A Spanish Mission’s Brutal Past

In the tranquil woods off Chaires Cross Road, the legend of Patale still lingers.Piecing Together PataleA Spanish Mission’s Brutal Past

By Jay Steere and Jason Dehart 

Three hundred years ago, the land of the Apalachee was ravaged by torture, murder, enslavement and religious martyrdom. English war parties, aided by Creek Indian allies, swept down from the Carolinas and devastated the Spanish missions east of Tallahassee, killing or enslaving all the Catholics and Christianized natives they could find.

That brutal time is known today as the Apalachee Massacres. A population of thousands was decimated, and a handful of survivors scattered in every direction – abandoning the fertile fields that eventually would give Tallahassee its name.

But today, in the tranquil woods off Chaires Cross Road, the legend of the destruction of one particular Spanish mission still lingers as a new Catholic community takes root.

Robin Fennema of the Mission San Miguel Homeowners Association said she and many of her neighbors were surprised to learn of the bloody history behind their new 260-acre subdivision east of town. A local archaeologist is working with them to unlock the site’s past to preserve what happened there centuries ago.

“It was terrible,” Fennema said. “Our archaeologist said it was the biggest slave raid in American history. That’s how he described it. The English and Spanish had conflicts all over the world, and the English were not happy with the Spanish presence in Florida.”

This site was once the location of the San Pedro y San Pablo de Patale Mission, which was a satellite town of nearby Mission San Luis, the western capital of Spanish Florida. Patale had a population of around 500, making it much smaller than San Luis, which in its heyday in the latter part of the 17th century was home to more than 1,400 Apalachee Indians and Spanish settlers.

The Spanish mission system had been in place for 100 years in North Florida before the English came in 1704 and destroyed it all in a matter of months. The natives who survived either fled to other Spanish towns such as St. Augustine, French colonies such as Mobile, Ala., or became slaves of the English.

The Spanish Arrival

Following the establishment of St. Augustine in 1565 as the eastern capital of Spanish Florida, Spain began to send missionaries to the New World to Christianize the natives and prevent France from expanding eastward from its holdings in Mississippi and Alabama. The Apalachee tribe, which occupied much of the territory in the northwest part of the state, initially was resistant to the Franciscan friars, but in 1594 tribal chiefs actually requested that friars be sent to their areas. In 1607, some Apalachee leaders again called for friars. Historians say there probably were many motivations behind this willingness to convert.

“It seems that the Apalachees believed that there was some benefit since they initially petitioned the governor to send friars,” said Rochelle Marrinan, a Florida State University archaeologist who has worked extensively on the site of the Patale Mission. “It may be that trade was a factor, as well as the perception that Spaniards would be strong military allies.”

Spain continued to send missionaries, and the Tallahassee area soon was dotted with more than a dozen settlements like Patale, most strung out like pearls along the supply route between Mission San Luis and St. Augustine. In 1656, San Luis was established in its present location on top of a high ridgeline in what would become Tallahassee. As the area attracted more people, the Patale Mission was established in the general location of what is now Spanish Mission Drive off Buck Lake Road.    

In addition to raising livestock, settlers also supplied large amounts of grain and labor to Spanish settlements in Cuba and St. Augustine. Also by this time, 35 Franciscan missions existed in Florida and Georgia with a total population of 26,000 Christianized natives.

Digging Deeper

Calvin Jones, an archaeologist with the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research, discovered the Patale Mission in 1968 by comparing an account of a bishop’s visit to the missions in Tallahassee with the location of archaeological sites where Spanish mission material had been found. Jones – who died in 1998 – concluded that the mission once stood in an area where the evidence and the bishop’s story overlapped, and FSU sponsored a full-scale dig in 1971.

Marrinan worked on some of the earliest excavations at the site; she said there is evidence to suggest there were villages close by. The mission also had a convent, a council house, a ball field and a plaza with 14 Stations of the Cross. But while the missions grew and multiplied, so did other competing settlements – and interests – in the New World.

The British Invasion

Protestant England and Catholic Spain had longstanding rivalries rooted not only in religion but also in technology and Spain’s increasing expansion in Italy and the “Low Countries” (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg).

In 1702, at the start of Queen Anne’s War and the concurrent War of Spanish Succession, English forces seeking to weaken Spanish influence and power attacked and burned St. Augustine but couldn’t take the fort, Castillo de San Marcos. In 1704, James Moore, former governor of Carolina, returned to Florida and led a force of 50 English and 1,000 Creeks into the heartland of Apalachee territory to strike a blow at Spanish possessions there – including the missions.

