UNF works to uncover the lost history of Northeast Florida
by Ron P. Whittington
The Archaeology Department at the University of North Florida (UNF) may have come up empty-handed on its latest attempt to find the real site of the elusive Fort Caroline, the fort that traded hands between the French and Spanish in the mid-1500s, but there’s still a lot of digging in the dirt to do.
“We’re incredibly active,” says Keith Ashley, UNF’s coordinator of archaeological research. “Every summer we have a project under way, for which students can get credit, plus projects during the year that are sometimes opened up to volunteers.
Thanks to a grant, Ashley’s team spent the last year looking for evidence of Fort Caroline. While they found no trace of the fort, one of Ashley’s colleagues did discover documents related to the time period that indicated the walls of the fort were beginning to fall away in 1568.
“We found no evidence of the fort, but we did find lots of Native American sites—just nothing that dated back to that time period,” Ashley says.
UNF currently has three ongoing archaeological projects, but the two shedding the most light on what the area was like 1,000 years ago are the Mill Cove Complex located in the Fort Caroline area and Spanish missions in the area.
“When you look across the Florida landscape in 1000 AD, you find that exotic materials are coming into Florida from two main places—Mount Royal, just north of Lake George, and the Mill Cove Complex, which was probably ‘Downtown’ Jacksonville 1,000 years ago,” says Ashley.
The metals and other materials that came to Native Americans here, and were used for social and burial rituals, included copper from the Lake Superior Region, galena from the Ozark Mountains, and other metals that show our early residents had connections to tribes located as far away as modern-day St. Louis—well before the arrival of Europeans.
Ashley says there were about 1,000 major Native American communities in the eastern United States, but the farthest connection identified here was between local tribes and the Cahokia tribe, which inhabited the area outside St. Louis west of the Mississippi River.
“We’re also finding out more about their daily activities here,” he says. “They’re fishing, collecting shell fish and hunting some terrestrial animals, but their life is really geared toward the marsh. Everything they needed to sustain themselves was just outside their back door.”
Ashley says that, in terms of social rituals, local tribes had to acquire what they needed from great distances and had contacts with groups in Georgia and Alabama to bring the items to them.
“Up to now, everyone had the impression that [the Native Americans] were sequestered in the tidal marshes and that’s where they stayed, but that’s not true,” he says.
Another area of investigation that holds promise is identifying Spanish missions in the area, which predate the missions in the Southwest by 200 years. Missions established by the Spanish on the East Coast moved south with the arrival of the English, who began raiding them for slaves and forced many from areas like St. Simon’s Island to move closer to St. Augustine for protection.
“The thing is, we just don’t have the standing ruins those other places had,” says Ashley. “Ours were made of wood and palmettos, so they would have dilapidated and decomposed over time, but we find stains in the remains.”
One mission was located on Black Hammock Island just north of the St. Johns River—an area that has been excavated. The main mission, located on Fort George Island, was called San Juan del Puerto and established before 1587.
Other universities are also digging. The University of Florida has summer projects taking place along the St. Johns River and is launching a new one near the Suwannee River. The University of West Florida has a large underwater archeological project under way near Pensacola.
“What most people know is that little
window in time from 1562 to 1565, because we have documents; but they’re written through European eyes and don’t talk about the natives’ way of life, what they accomplished and who they really were,” Ashley concludes.