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.