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Glynn County: History and Lore: Ed Green Book:

St. Simons History


The first European explorer to visit Georgia was Hernando De Soto. He sailed from Cuba in 1539 to Florida, then in 1540 made his way into Georgia with 620 soldiers, eight priests, and several dozen huge dogs trained for battle. Claiming what is now coastal Georgia for Spain, he then made his way through present South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi; then dying enroute in 1542.

The French were the first to start colonization. In 1562 French Hugenots, led by Ribault, made a settlement at Ft. Royal, S.C., which was soon abandoned. Two years later another settlement, led by Loudonierre, was made on the south bank of the St. Johns river in Florida and called Ft. Caroline.

These French settlements on land which Spain considered to be hers aroused Spanish anger. So Spain sent her most able seaman, Pedro Menendez de Avilles, to rout the French and to hold the lands for Spain. He established St. Augustine as a base, and in the following year, 1566, made a trip up the Georgia coast and landed on the island of St. Catherines. Here he found an old Indian chief named Guale (pronounced "Wallie") with whom he made friends. He wrote that they "sat on the beach and ate biscuits and honey". Leaving his nephew and a few other Spaniards there, he departed to return a few weeks later with a group of fifty people for a settlement at that place. This was the first of a string of Spanish settlements which he made. His agents in the new territory were the priest and the soldier. His strategy was to found a series of missions, with the pious intention of converting the Indians to the Christian faith, but with the soldiers present to protect the mission. Thus, the land would be effectively held for Spain.

This opportunity of beginning missions to convert the heathen Indians was greeted with enthusiasm by the pious King Philip II of Spain. He selected the Jesuits for the honor, and on July 28, 1566, three priests of strong character set sail. However, tragedy marked this endeavor from the beginning. Near the coast of Florida, a violent storm separated their ship from the others and they drifted northward, lost and without food. In desperation they went ashore on what is now Cumberland Island. At first the Indians gave them food, but then turned hostile. Father Pedro Martinezrefused to flee immediately as some of the Flemish sailors would have been abandoned there to certain death. Delaying too long, they were attacked by forty Indians with bows and arrows. Father Martinez was surrounded, and since his deep religious conviction prevented him from fighting, he raised his hands and face to the skies in prayer. In that instant an Indian with a club crushed his head beneath the upraised supplicating hands. So this priest became the first Christian martvr on Georgia soil. Three Flemish sailors shared the same fate, the remainder of the party getting back to the ship and making escape.

Yet, by force of arms and missionary persistence, missions were established along the coast. One of the priests, Brother Domingo Agustin Baez, applied himself to learning the language of the Indians and is said to have written a grammar of the language and translated a catechism for their instruction. This was th first book ever written on U.S. soil. Before the end of the year, however, he succumbed during an epidemic-the second priest to die as a martyr of the faith on the Georgia soil.

The priests worked hard at their task, but in spite of this, their early efforts bore disappointing results. The mission buildings would be erected near Indian villages, but the Indians did not want to stay near the mission where they could be instructed. It was their habit to move about, planting on better land. But once moved, the friars couldn't find them for instruction, so they tried to keep them in one place by creating a town and giving them corn to plant. This did not produce the hoped for success. The Indians seemed to desire escape from the domination of the priest and the plans the church had for them, so they would soon be gone. There was also a theological misunderstanding. In the course of the sermons to instruct the natives on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the motive for the Adoration of the Cross (to which the natives seemed to respond with devotion), the priest declared that to be sons of God it was necessary to be enemies of the devil, who was the essence of evil. The Indians misunderstood this. Thev thought the reference was to one of their own gods and were highly incensed. The devil, they said, was the best thing in the world because it made men fearless and brave.

Increasing misunderstanding and conflict between the friars and the natives and martyrdom and punishment brought the Jesuit effort to a close. By 1570 most missions were deserted, and in 1572 the remaining friars were ordered to service in Mexico.

The Spanish king did not give up easily, so soon the ill fated work of the Jesuits was taken over by the Franciscans. In 1573 a few Franciscans arrived, but apathy at home delayed the real effort until l 593. By this time it was recognized that soldiers must accompany the friars to their posts and substantial buildings must be erected as mission stations. Rapidly a whole chain of mission stations was founded along the coast, individual stations being in the principal Indian villages of Guale.

A mission was established at the important Indian village of Tolomato by Pedro Ruiz in 1595. This was near the present Darien. Recent historians mark the site as the bluff directly opposite the visitors center at Fort King George, as both Indian and Spanish material was found there during excavations. Earlier writers had placed the site as "The Thicket", five miles northeast where some old tabby ruins had been found. Those advocating the Fort King George site claim that the mission buildings in this area were of wooden construction, not tabby.

Sub-mission stations were located on St. Simons Island: l) Asao or San Simon, near the present ruins of Ft. Frederica; 2) Ocotonico, between the lighthouse and the Frederica river; and 3) Santo Domingo de Talaxe, inland from the junction of the Frederica and Hampton rivers, near Butler Point. (Old maps and historians do not always agree as to the exact location of the missions. Some place this one as San Buenaventura and put Santo Domingo on the mainland.)

The Mission Asao was in the charge of Father Velascola, a giant of a man from the mountains of Cantabria. His simple humility, combined with his powerful physique, made a deep impression on the natives of Asao (St. Simons Island) and vicinity. The Franciscans brought their inexorable discipline. Without trying to teach the Indians the use of Latin or Castilian, the friar immediately began instruction in the native language through an interpreter, until he himself gained a mastery of it. The Latin of the ritual was not dispensed with however; each day began with saying prayers, devotional and Mass at least once a week, until the new converts were quite proficient in the ritual of the faith.

