History of the Tekesta

Part 5. The Early Contact Period (1513 to 1565 A.D.)

The Spanish landed on the southeast Florida coast in 1513, and this opens a new era in the history of Florida. Further, with contact we encounter written sources, although vague and sometimes contradictory, which provide specific ethnographic information. Because of South Florida's power relations, the Spanish naturally focused on the Calusa. However, we can perhaps extend some of that ethnographic information cautiously to other peoples living in South Florida, including the Tekesta.

The basic unit of social organization seems to have been the multi-lineage town. Each town was headed by a cacique (chief) who had military and probably some religious functions. Of course, essentially his function was to ensure the social order needed to resolve problems that required social unity.

In the sixteenth century, the Calusa capital held a population then estimated to be 1000, but now thought to be significantly larger. There were 50 towns subject to the Calusa Paramount Carlos (not really his name, but that of the people he ruled, the "fierce people", the Kalos). In the mid-16th century, roughly half of these towns were on the west coast (the Tocobaga to the north were not included), half inland from the coast, and two in the Florida Keys (inhabited by the Keys Indians), which might allow a guess as to the approximate number of towns throughout all South Florida. The Calusa capitol was named Calos, and its location was probably the Mound Key complex of mounds in Estero Bay.

It is hard to distinguish the political religiosity associated with a paramount at the top and the traditional religion at the social bottem. The Calusa had three deities, which may have been organized in a hierarchy. The top deity represented the natural order; the second highest was related to the political order; and the lowest was associated with war, suggesting that war served the purpose of creating order. Human sacrifice was practiced at the mound temple, but that practice seems to be closely associated with the political function of the paramount rather than the cacique per se. Burial mounds, ossuaries and charnel houses were kept separate from the town, and ceremonial mounds were guarded and decorated with figures to appease or represent the dead buried there. Under the Calusa there was a standardized ritual cult, distinct from the Southern Cult, that was probably traditional and widely shared in South Florida.

Calusa technology was relatively advanced by North American standards. Carved shell gorgets, plummets, wooden implements and masks, and silver, gold and copper repousesé. The wooden figures and masks represent technically and aesthetically a high standard. Trade and exchange was well developed throughout Florida, although much of it may have been prestige goods associated with the cacique or paramount. Important were sharks' teeth drilled with holes, and pottery. Because of trade, the former are found inland and the latter on the coast. There was a highly developed exchange network that encompassed all of South Florida, and with contact, it began to include European goods (Glades IIIC, 1513-1750).

It seems that a main function of a town chief, besides war, was the construction of monumental projects, althouth it was more likely that major projects were beyond the capability of a chiefdom and required some kind of paramount chief. These consisted primarily of temple and burial mounds located some distance from town. It also involved the construction of substantial canals, typically connecting the town with its burial mound, and being ceremonial rather than economic in their function.

The political relations of towns is what has drawn most attention, not only because that is the concern of 16th century written sources, but also because, in anthropological terms, it is extraordinary to see a state-level society like these in South Florida based on a hunting-gathering economy.

There were several dimensions of inter-town relations, but certainly an important one was a political office expressing that relation. This was the paramount. He ensured large-scale political order by means of several techniques, of which war was obviously important, although probably not as fundamental as some have assumed. War seems to have been sporadic, and may have served merely to back up or enforce political arrangements serving peace, just as medieval European feud served to counter violence by encouraging people to look to alternative means to reduce tension. A shifting system of alliances and diplomacy seems to have offered the context in which occasional war would occur. The Ais, Jaega/Jobe and Tekesta on the Atlantic coast were involved in these alliances, but not the Tocobaga to the north. At time of Spanish contact, the Calusa were at war with Tocobaga and Serrope. Apparently war could be waged by any chief on his own, but became serious only with a network of alliances backed by hostage taking.

Another dimensions of political order was political marriage. The paramount would have as his wives noble women from subject towns/tribes, somewhat in the fashion of the Sassanid Empire. Another dimension was tribute. This seems to have been essentially a gift exchange. For example, Paramount Carlos redistributed the silver and gold taken from a Spanish ship among the chiefs of the towns with whom he was allied, such as the Ais. One expects that the individual chiefs of towns played off regional rebel leaders against the Calusa paramount in order to maintain their own independence if at all possible.

Old trade patterns and gift exchanges would be harnessed to the creation of regional political bonds. Subject towns sent tubers as tribute, and the paramount dispersed prestige goods among the local aristocracy to win their support. As one would expect from an ancient state, such exchange relations were harnssed to politics, not to profit. However, after contact with Europeans, arrowroot flour was made into biscuits to trade with European mariners, and the Calusa at least become involved with a more extensive trade with Europeans. This kind of trade was for profit, and, to judge by other examples, the changing social function of trade may well have had destructive consequences for American society in South Florida.

Since the organization of regional leadership against the Calusa paramount was always a possibility, the paramount tried to distinguish himself from being merely an important chief, and this is where we should probably use a term such as king rather than paramount. This separation involved a "bureaucracy" to concentrate and organize his political power, and his appropriation of a special religious function or mystique that elevated him above the status of chief rest.

