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An illustrated version of this document is available at www.hartford-hwp.com/Timucua/

A brief history of the Timucua Taino of Northern Florida

By Haines Brown, 6 December 1999

Florida offers archaeological evidence of some of the earliest settlement in North America. In particular, there are spectacular finds from Florida sink holes that may date from the end of the Wisconson glaciation in about 10,000 B.C. There is no evidence these early occupations survived into more recent times.

Timucua Map]

However, in the first millenium A.D. and probably earlier, much of Florida was occupied by Taino Arawak-speaking peoples who had migrated up from the Caribbean and, like the warlike Carib Arawak speakers, came originally from Amazonian region of South America. Among the better known of these Taino people in Bimini (to use the Taino name for Florida) are the Timucua tribe of Northern Florida and the state-level Calusa society based on a fishing economy in Southern Florida (one of the few civilizations in world history based on a hunting or fishing economy). In recent years, there has also been much excitement over the discovery of the Tekesta Miami Circle that appears to date back to about 1000 B.C.

Apparently the Timucua language is a Caribbean kreol that ultimately derived from the Arawak linguistic group in Amazonia (as spoken there today by the Warao), but influenced by North American languages through trade and cultural exchange. In this the language went through the same evolution as the Taino language, but seems to have emerged at an earlier point in Caribbean Arawak linguistic history.

The Timucua from northern Florida participated in a broad Southeastern Woodland culture sphere, but preserved their own distinctive traits that reflect their Caribbean origin.

By the 17th century, the Timucuan population was greatly reduced by disease and genocide, and due to the influx of new peoples from the North, such as the Creek, and the impact of the European colonists, not much of that original culture survives among the Timucua today. For example, we know of only a small number of Timucuan words.

People of Taino descent such as the Timucua are trying to recover as much of their cultural heritage as possible and to gain the tribal recongition that is necessary if they are to win some control over their circumstances. Solidarity among Arawak-speaking people everywhere, from South America to New York, is an important means to achive official recognition for Taino tribes.

The amount of surviving evidence and the extent to which survivers are able to perpetuate their traditions vary considerably from one Taino tribe to another. In the case of the Timucua, that evidence to a large extent derives from record of conquest by Europeans. From it, including copies of some remarkable early drawings, we gain some idea of Tumucuan society

In it there existed the marked sexual distinction typical of the Woodland culture found in the Southeastern states. It was associated with a sexual division of labor and affected many aspects of daily life. For example, in their dress, men wore a woven fiber breechcloth, sashes, and deerskin moccasins for travel. Timucuan women, on the other hand, wore skirts of Spanish moss. In cold weather, both women and men put on feather or skin matchcoats, although worn differently. In warm weather, young boys and girls generally wore nothing.

Although gender was sharply distinguished, one's choice of gender was not dictated by one's sexual physiology. For example, the social demands on men were so great that some chose instead to be transvestites and accept the responsibilities of women, to care for the household, carry burdens and cultivate the fields. Likewise, some women would adopt a man's role, fight in war and sit on the governing council. This was common enough, apparently, for Taino people to express surprise at the complete absence of women in Spanish councils.

Because of deepening social contraditions associated with their own social development and with European contact, Timucua lineages segmented into a large number of clan settlements consisting of people who were considered to be inlaws. If a young couple within a settlement wished to marry, to avoid incest, their clan would segment so that the two parties came to represent different clans and therefore became marriageable. Social segmentation led to a large number of small lineages and clans. Because this significantly weakened the Timucuan's ability to build the political solidarity needed for defense against the white invaders, lineages would consolidate into larger lineages by means of exogenous marriages.

It is thought that a settlement usually consisted of a small number of round timber houses with palm thatched roofs arranged in a semi-circle around a central plaza equiped with a large post for the traditional Timucuan games. In larger settlements there would be an artificial mound for a temple and another for the chief's residence. Timucua settlements seem to have been generally quite small.

Early every morning the council in a settlement would meet to discuss the affairs of the chiefdom, smoke, and sometimes carry out the games. Important council meetings opened with a White Drink ceremony (the drink was actually black in color) that helped purify the men and women posing as men so that they would find it easier to enter into positive social relations (however, young boys and women who chose to play a women's role in life were excluded). This drink was made from a local variety of holly, and so was related to the maté drink of Central and South America (perhaps brought by Arawak-speakers from Amazonia). It's main constituent was caffeine, and it was drunk hot like coffee to focus thought and enhance intellectual powers. A pipe would be lit and smoke blown in the four cardinal directions by one person after another based on their status in the hierarchy.

While for many Taino people ceremonial games imply a contest among ball teams that served to resolve a judicial dispute, the Timucua adopted instead a variation of the North American game of chunkey. This involves using beautifully fashioned concave disks of stone about 45 centimeters in diameter. When rolled, the stone takes an irregular path, and each player throws a long pole toward the point they think the stone will eventually stop. The object is to throw just before you think the stone will fall over.

In the community there would be wise men who functioned as priests as well as shamans able to mediate supernatural powers to serve the needs of the community. For example, the Timucuan shaman when in a trance was able to prophesy, diagnose a disease, locate stolen objects, and foretell the weather.

Archaeological evidence suggests a quite mature agricultural economy among the Apalachee and Timucua of northern Florida based on Indian corn, beans, pumpkins and vegetables. In fact, de Soto's four-year expedition through La Florida could not have taken place without the appropriation of enormous amounts of food from local populations. The American farmers first cleared the land by burning the brush, prepared the soil with hoes, and then women planted seeds with dibble sticks (coa). Apparently, two crops were planted annually, and there was field rotation. Guards stood in wooden platform watchtowers (barbacoa, from which derives the word barbacue) to protect the crops from birds and foraging animals.