On June 23 of that year, the Anglo-Creek army attacked and destroyed the Patale Mission. The attacks were tinged with religious overtones. Some accounts say Father Manuel de Mendoza was shot, tortured and killed, but Fennema said she heard a slightly different story.

“What happened was someone known to the friar came to the door and said ‘Hey, open up,’ and when he did, they shot (Mendoza). After they shot him they burned the church down around him and went on to attack other sites,” Fennema said.

The English also rounded up several Christianized natives and tied them to the mission’s Stations of the Cross, where they were tortured and burned. All died proclaiming their faith.

“These (stations) are placed in a circle, and (the English) strung the Indians, put them up on the cross – some were Indians, some Spanish soldiers – and tortured them by cutting them with knives and pushing burning sticks into the wounds,” Fennema said. “Then they burned them. The ones that had the most to say about how they were suffering for God, the more they talked, the more they were tortured.”

The English and Creeks continued to attack and destroy more Spanish missions throughout the area, including La Concepcion de Ayubale, where accounts say one friar was burned alive and beheaded while two natives were tortured and burned at the stake.

Faced with such shock and awe, it seems that many natives gave themselves over to the invaders. In his book “The Apalachee Indians and Mission San Luis,” John Hann, a researcher at San Luis, wrote that “many of the Apalachee went over to the invading forces or put up only a halfhearted resistance. The Spaniards’ loss of Apalachee constituted more of a collapse than a conquest.”

Hann said the British and Creeks were hesitant to attack San Luis because of its strategic hilly location and its fortifications. But the Spanish upset their plans; two days before the English force could reach it, the Spanish evacuated and burned the mission.

In all, perhaps fewer than 200 Apalachees survived the attacks; some left Florida and settled in French-occupied Mobile, while others went to St. Augustine or became British slaves. When the British took over Mobile, the Apalachees who were there moved on to Louisiana, where many of their descendants still live today.

The Creeks Return

In the mid-1700s, many Creek Indians returned to the Tallahassee area after being pushed out of Georgia by white settlers. Escaped slaves joined the displaced Creeks, who in time would become known as the Seminole, or “runaway,” tribe. The land had been deserted for some 50 years when the Creeks returned, and this is perhaps why Tallahassee means “abandoned fields” in Mushkogean, the language of the Seminole antecedents.

While most people may not be aware of the events that helped name the city, at least one local resident remains convinced that Tallahassee’s violent past is affecting people’s lives even today.

 

Patale’s Curse?

Murders, beheadings, people burning alive at the stake – so much negative, violent energy in one place can lead to superstitions. But is there a curse on this bloody ground?

Fred Dickinson, a former owner of the property where the Patale Mission was located, said he believes it’s no coincidence that bad luck plagues those who live there, given its history of violence.

When Dickinson bought the property in 1965, he set up a family compound where his parents and brother and sister lived. His father, a state comptroller, moved to the property at the height of his career. But soon that career took a severe downturn, thanks to an indictment and an election defeat.

“Things haven’t really gone too well for the people who have lived there,” Dickinson said.

Dickinson sold his property to Dr. Frank Belik in 1984, and believes the “curse” may have attached itself to the new landowner. Belik lost his wife five years after buying the land and later was released from the staff at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. In 1995 he became ill and was forced to sell his property.

But Fennema, of the new Mission San Miguel community, disagrees strongly with the idea of the land being cursed.

“We haven’t heard about any curse. No, not at all,” she said. “What happened there is well documented, all the Spanish wrote reports . . . The copies are on microfilm in St. Augustine. There’s no mention of the Spanish or the Indians placing a curse. In fact, they knew as they were being tortured they were going to heaven because they died for God.

“I think they died a martyr’s death – they died with honor despite the terrible circumstance they were in,” she said. “They died giving praise to God. I don’t think there was anything evil, aside from the terrible circumstances they were in. It was a terrible situation. I can’t even imagine it, (but) they died knowing that after their suffering they would go to heaven.”

Despite the tragedy surrounding the site, Fennema said she is proud to be involved in creating a new community there.

“The people who lived there were peaceful, and anybody is more than welcome to live in San Miguel,” she said. “We feel that those people who suffered so terribly 300 years ago were our bothers and sisters in Christ and faith. They were victims, not the aggressors – all they were doing was living there. Part of our intent in this new neighborhood is to honor them for the sacrifices they made . . . for their faith and their way of life.”

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