Apalachee Legacy

Doug Alderson

Members of the Apalachee Indians of the Talimali Band in 2023, courtesy of the Talimali Band

Tallahassee has long served as a capital city. Apalachee Native Americans, considered one of the most powerful and sophisticated of Florida’s early tribes, established a central village called Anhaica in the present-day Myers Park region near downtown’s Cascades Park. More modest settlements branched out in all directions. Even though the Apalachee occupied a relatively small territory between the Aucilla and Ochlocknee Rivers and from Georgia’s southern red hills to the coast, Apalachee numbers before European contact were likely between 25,000-30,000. Some researchers claimed it was the most concentrated native population in all of Florida.

Native American interpreter Tammy-Lee Lannigan in San Luis Council House, by Doug Alderson

The Apalachee, like the Creek/Seminole people who followed them, tilled the rich upland soil of Tallahassee to feed their people. They hunted deer, turkey, bear, alligators, bison and small game and made seasonal forays to the coast for fish and shellfish. They built huge ceremonial centers marked by temple mounds along what is now Lake Jackson and Lake Miccosukee and other sites, and their artisans made elaborate breast plates of copper, smooth celts of greenstone and intricately carved shell cups and pendants. Through these objects, they left behind an impressive legacy of symbology. Who cannot gaze in wonder at the copper breastplate of a dancing hawk man from Lake Jackson on display at the Museum of Florida History? It was found with the remains of a revered matriarch, the hawk man a symbol of the upper world.

Apalachee tales of adventure and daring, triumph and tragedy were likely numerous, told around campfires and on special occasions, passed down through generations. On this land, indigenous peoples fought and loved, played and grieved, birthed children and buried their dead. Their presence is most strongly felt at the base of their temple mounds or along Tallahassee’s winding creeks  where youthful hands occasionally find Apalachee pottery fragments. The first written observations of the Apalachee occurred during European contact five centuries ago.

The Apalachee were fierce warriors who resisted early Spanish incursions, including Panfilo de Narvaez and his band of 300 men and 40 horses who had arrived in 1528 on a quest to find gold. Other tribes had told the Spaniards of the rich abundance of Apalachee gold, likely confusing it with elaborate copper ornaments and ceremonial items.

Narvaez attacked and occupied the first Apalachee village they encountered, raiding the stored corn and other foodstuffs and holding the village chief and other villagers hostage. “The Indians made war on us continually,” wrote Cabeza de Vaca, “wounding the people and the horses as we went to fetch water, shooting arrows at us from the safety of the lagoons where we could not retaliate.”  Apalachee archers were said to be of large build, pulling bows as tall as a person and able to shoot an arrow through a tree as thick as a man’s leg. They were said to be accurate at two hundred paces.

Narvaez’s band arduously journeyed to the coast along present-day Apalachee Bay where they waited for rescue ships that never came. Eventually, their numbers dwindling, they built crude watercraft and sailed for Texas with hopes of traveling inland to Mexico City, a perilous journey in which only a handful survived. Only one man, Cabeza de Vaca, made it back to Spain where he wrote about his adventures.

Narvaez was followed by Hernando De Soto eleven years later. De Soto boasted 600 men, 223 horses, 12 priests and several dogs. They penetrated the heart of Apalachee territory and occupied Anhaica, meeting with stiff resistance from the Apalachee. Under constant threat of attack, the Spaniards likely observed the first Christmas mass in the New World. Surely, it was a solemn affair, with signs of the cross on Spanish armor and chain mail, arms at the ready. “It was not a time of gift-giving in those days,” wrote Henry Cabbage in Tales of Historic Tallahassee. “It was a time of religious ritual. The Spaniards probably did sing merry songs. That custom was a couple of hundred years old by then, but more than anything else, it was a celebration of the nativity to them. Christmas trees weren’t in vogue until 300 years later.”

De Soto stayed a few more fitful weeks in Anhaica before embarking for hoped for riches to the north and west. One can visit the site of De Soto’s occupation at the Governor Martin House off East Lafayette Street where archeologist Calvin Jones first found Spanish chain mail, nails, copper coins and other artifacts in 1987.

It was only after disease sapped the strength of the Apalachee empire did Spanish missionaries successfully set up a series of missions among the Apalachee, the most prominent being San Luis de Talimali on the west side of Tallahassee. The mission lasted for almost 50 years until the English and their Muscogee Creek allies raided from Georgia in 1704. Missions and villages were destroyed and the surviving Apalachee fled in different directions, most with the fleeing Spanish.

Today, San Luis is the only reconstructed Spanish mission in Florida and is considered the most thoroughly investigated mission in the Southeast, accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. It is managed by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources. For a small entrance fee, one can stroll the San Luis mission site where Spanish and Apalachee buildings have been carefully reconstructed based on historic records. First person interpreters bring history to life on weekends and special events, especially during annual Winter Solstice Celebrations.

The reconstructed Apalachee council house is perhaps the most impressive feature, one of the largest known historic Native American buildings in the Southeast United States. At fifty feet high and 120 feet in diameter, the original building could hold the entire adult San Luis Apalachee Indian population of 1,500. Giant pine logs, originally hoisted in place by hand labor, have been erected in a pyramid shape with vertical logs to hold them in place. Natural looking synthetic thatch, longer lasting and more fire resistant than the original palm thatch, will soon cover the structure. To step inside and gaze upwards can be almost dizzying. A New World version of Europe’s great cathedrals.

What the San Luis Mission site asks of visitors is to pretend it is 1680 when a thriving community existed. The Spanish and Apalachee were part of a five decade alliance for mutual defense and cultural exchange. Each adopted foods and ways of the other and intermarriage was common. Still, the two people kept their dwellings separate, the Spanish with their rectangular abodes and the Apalachee with their conical shaped huts thatched with palmetto or palm fronds.

