During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the majority of people living in colonial Florida were Native Americans. Some groups, like the inhabitants of the towns of the Calusa chiefdom in southwest Florida, never came under direct Spanish rule. Others, like the Timucuan and Apalachee, were brought into the Spanish colonial system as friars visited their towns and villages to preach Christianity and establish missions.
More than 100 missions were founded in north Florida and south Georgia in the first two centuries of Spanish rule  . The earliest were set up along the Atlantic seaboard, running north from St. Augustine and westward into the Timucuan territory of north central Florida. By the middle of the 1600s, missionary efforts extended into the Apalachee region. Eventually, the Franciscan friars established their densest conglomeration of missions in Apalachee Province, which was bounded by the Aucilla and Ochlockonee rivers, in the region of modern day Tallahassee.
The Indian and Spanish capital of Apalachee Province was the mission of San Luis, which rivaled St. Augustine in size. Unlike St. Augustine, however, where the population was largely Spanish or people of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry (mestizos), San Luis had only a small Spanish population and was predominantly a town of Native Americans.
The First Mission San Luis
The original village of San Luis village was located near today’s capital building in downtown Tallahassee. In the 1520s and 1530s, when explorers Pánfilo de Narváez and Hernando de Soto took their expeditions there, it was known as Anhaica Apalachee, the capital “where the lord of all that land and province lived.”
Almost 100 years later, when missionaries arrived in Apalachee in1633, Anhaica likely became one of the first Apalachee missions established. The governor of Florida at that time was Luis Horruytiner and the new mission may have been christened San Luis in his honor. (The familiar name of San Luis de Talimali was not used until 1675 and, to date, there is no explanation for the name Talimali.)
Soon after the mission was founded, the Spaniards stationed a garrison of soldiers there. The first deputy governor was appointed to Apalachee Province in 1645. Claudio Luis de Florencia and his family lived at San Luis where they were protected by the chief. The presence of Spanish officials and soldiers in their territory was an unwelcome development for many Apalachee Indians. In 1647, some of the Apalachee staged a revolt to eliminate the Spaniards. They lured Claudio Florencia and his family to a festival at the neighboring village of Bacuqua and slaughtered them. (The Indians at San Luis were not a party to this.)
The uprising failed and changed the Apalachees’ relationship with the Spaniards. Prior to 1647, Spanish authorities in St. Augustine had not required the Christian Apalachee to pay tribute (repartimiento) in the form of labor or food. Following the revolt, Apalachee men were forced to work on public projects in St. Augustine or on Spanish-owned ranches. The requirement that men leave Apalachee to work elsewhere prompted significant changes to family life. Officials also increased their demands for food, which, in turn, increased the workload of women who did much of the planting and tending of crops.
There was another consequence of the 1647 revolt. The first deputy governor, Claudio Florencia, was from a powerful Spanish Florida family. Many generations of Florencias would attain important positions in Apalachee Province in the years to come. Their attitudes towards the native population were unquestionably influenced by the memory that rebellious natives had killed members of their family.
In 1656, Governor Rebolledo in St. Augustine decided to establish a formal military presence in Apalachee Province. This meant moving the mission to a new and more defensible location. The manner in which the new Mission San Luis was established, settled, and sustained reveals a fascinating level of cultural blending that maintained a careful balance of power between Spanish and Apalachee leaders.
First of all, the Spaniards selected a new location for the mission of San Luis, which was destined to be the western capital of La Florida. The new site was atop one of the highest hills in present day Tallahassee, with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. There were seep springs that ran year-round providing a reliable source of water. It is unclear if the chief of San Luis voluntarily relocated to the new location or if he was coerced. Since the settlement at San Luis was extremely spread out and occupied a large area, he may have simply relocated his town center from one end of his village to the other.
As it developed over time, this new mission proved to be an amazing blend of Spanish and Apalachee traditions. Both Spanish and Apalachee cultures had traditions of creating their town centers around large plazas, with the most important buildings facing the open space. But in contrast to St. Augustine, with its Spanish-style rectangular central plaza, the central plaza at San Luis was circular, in the Native American style. The Franciscan church and Apalachee council house were the first buildings constructed on the plaza at Mission
San Luis, the council house being the larger of the two. Both public structures were practical in that they could be used for meeting, eating, and sleeping, and both had important symbolic value for the Spaniards and Apalachees. The placement of these structures also reflected a balancing of the two cultures. The chief’s house and the great council house, symbols of traditional Apalachee political power and religion, were at one point of the circle, with the Catholic Church almost directly opposite. The house of the deputy governor was also located along the plaza, and a fort for the garrison was created nearby.
The chief of San Luis had promised to build the new deputy governor a “strong and capacious house”, or blockhouse, for his garrison. This was probably located at the north end of the site where the formal fort, or castillo, would later be constructed in the 1690s. The religious complex was expanded with the addition of a friary (friars’ house), detached kitchen, and, covered walk or breezeway.
Gradually, Spanish soldiers and civilians established their own “neighborhood.” Evidence suggests that some of the earliest Spanish homes were small, with plank walls and thatched roofs, and were randomly sited. By the 1670s when cattle ranching and shipping expanded and there was a large influx of Spanish residents from St. Augustine, the Spanish neighborhood took on a more formal appearance, similar to St. Augustine. The homes were made of whitewashed wattle and daub and faced onto narrow streets or paths that radiated off of the plaza. Lots were probably the standard size found elsewhere (peonia or 44 x 88 U.S. feet) and were fenced to control animals such as hogs and chickens. Spaniards not only introduced domestic animals, but also citrus, peaches, watermelons, and figs, which were grown in yards along with kitchen gardens. By the 1690s, the Spanish village at Mission San Luis was described by one Iberian visitor as having the appearance of a city in Spain.
