Mission San Luis, Florida

The Mission San Luis was established in 1656 as a Spanish administrative center for western Florida and as a Catholic church to convert the native Appalachee tribes.  Today it has been reconstructed as a living history museum.


The Council House

In pre-Columbian Florida, most of the peninsula was occupied by the Calusa nation in the south and the Timucuans in the east. But in the north, where the Panhandle is today, were the Appalachee. A large tribe, they lived in a fertile land where agriculture was flourishing, and their sedentary villages, set on flattened dirt mounds and plazas, were surrounded by fields of maize, pumpkins, and other foods. They had an extensive trade network that reached as far north as the Great Lakes and as far west as Oklahoma. To the other tribes of Florida, the Appalachee were respected as affluent and prosperous farmers, and also feared as courageous and skilled warriors.

When the conquistador Hernando De Soto landed in Tampa Bay in 1539, he was looking for gold. The local Tocobago chieftain, named Mocoso, of course did not have any, but, perhaps hoping to move the Spaniards along out of his territory, helpfully told De Soto that the Appalachee to the north were well-off in material goods, and might have gold there. Leaving a small detachment behind, De Soto promptly set off for the Appalachee capitol at Anhaica, on the site of modern-day Tallahassee.

The Appalachees had already fought off another invader eleven years earlier, when a small band led by Pánfilo de Narváez was driven away. But De Soto’s men were much more numerous, and unlike Narváez, he had a sizable force of over 200 cavalry. The Native Americans fought fiercely, but their stone-tipped arrows and war clubs were no match for armored Spanish cavalry with swords, lances and guns. De Soto captured the Appalachee chief Capafi and forced an end to hostilities.

But once again, De Soto found no gold. Since it was already October, however, he made preparations to spend the winter. Using the Appalachee practically as slave labor, the Spaniards had a small walled village of cabins constructed to house themselves and were provided with food, and after sending word back to Tampa, they were rejoined in Anhaica by the rest of the Spanish. The Appalachee, meanwhile, continually harassed De Soto’s men, ambushing anyone who ventured outside the safety of the Spanish encampment. In March 1540, much to Capafi’s relief, the invaders, after looting as much food and supplies as they could carry, left and went north into present-day Georgia.

After the Spanish established a settlement at St Augustine in 1565, however, contact was made with the Appalachee once again, this time  by Catholic missionaries, and a regular trade was established. Over time, the natives became more and more Europeanized—especially after a series of devastating epidemics (probably smallpox) that killed most of their population. By 1633, the Appalachee farmers were providing most of the food that kept St Augustine alive, in exchange for modern cooking utensils, iron axes and knives, guns, and other tools.

In 1656, the Spanish decided to establish a permanent base at Anhaica to protect it from the French and British. It became known as Mission San Luis de Talimali, and served as the Spanish administrative center for western Florida and also as a Catholic church to convert the native Appalachee tribes to Christianity. For the next 50 years, Mission San Luis was a unique blend of Spanish and Native American. While St Augustine had been built on a European street grid plan, San Luis was laid out in the traditional Appalachee circle. Along with the Catholic church at one side of the plaza, there was an enormous thatched Appalachee council house on the other side, big enough to seat 2,000 people. In time the settlement grew into a local trading center and a military garrison, and reached a population of about 1500 Christianized natives and 30 or 40 Spanish friars and soldiers, protected by a stockade fort and blockhouse. Since there were no European women, the Spaniards took to marrying local natives.

But trouble was brewing. The British had established their own colony in South Carolina, and cross-border raids became more frequent. In 1701, Spain and England found themselves at war in Europe (“Queen Anne’s War”), and the British colonists took advantage. In July 1704, the English began moving substantial forces of colonial militia and allied Creek natives into Florida, and carried out a policy of burning the Catholic missions as a way to reduce Spanish control over the area. Clearly, they intended to attack Mission San Luis.

As the British approached, the Spanish and their Appalachee cohabitants realized that they were not strong enough to defend the settlement. They therefore abandoned San Luis, burned it to the ground, and left. When the English arrived a few days later, they found only a smoking ruin. The Spanish had fled to St Augustine; as for the Appalachee, some of them went north, some crossed Florida to live with the Timucuans, and some went to Spanish Mexico or Cuba. A small band of 2-300, descended from the Appalachee who fled Florida, still lives today in Louisiana.

In 1966, the site was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and archeological excavations were begun. They revealed an impressive series of structures. The council house is over 140 feet long, making it the largest known Native American structure in Florida. Remains were also found of the Catholic church, the friary next door, the Spanish fort, and the huts and cabins lived in by both the Appalachee and the Europeans.

Today, these buildings have been painstakingly reconstructed in their original footprints. Mission San Luis is open to the public as a living history museum, where interpreters in period dress demonstrate practices of the time for visitors. It is one of the most-visited tourist spots in Tallahassee.

2 thoughts on “Mission San Luis, Florida”

  1. An interesting historical article, this. It sure filled the some of the gaps in my Florida Original Peoples and Spanish Colonists knowledge.

    I was wondering if there were any good paintings, at the museum, of the People and Lives of those times? I wonder what the “Appalachee” looked like.

    Enjoyed this article very much. Thank you.

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