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Reenactor at Mission San Luis in Tallahassee displays antique weapons

Mission San Luis takes you back into Florida’s early history. Not just the Spanish settlers but the Native Apalachee. Museums sometimes seem to forget that long before the Europeans arrived on this continent the natives had thriving cultures. Here, the customs, sports and a sustained lifestyle. They planted corn, beans, and squash, to complement their hunting and gathering. When the Spanish came, both groups were influenced by the other. Mission San Luis tells the story of that meshing of cultures. It’s done by docents in traditional costume who remain in character so no point talking about your smart phone or camera. Those things don’t exist here.

When we arrived we were met at the entrance by Deputy Governor Jacinto Roque Pérez to show us what does exist here. He brought us the Apalachee Council House. As he explained the customs of the natives, we explored the structure. These people were skillful builders. The council house is a perfectly huge and roofed far overhead with palm fronds. It is one of the largest historic Indian structures in the southeastern United States and capable of holding 2,000-3,000 people.

 

Next we visited with Senora Fernandez in her modest home. She told us of getting married to Senor Fernandez at 13 years of age in St. Augustine. We shared her worries about her own 13 year-old daughter who she said, "actually handles a musket." As she lamented, “Who will want to marry a girl with gunpowder stains on her hands.”

 

Her home was one of the upper class homes in the center of the village. It was a whitewashed wattle and daub structure having two sections, a living are and sleeping area and s thatched roof. Cooking was done mostly outdoors and never in the main house structure for fear of fire and the excessive Florida heat.

It seems there had been a problem between the Senora and the Deputy Governor over a chicken he had gotten from her and forgotten to return the bones which are used as fertilizer. Interesting to see people of that era had their little disputes same as today.

 

We stepped out to admire the garden where the master gardener was hard at work. Even though it was February, he had some produce growing. There were neat clumps of greens, and tiny corn stalks peeping through the mounded soil. The gardener explained that they, like the natives, grow corn, beans and squash. He pointed off into the distance to show us where the Indians grew their crops. These people are very proud of their farming ability: they produce enough to export food to St. Augustine.

In any early community the blacksmith is an important figure. No exception here. The local blacksmith, Santiago, was busy at his state-of-the-art 1700s-style forge making nails for the palisades walls. It used a special Spanish type bellows. It’s a two-handed air pump that forces air into a clay forge creating temperatures hot enough to work the iron. He told us, “It took 17 years to learn blacksmithing.”

 

There were pikes wood ready make the charcoal he uses to fuel his fire. Santiago said, “I can make about 250 nails each day working alone.”

Those nails were important. The Spanish were building a garrison to protect from an English attack. The garrison was a simple wood palisades type wall. Sharp cactus were planted around it to farther discourage attack. A cannon was mounted above. Inside was a combination barracks and arsenal.

 

Lieutenants Manuel explained “We need to be on guard for an attack by the English’s Indian allies, Creeks and Apalachicola. They are still quite hostile to us.”

Lieutenant Francisco commented “We managed to kind of tick them off a few governors ago.”

The implication was they had shot a few of those Indians who were traditional enemies of the Apalachee and now the English were recruiting them to drive off the Spanish.

 

The two Lieutenants showed off their armaments and living quarters. The pride of the garrison was their cannon which they felt sure could ward off any attackers.

cannon

 Our next stop was the Franciscan Church where the friar was enjoying his cassina tea. It is made from the yaupon holly bush and is important to the Apalachee people. The rule is only the friar is allowed to drink this tea before the chief who must drink it before anyone else.

The church was painstakingly reconstructed based on what archeologists found. What they discovered was no small primitive hut but a 50’ by 110’ frame building with a thatch roof. The main entrance to the rear opened onto the circular central plaza where the Apalachee played their ball games and almost directly across from their Council Houseouse.

 

There is a simple altar to the front, pictures instead of stained glass windows, a confessional and baptistery to the rear, and a loft for the choir over the rear area. It was the heart of the community, Marriages many between Spanish men and Apalachee women were preformed here. Mass was said and attended by people of both races.

Strangely enough, when they excavated the church, they found something unusual. There was a cemetery under it. Over 900 parishioners were buried there.

From the church, the friar led us to his modest quarters and showed us his private garden. There is a special section where he plants herbs and medicinal plants as he often acts as a healer of the body as well the soul.

 

Mission San Luis is not just a living history museum, it is an archeological site. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960. Mission San Luis is the only actual reconstructed Spanish mission in Florida, unique in that it portrays life not only of one group but of both Apalachee natives and Spanish settlers. Because it has been so thoroughly investigated archeologically, it’s a realistic window into Florida’s 300 year old past.

The museum is filled with artifacts found right on location. On the first Wednesday of each month they conduct Archaeological Site Tours at 11 am. There are many other events throughout the year held here. Go see what you have been missing. Fees are unbelievably low, Adults: $5; Seniors 65+: $3; Children 6-17: $2; Children under 6, Members & Active Duty Military: Free.

For more info:

https://www.missionsanluis.org

 

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