Miami-Dade County

Tequesta archaelogical find in downtown Miami is boon to historians

An archeological dig in downtown Miami is underway at the MetSquare development to unearth Tequesta Indian structures.
An archeological dig in downtown Miami is underway at the MetSquare development to unearth Tequesta Indian structures. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The Tequesta Indians were not South Florida’s first inhabitants, nor were they especially numerous or venturesome, leaving only the faintest of traces when Spanish colonization did them in by the late 18th Century.

But the Tequesta were here for a very long time, more than 2,000 years, and could fairly lay claim to being the paradigmatic South Floridians: They went about barely clothed, lived by the water, spent their days hunting and fishing, and would flee their villages for the Keys during the summer mosquito plagues.

“They were Adam and Eve,’’ said historian Arva Moore Parks, who outlines what little is known about the Tequestas in the first chapter of her classic Miami: The Magic City.

And so the surprising discovery of well-preserved remnants of the Tequesta’s main village at the mouth of the Miami River in the middle of downtown — a place, it’s now clear, that has drawn human beings since before the birth of Jesus — represents a boon to archaeologists and historians, who have up to now relied on shards of excavated physical evidence, the slimmest of written records, and lots of extrapolation to piece together a portrait of the mysterious prehistoric tribe.

Already, the recent finds on the north bank of the river — thousands of precise postholes carved in the bedrock in circular and linear patterns that specialists believe mark the foundations of elevated dwellings and boardwalks — have shifted the understanding of the Tequesta.

Together with the equally unexpected discovery 16 years ago of the probably ceremonial Miami Circle on the river’s south bank, the village site directly opposite it confirms that the Tequesta possessed higher degrees of engineering skill and organization than once believed.

“They were more sophisticated than we thought,’’ said Miami-Dade College historian Paul George. “They traded with people from far away. They had some kind of mathematical precision. These circles are interesting because there is great sophistication to them, and since 1998 we had picked up very little else about the Tequesta.

“We have such inexact knowledge of the Florida Indians, we’ve just been grabbing at every morsel. And these are unbelievable morsels. And who knows how much else is out there?’’

The tantalizing promise of the site, a long-vacant city block now slated for high-rise commercial development, has led to growing calls for its preservation as an archaeological monument. That goal would require a substantial and costly redesign of the MetSquare project, the last phase of the four-block, $1 billion MetMiami hotel, office, entertainment and commercial complex.

The city’s historic preservation board, which has legal authority over archaeological sites, will hold a special meeting Feb. 14 at Miami City Hall to consider a disposition plan by the site’s owner, MDM Development Group. MDM has sought to carve out and remove one of the major circular features for display in a public plaza, a proposal that preservationists have largely dismissed as inadequate.

Parks says there is room for compromise, literally, because the village site takes up only half of the property.

“I would love for people to sit down and use some imagination, and maybe for the preservation people not to insist it not be touched at all,’’ she said. “They could build over it, they could go around it. This could be a major, wonderful place.”

To be sure, historians have long known that the Tequestas’ long-vanished principal settlement sat along the north side of the river’s mouth. That’s where Spanish colonizers first encountered them upon arriving in Florida in the 1500s. Tequesta — properly pronounced Te-KESS-ta — was the chief’s name, which the Spaniards applied to the entire village, said Miami-Dade County archaeologist Jeff Ransom.

On his first trip to Florida in 1513, explorer Juan Ponce de Leon sailed up Biscayne Bay and wrote in his journal that the crew “reached Chequesqua,” although there is no record of whether he came ashore. Fifty years later, the Spaniards made a couple of fitful campaigns to establish fortifications and Jesuit missions at the village.

But efforts to convert them to Catholicism were met mostly with indifference or active resistance from the Tequestas. Soldiers and priests were bored, tormented by the heat and mosquitos and the Indian diet, and the Spanish settlements were short-lived.

The Tequesta were also plagued by marauding bands of Creek Indians, predecessors of today’s Seminole tribe, who were driven south from Georgia by the English. By the time the Spanish took a last, unsuccessful stab at establishing a mission at Tequesta in 1743, Parks writes, only 180 Indians remained in the village.

The village was abandoned for good in 1763 when the last 80 surviving Tequesta families, decimated by conquest and disease, left for Cuba when Britain took control of Florida from the Spanish.

