|By Michael E. Abrams
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
find pieces of plates, pots, utensils, buttons, jewelry and other
They know that among many other wild fruits like persimmon and grapes,
plums and blackberries, the Apalachees had been eating the fruit of the
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
"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
"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
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
Dutch-born naturalist and surveyor who worked for the British, and who
first printed in 1775 A Concise
Natural History of East and West
He wrote about the Creeks who "also prepare a cake of the
pulp of the species of the passi flora, vulgarly called may apple . . .
The seeds were also found in the Spanish village at San Luis,
according to C. Margaret Scarry in The
edited by Bonnie McEwan, director of archaeology at Mission San
which grows in Tallahassee area, and its
was used to make "cakes" by the Creeks.
Copyright Michael E. Abrams
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
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
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
Spanish, and they came. In 1656, headquarters for the
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
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
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
Mission San Luis existed 48 years. It was during Queen Anne’s
1704, that the Engish from the Carolinas invaded. They destroyed
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
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
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.