Exploring Northwest Florida
Exploring Northwest Florida
Mission San Luis was once the western capital of Spanish Florida and the principal village and seat of the chief of the Apalachee Indians. This blending of Spanish settlers and Native Americans lasted from the early 17th Century until 1704 when the British drove both the Spanish and the Apalachee from the region.
At the time of the Spanish explorers, the Apalachee Indians were the wealthiest and most advanced native people in Florida. When Hernando de Soto heard tales of the gold and silver stores of the Apalachee, he marched north from his landing site near Tampa in search of this rich tribe.
What he found was a highly organized native civilization and he spent the winter of 1539-1540 in the Apalachee village called Anhaica, in what is today downtown Tallahassee. The vastness of the Apalachee holdings led the Spanish to believe they owned the whole of the southeast, and so named the Appalachian Mountains for the tribe.
Shortly after the founding of St. Augustine in 1565, the Spanish established missions along the Atlantic coast into Georgia and westward into north Florida to convert the Indians to Christianity and to protect Spanish interests. The Apalachee embraced the new religion, although evidently the reality was more of a fusion of the old gods and the new Spanish one. As early as 1608, Apalachee leaders began asking for friars to come to the area, but it wasn’t until 1633 that the first Northwest Florida missions were established. Eventually there were over 100 missions between St. Augustine and what is today Tallahassee.
In 1656, Spanish authorities decided to establish their western capital on one of the area’s highest hilltops for strategic purposes, and the Apalachee chief moved his village there as well. At that time, there were few trees in the area to block the commanding view of the countryside. For the next 48 years the Spanish and the Apalachee lived in harmony, even intermarrying, and by 1675, Mission San Luis and its satellite villages had a population of more than 1500 native residents, and several hundred Spaniards lived in the San Luis settlement.
With their Carolina and Virginia colonies growing, the English threat to the north also grew until the outbreak of Queen Anne’s War in 1701 prompted open English hostility toward the Spanish. Between 1702 and 1704 the missions of Spanish Florida were destroyed and most of the Indians were killed. Mission San Luis was one of the last missions left standing as the Spanish military had built a substantial fort and blockhouse there in the 1690s. The Spaniards and their Apalachee allies finally evacuated the settlement with their women and children, many of whom went west toward Louisiana, and then burned Mission San Luis on July 31, 1704, two days before the English reached it.
Mission San Luis was lost to history for decades. Private owners built a house on the land in the early 20th Century, replacing an existing plantation house. Then in 1983, the site’s historical importance prompted the state of Florida to purchase 50 acres of the hilltop and archaeologists began excavations.
For the next 15 years, archaeologists carefully excavated the largely undisturbed 17th century archaeological deposits which included the foundations of several buildings; the fort, the mission church, a council house, chief’s house, and a Spanish village of more than 50 homes were unearthed.
The Mission San Luis site today consists of 60 acres and more than 950,000 artifacts and 16 tons of building materials recovered from controlled excavations. The footprint of the mission church shows that it was a 50 x 110-foot plank and thatch structure that was equal in size to the main church in St. Augustine. The cemetery located beneath the church’s floor is the final resting place of about 900 mission residents.
The Council House served as the city hall, ceremonial center, and lodge for the more than 1500 Apalachee residents at Mission San Luis. It was over 140 feet in diameter and stood five stories high, with 72-foot rafters weighing more than 1000 pounds each. The structure could hold up to 3000 people at one time and is the largest known historic-era Indian building in the Southeast.
Authentic reconstruction of the main buildings based on archaeological research began in 1998 and continues today. The circular plaza, the mission church, the friary, and a Spanish village house have all been reconstructed along with the Council House, and the Castillo de San Luis blockhouse. Mission San Luis is a designated National Landmark and in 2006 received the Preserve America Presidential Award.
Mission San Luis today is a fun Northwest Florida attraction and significant living history park. Just a couple of miles from downtown Tallahassee, the park’s 60 acres are a quiet refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city. Walk through the doors of the Visitor Center and you step back 300 years in time.
The Visitor Center itself houses an exhibit gallery and museum of some of the artifacts excavated on the site as well as some private collections. There is also a history-themed gift shop called the El Mercado, and a theater and classrooms for the many workshops and special events available. At 11:00 a.m. on the second Sunday of each month and on every Sunday in March, the park presents Archaeology Lab Tours, offering a glimpse into how the site has been excavated and how artifacts are preserved. There are also spring and summer Kids Camps, Historic Gardening Tours, blacksmithing classes, crafts workshops and more.
Costumed interpreters go about their daily life in 17th Century La Florida and are happy to answer questions about their village. Step into the Council House and peer through the open roof five stories above you. Sit in the council seats and touch the food, animal skins, and tools used by the Apalachee. Everything is a hands-on.
The 1/3-mile long Julia Munroe Woodward Nature Trail runs through the forest from behind the Spanish Village to the Castillo de San Luis and passes by a sinkhole, a spring house and a well. Wildlife viewing can include birds, butterflies, snakes, foxes, rabbits and squirrels. A map of the trail and brochures that tell the types of birds and butterflies you might see are available at the Visitor Center.
A visit to Mission San Luis is a great family outing and it’s easy to spend several hours exploring the artifacts gallery, the structures, and talking with interpreters. You can even make a whole day of it on special event days.
Mission San Luis is located at 2100 West Tennessee Street in Tallahassee. The park is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and closed Mondays, January 1st, Easter, July 4th, Thanksgiving, and December 24th and 25th. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for children age 6 to 17, and $3 for seniors. Call 850-245-6406 for information and group rates.
For more Florida history, visit our Northwest Florida Museums page.