After 300 years, San Luis thrives once more
Published: Sunday, January 30, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 30, 2005 at 12:41 a.m.
Mission San Luis in Tallahassee is thriving again.
Three hundred years ago, the advance of British troops prompted several hundred Spanish and Apalachee Indians living in San Luis to burn their church and homes and flee.
Research and reconstruction at the site began 20 years ago, and Mission San Luis de Apalachee now attracts thousands of visitors each year as the only reconstructed Spanish mission in Florida.
The hilltop site a few miles west of the Florida Capitol includes a reconstruction of the 17th-century church that existed three centuries ago and the nearby Apalachee council house.
The church was as large as its counterpart in St. Augustine - and the council house even bigger. Capable of holding more than 2,000 people, the council house was the largest Indian structure historians know of in the southeastern United States.
''There's nothing like it,'' said Bill Herrle, a longtime business lobbyist who serves as chairman of the Friends of Mission San Luis, a nonprofit support group.
More than 100 Spanish missions stretched across north Florida into the Panhandle in the 17th century. Most were small and consisted primarily of one or two Franciscan friars living in a native village.
But San Luis was unique. It was the Spaniards' western capital and also home to the most powerful Apalachee chief. Some 1,500 Apalachee and Spaniards lived in or around the mission - with another 6,000 or so Apalachee living in the region.
The church and the council house both sit on a large central plaza, a common feature to Apalachee villages and Spanish towns.
''One of the things that's so interesting was the fact that you have very distinct cultures coming together and establishing this town together,'' said Bonnie McEwan, the archaeologist who is director of the site.
The mission was the center of a bustling community for nearly half a century, including a fort as well as the church and council house and other smaller related buildings.
Three centuries later, many of the roots of Florida's traditions can be found at San Luis, ranging from agriculture to overseas trade to Hispanic-American culture.
The Spanish ranches around San Luis raised cattle and grew wheat and citrus. They exported thousands of tons of materials by transporting them down the St. Marks River to the Gulf of Mexico and sailing to Havana, McEwan said. And archaeologists have found porcelain from the other side of the world at the site.
''It really represents the beginning of Florida's international trade and participation in the global economy,'' McEwan said.
Archaeologists began working at the site a year after the state purchased the land. Although historians knew where the mission site itself was, they didn't know much else.
''Nobody knew about these enormous buildings at the plaza area,'' McEwan said.
She believes the buildings reflect the mutual respect between the Apalachee and the Spanish.
But it came to an abrupt and violent end.
In the early 18th century, the British raided the Spanish missions in Florida. With the troops just a couple of days away, the Spanish and Apalachee burned Mission San Luis on July 31, 1704, and fled.
Most of the Spanish returned to St. Augustine and later to Havana. But the Apalachee went in all directions. Some were killed, some went west and most went north, many as slaves.
Last year marked a ''300th commemoration of the Spanish missions,'' McEwan said. ''It's really a somber observance but an important one in our state's history.''
Historian Michael Gannon, a professor emeritus at the University of Florida, called the British attacks on the Spanish missions and the tribes in the region ''one of the great tragedies in the stories of the South.''
''It's almost never mentioned but more and more details are being discovered,'' he said.
After the British attacks, the missions lay fallow for a long time. It would be more than a century before U.S. surveyors even considered the area for Florida's territorial capital.
Historians long believed that no descendants of the Apalachee survived, but in 1996 a group of people in Louisiana identified themselves as Apalachee. The tribe, now including 200 to 300 people, is seeking federal recognition based on parish baptismal records, McEwan said.
One of these descendants, Chief Gilmer Bennett, has visited the mission site several times, most recently in July during a ceremony marking the anniversary of the destruction of the mission.
''I think it's going to be something good for Florida and something good for us,'' Bennett, 72, said from his home in Libuse, La.
Mission San Luis, which attracted 12,000 visitors this year, has ongoing archaeology - but also costumed interpreters to bring to life the history. Many of the visitors are students - and that's important to McEwan, who said the only thing she remembers about the entire fourth-grade is visiting a California mission.
She thinks Mission San Luis will have a similar impact - on adults as well as children.
''It really changes your whole perception of Florida missions to visit this site.''
Herrle remembers what the site used to be like in its early years.
''You didn't see much,'' he said. ''Some fields and some trees and some archaeological markings and some digging going on.''
Rebuilding began in earnest in 1997. The reconstructed church was built in 2000. The council house is nearing completion and is expected to open early this year.
''We're ready to become something to be compared to St. Augustine, to Jamestown, to Williamsburg,'' Herrle said.
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