At the dawn of the 18th century, British soldiers and their Native American allies from the Carolina colony descended on Florida determined to eradicate the Spanish presence. The raiders destroyed several Franciscan missions including Santa Catalina de Guale on present-day Amelia Island.
Almost three centuries later, a millionaire philanthropist couple bought a three-acre property in Amelia Island Plantation, on the outskirts of Jacksonville, where they planned to build a home. When a backhoe operator clearing the site pulled out a palm tree, human skeletal remains were discovered among the roots.
It was the site of Santa Catalina’s church cemetery, where Catholic Guale Indians who lived in the mission had been buried in shrouds. In the excavations that followed, archaeologists found a 4.5-inch bronze seal bearing the image of St. Catherine of Alexandria. The friars had used it to authenticate their correspondence with the Spanish crown and other missions in the Santa Elena de la Florida province, which included the island of Cuba and the modern-day state Georgia as well as Florida.
The seal is the only one of its kind found from the Spanish colonial period in the southeastern United States.
“The seal would have been rare even for its time, being perhaps one among only a small handful of such official mission convent seals in the province of Santa Elena de la Florida,” said John Worth, a University of West Florida anthropologist who specializes in the European colonial era.
George and Dorothy Dorion, owners of the property on which it was found, have donated the priceless seal and other Santa Catalina artifacts to HistoryMiami, where it is part of an exhibit marking the 500th anniversary of the Spanish presence in Florida.
“The rest of the artifacts from the mission are important because they provide clues as to the people who lived at the mission and their culture and history during a pivotal moment in our state’s history,” said Worth, who helped to search for surviving Spanish documents related to the mission.
The discovery of the seal enabled historians to pinpoint the location of Santa Catalina, unknown since the mission was burned in 1702 by the Carolina army commanded by Gov. James Moore, on his way to attack St. Augustine.
“This is the dream of any archaeologist,” said Jorge Zamanillo, a HistoryMiami curator who heads the museum’s expansion project.
It was on March 27, 1513, that Juan Ponce de León spotted unknown territory in the distance while searching for an island of reputed wealth called Bimini. He named it Florida because he and his Spanish expeditionary forces were celebrating Easter Sunday or Pascua Florida, as it is sometimes called in Spanish. On April 2, his ships anchored off the peninsula.
The Spanish made several failed attempts to conquer Florida, but in 1565, Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés established the city of St. Augustine as headquarters for the colonial expansion. A period of violent confrontation with the indigenous people followed, but in time, the Spaniards established a chain of missions and adopted a strategy of religious conversion.
In the 1570s, the first Franciscan friars arrived north and south of St. Augustine. The missions they established were used to both teach the Indians the Christian Gospel and to exert political and social control over them. The friars acted independently of the bishop of Santiago de Cuba, but were part of that diocese.
Spanish Florida grew into an unprecedented multiethnic colonial society, Worth said, with a population that was 10 percent immigrant and 90 percent native, encompassing dozens of indigenous chiefdoms. Franciscans were not only involved in evangelization but also represented the interests of indigenous communities before the governing military rulers, he said.
By about 1650, the Franciscans had established nearly 100 missions, including Santa Catalina on St. Catherine’s Island, Ga., an area populated by the Guale Indians, one of the first native peoples to encounter Europeans. The mission eventually took the name of Santa Catalina de Guale.
The British challenged the Spanish dominance, establishing Charles Town, South Carolina, the southernmost British settlement, in 1670. Ten years later, their forces led Westo Indians in a failed attack against Santa Catalina. The mission was abandoned after Guale Indians rebelled and killed several friars. The remaining mission inhabitants were relocated to another Georgia coastal island and then, in 1684, to Amelia Island, where the settlement included a convent, plaza, kitchen, recreation area, church and cemetery.
George and Dorothy Dorion of Jacksonville had dreams of building a mansion in 1984 when they bought three lots in Amelia Island Plantation, a luxurious residential and resort area.
“We started clearing the land and moved the palm trees when we found bones and more bones, not only in one place but in an extensive area,” recalled Dorothy Dorion, a 79-year-old former nurse and teacher. “We discussed the issue with several friends who told us to cover it up and build our house. We couldn’t do that because once you cover up history, you will never have it back.”
Instead, the Dorions funded almost nine years of excavations on the site. They hired archaeologist Ken Hardin, president of Janus Research, a cultural resources management firm. Working with Rebecca Saunders, who was then with the Florida Museum of Natural History, they found the skulls of more than 120 Guale adults and children interred in shallow graves. They also excavated ceramics, potsherds, animal bones and other artifacts that have helped illuminate the settlement’s daily life.
“It was a complete scientific investigation of an important 17th century Florida Spanish mission,” said Hardin. “Much information was derived about the health, diet and cultural change experienced by Native American people as a result of interaction with the Spanish.”
Eight seasons of archaeological excavation also allowed the study of the mission’s architecture, and the methods and native materials used to build it. The researchers concluded that the real Santa Catalina was far different from the one described in official Spanish documents.
Early in the process, a student excavator found an artifact never before seen in Florida: a seal with the image of a woman with a crown holding a sword next to a spiked wheel. The abbreviated text around the image reads “Santa Catalina Martir” — a fourth century Christian martyr.
Research revealed that these Florida Franciscans had a system for authenticating documents similar to the ecclesiastical seals used by church officials in Spain.
“The seal itself is so wonderful for exhibition because it brings together in one object archaeological discovery, historical documentary research, art history and a poorly understood part of Florida history,” Hardin said.
The Dorions, who amassed their fortune in the bottling industry, wished to know more about the seal, so they traveled with several anthropologists to the General Archive of the Indies in Seville hoping to find correspondence and other clues. No direct letters from Santa Catalina were found in Seville, but they might exist in other archives.
The couple sold the property in Amelia Island after the archaeological project ended in the mid 1990s. They donated most of the artifacts to state museums and universities, but kept the seal in a bank vault until presenting it to HistoryMiami earlier this year.
It was not until 1819 that Spain ceded Florida to the U.S. under the Adams-Onís Treaty in repayment of a large debt. Three years later, Florida became a U.S. territory, then a state in 1845.
Yet, just as the roots of those palm trees in Amelia Island unearthed the dedicated work of the Franciscan missionaries, our understanding of theses missions reveals the depth of the Spanish roots in Florida that reach back half a millennium.