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News-Journal/Peter Bauer
Jesse Moore, 9, of Orange City, portrays a young Timucuan Native American Indian at his father's camp on Friday morning, February 1, 2002, near DeLand. The Moore family set up their camps for school children to tour so they may learn by seeing and touching their living history displays.
February 14, 2004

A tale of two tribes:
Mayacans seek
proper place in history

By RONALD WILLIAMSON
Staff Writer

The first Europeans weren’t welcome on this section of the St. Johns River. They were met by large numbers of armed men who threatened to kill them.

The confrontation occurred in the area of the State Road 40 bridge and — despite erroneous information that abounds about American Indians here — the warriors were not Timucuan, but Mayacan.

Although cautious, Timucuans greeted French and Spanish explorers on the St. Johns River near Jacksonville and Palatka, and were generally friendly and willing to trade. But things were decidedly different when Pedro Menendez and 50 soldiers crossed Lake George in 1566 and entered Mayaca, today’s western Volusia County.

Mayacans spoke a different language, were culturally different and allegiant to different chiefdoms than Timucuans. They lived between Lake George and Lake Monroe, and weren’t interested in friendly relations with Europeans.

Florida’s foremost scholars on tribes at the time of European contact say Timucua ended at Lake George. Other tribes lived south of Lake George on the river, and south of Daytona Beach on the coast.

Nonetheless, the outdated notion that Timucuans lived here is perpetuated in literature, at state parks and many other places. Even the city history on Deltona’s Web site says the first people who lived there were Timucuans.

Hontoon Island State Park is one of the best (or worst) examples of outdated information. A new museum there has numerous references to Timucuans inhabiting the island and creating marvelous animal effigies found there.

Mayacan people are not mentioned. Not once. Not even indirectly. It’s as though they never existed.

“The Mayaca have often been considered to have been Timucua, despite evidence otherwise,” according to John Hann, research historian at Tallahassee’s San Luis Archaeological and Historic Site and a leading scholar on contact-era tribes. “The Mayaca and other tribes living in interior Florida are among the state’s least known tribes,” he said.

Coastal tribes and their languages and cultures were far better known because they had more contact with early Europeans. Interior tribes weren’t encountered until much later.

American Indians disappeared at an alarming rate in the first centuries after contact with Europeans, primarily from disease. There are no numbers for Mayacans, but another leading scholar, Jerald Milanch, archaeological curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, says Timucuan population dropped from 200,000 in 1500, to 1,000 in 1700. When Spain lost Florida in 1763, only one Timucuan was counted.

Mayacans suffered the same fate. Hann said some interior tribes may have been lost before Europeans found them.

But the Mayacans were alive and well when Menendez’ boats came into their land, according to Bartolome Barrientos. He wrote a 1567 biography of the bold man who in one bloody month in 1565 captured the French Fort Caroline, killed hundreds of Huguenots, and founded St. Augustine.

Not far past Lake George, Spaniards found a large village. Scholars suggest it was near today’s Volusia and Astor. Natives fled, but the chief, Mocoya, sent word through an interpreter that the Spaniards entered his land without permission and must leave.

Menendez ignored the warning, says Barrientos, but found the riverbanks filled with “large bands of agitated Indians armed with bows and arrows ... at a narrow place in the river, he found the way blocked by a row of stakes.” When he broke through, more Mayacans appeared.

Fearful, Menendez retreated.“No one really even heard of the Mayaca before the 1990s,” Milanch told me. “Until recent years, the prevailing academic view was that Timucua-speaking Indians lived all through north and central peninsula Florida. But now, thanks largely to new research and reinterpretation of old documents, we’ve fine-tuned our interpretations.”

Archaeologist Barbara Purdy, who conducted excavations on Hontoon Island in the 1980s, said it’s important for present-day residents to take pride in past cultures of the places we live — especially because there are no Mayacans to keep their traditions alive.

“Who we Floridians are today and what Florida is today, are based in part on our shared heritage,” Milanch said. “The good news is that we’re learning more all the time. The bad thing is that agencies hate to change signs.”

Hann is more critical of incorrect signs and exhibits like those on Hontoon Island. “If they’re not correct, they’re wasting people’s time,” he told me. “They should not go on perpetuating earlier errors.”

Signs should be changed. Current scholarship ought to be reflected on Hontoon Island and other interpretative sites in what was once Mayaca. As Purdy says, there are no Mayacans to speak of their life and culture, so we must speak for them.

It’s a shame, and a disservice to our own culture, to ignore their existence.

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