a a blacksmith shop where demonstrations are often given. There are small kitchen gardens which suggest the foods and herbs these folk enjoyed, and behind the friary, an indoor kitchen with a cooking hearth from the time. There is a small house such as a Spanish family lived in, and outdoor cooking areas which both Native and Spaniard used. You may often find costumed interpreters cooking foods of the time and sharing food ways that would have been common in the seventeenth century.

Higher up on the hill is a reconstruction of the block house and palisade, a fortification built late in the history of the settlement, when Spaniards and Apalachee alike were threatened by British and Creek marauders from the north. As these threats increased, Native and Spaniard alike, the people who lived in San Luis decided it was time to go. They planted no crops in 1704, and that summer, they burned their buildings and fled, some east to Saint Augustine, some north into Georgia, others west to Mobile.

In the visitors’ center, a rather imposing building on its own which somewhat suggests those missions of the southwest, there’s a small but engaging exhibition gallery which gives a feeling for how archeologists went about their work uncovering the history of the area, and there are pieces of pottery, religious art work, and other items from the time the mission was active, and a section, too, which will show you the unexpected and long hidden story of how the Apalachee survived after leaving San Luis.

There’s another almost hidden aspect to Mission San Luis itself. The reconstructions make life at the time vivid, there are murals and paintings and artifacts that evoke times past, and the skilled work of archaeologists and interpreters continue to illuminate the history of the place. In a quiet, often shadowed place between the trees, past the church, past the twentieth century Messer House that was built on the property, if you stand and let history take you in, you will see a worn place in the ground, a dip, and if you look and let your eyes adjust, it suggests a road going away into the wilderness, under the trees.

It is. There is no reconstruction here. This road was worn by the cart wheels and hooves and footsteps of those who traveled the road between Saint Augustine and San Luis those centuries back. Listen, and you might hear their footsteps. Look, and on a quiet afternoon, you might see a native cowboy riding, or a friar walking by.

photograph of the bell at the church at Mission San Luis by Kerry Dexter

Kerry Dexter is one of six writers who contribute to Perceptive Travel’s blog. You’ll most often find her writing about travels in Europe and North America in stories that connect to music, history, and the arts, and including such things as an evening along the Falls Road in Belfast and fireballs being hurled into the sea in Scotland.

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