Donate to Brooks Historical

Monday, August 13, 2012

Apalachee: Lost and Found

Henry Popple, A map of the British Empire in America with the French and Spanish settlements adjacent thereto, 1733.  Showing the original Apalachee territory, "Between the Rivers."

The following is a tale of Colonel James Moore of South Carolina, Goose Creek Indian Slaver, Anti-Proprietary man, former governor (by default), attacker of St, Augustine in 1702 and murderer/raider of the Apalachee Indians on the Florida coast near present Tallahassee.   

This work derives from my research on his children: Maurice, Roger, Nathaniel, John, Anne Davis,  Rebecca Dr, and Joseph, all of whom settled in the Lower Cape Fear Valley of North Carolina between 1725-1733.  They were plantationists who dreamed of starting a separate colony between the two Carolinas, but got "slapped down" by the duke of Newcastle, the Secretary of the Southern Department and one of the famous Whigs in Robert Walpole's British ministry.  After the Lords Proprietors sold out their remaining shares (except Lord Granville) to the crown, Newcastle felt it necessary to straighten out these trouble-makers in the Cape Fear region.  Their descendants remained in the Lower Cape Fear and served as soldiers in the Revolutionary War.  Some were active in the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot, the only coup ever recorded in United States history.  They are still there today.

I wanted to know more about James Moore, the progenitor of the family, since he, along with Maurice Mathews had come from the West Indies sugar plantations in 1671 with Sir John Yeamans of Barbados and were heavily involved in so much of Carolina's beginnings... and in trouble with the Proprietors!  Early on, they were involved in illegal land transactions, Indian slavery (against the Proprietors' orders), administrative piracy (in league with the pirates of the Bahamas), and were primarily responsible for the Proprietors earlier disgusted sell-out of South Carolina in 1719, ten years earlier than North Carolina.

The sell-out in 1719 came rather late, as all of their most illegal (piracy) activities occurred prior to 1700.

The outbreak of Queen Anne’s War in 1701 prompted open English hostility towards the Spaniards and this gave Colonel James Moore, temporary governor (elected by the colonial council) of Carolina at that time, an idea to capture Indian slaves to return to Charles Towne for subsequent resale/trade for black slaves from the West Indies.  His sons and associates would repeat the idea on the Tuscarora of North Carolina between 1711-15. 

Moore's 1702 attack on St. Augustine largely destroyed the town, but they were never able to capture the Castillo de San Marcos where most of the town’s residents took refuge.  Instead, they took several hundred Spanish-Indian prisoners as a consolation prize back to Charles Towne.

Following the raid on St. Augustine, Moore set his sights on the missions as a way of regaining his failed reputation from the St. Augustine mishap where he lost numerous ships (had to burn seven in Matanzas Bay) belonging to Charles Towne merchants.  The missions, of course, were surrounded by thousands of Spanish-governed Indians and only lightly defended. 

His intentions were to capture as many Indians there as he could and return those that surrendered as tributaries and sources of trade and slaves for sale to the Goose Creek men, an elite group of Indian slavers near Charles Towne of which James Moore became leader after the flight and death of Maurice Mathews in the late 1680s.  

© 2008 Friends of Mission San Luis, Inc. (
 The records are clear on Moore's barbarism during the raid, which he blamed on his Indian allies.  Mark F. Boyd wrote in his book, Here They Once Stood: The Tragic End of the Apalachee Missions, that enemy Indians were raised on stakes and burned in sight of the other prisoners... as well as several Spanish prisoners.  "Father Miranda, who was unbound, upbraided Moore for these barbarities, to which Moore replied that his force of whites was greatly outnumbered by his Indian allies, whom he could not restrain." Well, that was Moore's story. 

Between 1702 and 1704 the missions of Spanish Florida were destroyed and most of the mission Indians annihilated or sold into slavery... as many as 4,000 enslaved, according to Moore's report, quite a windfall for the Goose Creek guys. Since it was heavily fortified, Mission San Luis was one of the last missions left standing. The Spaniards and their Apalachee allies evacuated the women and children, and then burned Mission San Luis on July 31, 1704, two days before the English strike force reached it.  

© 2008 Friends of Mission San Luis, Inc.

John H. Hann's Apalachee: Land Between the Rivers has this to tell about what happened to the Apalachee after the raid:

Although the commission seems to have made an effort to rectify some of the abuses, its members do not seem to have done enough.  Inasmuch as the Apalachee were one of the many Indian groups who joined the Yamasee in the 1715 uprising (Crane 1956:170), there is no record that any effort was made to convert the free Apalachee during their stay in Carolina although Captain Thomas Nairne did apply to the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel for missionaries for them and other natives (Crane 1956:145—146).