The "bureaucracy" (if we can use that word for what was probably nothing more than a handful of the nobles who were chosen to live in the capitol), was headed by a chief priest and a general (whom the Spanish called a captaán general). These top posts were apparently linked to the paramount by ties of blood. In one case, for example, the general was husband of the paramount's sister, and his post was inherited by his son. Beneath the general was a captain. The city which served as the capitol of a regional government drew into it a nobility from which were drawn these officials. Presumably this gathering of leadership into the capitol would discourage the organization of local opposition. Again, one recalls the Sassanid Empire.

Very important for the elevation of the paramount was his royal mystique. In part this arose from his possession of secret religious knowledge imparted to him by the chief priest (a parallel with Xia and Shang China would be instructive). But it also involved personal display and ritual. He wore special clothing and a golden forehead ornament (probably for much the same reason late Roman Emperors invented the crown ["corona"] to symbolize its wearer radiates cosmic energy). He wore beaded leg bands, and he sat on a wooden royal stool, called a dujo in the Arawak language, that represented his office, much as a royal stool distinguished kings in West Africa. When people approached the king, they had to bend their head and extend their hands in a ritualized fashion.

Now, much of this is based on the example of the Calusa, but it should have some implications for the political ethos of other peoples of South Florida. Likewise, we are fortunate to know a fair amount about the daily life of the Arawak Timucua people in northern Florida, and to some extent can infer from them some likely features of Tekesta culture. However, the sources are not entirely consistent because they reflect local traditions that differ, which makes uncertain any simple generalizations.

The Tekesta in the Early Contact Period

Archaeological evidence suggests the Tekesta lived roughly in Dade and Brower Counties in southeast Florida. This region would have been the point of entry into Florida by Caribbean migrants, and the Everglades would have diverted people north from Miami along Florida's east coast, and then on the west coast where in the Ten Thousand Islands area were found attractive economic resources.

At time of contact, the Tekesta nation was apparently already in decline, due in part to of the Calusa and and before them, probably the Ais. Consequently the list of their principal towns, as one travels north from Miami, Tavuacio, Janar, Cabista, and Custegiyo, (Stanton) may have been fewer than the original number. There were undoubtedly also as many unnamed interior towns (based on the Calusa analogy) that escaped the notice of the Europeans who skirted the coast. Many of these villages have left their faint trace in legend or in archaeology. For example, there was mention of a village at the Rio Rattones, or "river of rocks," at Biscayne, from which Boca Raton may have acquired its name. The Tekesta mounds (whether the practice was imported from the Mississippian Civilization or exported is unknown) are often found, such as the one on Jupiter Island, marking Tekesta penetration into Jobe/Jaega territory to the nroth.

While it has been suggested that the location of the Miami Circle marks the location of the Tekesta capitol, an there has therefore been speculation about the resources of the Miami River estuary, the actual location may rather have been some 5-6 miles to the north in el Portal, a distict in northern Miami about a mile square. El Portal is sometimes mentioned as the European colonists' oldest town, for it was settled thirty years before Saint Augustine. Most of the Tekeska would have lived in villages near the coast, where their economy was focused, but others would locate some distance inland. It is possible some of the Keys were also occupied by the Tekesta, although on most were the Keys Indians and to some extent the Calusa.

To judge by 16th century sources, especially drawings made of the Timucua, these villages consisted of houses in the form of a cylinder topped by a rounded roof made of arched poles covered with Palmetto leaves. However, the cacique's (chief) big house could be 25-40 feet in diameter. It had benches and platform beds with mats covering the hard-packed earthen floor. The Miami Circle is 38' in diamter and so could mark the foundation of a cacique great house, and so perhaps the Tekesta focus was originally on the Miami River and only later moved somewhat north to el Portal. In fact, we should assume that capitol towns were not permanently situated unless there is indication otherwise.

We have a pretty good idea of the appearance of the people of Florida from descriptions and a set of copies of drawings made at the time (we need to compensate for the tendency of the artist to suggest a parallel between the Arawak Timucua of Florida and the ancient Greeks). Because of the climate, people wore little. Men had a triangular women straw breechcloth attached with a belt around the waist. Women wore skirts of straw, tanned skins or Spanish moss.

Their hair was rolled their hair up and held with bone pins. Jewelry, as a mark of rank and perhaps of some religious significance, consisted of bone hairpins and beads were made of bone, wood, or drilled sharksteech. Palmetto leaves spread on a wooden rack over a fire was the typical method for cooking, and the Arawak for this contrivance has come down to us as as the Arawak word, barbeque. The Florida Indians are also known for a caffeinated hallucinogenic "black drink&#; made from yaupon holly that was used to initiate council meetings and was regurgitated.

Such were the first people encounted in North American by European colonists. Apparently the relation with the Spanish was on the whole friendly, perhaps because the Spanish were hostile to the Calusa. In 1536, a group of French Huguenots (Protestant refugees), Spanish Jesuits (a Catholic monastic order), and some soldiers landed at the site of a Tekesta village or town in El Portal and established there a mission near a fresh water spring in the Sherwood Forest section of El Portal. For several decades, the Europeans and Tekesta were neighbors, but despite efforts by missionaries to impose their European ideology, the Teskesta tolerated the intruders, and so their relations were peaceful.

The Spaniard Fontaneda was held captive by the Calusa from 1551 to 1569, and he reports that in 1566 the Tekesta had protected certain Spaniards from the Calusa Paramount Chief. Somewhere in Tekesta territory, perhaps in Miami, the Spanish set up aother mission in 1566, but it was abandoned in 1570. The Tekesta might have been friendly, but they were not easily converted to the European ideology.