More than 150 mission churches once were spread across north Florida and south Georgia.

Florida’s mission history has faded from public view, largely because of the absence of above-ground ruins. Instead of stone or mortar, the buildings were made of wood or thatch, which deteriorated over time, leaving only the Castillo de San Marcos and a handful of other structural features in and around St. Augustine as architectural testimony of the past.

People don’t realize there was a mission called San Francisco in Florida 150 years before there was one in California and that it existed for nearly a century. Santa Cruz, Santa Catalina, San Diego — all of these missions existed in 17th-century Spanish Florida, long before there were missions in 18th-century California.

However, the exploitation of the local native population was not much different than the oppression suffered in California two centuries later.

The Spanish would never have survived to give Florida its name and heritage in the 17th century without the Indians who lived at the missions strung out across the state. Mission Indians played a great role in the colonization of La Florida, Spain’s name for what then was the Southeastern United States, and the very survival of the Spanish colonizers.

The missions were a clever way to harness and pacify very large numbers of native peoples, and it cost the Spaniards relatively little. Indians from northern Florida and southern Georgia literally provided the food and labor to sustain the Spaniards, even mining the coquina stone used to build the fort (the Castillo de San Marcos) in St. Augustine.

Mission Indians also cut and hauled the timber used in Spanish buildings in St. Augustine, and they manned the canoes that ferried Spaniards across the St. Johns and Suwannee rivers, making it possible to travel through northern Florida. They also helped build and repair the Camino Real, the road that connected the missions to St. Augustine, the oldest European city in the United States.

The Spaniards had tremendous problems getting supplies into St. Augustine because of the uncertainties of trans-Atlantic shipping and grew to depend heavily on the Indians for food and labor.

Archeological evidence shows the mission Indians of that period had a sturdier build than their pre-historic ancestors, probably as a result of carrying heavy loads.

Significant numbers of Florida Mission Indians had broken arms, probably from the hardship and mistreatment they suffered laboring for the Spaniards. Their bones also confirm the deadly toll of epidemics and secondary infection that Spanish documents report among the Native Americans.

Soon after the arrival of the Spanish and the first rounds of disease epidemics, archeological finds indicate a marked change in the decorations on and styles of pottery, indicating most of the native population was decimated, and northern tribes either migrated or were brought South by the Spaniards to replace the original people who were all but wiped out by catastrophic epidemics of European diseases for which they had no immunity.

Spain never exercised long-term effective control over more than the northern part of what is now the State of Florida from present-day St. Augustine to the area around Tallahassee, southeastern Georgia, and some coastal settlements, such as Pensacola, Florida. A few short-lived missions were established in other locations, including Mission Santa Elena in present day South Carolina, around the Florida peninsula, and in the interior of Georgia and Alabama.

The missions of what are now northern Florida and southeastern Georgia were divided into four main provinces where the bulk of missionary effort took place.

There were also other smaller missions that were quickly abandoned, or later absorbed into the larger provinces.

These were:

  • Apalachee Province - comprising the eastern part of the what is now the Florida Panhandle. The Apalachee Province included the Apalachee people, who spoke a Muskogean language, and were brought into the mission system in the 1630s. There were also a few missions established to the north and west of the Apalachee Province.

  • Timucua Province - ranging from the St. Johns River west to the Suwanee; most of the people taken into the mission system were Timucua speakers. The Timucua-speakers, most of whom were brought into the mission system in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, were initially seen by the Spanish as living in a dozen or so provinces, with the Acuera, Ibi, Mocama, Potano, Timucua (in its restricted sense, north of the Santa Fe River, and east of the Suwannee River), Utina, Yufera, and Yustaga provinces becoming major components of the mission system and later absorbed into the Timucual Province.

    During the 17th century, as Timucuan populations declined and the locations of Spanish missions were consolidated along the road between St. Augustine and Apalachee, most of these provinces were gradually consolidated in Spanish usage into a Timucua Province stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Aucilla River. (Modern scholars today call the TImucua the Northern Utina). This was the largest province.

  • Mocama Province - the coastal areas east of the St. Johns running north to the Altamaha River. It included some of the earliest missions to be established, and served the Mocama, a Timucuan-speaking group of the coastal areas. Important missions established in the Mocama Province were San Juan del Puerto, among the Saturiwa chiefdom, and San Pedro de Mocama, among the Tacatacuru.

  • Guale Province - north of the Altamaha River along the coast to the present-day Georgia Sea Islands. They were the first taken into the mission system in the 1580s. Later in the 17th century, Guale Province was sometimes referred to as extending southward and including the region otherwise known as Mocama.

  • Mayaca-Jororo Province - The Spanish established one early mission among the Mayaca people, a non-Timucuan speaking tribe south of the Agua Fresca, and resumed efforts among them, and their relatives, the Jororo, in the late 17th century. This district, which became known as the Mayaca-Jororo Province, occupied an area to the south of Lake George, on the upper (southern) St. Johns River.

  • Potano Province - the missions among the Potano, centered around what is now Gainesville, were considered part of the Potano Province.

  • Agua Fresca Province - (Eastern Utina or Freshwater Timucua) along the middle St. Johns River, from roughly present-day Palatka south to Lake George.

  • Acuera Province - missions to the Acuera, who lived around the Ocklawaha River. The missions in Acuera Province were abandoned after the Timucua rebellion of 1656, although non-Christian Acueras continued to live there for another 40 years.

  • Yustaga Province - Served the Yustaga who lived to the east of the Suwanee as far as the Aucilla River

These provinces roughly corresponded to the areas where those dialects were spoken among the varying Native American peoples, and reflected the territories of the various tribes who were linguistically related. Missionary provinces were relatively fluid and evolved over the years according to demographic and political trends, and at various times smaller provinces were established, abandoned, or merged with larger ones.

The 1549 expedition of Father Luis de Cancer and three other Dominicans to Tampa Bay was the first solely missionary effort attempted in la Florida. It ended in failure after six weeks at the hands of the Tocobaga natives, which sent shock waves through the Dominican missionary community in New Spain for many years.

The first successful mission was built in St. Augustine in 1565.

The first Spanish missions to the Indians of Florida, starting with the foundation of St. Augustine in 1565, were attached to presidios. Between 1565 and 1567 ten presidios were established at major harbors from Port Royal Sound to Tampa Bay to prevent other European powers from establishing bases in the area. Most of the presidios were unsustainable.

San Mateo was destroyed by the French, the entire garrison at Tocobago was wiped out, and most of the other presidios were abandoned because of the hostility of the local Indians and the difficulty of providing supplies. By 1573 the only remaining presidios in Florida were St. Augustine and Santa Elena, and Santa Elena was abandoned (for a second time) in 1587.

The Florida Missions included:

  • Asunción de Puerto (Chatot)
  • Santa Ana de Potano
  • San Antón de Carlos (Calusa)
  • San Antonio de Anacape/Enacape (Agua Dulce/Utina)
  • San Antonio de Bacuqua
  • San Augustín de Ahoica
  • San Augustín de Urihica
  • San Blás de Avino (Acuera)
  • San Buenaventura de Guadalquini
  • San Buenaventura de Potano
  • San Carlos de los Chacatos
  • San Carlos de Yatcatani
  • Santa Catalina de Afuerica
  • Santa Catalina de Guale (St. Catherines Island)
  • Santa Clara de Tupiqui
  • Cofa
  • La Concepción de Ayubale
  • Santa Cruz de Ajohica
  • Santa Cruz de Cachipile
  • Santa Cruz de Capoli
  • Santa Cruz de Tarihica
  • San Damián de Cupaica (... de Cupahica) (... de Escambi)
  • San Diego de Helaca/Laca, later moved to San Diego de Salamototo
  • San Diego de Satuache
  • Santo Domingo de Talaje (Altamaha River)
  • Santo Domingo de Asao
  • Santa Elena de Machaba
  • La Encarnación a la Santa Cruz de Sábacola (Chatot)
  • Santa Fé de Toloca/Teleco/Toloco
  • San Felipe de Athulutheca
  • San Francisco de Chuaquin
  • San Francisco de Oconi
  • San Francisco de Potano (Potano)
  • San Ildefonso de Chamini/Chamile
  • La Encarnación a la Santa Cruz de Sábacola
  • Santa Isabel de Utinahica
  • San Joseph de Ocuya (San José de Ocuya)
  • San Joseph de Sapala (San José de Zapala)
  • San Juan De Aspalaga
  • San Juan (de) Guacara
  • San Juan del Puerto
  • San Lorenzo de Ibihica
  • San Lorenzo de Ivitachuco
  • Santa Lucia de Acuera
  • San Luis de Apalachee
  • San Luis de Eloquale (Acuera)
  • San Luis de Talimali (Apalachee)
  • Santa María
  • Santa María de Ayubale
  • Santa María de Loreto (Tequesta)
  • Santa María de los Angeles de Arapaha
  • San Martín de Ayaocuto
  • San Martín de Timucua/Ayacutu
  • San Martín de Tomole
  • San Matheo de Tolapatafi
  • San Miguel de Asile
  • San Miguel de Potano
  • San Nicolás de Tolentino
  • Nombre de Dios
  • (La Natividad de) Nuestra Senora (de Guadelupe) de Tolomato
  • San Pedro do los Chines
  • San Pedro de Mocama (Cumberland Island)
  • San Pedro de Potohiriba
  • San Pedro y San Pablo de Patale (San Pedro de Patali)
  • La Purificación de Tama
  • San Salvador de Mayaca
  • San Sebastian
  • Santiago de Oconee