A significant difference from St. Augustine is that no wells have ever been found at San Luis. This may be attributed to the hilltop location and the availability of water from the springs. Similarly, small trash pits are not commonly found around houses at San Luis. Rather, most of the trash appears to have been thrown into huge pits created by mining or digging out clay used to plaster buildings (wattle and daub construction).
Other than the chief’s house and evidence of a few pre-1670 Apalachee structures and features, there is scant evidence of an Apalachee occupation on the crest of the hill near the town center. There are, however, an abundance of Apalachee artifacts  associated with every Spanish structure and area of the Mission, revealing their critical role in maintaining the community as laborers, servants, and even as spouses. But it is very likely that most of San Luis’s native population continued to live in a dispersed pattern that kept them in the low-lying areas near their agricultural fields. Farming was crucial in order to meet the demands for food for themselves, their leaders, and the Spaniards (the community field for San Luis alone required three tons of seed corn each year). However, the new mission and town center, high on its hilltop in full view of the surrounding area, would have served as a focal point for all the surrounding homesteads. The San Luis council house served as a beacon, the church bells marked the hours, and warning alarms could be heard in the event of an emergency.
Transportation features connecting San Luis to other missions and to St. Augustine developed over time. Florida’s Camino Real (Royal Road) followed native pathways, but became larger and compacted by horse and oxcart traffic. Traces of it can be identified even today. The port at nearby St. Marks also became a critical feature of the Apalachee economy. It has been estimated that in the 17th century, small watercraft could come within 1.5 miles of San Luis where goods bound for export could be loaded. From St. Marks, agricultural surpluses would be sent to St. Augustine or, more commonly, to Havana, Cuba, which was one of the most prosperous colonial marketplaces in the world. In exchange for their hides, meat, tallow, corn, and beans, enterprising Spaniards were able to obtain goods from Mexico, South America, Europe, and the Orient.
Life at the Mission
Over three generations, the Spanish presence at Mission San Luis matured from a small frontier outpost with a friar, to the most significant Spanish settlement beyond St. Augustine (Pensacola was not settled until the 1690s). The Franciscans’ efforts to Christianize the native population had met with great success, and Spanish military strength in the area was greatly enhanced by Apalachee warriors, who often comprised the bulk of their strike forces. Most residents are believed to have lived relatively comfortable, sometimes even prosperous, lives. Despite the fact that people did not always have what they wanted to eat, there were never any real food shortages. Friars did complain about the lack of religious supplies and medicine, and pay for soldiers and friars was often late.
Both St. Augustine and San Luis had populations of about 1,400 residents in 1700. However, unlike St. Augustine, the bulk of the population living under San Luis’s jurisdiction was native. It is believed that only 400-500 Spanish men, women, and children lived in the environs of San Luis. Consequently, although some Spaniards were known for their ill treatment of the Apalachee Indians, they were always mindful of the fact that they were a small minority living in the midst of a powerful Indian chiefdom.
The Apalachee Indians living at San Luis maintained many of their social and political traditions: the chiefs and other leaders continued to meet daily, most of the natives enjoyed their evening meal and dances in the council house, and the Apalachees continued to play their traditional ballgame, which was tied to pre-mission non-Christian beliefs. Yet there is no doubt that the mission Indians embraced Christianity (Catholicism). In 1672, Sergeant-Major Domingo de Leturiondo described Apalachee Province to the King as being thoroughly Christianized.
A number of Apalachee men developed an interest in literacy, ranching, and trades such as blacksmithing. Some Apalachee women married Spanish soldiers, creating new social identities for themselves and their children. Both women and men adopted useful European materials including iron tools, glass beads, cloth, and firearms.
However, there is no question that many Apalachee, particularly the ordinary commoners, had a hard life under Spanish rule, stressed by overwork or suffering abuse and mistreatment at the hands of Spanish military officials and civilians who exploited them. And although they were legal subjects of the Spanish Crown, their complaints to the King and various governors often went unanswered. The chiefs at San Luis struggled to tend the balance, but they eventually lost all faith in the Spaniards’ ability to treat them fairly or protect them against foreign rivals. By the end of the 1600s, thoughts of revolt were again stirring. During Ayala y Escobar’s 1701 visitation, his notary held a secret meeting with Apalachees from throughout the province. He was informed that almost all of the Apalachees had a “bad heart” toward the Spaniards and would have revolted if not for the efforts of a single chief.
Soon, though, the Apalachee faced a new danger. Tensions were rising between the English settlers of Carolina and the Spanish colonists of Florida. In 1702, an army out of Carolina attacked St. Augustine and burned the town. Then, between January and August of 1704, another series of raids from Carolina took aim at Apalachee and destroyed all of the missions around San Luis. On July 31, 1704, the remaining Spaniards and Apalachees of San Luis set their town ablaze rather than have it fall into enemy hands. The Spaniards headed for St. Augustine but most of the Apalachees from Mission San Luis chose not to accompany them. Instead, they moved westward—first to Pensacola and then to French Mobile. The French were surprised to see them since the Apalachee Indians from San Luis were so closely associated with Spaniards. In 1763, the Apalachees moved farther west to Louisiana to avoid coming under English rule.
Remarkably, descendants of the Apalachee Indians from Mission San Luis still live in Louisiana. They have maintained their tribal identity and are the only documented descendants of Florida’s once populous mission-era Indians.
Today, Mission San Luis  is a “Preserve America” Presidential Award recipient and a National Historic Landmark managed by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources. It is the only reconstructed mission site in the Southeast. San Luis’s plaza mayor, Franciscan church complex, Apalachee council house and Castillo de San Luis are just part of this 60-acre site where Florida’s rich Native American and Hispanic heritage is brought to life. Living history programs, tours, special events, and camps are offered throughout the year.