Published on October 22, 2012 by Amy
The Ais, or Ays were a tribe of Native Americans who inhabited the Atlantic Coast of Florida. They ranged from present day Cape Canaveral to the St. Lucie Inlet, in the present day counties of Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie and northernmost Martin. They lived in villages and towns along the shores of the great lagoon called Rio de Ais by the Spanish, and now called the Indian River. The name Ais is derived from a great Indian Cacique (Chief).
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Little is known of the origins of the Ais, or of the affinities of their language. The Ais language has been tentatively assigned by some authors to the Muskogean language family, and by others to the Arawakan language family.
Observations on the appearance, diet and customs of the Ais at the end of the 17th Century are found in Jonathan Dickinson’s Journal. Dickinson and his party were shipwrecked, and spent several weeks among the Ais in 1696. By Dickinson’s account, the chief of the town of Jece, near present day Vero Beach, was paramount to all of the coastal towns from the Jaega town of Jobe (at Jupiter Inlet) in the south to approximately Cape Canaveral in the north (that is, the length of the River of Ais).
The Ais had considerable contact with Europeans by this time. The Spanish became acquainted with the Ais in middle of the 16th century. In 1566 Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, founder of St. Augustine, Florida, established a fort and mission at an Ais town, which the Spanish called Santa Lucía. After the Ais attacked the fort, killing 23 of the Spanish soldiers, the fort and mission were abandoned. Spain had eventually established some control over the coast, with the Ais regarding the Spanish as friends (comerradoes) and non-Spanish Europeans as enemies. A number of Ais men knew a little Spanish, and a patrol of Spanish soldiers from St. Augustine arrived in Jece while the Dickinson party was there. There was one man in Jece who had been taken away on an English ship to work as a diver on a wreck east of Cuba. He got away when the ship put in for water in Cuba, and had made his way back to his home via Havana and St. Augustine.
In December of 1571, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés was sailing from Florida to Havana with two frigates when, as he tells it, “I was wrecked at Cape Canaveral because of a storm which came upon me, and the other boat was lost fifteen leagues further on in the Bahama Channel, in a river they call the Ais, because the cacique is so called. I, by a miracle reached the fort of St. Augustine with seventeen persons I was taking with me. Three times the Indians gave the order to attack me, and the way I escaped them was by ingenuity and arousing fear in them, telling them that behind me many Spaniards were coming who would slay them if they found them.”
In the year of 1601 the Spanish King commissioned a map of Florida indicating his desires for a fort to be built in Miami. On the map he indicated the land we know as Brevard county as the Province of Ais, as it was typical in those days to designate a region of specific tribal domination and generally took its name from the ruling cacique.
In 1605, the Governor, Pedro de Ibarra sent a soldier by the name of Alvaro Mexia on a diplomatic mission to the Ais Indian Nation. The mission was a success, not only did they firm up an agreement for receiving shipwrecked sailors for a ransom to the Ais but a map of the Indian River area was made. The Ais had many European artifacts from ship wrecks. As there was a group from another English shipwreck in Jece when the Dickinson party reached the town, it may be presumed that European and African survivors of shipwrecks were fairly common along the coast. There was also some trade with St. Augustine. Dickinson reports that one man of Jece had approximately five pounds of ambergris, and that he “boasted that when he went for Augustine with that, he would purchase of the Spaniards a looking-glass, an axe, a knife or two, and three or four mannocoes (which is about five or six pounds) of tobacco.”
The Ais did not survive long after Dickinson’s sojourn with them. Shortly after 1700 settlers in the Province of Carolina and their Indian allies started raiding the Ais, killing them and carrying captives to Charles Town to be sold as slaves. In 1743 the Spanish established a short-lived mission on Biscayne Bay (in the area of present-day Miami). The priests assigned to that mission reported the presence of people they called “Santa Luces”, perhaps a name for the Ais derived from “Santa Lucia”, somewhere to the north of Biscayne Bay. The Ais were gone from the area by 1760.