Archaeologist Jerry Lee found these seeds at Mission San Luis, evidence of diet of the Apalachee Indians 3 centuries ago
Passionflowers provided fruit as a part of mission life for Indians in Spanish Florida

By Michael E. Abrams
Copyright 2009

Archaeologist Jerry Lee spilled out a dozen or so little brown seeds from a plastic pill bottle onto a sheet of paper.  These seeds are part of a dramatic story, centuries old. 
What we know about history can be illustrated by evidence as tiny as seeds. More than 300 years ago, those who left these seeds, the survivors of a once-vibrant culture, a handsome and warlike tribe of industrious men and women,  fled in terror from their homes.

Read more about the history of the passion flower in an altered Renaissance painting, the role of the Church, the Conversos and a mystical ingerpretation of the flower at links on main wildflower pages.

They, along with soldiers, friars and civilians abandoned forever the Spanish Mission San Luis de Apalachee, leaving only clues for scientists like Lee to help piece together the story of their lives.

The Spanish garrison torched the mission in 1704, two days before the marauding English and their fearsome army of Creek allies came upon what was left of the church, the fort , the council house and the homes. Up to 1,500 Apalachee had lived at the Mission.

Although it has been a tourist destination in the state capital of Tallahassee and a beacon for archaeologists and historians for many years, the revitalized San Luis now has the opportunity to become one of the  state’s top  historical draws.

The rebuilt mission buildings and a new museum in a 28,000 square foot visitor’s center financed by state funds, was dedicated on a December Sunday in 2009, with a celebratory mass, and ceremonies which attracted a good crowd, some local and state officials and the consul general of Spain.

For the archaeologists who have remapped and rebuilt the mission, evidence of the lives of the residents is found in the gravesites, the floor excavations, and the thousands of bags of material sifted through to find pieces of plates, pots, utensils, buttons, jewelry and other artifacts.

They know that among many other wild fruits like persimmon and grapes, plums and blackberries, the Apalachees had been eating the fruit of the passionflower.

This is the flower that to  Spanish clergy and to the pope was symbolic of the passion of Christ and a sign that the Christian bible encompassed the New World as well as the old.

The tell-tale golf-ball dimpled seeds are material evidence for scientists. Whether the flower was used symbolically at the mission, no one knows.

Lee believes the fruit was not uncommon around San Luis, although conditions have to be "just right" for the seeds to be preserved.

"We don’t often find them (the seeds), they have to be burned or some other process has to occur place for them to be preserved," he said.

"This little batch came out of a pit that we found. Number one, they are burned, so they are at least partially carbonized; but also when you have organic soil, it cuts the acidity so that helps to preserve."

"They were close to the bottom of a pit we were excavating and when we saw the seeds we took a float sample.  When you take a float sample you don’t put the soil through a screening process that you usually do –  you put it through water and the seeds float up to the top."

Lee had been familiar with the the passionflower fruit, having read of it in archaeological reports and "you look at the foods they were eating and maypop is often listed."

One use of the plants may have been to make cakes, said Lee. This information can be traced at least as far as Capt. Bernard Romans,  a Dutch-born naturalist and surveyor who worked for the British, and who first printed in 1775  A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida

He wrote about the Creeks who "also prepare a cake of the pulp of the species of the passi flora, vulgarly called may apple . . . " 

Passiflora incarnata which grows in Tallahassee area, and its fruit which was used to make "cakes" by the Creeks.

Copyright Michael E. Abrams

The seeds were also found in the Spanish village at San Luis, according to C. Margaret Scarry in The Spanish Missions of La Florida, edited by Bonnie McEwan, director of archaeology at Mission San Luis. 

The natives may have called the fruit the “maracock.”

They did so in Virginia, according to Capt. John Smith in his writings in 1612. William Strachey, his fellow Englishman, wrote  “In every field where the Indians plant their corne,  be cart-loads of them.”

The Spanish called the fruit the “granadilla” or “little pomegranate.” To the Dutch it was the "maracuia." The pomegranate figured in old world church iconography and was used by artists in paintings of Madonna and child. This strange new-world granadilla offered pulpy sweet seeds like the pomegranate.

The first European to explore the area was Panfilo de Narvaez  in 1528, and DeSoto wintered in Florida in 1539. Perhaps the Spanish saw the fruit growing wild on the vine, as they would in South America and Mexico. Sometime around 1608 the Apalachee asked for friars from the Spanish, and  they came. In 1656, headquarters for the Spanish was moved to the new Mission San Luis, a high elevation with a good water supply from springs.  

This was the largest and most prosperous mission west of St. Augustine. Residents of San Luis shipped surplus crops, hides and meat from the port of St. Marks, some 20 miles to the south. Some was to go to St. Augustine, but much went to Havana, traded for consumer goods. 

Maize, beans, squash and sunflower were all indigenous. Wheat, garbanzo, watermelon, figs, hazelnuts and peaches, all Old World foods, also grew in abundance in Apalachee province. The Spanish exacted labor from the natives. In 1670, the Apalachees, perhaps forced to do so, traveled to work on the fort at St. Augustine. Other natives were drafted from all around Florida to assist the Spanish. The St. Augustine fort, Catillo de San Marcos, thickly built of rock, withstood the English onslaught and is the only standing 17th Century fort in North America.

Mission San Luis existed 48 years. It was during Queen Anne’s War, in 1704, that the  Engish from the Carolinas invaded. They destroyed 13 of the 14 Spanish missions they targeted in Florida. These battles were known as the Apalachee Massacre. The English also captured 1,400 Apalachee who had become Catholic, and sold them into slavery. The war saw the English fight the French,  and since Spain was allied with France, Florida was a target. Some Apalachee fled westward and settled in Mobile, and later Louisiana.   

Today,  a 300 member tribe in Louisiana claims to be directly descended from the Apalachee. "Yes, it surprised us all," said Lee, who has been working at San Luis since 1989.  "I would have thought the remaining Apalachee would have just been assimilated.” Correspondence from chief Gilmer Bennett is on display in the museum, and representatives have been invited to the Mission.