Arielle O’Hara has been a museum education specialist at Mission San Luis for several years. “I went to school at FSU, taking Renaissance Art History, but when I started working here, it really opened my eyes about what happened here and how people lived,” she said. “People have been living here for thousands and thousands of years. Tallahassee is a constantly interesting place. You have to love nature and history to really appreciate it.”

Today, a handful of Apalachee people still survive as a distinct group in Louisiana, the Tamali Band, and return periodically as honored guests.  “I believe the Apalachee that have come back and set foot on our ancestral land has felt an instant connection of belonging, to what was once home,” said Lee Martsching, Co-Chief of the Apalachee Indians of the Talimali Band. “From first-hand experience I have felt this at the living museum of Mission San Luis as I walked barefoot through the grounds. I have also felt the sadness and grief from the horrific events and loss of life that took place there so long ago.” 

“I think of words such as crucial, vital, and substantial when talking about the importance of preserving and exploring our ancestral lands. Being able to reconstruct where our ancestors’ council house once stood or look at the difference in pottery from pre-mission to Spanish occupied Apalachee is astounding. This helps our tribe to keep our history, our heritage, and our story alive. Knowing who you are by where you came from is one of the most important things a person can do for inner peace. Unfortunately, this seems to be lost in today’s society. People wonder who they are and where they belong, but pay no heed to their own history.”

            After the English and Creek Indian invasion of 1704, few people lived in the land of Apalachee for several years. One observer in 1716 reported that once scarce bison had returned. Eventually, Muscogee Creek Indians moved into the region, fleeing American advancements from the north and seeking better hunting grounds. After observing the expansive fallow fields and temple mounds of the Apalachee, they realized this place had been occupied for a long time so they named one of their villages Talwa ahassi—Tallahassee. Old Town, or Old Fields The poetic sounding name has been used ever since.

Places to Visit

Mission San Luis De Apalachee

This reconstructed mission site includes a Spanish church, Apalachee council house, fort, Spanish dwelling, friary home, blacksmith shop as well as a visitor’s center and museum. Living history interpreters are often on-site on weekends and during special events.

Address: 2100 West Tennessee Street, Tallahassee 32304; 850-245-6406 (just west of Florida State University). 

Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park

The park protects six of the seven earthen temple mounds built by the Apalachee before European contact. The largest mound is about 36 feet high and a deck on top provides a commanding view. Interpretive panels in the picnic area provide background information about the early inhabitants and about the elaborate artifacts found in a mound excavated on adjacent private land just before the owner bulldozed it for fill dirt.

Address: 3600 Indian Mounds Road, Tallahassee, 32303; (850) 487-7989 (look for signs on North Monroe Street at the corner of Crowder Road north of I-10).

Letchworth-Love Mounds Archaeological State Park

This park contains Florida’s tallest Native American ceremonial mound at nearly 50 feet in height. Built between 1,100-1,800 years ago, the Great Mound had a pyramid-like peak, earthen ramp and lower platforms. It took several million baskets of soil and several years to build. Despite its size, archaeologists searched a long time for the mound, officially recording its location in 1975. The state acquired the site for a state park in 1992. There were ten smaller mounds around the Great Mound along with two cleared plazas.  A winding interpretive trail along with a large display in a pavilion provides information about how the main mound was built and for what purpose.

Address: 4500 Sunray Road South, Tallahassee, 32309; 850-487-7989 (along US 90 about halfway to Monticello).

Hernando De Soto Winter Encampment Site and Governor John Martin House

Replicas of artifacts found on the site in 1987 by archeologist Calvin Jones are on display in the Governor John Martin House, who served from 1925 to 1929. He had the house built in 1934. Appropriately, the house now serves as the headquarters for the Florida Bureau of Archeological Research. There is a also a series of panels with maps depicting De Soto’s expedition through the Southeast.

Address: 1001 De Soto Park Drive, Tallahassee, 32301; 850-245-6444 (just off East Lafayette Street).

Tallahassee Museum

            The museum offers educational programming related to early Paleoindians, mastodons, and mammoths. “One may encounter a dugout canoe on the property or get to hold a mastodon tusk fragment or mammoth molar at one of our tabling events,” said museum Exhibits Technician Will Gandy. “The property itself was also once used by Native Americans in the region.”

            The Tallahassee Museum is located near the airport on the southwest side of Tallahassee. Address: 3945 Museum Drive, Tallahassee, 32310.

Museum of Florida History

            The state-run museum interprets Native American history in Florida, beginning with the Paleo people or Paleoindians, who likely followed herds of animals into Florida during the last ice age more than 15,000 years ago. These people were more nomadic and hunted many animals now extinct, including mastodon, mammoth, giant sloth and giant tortoise. A mastodon skeleton pulled from the depths of Wakulla Springs is on display near the museum entrance. Another display near the entrance is a diorama of a Native American village on the St. Johns River just prior to the arrival of the first Spanish explorers. It shows a dugout canoe, dwellings, a temple mound and women gathering food. Several artifacts from the different periods are on display, too. The Spanish contact period is covered as well, along with the later Seminole wars.

Address: 500 South Bronough Street, Tallahassee, 32399; 850-245-6400 (just west of the capitol building in downtown Tallahassee). Note: the museum is temporarily closed due to maintenance at the R.A. Gray Building.

Doug Alderson is a Tallahassee-Leon County Bicentennial content provider for Visit Tallahassee and the Chair of the Bicentennial History Task Force. He is also the author of several award-winning books about Florida history and natural history.