This was a period of success, and as the missions prospered the governor was anxious to expand the effort to occupy other rich lands and save the souls of the natives. In 1606 the Bishop of Cuba made the first pastoral visit ever made on U.S. soil. He visited the missions at San Pedro, Tazale, Espogache, and Santa Cataline and baptized 1070 neophites.

Although the Spanish missions flourished in the early 17th century, this had not always been accomplished with ease. This is very evident in the story of the Juanillo Revolt in this very area of Guale of which this history is concerned.

The friars brought Spanish and Christian customs and often pressed for conformity from the Indians who little understood them. The natives were at best considered wards with a "priest knows best" attitude, and at worst were often treated more like slaves. A particular bitterness was encountered at Tolomato where Father Corpa had reproached the Indians harshly for disobeying his injunction that they should have only one wife.

The many items of dissatisfaction broke out into real trouble in 1597 when it came time for Juanillo, the son of the chief of Guale, to become "mico mayer". This position was the head chief over the various villages and their local mico chiefs. The position of mico mayer did not seem to be automatically hereditary, for sometimes nephews or others were selected instead of sons of the former chief. Yet here at Tolomato, Juanillo was in line for the head mico position, but Father Corpa intervened effectively to deprive him of it. Seeing Juanillo as an exceedingly arrogant, quarrelsome, and warlike young Indian, who refused to obey his commands on many occasions, Father Corpa appointed as head mico an older man "with good humble habits, " which the Spanish overlords preferred.

Juanillo was greatly incensed at this and gathered a large group of other malcontents into revolt. They first murdered Father Corpa as he came to the church for his morning devotions, and then the next day addressed a large gathering of chiefs of surrounding tribes. Playing upon the prejudices and their feeling of oppression, he boasted of the killing of the padre and pictured the friars as the great destroyers of Indian customs and happiness. The tribes of Guale were so stirred up by this that they embarked on raids and murder at most of the missions in Guale. Even at Asao (St. Simons), where Father Velascola was such a large and powerful man physically, they individually being afraid of him, awaited his return from St. Augustine to ambush him and cut his body beyond recogmtion.

Such a widespread revolt could not be ignored by the Spanish. This undercut their hopes of both holding the coast and exploiting the interior. So Indian atrocity was met by Spanish atrocity. The soldiers hunted out Indians to punish and were often frustrated and angered by the easy way the Indians vanished into the wilderness out of sight. So they burned their crops, and in the destruction were aided by a drought that summer, creating a real food shortage. Indian village after Indian village was burned, and the suffering increased.

Gradually the less violent of the tribes subsided in their hatred of the missionaries, particularly in return for badly needed food. So now with many Indians as ally, the Spanish pressed for order and rule again. The chief of Asao led Indians of many villages to an attack on a fort)fied town in the interior, Yfusinique, where Juanillo and his followers had retreated. The rebels fought with strength and desperation, but were finally overrun by a great general assault. Finding the bodies of Juanillo and his ally Don Francisco, they took their scalps, and 1ater exhibited these scalps in St. Augustine as a sign of Spanish victory.

So the missions were rebuilt and continued to flourish and expand, holding the land peacefully again for Spain for the next seventy or eighty years. By 1667 mission bells were heard all over Guale, for the record of 1667 shows that there were seventy missions and forty missionaries in Guale.

Yet time and world politics bring changes. In 1670 the English founded Charleston, and in the coming years the English became a new menace to the missions and the Spanish settlements of the New World.

Soon after the founding of Charleston, England and Spain had made a treaty by which the principle of actual occupation was adopted as the policy for colonization. English ownership was legalized as far south as Charleston and Spanish claims as far north as Santa Elene Sound. But almost immediately there developed a sharp conflict between Spain and England for the "debatable land", a conflict which was to last for three-quarters of a century, culminating in the military decision at the Battle of Bloody Marsh.

In 1675 the missions were flourishing, but as the years passed they were to be put under increased pressure. As always there was some dissatisfaction and misunderstanding between the friars and the Indians, especially where the priest was very arbitrary and demanding. This hostility was greatly enhanced by the English, anxious to replace the Spanish in the area. So the English increasingly played on Indian dissatisfaction to stir up trouble and bring conflict between dissatisfied tribes and the loyal mission Indians.

Also, pirates became a problem for the missions. Pirates raided and sacked them time and again. In this they were doubtlessly encouraged and even supplied by the English in South Carolina as a part of the pressure on the Spanish. These pirate raids would destroy the mission, carry off the valuables including the mission bells, soon silencing their call to worship forever. Under these pressures the Spanish gradually withdrew until by 1686 most missions of Guale had vanished.

In this period the population of Indians had also declined. The interruption of their normal life and hunting grounds, warfare, various new diseases, and great numbers leaving for other lands probably all contributed to this decline. The number of villages declined from sixtysix to a low of six or seven. A list made at St. Augustine of lndians who could bear arms produced only 122 names from a total population of 417 in nine villages. Meager were the remains of the "thirty thousand" Indians originally on the Georgia-Florida coast.

Thus, this region of Guale of which we are most concerned-St. Simons, Sea Island, Jekyll, Darien- now abandoned by the Spanish and only sparsely populated by Indians, had a period of around fifty years in which nature took its course unhindered again by man.

Next Section: The English Period