The Apalachee were Native people who had made their home in the southern woodlands near the eastern edge of what is now called the Gulf of Mexico. They were mound-builders, erecting ceremonial earthworks in their major villages. This means they were also the southeasternmost part of what is now called the Mississippian culture of mound builders. This broader group covered the entire southern part of what is now the US, bordered by the Mississippi River on the west and the Ohio River to the north. Other native peoples lived there, too, but the mound-building made them unique.
The Apalachee had a warrior caste to be feared. As noted earlier, they first encountered the strange men of the ‘great canoes’ in an armed group headed by Ponce De Leon. The Spaniards were trying to seize the Apalachee and turn them into slave labor for Hispaniola, Cuba, and elsewhere. Still, as they learned the hard way during the DeSoto expedition, it was not so easy.
The Apalachee lived in settled villages in homes made of palm branches and cypress moss for thousands of years. They grew several varieties of squash, maize, beans, smoked fish, and other game for long-term storage. (One Spanish raid of one of their stores provided several hundred Spanish marauders with supplies lasting nearly six months). With their surpluses and networks, the Apalachee could build their mounds and trade for goods reaching the Great Lakes, the Great Plains, and down into Mexico.
The Apalachee were also known for a sport, a ball game with a small clay ball wrapped in animal skin and a goalpost. The ball had to be kicked to hit the post to score. Up to 40 or 50 men from rival villages took part, and the play could be as violent, or worse, than today’s hockey games.
Fierce as they might be, the Apalachee succumbed to the ‘invisible bullets’ of the Spaniards. After Desoto’s attacks and looting, their villages were ravaged by smallpox and other diseases. Many tribal remnants moved northward to merge with their cousins, the Muscogee Creek Confederacy. Those remaining were absorbed into the Florida Spanish missions as forced labor while being ‘converted’ to Catholicism.
At the time, the turn into the 1600s, Spain’s ‘La Florida’ meant more than the name suggests today. It stretched from New Orleans in the west to the Chesapeake Bay in the northeast and Tennessee to the north. The violent slave-raiding tour of Desoto around the Southeast is well-known and continued until he died on the Mississippi River shores. The Spanish founding of St Augustine on Florida’s Atlantic coast is also well known.
Less known is the founding of St Elena at Parris Island, SC, by the Spaniards,1566-1587, along with a string of forts reaching into the interior of the Carolinas, including one at Joara, a Cherokee town in what is now western North Carolina.
This was primarily the work of Juan Pardo, a Spanish explorer. He was tasked with finding an overland route to the silver mines of Mexico from the Atlantic coast. The Spanish at the time thought the Appalachian Mountains (later named for the Apalachee) were a continuous chain reaching into the far southwest and Mexico.
Save for St Elena, Pardo’s forts quickly collapsed once the native peoples around them discovered they were parasitic and had no regular supply of trade goods. Their fate underscored a point: many European settlements survived or failed at the sufferance of the native peoples around them. Europeans might stake out large swathes of ‘Turtle Island’ on a paper map. But they only held a few dozen forts and the small towns around them. The Native peoples dominated the vast surroundings until the 19th century.
In 1586, Sir Francis Drake, the ‘privateer’ discussed earlier, attacked and burned St Augustine, which caused Spain to pull back from the Carolinas and defend the smaller area of what we today call Florida.
The geography of what was called Carolina, at least its coastal area, sharply divides the northern half from the southern. The north has large bays and sounds, protected by a long string of barrier islands, the Outer Banks. The sound area was home to one group of native peoples, including the Pamlico, while the inland Piedmont was home to a larger grouping whose center was the Tuscarora people. The arrival of English settlers was soon to reshape them all. More to come.
[A key source: New Voyages to Carolina: Reinterpreting North Carolina History, edited by Larry E. Ise and Jeffrey J. Crow]