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Decades of Discovery on St. Catherines Island

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David Hurst Thomas is the curator of North American Archaeology in the Museum’s Division of Anthropology and has spent his career studying the human history of St. Catherines Island. Below, he explains how archaeological finds are proving history books wrong.

For nearly four decades, it’s been my privilege to work as an archaeologist on St. Catherines—a Manhattan-sized island 10 miles off the Georgia coastline. One of the storied Golden Isles, St. Catherines is privately owned; only two people live there. Forty years ago, the Edward John Noble Foundation established a long-term relationship with the American Museum of Natural History to pursue scientific research, conservation, and education on the island.

I’ve long been intrigued by Spanish mission archaeology. By the time I was 12, I’d visited all 21 of the Spanish missions in my native California. So when I arrived on St. Catherines Island in 1973, I was well aware of its rich mission history. For more than a century, Mission Santa Catalina de Guale was the northernmost Spanish settlement along the eastern seaboard. But after British and native forces overran the island in 1680, the Franciscan mission simply disappeared. People had been looking for it ever since.

Combining probabilistic sampling theory with first-generation geophysical remote sensing technologies (including proton magnetometry, soil resistivity, and ground-penetrating radar), we spent five years looking for the site. As fate would have it, the long-lost mission was buried beneath the westernmost road on St. Catherines Island. I’d driven across it a hundred times.

American history books have long disparaged the Spanish presence in America, discounting “poor little St. Augustine” as one of the most impoverished outposts in the Spanish global community. The colonists self-characterized La Florida as a place of neglect and ruin.

For 15 years, I directed Museum excavation at this extraordinarily well-preserved 16th- and 17th-century Franciscan mission, and I can safely say that those history books are dead wrong.

The archaeology produced surprises from the very start. The church and surrounding mission buildings were well constructed and carefully laid out on a town grid. Knowing that Franciscan customs dictated that the mission cemetery be placed inside the church, we encountered the remains of more than 400 people interred there. We were shocked by the quantity and quality of the grave goods we recovered. Having excavated several burial mounds on the island—often loaded with mortuary offerings—we knew that indigenous St. Catherines Islanders had long felt that “you can take it with you” to the afterlife. The Guale people clearly continued to place grave goods with the Christian burials. We puzzled over why the Franciscan friars would permit such “heathen” customs to be practiced at Mission Santa Catalina.

As the archaeological evidence accumulated, we began to question the conventional historical wisdom.We were also startled by the remarkable artifacts we found—gold and silver medallions, silver sacred heart rings, bells, mirrors, several complete ceramic vessels, and more than 65,000 glass trade beads. How did the mission Indians at Santa Catalina obtain some of the world’s most valuable beads, imported from Europe, China, and India? How did this tiny settlement on the Georgia coast—the so-called outpost of an impoverished outpost—become enmeshed in a global exchange network?

Food bones recovered from the mission trash heaps told the same story. When the Governor of St. Augustine feasted with the friars and the Guale Indians at Mission Santa Catalina, he may have enjoyed his best meal of the year. So why was the standard of living so much higher in remote Indian country than in the state capital?

As the archaeological evidence accumulated, we began to question the conventional historical wisdom—the tired recitation of supposedly superior European cultures dominating and subjugating the hapless indigenous people. Our suspicions have recently been confirmed by new documentary evidence from a surprising source.

In 1597, the Guale Indians living on St. Catherines Island and the Georgia coast staged an uprising, killing half the Franciscan friars in Spanish Florida—including two living at Mission Santa Catalina. The so-called “Juanillo Rebellion” has long been viewed as an indigenous revolt against Spanish colonial authority and repression. But a new study, Murder and Martyrdom in Spanish Florida, published in the Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, No. 95, says otherwise. Teasing fact from fiction, historians J. Michael Francis and Kathleen Kole have assembled and translated all of the surviving primary documents from the uprising, and they have completely changed our view of Spanish-Indian interactions in the American Southeast.

The 1597 rebellion was neither antiSpanish nor necessarily anti-Catholic—and it was never aimed at expelling the Spanish from Florida. Instead, the root causes lay in the underlying tensions between indigenous Georgia chiefdoms, each jockeying for position and astutely playing the Spanish to further their own ends. The documents highlight the sometimes tenuous footing of Spanish rule in Georgia and Florida, underscoring the importance of powerful Indian allies to Spanish ambitions and providing unique insights into the rich and complex nature of Indian society in the colonial southeast.

Taken together, archaeological and documentary evidence from St. Catherines Island offer a new understanding of Spanish-native interrelationships in the missions of La Florida. Colonists at St. Augustine relied heavily on the food surplus supplied by the Guale people. Spanish authorities were forced to deal directly with the traditional indigenous chiefs, reinforcing their political power and cementing alliances with diplomatic gifts. At missions like Santa Catalina de Guale, Franciscan friars helped establish and maintain what was essentially an economic and political center, with hereditary Guale chiefs retaining enormous autonomy over secular matters. The paramount chiefs ruled according to age-old lines of inherited authority.

Historians have long emphasized the unique Hispanic agenda—not seeking unoccupied land for immigrants but rather looking for local native groups to create, from scratch, new multiethnic communities. To be sure, military and political forces backed up this strategy, but the vision was to foster communities that were more native than Spanish. Recent ethnohistoric and archaeological investigations clearly demonstrate the degree to which that agenda played out during the 16th and 17th centuries in Spanish Florida. As part of a complex, multiethnic community, the indigenous chiefdoms of La Florida—willingly or not—became enmeshed in major global issues of food shortages, epidemic disease, warfare, and climate change.

Download Murder and Martyrdom in Spanish Florida at digitallibrary.amnh.org.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.

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