History: Missions of La Florida With the Spanish discovery of the New World in 1492 came the desire to introduce the aboriginal people to the Catholic faith. Within years of discovery the church sent missionaries to the Caribbean islands, Central, and South America. Though Spain claimed all of present day United States, it was unable to protect its claim from other nation’s conquests. When I speak of Spanish Florida the reader must think in terms of Florida encompassing all of the east coast, from Key West to Newfoundland and west to Texas. It wasn’t until 1526 that the first known mission was attempted in Spanish Florida. At various times in their history the missions spanned from present day Miami, north to the Chesapeake bay, and west to Pensacola. Though many people in St. Augustine, Florida may not want to hear this, Mission Nombre de Dios was not the first mission effort in Spanish La Florida, present day United States. In fact, four short-lived mission efforts in Spanish La Florida that pre-dated Nombre de Dios. The Mission Nombre de Dios is unique in that it was the longest surviving effort.
Most people identify the early Spanish missions in the United States with California or the Southwest. The average American does not associate Spanish missions with Florida, Georgia, or the southeastern United States. It was only in the twentieth century that a deepening interest in early missions resulted in several new research efforts and the knowledge we have to date. Thanks to Dr. John H. Hann of Tallahassee, a research historian and leading scholar on the missions of Spanish Florida, we now have the most-up-to date findings and writings. Documentation exists of at least 124 missions during the first Spanish occupation (1565-1763) of the southeastern United States. These missionary efforts can be divided into five distinct periods. A pre-mission settlement period followed by a first, second, third, and forth mission period.
The Earliest Period, 1526-1565, was not highly successful. Only four missions were attempted, and all were abandoned within 18 months. At the time, La Florida didn’t provide the same rich resources available as other Spanish held territories.
The First Mission Era Period, 1566-1587 best described as tentative and mostly unsuccessful, had a total of 13 missions established, with only three still in use in 1587. Most of the early missionaries were Jesuits, the Franciscans making their first appearance in 1573.
The Second Mission Era Period, 1587-1616, saw success, but also tragedy. Some missions took root, while others provoked rebellion and Spanish retaliation when five friars were killed. An unknown epidemic stuck between 1612-1616 killing as many as ten thousand mission Indians. Though 50 missions were established during this period, it is hard to say exactly how many were still in operation at its end because it was common practice by the church to move missions from one location to another. Sometimes names changed, at other times the same name was used. Almost nothing is known of this process.
The Third Mission Era Period, 1616-1655 was one of great missionary activity and serious attrition of the native people, which led to the demise of many earlier missions. Another unknown epidemic took its toll in 1649-1650. Again, smallpox struck in 1655, and two years later, measles. Though it is unknown exactly how many died, it had a devastating effect on the native population. Twenty-nine missions were established during this time.
The Forth Mission Era Period, 1656 1702, offers the most documentation to date. Should Cuba ever allow a more thorough investigation of its archives we will likely find more information on earlier mission efforts. The second half of this period, beginning in 1680, saw mounting pressure from the English colonists in South Carolina and the natives allied with them. That pressure destroyed all of the surviving missions between 1680-1706. Mission populations were killed, carried off, or escaped to St. Augustine area missions and the protection of the Spanish. Though the Spain held St. Augustine until 1763, English advances and the destruction of missions virtually ended all missionary activity by 1706.
To date only a handful of mission locations have been found and excavated. The State of Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research, and the Museum of Florida History are involved in exploring of one of the missions in Tallahassee where the remains of Mission San Luis is now a State owned historical site open to the public. At the site are ongoing archaeological excavations and an early replica of the mission church. The last time I was in Tallahassee Dr. John H. Hann was on staff. In time it is hoped that more information will emerge and we will have a clearer understanding of the earliest chapter in the European conquest of Florida. Thanks to Dr. Hann and other scholars we have the foundation for further research.
REFERENCES Dr. John H. Hann “Summary Guide to Spanish Florida Missions and Vistas with Churches in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries”
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This is a chronological listing of documented Missions. The list includes, Dotrinas: missioncenters, and vistas: outstations where a church is known or there is evidence that supports the existence and native villages where a priest or lay brother resided in a missionary capacity. Most are yet to be discovered.