A small fragment of a centuries-old olive jar from Spain may hold the key to a 17th-century revolt by the Apalachee Indian Nation against Spanish missionaries in north Florida.
A Tallahassee property owner recently stumbled upon the bit of clay pottery and some other artifacts and reached out to Florida State University’s Department of Anthropology for advice. FSU confirmed the fragments were consistent with the Spanish mission period of 1633-1704, before the English colonized the region.
Associate professor of anthropology Tanya Peres believes the artifacts may guide them to the exact location of the 1647 Apalachee revolt, which has never been found.
“We would definitely like to confirm that it is the site of the start of the Apalachee revolt of 1647, which means it would be a pretty important site in terms of the Colonial period of occupation here in north Florida,” said Peres, who has spent much of her career excavating Mission San Luis in Tallahassee.
She hopes they can provide a longed for glimpse into the vicious battle that initiated a series of conflicts that led to the tribe’s eventual decimation.
“After this revolt the way the Spanish treated the Indigenous people here changed for the worse,” Peres noted. “This revolt had world-altering ramifications, not just for the Apalachees but all the Indigenous people in … the colony (the Spanish) established that included Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and southwest North Carolina.”
The National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program is funding the excavation project with a $207,000 grant.
Existing research on the revolt suggests it stemmed from an unexpected ambush on a community that was busy celebrating the feast of San Antonio.
An ambushing group of Apalachee and Chisca attacked the mission, killing everyone who was present and then burned all the structures to the ground, Peres said.
In attendance were the Spanish Lieutenant Governor, his wife, their pregnant daughter, her husband and numerous Spanish priests from the area.
“We don’t know what happened as far as the attack. We do know that they killed all of those people and they burned structures to the ground, then went to seven other mission sites in the area and burned them to the ground as well,” Peres said.
“Interestingly enough, there were no Spanish solders at the festival. They were allegedly at the Lieutenant Governor’s cattle ranch,” she added. “When they got word of this attack, they went off to St. Augustine to alert the Governor, then rallied the troops to crush the rebellion.”
One of the repercussions of the revolt of 1647 was that the Spanish began enforcing their labor tax and required able-bodied males from the Indigenous population to physically work for the Spanish crown at various times of the year, Peres said.
The enforced labor resulted in many deaths, as the Apalachee men portaged tallow, pork and other goods to St. Augustine by foot where they had to work while their own families suffered at home.
Peres and her team of graduate students have already begun examining the site using remote-sensing in a process that allows them to see below the surface in a manner similar to an X-ray or CAT scan.
She is encouraged by what the olive jar’s presence could mean. Olive jars were made in Spain and used as transportation storage jars for everything from olive oil, wine, vinegar and chickpeas. They are an indication of civilization.
“Those were things that were very important to Spanish life ways and they would ship to wherever they were colonizing,” Peres noted.
Burned residences, burned missions and huge trash pits are some of the things the researchers are hoping to find at the site.
“We know what these mission sites looked like. We know what a footprint of this church would look like, or what a friar’s residence would look like,” Peres said. “They would dig these big quarry pits for construction of their buildings and then fill them with trash. It is the kind of area that can tell us a lot about their lives.”
The history of the Apalachee in Florida is of great interest because of the impact the tribe had on northwest Florida. The Apalachee were present n Florida from at least AD 1000, according to research by the University of South Florida.
Settlements were concentrated in today’s Leon and Jefferson counties. Before the Europeans arrived in Florida, there were 50,000 to 60,000 Apalachee in the area, according to USF estimates.
However, repeated conflicts with the Spanish, along with contagious diseases carried by the Europeans eventually decimated their numbers. Today the Apalachee live mainly in Louisiana, but are not a federally recognized tribe, Peres said.
According to USF, the Apalachee were prosperous and were fierce warriors. They grew corn, beans and squash and hunted bear, deer, and small game. They were known for their large ceremonial mounds, which sometimes had structures on top.
“We are trying to look at this site from the view of the Indigenous people and not from the view of the Spanish. We look at a lot of history from the viewpoint of the colonizers,” said Peres, who is considered an expert on the southeastern United States.
Sallie James is a freelance writer. She has been a reporter for newspapers such as The Palm Beach Post and South Florida Sun Sentinel.