Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Enduring Legacy of the Spanish Missions

As visitors enter Suwannee River State Park, their eyes are immediately drawn to a break in the far tree line that holds the promise of a fine view. They saunter across 50 yards of gently sloped lawn shaded by a high canopy of widely-spaced live oaks to the top of a high limestone bluff overlooking Suwannee River. Until recently, they would also find a historic marker under one of the nearby oaks. It’s metal face, darkened and weathered by the elements, gave the appearance of being ancient and imbued its message with a sense of ancient wisdom. In bold, raised letters it said, “Suwannee is a Creek Indian name meaning Place of Echoes.” The visitors would read the sign and then look down the steep-sided canyon embracing the molasses-brown river below and marvel at how perfectly the name fit. It felt right. But it wasn’t. Historians have concluded that "Suwannee" was derived from the name of a Spanish mission, San Juan de Guacara.

First located at Baptizing Springs around 1612, San Juan was later moved to Charles Spring after a disastrous rebellion by the Timucua natives in 1656. This new location put it next to the primary crossing of Suwannee River and made it one of the most important missions on both the river and the Mission Trail. Soon, the Spanish were referring to the river as the river of San Juan. The name probably would have stuck if there wasn’t already a river with that name; the river that still carries the Anglicized version of that name, St. John’s. To distinguish this smaller San Juan River from its big sister, they called it the Little San Juan, or “San Juanee.” With time, the name morphed into “Suwannee.”
In 1704 and ’05, English colonists from the Carolinas and their Creek Indian allies raided north Florida. Unable to take the massive defenses of St. Augustine, they settled on destroying the fort’s supply network—the missions, along with the Timucua Indians that had come to rely on them. They were partially successful. The missions were burned and the surviving Timucua Indians—a people whose ancestors had lived in north Florida for thousands of years—were forced to relocate to a handful of small villages near St. Augustine and the protection of the Castillo de San Marcos.

Today, nothing remains of the mission system except a handful of overgrown sites and those rare buried artifacts that are the raison de vivre of archaeologists. Nothing physical, that is. But look closely at a map of North Florida and you’ll find the land is virtually crawling, or should I say, “flowing,” with traces of Spanish missions.
All across north Florida, rivers, lakes and towns preserve the last traces of the Spanish period in their names. Most obvious are rivers. St. Johns, St. Mary’s, Santa Fe and St. Marks all retain the name of missions once located on their banks.
Like San Juan de Guacara, some missions names were simultaneously preserved and altered by the forces of linguistic evolution. One such was San Francisco de Potano. This mission, located a bit north of Gainesville, would eventually give the tattered remains of its name to the beautiful hardwood hammock in which it was located, “San Felasco.”
Far to the west, beyond Suwannee River, the name of San Pedro Bay seems to have preserved a mission's name without a scratch (or scribble), until we find that the mission's full name was San Pedro y San Pablo. However, while "San Pablo" didn't survive the rigors of time in the name of this bay, it was salvaged, though slightly altered, in the name of nearby Lake Sampala.
In one odd instance, a mission preserved the name of an Indian tribe that might otherwise have been lost to history. Twenty miles up one of Suwannee's northernmost tributaries, the Timucuan village of Arapaha was chosen for the site of mission Santa Maria de Los Angeles de Arapaha. Today, the mission and the Indians are recalled in name of their home river, the Alapaha.
While missions were the primary features of the mission system, they weren’t the only ones. Cattle ranches were a vital component. Where the missions provided corn and Indian labor (and Christian converts!), the ranches supplied St. Augustine with beef and ranch products. One of the largest was the La Chua ranch at Paynes Prairie. The name, “La Chua” would come down to us through the centuries as "Alachua," the name of a County and a town in the northern part of that County.
In today's unsettled social climate, where increasing numbers of people are calling for the removal of controversial monuments and re-naming places because they (like most of us) don’t like the people or events that inspired some of them, I have to wonder about the fate of the mission-inspired names of our rivers and other natural features. There is little dispute that the missions played a leading role in the demise of Florida's native populations. If the name-changers set their sights on Suwannee, the managers of Suwannee River State Park might want to re-install the old plaque and revive the old legend about the name. Then again, a name like “River of Echoes” might be equally abrasive to the kinds of people who would rather turn a deaf ear to history than embrace our mistakes, learn from them and move forward.