Lost mission revealed
San Buenaventura de Potano holds clues to Florida's past
Published: Monday, July 9, 2012 at 7:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 9, 2012 at 8:34 p.m.
In a sandy, overgrown expanse of countryside midway between Ocala and Gainesville lie clues to the early exploration and colonization of the New World.
Not far from where a family of local archaeologists found evidence of Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto's encampment, they also discovered beads, pottery and other artifacts from a later period that historians believe confirm the site of the lost Mission San Buenaventura de Potano near Orange Lake.
Buenaventura was one of four Spanish missions built among the Potano Indians in Marion and Alachua counties in the early 17th century. Post holes found there are believed to be from the mission's church.
"The one we found was completely lost from history," said Dr. Ashley White, an archaeologist, pathologist and member of the governing board of the Archaeological Institute of America. "It was exciting to confirm that."
Historical documents support White's hypothesis that Apula, an earlier "visita," or mission without a resident priest, had been established in the town of Potano, the site at Orange Lake. It was destroyed in 1584, and Buenaventura was built on that site.
The first Spanish settlement in Florida was founded in 1565 at San Augustine, which is present-day St. Augustine. Then, Franciscan priests began establishing other missions in hopes of converting the native people to Catholicism.
The Florida mission period continued from 1587 to 1706 and ended when the English began raiding Florida.
But these missions served another purpose for the Spanish Royal Crown, which funded them. The mission Indians were used as forced labor to help grow food to feed the St. Augustine colony.
"Their interest in the missions was mostly about financing a labor pool," said John Worth, associate professor of anthropology at the University of West Florida.
Worth said four missions were established among the Potano Indians in Alachua and Marion counties between 1606 and 1608,
According to Worth's book, "The Timucuan Chiefdoms of Spanish Florida," Fr. Martin Prieto established three of them in 1606 in Gainesville's Fox Pond area. The first was in the principal town of San Francisco de Potano with a population of 400. Prieto then established Santa Ana de Potano, with a population of 400, followed by San Miguel, with a population of 200.
A fourth mission, dedicated to San Buenaventura, was established by another friar, Fray Pareja, in 1607 or early 1608. Buenaventura had a population of 200.
"All were in a cluster within five miles of each other," Worth said.
Gifford Waters, historical archaeology collections manager of the Florida Museum of Natural History, was involved in 2006 in the excavation of the San Francisco de Potano site in Gainesville. San Francisco was a "doctrina," which is a regional mission with a resident friar, he said.
"The documents say they would do daily masses," Waters said. "They would head out from the doctrina where the friar resided and say mass in the various visitas in the area."
San Buenaventura, Santa Ana and San Miguel were considered visitas.
Jerald T. Milanich, curator emeritus in archaeology of the Florida Museum of Natural History, describes the people who spoke Timucua as living roughly in the top one-third of the Florida peninsula, north into Georgia, and roughly northwest of Orlando to the south.
The Apalachee Indians' province was west of the Aucilla River. The Timucuan comprised about 25 to 30 individual chiefdoms.
In 1601, a Potano chief, who was 15 or 16 years old, went to St. Augustine to ask Spanish Governor Mendez de Canco to resettle the town of Potano, near Orange Lake. Potano had been burned in a raid in 1584.
"Buenaventura was later established there," Worth said.
Worth said the Potano were accepting of the mission system until the Timucuan rebellion of 1656, when the natives tired of being used as labor.
"They seemed to be fairly invested in the Spanish mission system," he said. "The only people who complained were the native religious practitioners. They had rivalries with the priests, but that didn't last long because the chief was in control."
Having a mission brought status to the chief. That relationship not only brought gifts such as cloth and beads to the chief but also Spanish protection against unfriendly interlopers.
Waters, of UF, said the Indians were probably aware of the politics of the day, with the British to the north making advances into Spanish-held Florida.
"The native Americans were not passive participants in what was going on," Waters said. "They were trying to make alliances that would benefit them."
But those benefits came at a price.
The native Americans would have been required to provide food for the friar and also send food to the St. Augustine mission, Waters said.
