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By Tanya M. Peres, coeditor of Unearthing the Missions of Spanish Florida.

This book is available at a discount price through December 15, 2021. Order here and use code SEAC21 at checkout.


Numerous Indigenous groups lived throughout the Florida peninsula in the centuries before the French and Spanish arrived on Florida’s beaches. The contributors to Unearthing the Spanish Missions of Florida work in areas that were home to the ancestors of the Apalachee, Guale, Timucua, Seminole, Muscogee (Creek), Miccosukee, and others. The Panhandle region, from the Aucilla River to the Ochlockonee River, was dominated by a powerful and politically complex group of Muskogean-speakers—the Apalachees. Their lineal ancestors built Lake Jackson Mounds, a major civic-ceremonial center that was their capital in the pre-European period, as well as the town of Anhaica. The Apalachees lived in villages dispersed across the Tallahassee Red Hills region south to the Gulf of Mexico. The majority of the population lived in small family farmsteads, an arrangement necessary for intensive maize agriculture. Life was irrevocably changed for the Apalachees (and all Indigenous groups) after the first contact with the Spanish. While both the Narvaez and de Soto expeditions spent relatively little time in Apalachee Province, the European-based diseases they brought with them spread quickly through a population already coping with losses of life from those encounters. 

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Image from a historic map (1597) taken from the book Apalachee: The Land Between the Rivers by John H. Hann.

If you live in Tallahassee, or have visited Florida’s Capital, you are likely familiar with Mission San Luis, “Florida’s Apalachee-Spanish Living History Museum.” Mission San Luis, or San Luis de Talimali, was a 17th century Franciscan Mission. A National Historic Landmark since 1960, San Luis was established in 1656 as the western capital of La Florida—the area claimed as a Spanish territory, including Florida and parts of Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, until its abandonment in 1704. During the nearly half-century of its reign, San Luis was a polyethnic community, home to the Apalachee chief and his family, a resident Franciscan friar, a Spanish military garrison, the soldiers’ families, and other civilians. San Luis was an important outpost for the Spanish. Crops, livestock, and other goods that were grown, raised, and made in Apalachee Province were either carried overland to St. Augustine to help feed the growing population or taken by boat to the major port cities of Havana, Cuba, and Veracruz, Mexico. Archaeology at this site prior to 1994 is discussed in The Spanish Missions of “La Florida” (edited by Bonnie G. McEwan) and The Apalachee Indians and Mission San Luis (edited by John Hann and Bonnie G. McEwan). 

FSU Anthropology students excavating a trash pit
FSU Anthropology students excavating in a trash pit at San Luis de Talimali, 2018. (Photo by Peres)

While ten field seasons have been conducted at San Luis, the largest and best known of the Florida missions, it was not the only one. Archaeologists with the Department of Anthropology at Florida State University have been involved with the archaeology of Apalachee-Spanish Missions in 17th century Florida since the founding of the department in 1950 by Professor Hale G. Smith. Over the past 60+ years, FSU archaeologists have worked at mission sites in the Florida panhandle, in St. Augustine, and along coastal Georgia. The longest running program of Apalachee-Spanish Mission Archaeology was conducted by FSU Anthropology Associate Professor and co-editor for Unearthing the Missions of Spanish Florida, Dr. Rochelle Marrinan. 

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The reconstructed church at San Luis. Reconstruction was based on the archaeological signature of architectural features. (Photo by Peres, January 2017)

Fieldwork conducted by Dr. Hale G. Smith with the Florida Park Service archaeology unit at the site of San Francisco de Oconee (8Je2) identified the first archaeological remains of a mission church and convento (the priest’s living quarters). He conducted limited investigations at the site of Pine Tuft (8Je1), possibly the Mission San Juan de Aspalaga. His work yielded preserved food remains—an unusual occurrence in the acidic clay soils of Tallahassee. The most important outcome of Smith’s investigations was that they showed the potential of mission archaeology to uncover structural remains of buildings from that period, as well as material remains of daily and ceremonial life. 

Dr. Charles Fairbanks was hired by Smith to join the faculty at FSU and worked there from 1956 to 1963. During his tenure he helped to start the Anthropology Master’s program, the first of its kind in the state. Fairbanks began his program of Spanish colonial archaeology in La Florida and Georgia while at FSU. In 1963, he left FSU to start the Department of Anthropology at the University of Florida. While at UF, in addition to continuing his work with Spanish period sites and artifacts, he mentored a number of students who would go on to become leaders in the field of Spanish period archaeology, including Kathleen Deagan and Rochelle Marrinan. 

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FSU Anthropology students excavating in the “Spanish Village” at San Luis de Talimali, March 2018. (Photo by Peres)

Dr. Kathleen Deagan, Distinguished Research Curator of Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, was a member of the Anthropology faculty at FSU from 1974 to 1982. During this time she established a program of annual excavations (including student training field schools) at historical archaeological sites in St. Augustine. She continued her work on Spanish colonial sites of La Florida during her tenure as curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida starting in 1982. 

Deagan’s replacement, Dr. Rochelle A. Marrinan directed a number of Spanish period related projects including the Apalachee-Mission Archaeological Survey in 1985. Marrinan also began working at the Apalachee mission site of San Pedro y San Pablo de Patale in 1984 at the invitation of the then-landowners, Dr. Frank and Eveline Bilek. Marrinan conducted extensive investigations in the front and side yard of the Bilek’s property from 1984 to 1995 and a final season in 2000. During this time, the main research focus was on acculturation during a heightened time of culture contact between the Apalachee, Spanish soldiers and civilians, and Franciscan missionaries. Marrinan identified the religious/ceremonial area of the site, which consisted of the church, convento, cocina, and domestic areas. I had my first field experience as a student in the 1994 Spring semester field school held at the Patale site.

In 1995, Marrinan and students with the FSU Archaeological Field School conducted testing and excavations at the Mission O’Connell site, the possible second location of San Pedro y San Pablo de Patale. I was a graduate field assistant for the 1997 Spring semester survey and excavations at the O’Connell site, located in eastern Leon County in a tung field turned cattle pasture. Over the six seasons of investigations conducted at the O’Connell site, evidence of structures and artifacts related to mission period activity and domestic activities related to everyday life of the residents were uncovered.

In 2018, I and FSU students in the archaeological field school spent 16 weeks excavating at Mission San Luis in areas of the “Spanish Village” as part of the FSU Apalachee-Spanish Mission Archaeology Project.  These excavations benefitted from the foundational information gained through previous excavations and documentary sources. The majority of our current work is focused on learning about daily and communal foodways and how they reflect Mission period social, political, and religious organization at Apalachee-Spanish Mission sites. Anthropology students at FSU are working with me to wrap up artifact analysis and reporting.

At mission sites from Florida’s Atlantic Coast to the panhandle, archaeologists, historians, musicologists, interpreters, site caretakers, and private citizens are eager to show that history happened everywhere, not just in far away places. Unearthing the history that happened in our backyards is one way we can learn and share about the people that were born, raised, fed their families, and lived their lives in northern Florida during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.


Tanya M. Peres, associate professor of anthropology at Florida State University, is coeditor of Unearthing the Missions of Spanish Florida, The Cumberland River Archaic of Middle Tennessee and the editor of Trends and Traditions in Southeastern Zooarchaeology

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