The downtown area near the river has been designated an archaeological zone for decades, requiring extensive surveys before any construction can proceed.

Previous digs in the zone, including excavations conducted for earlier MetMiami phases by veteran South Florida archaeologist Bob Carr, have uncovered numerous Native American burial grounds, graves and artifacts, as well as the foundations of industrialist Henry Flagler’s 1897 Royal Palm Hotel, built on the site of the Tequesta village, long gone by that point. Flagler crews digging the hotel’s foundations are known to have dumped Tequesta human remains in a hole in the limestone nearby, but those have not been found.

A large Tequesta midden, or refuse mound, is preserved under the elevated pool deck of the nearby Hyatt Regency, and can be spotted through a chain-link fence from the adjacent riverwalk. Carr says that spot marked the probable western boundary of the village, which at one point may have numbered as many as 1,000 residents.

What no one really expected when Carr began digging at the site of MetMiami a decade ago was the extent and well-preserved condition of what he would find, thanks, probably, to the fact that the site lay largely undisturbed under an asphalt parking lot after the Royal Palm was torn down in 1930.

The first circle at the MetSquare block — dubbed the Royal Palm Circle after the hotel — was uncovered in 2005, before the economic downturn put a stop to the excavation for several years.

But the finds quickly multiplied during the past year. The archaeologists have confirmed six full foundation circles — which they believe the Tequesta carved out using the hard cores of conch shells — and have begun tracing two more that were discovered in the past few weeks. The discovery meshes with sketchy descriptions from Spanish missionaries who wrote that Tequesta dwellings consisted of platforms with thatched roofs.

Artifacts found on the site, including common pottery shards and tools made from shark’s teeth, animal bones and conch shells, confirm the structures were domestic, Carr said, describing the trove as “a whole representation of daily life in the prehistoric period.”

In contrast, he and Ransom said, finds at the Miami Circle across the river included a full shark skeleton, a dolphin skull and a sea-turtle shell, as well as exotic materials like lead artifacts and basalt axe heads that University of Miami geologists traced to the area around Macon, Ga. That suggests the circle structure had religious or ceremonial uses and was reserved for the tribal elite, which Spanish accounts say included a chieftain and a shaman, or medicine man.

The Tequesta, who had dugout canoes, were also known to trade with neighboring tribes for exotic materials.

“They were socially and politically complex, and had a chief way before the time of contact with the Spanish,’’ Ransom said. “They seem to have maintained their culture even through the 200-plus years of Spanish colonization, which is unusual.’’

The origins of the Tequesta are unknown, though specialists believe they emerged from roving bands of Archaic Period peoples who wandered south to the Florida peninsula around 6,000 BC, Ransom said. They were preceded by, but likely had no connection to, the Paleo-Indians who lived in Florida some 8,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Archaeological finds have confirmed that the Tequesta, who traveled in dugout cypress canoes and were expert wood carvers, ranged from Key West to Cape Sable and north to present-day Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton. They also had camps or settlements in the Everglades, where they dug canals for navigation, and Key Biscayne, where Carr found a dune full of Tequesta artifacts in the median of Crandon Boulevard along Crandon Park after Hurricane Andrew toppled trees in 1992.

The oldest confirmed Tequesta site, in Weston, dates back 5,000 years, Carr said.

The Tequesta had no agriculture, but gathered fruit and plant roots. They also consumed venison, Caribbean monk seal, sea turtle, manatee, shark, fish and shellfish.

At the time of Spanish contact, the Tequesta were numerically and politically subservient to the more-aggressive Calusa Indians who dominated southwestern Florida.

Though generally peaceful, the Tequesta did sometimes practice human sacrifice. A chief’s death could mean the sacrifice of his wife and even children, Carr said. And a Jesuit missionary who lived among them recounts in a letter that he was told by some Tequesta that the death of a child could prompt the sacrifice of other children.

They did also sometimes fight back against Spanish abuses. When a soldier killed an Indian during an argument at the village, the Tequesta killed four soldiers, and might have wiped out the entire colony had a supply ship not fortuitously arrived, Parks writes.

Over time, though, the Tequesta established close ties with the Spanish colonizers, and some even attempted to move to Havana before apparently returning. They clearly preferred the Spanish to the English, however, and when the Spaniards abandoned Florida, the remaining Tequesta went with them for good.