From the Desk of Denise I. Bossy: American Indian History is Local History

Denise I. Bossy has fifteen years of experience as a historian studying the early Native South. She is the editor of The Yamasee Indians: From Florida to South Carolina (Nebraska, 2018).


American Indian History is Local History

I am a local historian. The words increasingly come easily when asked about my work at the University of North Florida. I also quickly follow up with: of American Indians. In my new anthology, The Yamasee Indians: From Florida to South Carolina, a wonderful group of local historians and archaeologists put the Yamasees back into the story of the early South.

But for most of my eleven years at UNF, I did not call myself a local historian. My husband recently pointed that out to me when we were discussing this blog. Instead, I called myself a scholar of early Southeastern Indians.

The difference is about much more than semantics. I live thirty-three miles north of St. Augustine, a city that—for generations—has celebrated its Spanish colonial history. City officials continue to market St. Augustine to tourists as the “nation’s oldest city.” In the process they elide local American Indian histories and also the histories of other American Indian communities whose cities are far older (Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, for example, which has been continuously occupied since the twelfth century). American Indians are mentioned at some of St. Augustine’s historical sites and museums, but they largely appear as minor characters who either facilitate or impede glorious Spanish colonization. Almost always they are depicted as extinct, and disease is labeled as the culprit. Indians do not direct or shape this rendering of local history. Spanish violence is expunged.

In similar fashion, local Florida historians of the time period that I work on (the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries) almost exclusively focus on the Spanish, whether at museums, local historical sites, or in academic departments. Out of twelve state universities in Florida, there are only two with a historian who actively researches and publishes on the histories of local American Indian communities: Andrew K. Frank at Florida State University and myself.

Increasingly I identify myself to everyone I meet as a local historian, because American Indian history is local history. St. Augustine was at the very coastal edge of a broad Timucua world. To the north was Guale country, to the west the lands of the Apalachees and Tocobagos, to the south the Ais, and beyond that the Calusas. And that Spanish colony was and remained incredibly small, often numbering just a few hundred Spaniards who never attained any meaningful level of self-sufficiency (at its height La Florida was comprised of 1,500 Spaniards). Compare that to the over 300,000 local Indians who had extensive networks that stretched far beyond the world that the Spanish knew.

Reading through Spanish archival materials, perhaps the most striking thing is how consistently and how persistently they wrote about (and anxiously worried about) Indian affairs. This was certainly the case with the Yamasees. The Spanish were all too aware that they were precariously perched on the edge of Indian worlds that they rarely understood and which they needed in order to survive. I often ask myself, what would the Spanish think of public and scholarly narratives that exclude American Indians. Would they even recognize these as stories about La Florida?

I have a responsibility as a local historian of American Indians to respond to these narratives by telling a more complete story. Today, there are no museums or historical sites that focus on local American Indian histories in St. Augustine or Northeast Florida. But I have hope that this is slowly (slowly) starting to change. Four miles north of the historic district, at Fort Mose, the Yamasees are meaningfully incorporated into the state park’s major annual event. Each February reenactors tell the story of the runaway slaves (and the Yamasees who guided them) from South Carolina to St. Augustine where, in 1738, they established the nation’s oldest settlement of free Africans to be protected by a European colony.

And the Fountain of Youth Park has begun to (awkwardly) try to reconcile the real with the mythological. Although they continue to mislead the public by falsely claiming a connection to Juan Ponce de León, they have also started to present some Timucua history—the park encompasses the site of Seloy’s town, the Timucua cacique whose land the Spanish colonized in the 1560s.

Most of these changes come from local people: reenactors, volunteers, historians, and archaeologists who work in the Fountain of Youth Park, Fort Mose, and at other local sites across the region. The Amelia Island Museum of History, for example, recently appointed me (along with several other local historians) to serve as an advisory board as they completely overhaul their museum. And this is what gives me hope. Many people who live in northeast Florida want more than myths that celebrate Spanish colonialism. And that water at the Fountain of Youth Park really does taste awful.

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