The sources provide only sketchy information of the Apalachee’s role in the Yamasee War, particularly in its early weeks. Crane implies that they were involved almost from the beginning. In June 1715, they were a major contingent of a Creek-led force that swept to within a dozen miles of Charles Towne, destroying many plantations, one ship, and the Pon Pon bridge over the Edisto River (Crane 156:170, 173, 180—181). This last great push of the natives into Carolina was led by Chigelly, the head warrior of Caveta and Brims’s brother (Corkran 1967:59).

The Apalachee who survived the Yamasee War joined the Cavetta, Palachicola, Savima, Yuchi. and Oconee in moving not only from the Savannah River region but in withdrawing from the Ocmulgee River area to return to the banks of the Chattahoochee that the Apalachicola among them had occupied before 1690.  As noted, the Apalachee involved in this exodus spread rather widely, some settling among the Creek, others near Pensacola; still others moved on to Mobile to join the Apalachee who had been established there since 1704 (Crane 1956:254—255). Some undoubtedly accompanied the Yamasee who flocked to the vicinity of St Augustine, and some of them may have returned to their native Apalachee with the Yamasee. It is not clear how many were involved in this exodus. At the time of the uprising, the 1,300 free Apalachee who had relocated to Carolina in 1704 had been reduced to 638: 275 men, 243 women, 65 boys, and 55 girls. Some of these were probably killed or captured during the uprising. Those who were captured were shipped outside the colony as slaves (Covington 1972:378). There is no indication whether any of the Apalaehee enslaved in 1704 were able to take advantage of the uprising to secure their freedom, that they did or that considerable numbers of these slaves had been escaping earlier maybe reflected in a 1722 act designed to discourage the importation of Indian or Negro slaves from Spanish territory. It imposed a duty of £150 current ntonev on such slaves (SneIl 1972:102).

                     The Apalachee were presumed extinct... until:

Originally published as:

"Apalachee Tribe, Missing for Centuries, Comes Out of Hiding
The Indians' Tragic History Is Documented by Chief; A Push for Recognition"

March 9, 2005; Page A1

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- A veteran archaeologist, Bonnie McEwan sifts dirt in search of vanished cultures. It's not every day she hears from one in person.

Dr. McEwan directs Mission San Luis, a 17th-century site where Spanish friars baptized thousands of Apalachee, an Indian nation so imposing that early mapmakers bestowed the tribe's name on distant mountains, known ever since as the Appalachians. In 1704, English forces attacked, driving the Apalachee into slavery and exile. Scholars long ago pronounced the tribe extinct.

Then Dr. McEwan received a call from the dead. "This is Gilmer Bennett," a drawling voice said on her answering machine, "chief of the Apalachee." Dr. McEwan thought the message was a prank by a colleague. "If you'd told any archaeologist that a mission-era Florida tribe still existed, they'd have laughed in your face," she says.

Eight years later, Dr. McEwan and Mr. Bennett talk on the phone every week. The mission's museum now displays baskets, beadwork and photographs of today's Apalachee, who number about 300. Mr. Bennett's band also appears in a new edition of the Smithsonian Institution's "Handbook of North American Indians," the bible of scholarship on native people. And the Apalachee have shipped 13 bound volumes of documents to Washington in hopes of gaining federal recognition as a tribe: an effort that has stalled because the government requires proof that the Apalachee endured as a tribe after they were last heard from several centuries ago. "We didn't die out," Mr. Bennett says. "We hid out, to survive."

Claims of Indian heritage aren't rare these days, particularly in the South, where laws and attitudes stigmatizing nonwhites have waned. In polls, more than 40% of Southerners now say they have an Indian ancestor. In fact, says John Shelton Reed, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, white Southerners are likelier to claim an Indian than a Confederate forebear. But the Apalachee stand out because of their hidden epic of survival -- and because of the modest couple who have brought them to light.

Mr. Bennett is a retired carpenter with high, wide cheekbones, deep-set eyes, flowing gray locks and tawny coloring he calls "Coppertone skin." He believes he's 73 years old, but no one recorded his birth properly. Mr. Bennett lives in the woods of Libuse, La., with his 66-year-old wife, Jeanette, whose braided hair falls to the middle of her back. Adjoining their small house is a converted garage of unfinished plywood and Sheetrock: the tribal office.

"I'm dyslexic, diabetic and only finished the ninth grade, and here I'm the tribe's genealogist," says Mrs. Bennett, plucking folders from file cabinets crammed with birth, baptismal and other records she has compiled. Mr. Bennett says he spoke only pidgin "French and Indian" until he was 10, spent years "sitting silent in the back of the classroom like a dummy," and left school at 15 to start work. The Bennetts don't know how to use a computer. They live on Social Security and veteran's benefits from Mr. Bennett's combat service in Korea.

"We get by, just like our people always done," says Mr. Bennett, who has a "centla drawl," short for central Louisiana. "It ain't no rosy thing, being Apalachee all these centuries."

This is a considerable understatement. The Bennetts' trove of documents tell a tale of unrelenting woe since 1704, when the Florida mission burned. About 800 Apalachee fled west to French-held Mobile, straight into a yellow-fever epidemic. Eighty survivors later settled 22,000 acres along Louisiana's Red River, under French and Spanish rule. But when the U.S. took control in 1803, American settlers started burning Apalachee cabins and crops and seizing their land. The U.S. War Department ordered its agent in the area to "take immediate steps to secure the Indians in their rights." Instead, after years of inaction, the government sold the land to the tribe's main tormentor, a cotton planter who used his slaves as shock troops against Indians.

So in 1835 the Apalachee fled again, to bayou and hill country so marginal and remote that "nobody could be bothered stealing it from us," Mr. Bennett says. They hunted, farmed and clung to their Spanish-bred Catholicism. Apalachee pale enough to pass as white served as interlocutors with the world beyond the tribe's swampy hide-out.

But in the early 1900s, attacks resumed, this time by Klansmen who used dogs to chase Indians and club them to death, including Mr. Bennett's grandfather. Many Apalachee sought refuge in towns -- only to encounter Jim Crow laws that often treated Indians as black. In 1940, when Mr. Bennett's parents divorced, his father moved in with a white woman and was arrested for the felony of racial mixing. Mr. Bennett, then 8, was paraded in court with his siblings, half-naked, as evidence that his father wasn't black. The case ended in acquittal.

Such experiences deepened the band's determination to hide its heritage. Mr. Bennett's grandmother wore hats and long dresses, lest her skin darken in the sun, and learned English by watching television. Parents told children to mimic whites, or didn't tell them they were Indian at all. Adults discreetly discussed tribal business at annual gatherings; customs such as basket-making survived; and the role of chief quietly passed to Mr. Bennett in his twenties. But otherwise the Apalachee tried to blend in as best they could.

It wasn't until the 1980s that Mr. Bennett finally decided "it was safe to come out of the woods and say who we were," as he puts it. He and his wife were motivated, in part, by the hope of educational assistance for their six children. So the couple began the slow process of documenting their heritage in order to win tribal recognition, which brings access to scholarships and other benefits.

It was as a result of their research that they contacted Dr. McEwan at the Florida mission, to learn more about their ancestors. "We went slap busted doing this," Mr. Bennett says, "spent everything we had, which wasn't much." They later secured small grants to hire a researcher and buy office equipment. But their task was made harder by the reluctance of some Apalachee to cooperate. "We've had so much trouble in the past that people don't trust the government to help rather than hurt us," says Alex Tall Torres, a member of the tribal council.

To win federal recognition, Indians must document, in essence, that they've been part of a distinct and intact tribe through the centuries. Donald Hunter, a Baton Rouge archaeologist and ethno-historian who has studied the Apalachee, says, "They're still very much Indian, they're the real folks." He believes the band has a better claim to tribal status than some groups who have already been recognized.

However, the recognition process is slow, highly politicized, and complicated by new legislation enacted in 1988 that allows tribes on certain lands to open casinos. Gaming is a divisive issue that pits states and church groups against Indians -- and aspiring tribes against ones already recognized who fear competition. The Bureau of Indian Affairs also has a huge backlog. Only 57 of 302 petitions for tribal status have been resolved since 1978. The Apalachee claim, filed in 1997, remains in limbo.

Mr. Bennett is still hopeful, though he resents the Catch-22 legalese of the recognition process. A typically worded provision, Criterion 83.7 (a), requires "External Identification of the Group as an American Indian Entity on a Substantially Continuous Basis since 1900." This is hard for the Apalachee to document since they went underground to survive. "All those many years, we suffered for being Indian, so we hid who we were," Mr. Bennett says. "Now that it might do us some good to be Indian, the government wants to know where we've been all this time."

In another sense, though, the Bennetts have succeeded. After centuries of being persecuted for their heritage, the Apalachee are now celebrated for it. Other tribes include them in pan-Indian ceremonies. The city of Tallahassee and the county it occupies have officially recognized the Louisiana band as descendants of Florida's Apalachee. The Bennetts often drive to Mission San Luis to consult on the reconstruction of Apalachee buildings and to donate memorabilia. 

"They've given a human face to what we do," says the mission director, Dr. McEwan. "And the Bennetts have taught me a lot about how to handle life's struggles -- and history's -- with poise and dignity."

Those qualities were on display last year, when Mr. Bennett spoke at a somber event marking the 300th anniversary of the mission's end. "I could stand here and tell you about all the hardships we have endured over the past 300 years. This would do no good," Mr. Bennett told assembled dignitaries. "One day, all of us will face our maker. He said he would know us by our work. We, the Apalachee, have always tried to be people of good character, and walk with the Great Spirit to preserve our land, water, air and nature that God trusted to us."

Mr. Bennett recently had quintuple-bypass surgery and nearly died. He knows he may not live to see the Apalachee win full recognition. But recalling his speech last year in Tallahassee, he takes off his glasses and wipes his eyes. "I'm not the wooden Indian, the dummy in the back of the class," he says. "Not anymore."