PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

Laboring in the Fields of the Lord: Spanish Missions and Southeastern Indians

by Jerald T. Milanich

Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006

xiv + 210 pages

Illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index

$24.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8130-2966-X

“The missions of Spanish Florida are one of American history’s best-kept secrets,” reads the publisher’s blurb on the back cover of Jerald Milanich’s book. While there is some truth to this grandiose, attention-grabbing assertion, it lamentably belies the impact of the sustained and fruitful labor that Milanich and many others have devoted to the field over the past decades.

Laboring in the Fields of the Lord was originally published in 1999 by the Smithsonian Institution Press. Only a thin updated preface and a short bibliography of some 22 articles and monographs that have appeared since then distinguishes this second edition from the first. That no effort was made to integrate recent scholarship into the body of this important survey is unfortunate, but this does not overly detract from the merit of reprint. Adroitly combining archaeology and history, Milanich, recounts the story of the peoples and missions of La Florida between the founding of Saint Augustine in 1565 and the cession of the Spanish colony to Great Britain in 1763, though the chronological bounds are stretched to embrace the pre-Columbian past and the twentieth century.

Of particular interest to heritage-minded readers of Material Culture and PAST may be the book’s first chapter, which deals with the rediscovery of the Spanish missions during the last century. Scholarly and public interest in the Florida missions is traced back to the work of early historians of the Spanish borderlands, Herbert Bolton and Mary Ross, during the 1920s. The subject’s considerable romantic appeal led to the erroneous and occasionally fraudulent identifications of ruins and artifacts as remnants of the Spanish era. Serious archaeological fieldwork conducted by the Florida Park Services during the 1930s and 1940s began to uncover the remains of a number of mission sites. The task of correlating these sites and others with the names of missions recorded in historical documents proved to be an enduring challenge for successive generations of archaeologists. From the 1920s to the 1970s, argues the author, the study of the Spanish missions “evolved from an art to a science” (16). During the 1980s and 1990s, new sites were studied and new methods yielded fresh insights. Milanich, who currently works for the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, was himself an actor-participant in this process.

Drawing the reader back in time, to La Florida’s pre-Columbian and colonial periods, the author then proceeds to describe the geographical and ethnocultural setting of the missions. The region’s Native populations—most significantly the Guale of the Georgia coast, the Timucua in northern Florida and southern Georgia, and the Apalachee of northwest Florida—shared a number of social and cultural similarities but retained some significant distinctions which were determining factors in the course of the colonial and missionary enterprises. (The agriculturalist, politically and socially complex Apalachee, for example, eventually produced a particularly fruitful harvest of souls.)

The European explorations, settlement attempts, and resulting cultural and military clashes of the sixteenth century established La Florida as a fledgling Spanish colony. In 1566, the first missionaries, three Jesuits, arrived in the colony on the invitation by the governor Menéndez de Avilés. Throughout the period, Spanish missionary efforts were driven by three imperatives: the perceived legal and moral responsibility of converting the indigenous population to Christianity, the need to secure a labor force, and the need to ensure the protection of the colonists. Frustrated in their efforts, the Jesuits soon withdrew from La Florida. The Franciscans, the first of whom arrived in 1573, established with military assistance a more lasting missionary network of doctrinas (missions with churches and resident friars) and visitas (missions visited only periodically by friars). Over the next century, the network expanded from the province of Guale westward, into the Timucuan interior, and eventually into the populous Apalachee region. By the mid-seventeenth century, there were some 40 functioning doctrinas in La Florida, serving roughly 15,000 Natives.

While the influence of Spanish design was hardly discernable in the villages themselves, mission compounds demonstrated a hybrid mixture of new and old beliefs and practices. As a result of the missionaries’ Christianizing and civilizing efforts, the Guale, Timucua and Apalachee embraced a new faith, a new language, they adopted new tools and plants. On a large scale, they were integrated into the colonial economy as bearers and laborers, and drafted as defenders of the colony in times of crisis.

Labor drafts took their toll on the indigenous population, as did periodical epidemics, uprisings and reprisals, forcing a mid-seventeenth century reorganization of the missions. In the ensuing decades, the mission province of Guale was further beset by pirates and Chichimecos (a generic term used by the Spaniards to refer to hostile borderland raiders, in this case Westos from Virginia, armed by English traders and pointed southward). By 1684, the missions of the Georgia coast were abandoned. Some refugees, including confederated remnants of Georgia and South Carolina Indians who became known as the Yamasee, migrated south; others chose to escape the Spanish sphere of influence.

By the end of the seventeenth century, Apalachee province was “the only bright spot in the colony” (175). La Florida was becoming a prominent pawn in imperial games. Raids conducted by Carolinians, and by increasing numbers of former Indian allies who had cast their lot with the English, brought about the demise of the Spanish missions. Over the first half of the eighteenth century, several hundred Christian Indians sought refuge in a series of towns just outside St. Augustine’s north gates. Yet by 1759, only two of these missions, Tolomato and Nombre de Dios, were left serving some 95 individuals, a disparate mix of Yamasee, Timucua, Guale, Costa, Chiluque, Casipuya, and Chicasaw. In 1763, when Spain relinquished its colony to Great Britain, the 89 Indians remaining withdrew with the Spanish colonists and were resettled in the Cuban town of Guanabacoa.

Anyone interested in the history of the Spanish colonization of the Americas or in Southeastern archaeology should appreciate Laboring in the Fields of the Lord. That said, some of its author’s assessments are bound to leave discerning readers unsatisfied. In light of the currently prevailing tendency among ethnohistorians to probe the ways in which indigenous peoples retained a measure of agency—of inventive independence—within even the most rigid colonial structures, Milanich’s claim that Native Floridians became “faithful Catholic subjects” laboring for Spanish overlords “because that was what mission Indians did in La Florida” (3-4) will come across as overly simplistic. Though the historical and archaeological record may be far too limited to allow the writing of a wide-ranging history of the Florida missions “from below,” additional insights into their complexity could be garnered by adopting a suggestive, comparative approach.


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