Timucuan Parks Foundation is recognizing Hispanic Heritage Month with a look back at our area’s history. Each year, our country observes National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15 to honor the contributions and cultures of those who came to what’s now the U.S. from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Here on the First Coast, we have a rich history of Hispanic influence that extends beyond St. Augustine, reflecting over 200 years of Spanish rule after the short-lived 16th century French Huguenot presence.
Did you know that Fort George Island was once home to a Spanish mission? The Florida Museum of Natural History website states, “Under Spain’s rule, Florida was home to more than 100 Catholic missions, a network of outposts that served as the political, economic and religious backbone of the territory for nearly two centuries.” San Juan del Puerto was one of those missions which existed in the boundaries of what is now the National Park Service’s Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. Back in 1587, the Spanish Franciscan mission was founded near the mouth of the St. Johns River close to a Timucua tribe called the Saturiwa. The tribe was one of the chiefdoms of Mocama which was a Timucua-speaking people.
San Juan del Puerto was one of the largest missions which interacted with nine smaller villages. It was also where Father Francisco Pareja did his work on the Timucua language. As author Jerald Milanich reported in his book “The Timucua,” Father Pareja learned the language and created a system of writing which he taught to some of the Timucua Indians. He also printed the first book written in the Timucua language. While no buildings remain, it is believed that it the mission was located on the west side of the island. When you visit Fort George Island, look for the historic marker that tells the history of San Juan del Puerto.
Students from the University of North Florida are currently working on an archaeological dig on Big Talbot Island to learn more about the Mocama Indians and the Spanish missions. Dr. Keith Ashley, a professor of archaeology at UNF, is leading the fieldwork looking for artifacts from the Mocama village of Sarabay and from the Spanish and French who were in contact with the village. It is part of Ashley’s Mocama Archaeological Project which he began in 2011. The summer work was postponed due to the pandemic but has resumed for the fall semester and will continue through December 11.
San Juan del Puerto on Fort George Island was one of three principal missions in what the Spanish called the Mocama Province. The others were the San Pedro de Mocama on Cumberland Island and Santa Maria de Sena on Amelia Island. These missions were built nearly two centuries before those in California, according to Ashley’s research.
This is all just a part of the Hispanic heritage that informs the present thanks to the public lands that preserve these historical and cultural resources such as the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. We encourage you to take the time this month to learn a little more about the historical Hispanic influence on the First Coast. Visit these resources to learn more: