Published on December 3, 2012 by Amy
The Apalachee were a Native American people who historically lived in the Florida Panhandle. The Apalachee occupied the site of Velda Mound starting about 1450 CE, but had mostly abandoned it before the Spanish started settlements in the 17th century. They first encountered Spanish explorers in the 16th century, when the Hernando de Soto expedition arrived. They lived between the Aucilla River and Ochlockonee River, at the head of Apalachee Bay, an area known to Europeans as the Apalachee Province. They spoke a Muskogean language called Apalachee now extinct.
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Traditional tribal enemies, European diseases, and European encroachment severely reduced their population. The survivors dispersed, and over time many Apalachee integrated with other groups, particularly the Creek Confederacy, while others relocated to other Spanish territories, and some remained in what is now Louisiana. About 300 descendants in Rapides Parish, Louisiana assert an Apalachee identity today.
The Apalachee spoke a Muskogean language which became extinct. It was documented by Spanish settlers in letters written during the Spanish Colonial period.
Around 1100, indigenous peoples began to cultivate crops. Agriculture became important in the area that became the Apalachee domain. It was part of the Fort Walton Culture, a Florida culture influenced by the Mississippian culture. With agriculture, the people could grow surplus crops, which enabled them to settle in larger groups, increase their trading for raw materials and finished goods, and specialize in production of artisan goods.
At the time of Hernando de Soto’s visit in 1539-1540, the Apalachee capital was Anhaica (present-day Tallahassee, Florida). The Apalachee lived in villages of various size, or on individual farmsteads of .5 acres (0.20 ha) or so. Smaller settlements might have a single earthwork mound and a few houses. Larger towns (50 to 100 houses) were chiefdoms. They were organized around earthwork mounds built over decades for ceremonial, religious and burial purposes.
Villages and towns were often situated by lakes, as the natives hunted fish and used the water for domestic needs and transport. The largest Apalachee community was at Lake Jackson on the north side of present-day Tallahassee. This regional center had several mounds and 200 or more houses. Some of the surviving mounds are protected in Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park.
The Apalachee grew numerous varieties of corn, beans, squash, pumpkins and sunflowers. They gathered wild strawberries, the roots and shoots of the greenbrier vine, greens such as lambsquarters, the roots of one or more unidentified aquatic plants used to make flour, hickory nuts, acorns, saw palmetto berries and persimmons. They caught fish and turtles in the lakes and rivers, and oysters and fish on the Gulf Coast. They hunted deer, black bears, rabbits and ducks.
The Apalachee were part of an expansive trade network that extended from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes, and westward to what is now Oklahoma. The Apalachee acquired copper artifacts, sheets of mica, greenstone and galena from distant locations through this trade. The Apalachee probably paid for such imports with shells, pearls, shark teeth, preserved fish and sea turtle meat, salt and cassina leaves and twigs (used to make the black drink).
The Apalachee made tools from stone, bone and shell. They made pottery, wove cloth and cured buckskin. They built houses covered with palm leaves or the bark of cypress or poplar trees. They stored food in pits in the ground lined with matting, and smoked or dried food on racks over fires. (When Hernando de Sotò seized the Apalachee town of Anhaico in 1539, he found enough stored food to feed his 600 men and 220 horses for five months.)
The Apalachee men wore a deerskin loincloth. The women wore a skirt made of Spanish moss or other plant fibers. The men painted their bodies with red ochre and placed feathers in their hair when they prepared for battle. The men smoked tobacco in ceremonial rituals, including ones for healing.
The Apalachee scalped opponents whom they killed, exhibiting the scalps as signs of warrior ability. Taking a scalp was a means of entering the warrior class, and was celebrated with a scalp dance. The warriors wore headdresses made of bird beaks and animal fur. The village or clan of a slain warrior was expected to avenge his death.
The Apalachee played a ball game, sometimes known as the “Apalachee ball game”, described in detail by Spaniards in the 17th century. The fullest description, however, was written as part of a campaign by Father Juan de Paiva, priest at the mission of San Luis de Talimali, to have the game banned, and some of the practices described may have been exaggerated. The game was embedded in ritual practices which Father Pavia regarded as heathen superstitions. He was also concerned about the effect of community involvement in the games on the welfare of the villages and Spanish missions. In particular, he worried about towns being left defenseless against raiders when inhabitants left for a game, and that field work was being neglected during game season. Other missionaries (and the visiting Bishop of Cuba) had complained about the game, but most of the Spanish (including, initially, Father Pavia) liked it (and, most likely, the associated gambling). At least, they defended it as a custom that should not be disturbed, and that helped keep the Apalachee happy and willing to work in the fields. The Apalachee themselves said that the game was “as ancient as memory”, and that they had “no other entertainment … or relief from … misery”.
No indigenous name for the game has been preserved. The Spanish referred to it as el juego de la pelota, “the ballgame.” The game involved kicking a small, hard ball against a single goalpost. The same game was also played by the western Timucua, and was as significant among them as it was among the Apalachee. A related but distinct game was played by the eastern Timucua; René Goulaine de Laudonnière recorded seeing this played by the Saturiwa of what is now Jacksonville, Florida in 1564. Goalposts similar to those used by the Apalachee were also seen in the Coosa chiefdom of present-day in Alabama during the 16th century, suggesting that similar ball games were played across much of the region.
A village would challenge another village to a game, and the two villages would then negotiate a day and place for the match. After the Spanish missions were established, the games usually took place on a Sunday afternoon, from about noon until dark. The two teams kicked a small ball (not much bigger than a musket ball), made by wrapping buckskin around dried mud, trying to hit the goalpost. The single goalpost was triangular, flat, and taller than it was wide, on a long post (Bushnell described it, based on a drawing in a Spanish manuscript, as “like a tall, flat Christmas tree with a long trunk”). There were snail shells, a nest and a stuffed eagle on top of the goalpost. Benches, and sometimes arbors to shade them, were placed at the edges of the field for the two teams. Spectators gambled heavily on the games. As the Apalachee did not normally use money, their bets were made with personal goods.
Each team consisted of 40 to 50 men. The best players were highly prized, and villages gave them houses, planted their fields for them, and overlooked their misdeeds in an effort to keep such players on their teams. Players scored one point if they hit the goalpost with the ball, and two points if the ball landed in the nest. Eleven points won the game. Play was rough: players would pile on fallen players, walk on them, kick them, including in the face, pull on arms and legs and stuff dirt in each other’s mouths. Players were told to die before letting go of the ball. They would try to hide the ball in their mouths; other players would choke them or kick them in the stomach to force the ball out. Arms and legs were broken. Players laid out on the ground would be revived by a bucket of cold water. There were occasional deaths. According to Father Paiva, five games in a row had ended in riots.
The origin of the games was the subject of an elaborate mythology. The giving of challenges for a game and the erection of goalposts and players’ benches involved rituals and ceremonies, “superstitions” and “sorceries,” in the view of Father Pavia. The Apalachee expanded the superstitions to include Christian elements; after losing two games in a row, one village decided that was because their mission church was closed during the games. Players also asked priests to make the sign of the cross over pileups during a game.