Young, unattached males would be sent to St. Augustine from about January or February to June to farm, and then they would return to the mission. Because the mission's population was so small, it is likely only five, and perhaps fewer, men would be sent to St. Augustine, Worth said.
"The chief would pick out which men would go," Worth said. "They were paid for their work. They were not slaves."
However, taking those young men left very few marriage partners for the women, which caused the Timucuan population to dwindle, Worth said.
The Potano missions were similar in makeup, but on a much smaller scale, to Mission San Luis de Apalachee, an important Apalachee mission established in 1656 in Tallahassee,
Charles M. Hudson, emeritus professor of anthropology and history at the University of Georgia, said the Potano were a small, rural, independent group of hunters and gatherers, unlike the Apalachee people, who had a more advanced military command structure.
Unlike the Potano missions, Spaniards lived at San Luis, which was considered the western capital of the Spanish missions and second only to St. Augustine in importance. Today, there is an exact, reconstructed mission built on the original site of Mission San Luis, where visitors can see artifacts that were excavated at the site, experience life at a Spanish mission and learn about the fate of the Apalachee people.
The reconstructed church at San Luis is a rectangular structure made of wattle and daub with a peaked, thatched roof. It is 110 feet by 50 feet, much larger than the one at San Buenaventura, which was 63 feet by 36 feet.
"There was one center aisle," Kent Peacock, a guide at Mission San Luis, said about the church there. "The aisle divided the congregation between male and females."
There were no pews. The Spanish stood in the front; the Apalachee stood in the rear.
White said the post holes found at Buenaventura indicate the structure also was an "aisle" church.
The custom at the missions was to bury people beneath the church floor, with more important people buried closer to the altar, about a foot deep.
There were no human remains found at the San Buenaventura site.
"We are missing 31/2 feet of earth there," White said. "If (the remains) were there, they were destroyed," he said.
Worth said there would have been a "convento," or friary, at Buenaventura that would be the home to the visiting priest. There would have been an indoor kitchen as well.
And like the Apalachee at San Luis, the Potano Indians would have had a council house. The main mission structures would have surrounded a plaza.
"We have clear evidence and documents that each village had a council house," Worth said. "That's where important decisions were made."
The council house was also a place where dances were held and visitors would sleep.
"The chief probably would have had his own house near the plaza," Worth said.
The plaza was a place where the Indians would have held violent, sometimes deadly, ball games. The winners would rise in stature.
"That's one of the things the priest tried to get rid of," Worth said about the games.
But ultimately, the ball games were allowed to exist. "It was a pressure valve, instead of going to war," Worth said.
No evidence of any structures other than the church has been uncovered at the Buenaventura site.
Daily life at Buenaventura would have focused on the seasons of agriculture.
"Every family had their own plot," Worth said. "They farmed mostly beans, and corn and squash. For the Potano, particularly those living on Orange Lake, they supplemented their diets with any kind of wild food, acorns, wild grapes, wild cherries."
They also would have eaten palmetto berries and fish. Women would have taken care of the domestic chores.
During the winter, men would have worn deerskin or cloth woven from mulberry. During the mission period, the Potano were encouraged to wear Spanish-style clothing, with its ideas of modesty, made of linen or cheap cloth. And the men were expected to cut their hair.
But the mission system eventually came to an end.
There was a massive population collapse of the Apalachee and Timucuan Indians — about 95 percent — between 1600 and 1680.
"It was not just disease, but that was a major factor," Worth said. "Indians were exposed to diseases from the moment they interacted with the Spanish. It's almost a shock-wave effect."
The young men sent to work in St. Augustine also were overworked and undernourished, and they were attacked by wolves on their way back to their home missions. Some of the native people simply fled. Others died during raids
"We're looking at extinction," Worth said. "It's total extinction of a culture."
The original population was about 150,000, Worth said. "By 1681, 6,550 people lived in the missions," he said.
The missions themselves, under increasing attacks from the British and the Creek Indians to the north, were abandoned in 1706.
Contact Susan Latham Carr at 867-4156 or firstname.lastname@example.org.