Digging Up the Past Northeast Florida's Indian and Spanish History Will Be Unearthed in a Series of March Lectures Celebrating Archaeology Month

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The past is not so very far away in Northeast Florida, often not more than a foot or so beneath our feet.

However the past in these parts also is complicated, usually hard to find, and even harder to visualize after heat, humidity, termites and time have had their way with the remains of wood and thatch.

It helps to have guides.

Next month three leading scholars of Florida's Indian and Spanish past will be sharing their knowledge at Saturday afternoon lectures beginning March 6.

The talks are part of Archaeology Month and sponsored by the Friends of Talbot/Fort George Islands Parks and the Florida Park Service.

The month's activities end with the second annual North Florida History & Archaeology Festival March 28.

To get a sense of just how complex this stuff can get, consider George and Dottie Dorion, who in 1984 bought three lots on which to build a house inside the manicured confines of Amelia Island Plantation.

At least that was the plan, until a backhoe operator clearing the site pulled up a palm tree and saw human bones tangled up in the roots.

First came the medical examiner.

Later came archaeologists.

What the Dorions found they had on their 3 acres were two Indian rubbish heaps that predated the arrival of Europeans; the remains of two 17th century Spanish missions established for Indian refugees; nearly 200 Indian skeletons; debris from a late 18th century plantation established by a retired British royal navy captain called Harrison; and trash from a Civil War military encampment -- the Harrisons had burned down their house rather than let Union troops have the use of it.

In other words, one tiny sliver of Florida geography contains a cross section of at least five centuries of Florida history.

Actually, it is at least six centuries.

The Harrison place also had been home to about 100 Harrison slaves.

One of those slaves was called Clara White, born in 1845. Her daughter named a mission to help the poor after her. The Clara White Mission is still going strong on Ashley Street in downtown Jacksonville.

"We never did build the house," said Dottie Dorion.

Instead they financed nine years of excavations and later sold the lots.

Along the way they opened the site to schools for field trips and at least 2,000 children came out to look and explore, she said.

Artifacts found at the site have been loaned to museums.

"A lot of Ph.d. theses have come from the work done there, [the Dorion site]" she said.

But the really complicated part of the site's past is the story of the old Spanish mission province of Mocama and the chain of mission stations stretching north to the Altamaha River and St. Simons Island.

Some of the Spanish were not great fans of Northeast Florida and the Georgia coast, said state archaeologist Jim Miller, who will be giving an overview of the environmental history of the region on March 13.

One morose friar described the area as "one hundred and fifty leagues of swampy, mosquito-infested wilderness with extremes of heat and cold," Miller said.

To cheer themselves up, the Spanish introduced figs, pomegranates, oranges, grapes, mulberries, beans, kidney beans, melons, pumpkins, lettuce, artichokes, onions and garlic into the country, and in so doing changed Florida plant life forever, reports Miller.

But food was often scarce.

The wheat that the Spanish preferred did not grow in Northeast Florida -- the soil was too sandy -- and was imported from the area around Tallahasee, on the backs of Indian porters.

The Indian population paid taxes by working for their chiefs, who allied themselves with the Spanish, who also received their tax payments in the form of labor service.

The glue that held together the Spanish administration of Florida was the mission system and the Indians living within it, said Jerald Milanich, professor of Archaeology at the University of Florida, who will speak at the March 20 lecture. …