In the early sixteenth century native people who spoke the Timucua language occupied most of the northern one-third of peninsular Florida (east of the Aucilla River), apparently not including the Gulf of Mexico coast. The Timucua also inhabited southeastern Georgia as far north as the Altamaha River. In 1492 this large area, about 19,200 square miles, was home to approximately 200,000 people.
The Timucua were never a single political unit. Instead the people we refer to as the Timucua were made up of 25-30 (or more) individual chiefdoms, each consisting of at least 510 villages. The chief of a chiefdom's main town served as overall leader. Sometimes chiefdoms formed alliances with one another for offensive or defensive military purposes or for other reasons.
In 1528 and again in 1539 Spanish expeditions marched through northern Florida, crossing the Aucilla River as they passed from Timucuan territory to the province of the Apalachee Indians. These military incursions were among the Timucua for only a matter of weeks. Shortly after the founding of the Spanish colonial settlement at St. Augustine in 1565 the Timucua entered a new phase in their interaction with people from Europe.
In 1573 Pedro Menendez de Aviles, founder and governor of the La Florida colony whose capital town was St. Augustine, arranged for Franciscan missionary friars to administer to the Timucua. Missions were intended to save the souls of the Indians even while transforming the native people into loyal Catholic subjects of the Spanish crown who could be forced to labor in support of the colony. After several unsuccessful attempts, missionary efforts began in earnest in 1595.
By that year the Timucuan population had shrunk to about 50,000, a 75 percent drop fueled by epidemic diseases introduced from Europe. The number of chiefdoms also had shrunk; only thirteen still existed: the Mocama-Guadalquini chiefdom on the Georgia and northeast Florida coasts, where three early missions were established (this chiefdom was apparently an amalgamation of earlier ones); Enecape just north of Lake George, site of the mission of San Antonio de Enecape; Acuera in the Oklawaha drainage with one mission; Ocale east of the Withlacoochee River (and west of Acuera) in Sumter and Marion counties, where one mission was built; Potano in Alachua County, where four early missions were built (two of which were gone by 1620); Utina in Columbia and Suwannee counties where four missions were founded; Yustaga in Madison and Hamilton counties in Florida and southern Georgia (east of the Aucilla River) among whom eight missions were built prior to 1623; Arapaha along the upper reaches of the modern Alapaha River in Georgia with one mission; Utinahica near the intersection of the Ocmulgee and Oconee rivers with one mission; Oconi in the Okefenokee Swamp with one mission; Ibihica to the east, served by mission San Lorenzo; and the Cascangue/Icafui and the Yufera chiefdoms farther east in southeast Georgia, both of whom disappeared very early in the seventeenth century.
Missionary friars moved systematically among each of these chiefdoms, founding a mission in each main town and in some outlying major villages. Within Yustaga the mission of San Miguel de Asile, would give its name to the Aucilla River.
If the 75-percent population decimation of the sixteenth century prior to the missions seems large, the figure for the seventeenth century is positively horrendous. From 1595 to 1700, the period of the missions, the Timucuan population suffered a 98 percent reduction, from 50,000 people to 1,000. And when Spain relinquished Florida and St. Augustine to the British in 1763, only a single Timucua Indian is listed on the roster of native people shipped to the town of Guanabacoa in Cuba.
Against the seventeenth-century backdrop of population erosion, the missions sought to incorporate the Timucua into the Spanish colonial realm. Indeed, the missions were colonialism. It was the missions that harnessed the Timucuan villagers to Spanish servitude. A system of labor quotas was organized through mission villages, providing native backs to serve St. Augustine.
Because Florida was a poor colony, its very existence depended on native labor. When mission village populations fell because of seventeenth-century epidemics, the colony's survival was threatened. To assure bodies for labor, Spanish officials moved populations and amalgamated villages. At times the remnants of once large chiefdoms were joined.
Some native laborers worked on Spanish haciendas located in the interior of northern Florida. One hacienda, a farm, was near the Aucilla River near mission San Miguel. Begun about 1645 by then governor of Spanish Florida Benito Ruiz de Salazar Vallecilla, the ranch grew wheat and corn; pigs were raised for export.
The Aucilla farm had extensive fields cultivated with the help of horses, mules, and oxen. Several documents, including an inventory taken after Rufz de Salazar's death, indicate the farm buildings included a large wooden house, a separate wooden kitchen with oven and two footmills, a thatched building for storing flour, a house with clay-daub walls, and several granaries. An African slave from Angola named Ambrosio and the mulatto overseer, Francisco Galindo, helped to run the ranch and were included in the inventory.
Also listed in the inventory were 22 oxen, 8 horses, and 45 head of swine. Tools, farm implements, and furnishings included a whetstone, auger and bits, spades or hoes, hatchets, sickles, hand adzes, saws, carpenter’s planes, machetes, iron goads, iron chains, table and benches, an oil lamp, beds, one pewter dish, and two bricks of chocolate, the latter used to cure dysentery.
Although native depopulation would eventually have doomed the missions and the colony to failure, that end was hastened by the establishment of British colonies on the eastern seaboard. Beginning in the 1660s and increasing in the 1680s, raids on the Timucua and Guale Indian missions by Carolinian-inspired native slavers,sometimes actively abetted by Carolinian militia, pressured the missions. Some mission dwellers fled, more were captured, and villages were abandoned.
The end of most of the Timucua missions came in 1702-1705 when several large Carolinian raids destroyed them (as well as those of Apalachee province). Survivors moved to new towns close to St. Augustine, where the remaining Timucua continued to be administered by Franciscan friars.
But in those refugee towns the Timucuan quickly failed. A 1717 census lists three villages housing a total of only 250 Timucua Indians. By 1726 that number had dropped to 157 Timucua, and two years later it was 70. In 1752, 29 Timucua remained, all living in a single town. A decade later when Spain withdrew from Florida there was only one Timucuan Indian still alive to accompany the Spaniards to Cuba.