Besides beans, corn and squash, the people of Florida also cultivated the Zamia root for grinding into bread flour. They also likely cultivated the halucenogen tobacco needed for their religious ceremonies. The harvest was dried and stored in stone warehouses to protect it from spoilage and insects.

Hunted were aligators (by thrusting a long pole down their throats), sea cows and occasional nearby whales. Meat was cooked on a wooden rack over a fire, also called a barbacoa, from which derives the English word barbecue. Unlike the Calusa, Timucua culture apparently limited the amount of fishing and hunting, so that Florida west coast economic potentials were not fully exploited. Later on, however, under the pressure of dependency on British trade, a good part of Florida's deer population was destroyed for the deerskin to exchange for tools, cloth, and ammunition.

Spanish pillagers penetrated Florida early in the sixteenth century in search for precious metal and slaves. One of them, the sinister Pánfilo de Narváez, landed in 1528 in order to conquer the Timucua, but he did not find the precious metal he expected and apparently food supplies were inadequate. So, from Tampa Bay, he marched north along the coast to enter Apalachee territory. Although they, too, lacked gold, he appropriated from them sufficient grain to keep his band alive. However, facing the stiff resistence of the Apalachee, he had to abandon the notion of a permanent settlement, and his band continued on into what is now Texas and eventually reached New Spain (Mexico). Of the 260 who started out, only three survived. Unfortunately their account is sketchy, but they spoke of an arid and poor land, perhaps the result of the ravages of smallpox spread by the Spaniards and through the Eastern Woodland trade routes. This abandonment of traditional settlements continued well into the next century and opened the way for immigration from the North of Native Americans who eventualy prevailed in Florida.

Nevertheless, the Timucua economy must have remained highly productive for some time. In 1539, Hernando de Soto, who had been appointed Governor of Cuba and La Florida, landed with 622 men in Tampa Bay in a search for wealth and opportunities for colonization. He found the Americans living in a small town of timber houses with thatched roofs. The chief's house was near the beach on a high defensive mound, and opposite to it was a temple surmounted by a wooden bird with gilded eyes. Not finding any significant wealth in the area of Tampa Bay, de Soto attacked the surrounding region in order to rob, kill and enslave. People often abandoned their settlements at his approach. Like de Narváez before him, de Soto eventually marched north in the search for greater amounts of food and wealth.

De Soto eventually reached the large settlement of Cofachiqui (in modern Georgia), led by a female chieftain who greeted him in a shaded canoe. To avoid disastor, she ordered that all available white and yellow metal be given to de Soto. This meant copper and the mica sheets which artisans fashioned into ornaments. Her efforts were in vain. Because there were no local pearls, de Soto's men looted the burial ground to seize 158 kg of the freshwater pearls that were buried there and proceeded to scalp and kill everyone they could (scalping was practiced in early Europe by the Franks as a way to destroy a person's charisma).

The Timucua were not as warlike as the Apalachee to the North or the Calusa Arawak state to the South, although they were certainly capable warriors. Nevertheless, they seemed to have preferred to find ways to avoid overt conflict. For example, they would place the head of an enemy on a post outside public buildings or hang his limbs from trees to warn off possible enemies. Older male captives tended to fare poorly, but women and children were adopted and came to lead normal lives. Sacrificial killing was apparently also practiced.

Several kilometers from Cofachiqui lay Talomeco, an even larger settlement. Here too, the chief's house and the temple were placed on artificial mounds. The temple was 12 meters wide and 30 meters long, and had a steep roof of reeds and split cane with sea-shell decoration. The Spaniards looted the temple and found wooden statues decorated with pearls, and there were great stores of deerskin, dyed cloth and copper ceremonial weapons of superb workmanship.

De Soto gave up on Florida because of its lack of gold, because the local population had been decimated by disease, but most importantly because the Apalachee were quite effective in military defense (they were excellent fort builders and constantly harassed his troop). His negative reports discouraged further depredations against the chiefdoms in Florida until the mid 17th century.

Perhaps it was because the Spanish were unable to establish viable settlements in the Southeast, French Hugeuenots from 1564 tried their own hand at it, but with no better success. The Timucua people resisted conquest as effectively as they resisted cultural colonization by Franciscan Friars. One Frenchman, Le Moyne de Morgues, made sketches of the Timucuans which have been of enormous interest to ethnographers. The Huguenots tried to convert the Timucuans to Christianity, and got back for their trouble the habit of smoking tobacco. Perhaps this threat to their culture also persuaded the Timucuans to help the Spanish attack the Huguenot at Fort Caroline. The Spanish then killed everyone there who did not swear they were Catholic.

Whether the Spanish Franciscan missions had any significant impact is debated, but clearly the penetration of British trade did. Northern Indians would be given guns by the British Charleston traders to launch slave raids against the missions in Florida because the mission Indians had lost an ability to defend theselves.

With the collapse of the French mission system, the British were able eventually take over in 1763. They were more successful in establishing a permanent presence than the Spanish and French, and so there began a period of more significant outside cultural influences on the Timucua. One reason for the British success was their commercial aggressiveness. They brought in cheap manufactured goods such as utensils and tools, rum and guns; they backed up their trade advantage with Indian mercenaries; and they also had greater self-sufficiency by reason of their larger numbers. In exchange for manufactures, the British took back the deerskins that Americans had long accumulated as prestige goods and slaves. This trade made the Timucua dependent on the British for tools, cloth and ammunition, and complete subjection was only a matter of time.

By the eighteenth century, the Americans of Florida had become dependent on White European imperialists, often because of the loss of their land to an encroaching slave economy. Today they are attempting to recover their cultural heritage and independence just as other Taino people in the US and Caribbean are doing.