Ossachite, the Timucua Metropolis in Jacksonville’s Past
FROM HUTS TO SKYSCRAPERS — Today, large steel and glass buildings stand where wood and palm huts once squatted. Muscle power has given way to gas engines, cook fires have evolved into microwaves, and palmetto fans have been replaced by air conditioners. Downtown Jacksonville was the location of a grand Timucua city called Ossachite. It proved bigger than other communities in the area. Ossachite thrived about 1000 years ago, but it survived until about 300 years ago, and at one time numbered over 2,500 people. (According to T. Frederick Davis’s History of Jacksonville, FL, “This liquid Indian name, Os-sa-chi-te, is the earliest record of a name applying to the locality of Jacksonville.”)
The Timucua Indians favored Ossachite’s location for several reasons. It was situated far enough inland as to be somewhat protected from ocean storms. Ossachite also fared well when it rained hard. A bluff stands in present-day downtown Jacksonville, and this relatively high area drained water effectively. (By the way, “Billy Goat Hill” is the highest elevation within Jacksonville’s original city limits downtown. At the hill’s crest is the lovely St. Johns Episcopal Church, at the corner of Duval and Market streets.)
The St. Johns River provided much of Ossachite’s food. The broad waterway, moreover, served as the chief route for canoes. These were the Timucua’s principle means of transportation, besides walking.
An Indian trail also ran north and south through Ossachite. Since the Timucua didn’t have horses, they would’ve trod along this path. It intersected the St. Johns at the river crossing later called “Cowford” (Jacksonville). The crossing was in the vicinity of the former Duval County Courthouse downtown.
During the 1760s, the British blazed the Kings Road over the Indian trail. It ran from the Daytona Beach area into southeast Georgia. Today, portions of US 1 follow this old route. Another Indian path once stretched from present-day downtown Jacksonville to the Florida Panhandle. State Road 90 follows parts of this trail.
Consider the reasons why the Timucua liked Ossachite’s location: It was protected from ocean storms, was well drained from rain water, and was served by an important waterway, as well as by convenient trails. History repeats itself. During the 1820s, the founders of Jacksonville took these same considerations to heart.
In the very spot where the old Duval County courthouse was located, Native Americans may have deliberated on their significant issues several hundred years ago. Instead of judges in black robes, Indians in deerskins or moss clothing would have occupied the site. The Timucua community of Ossachite may have been centered in the vicinity of the old federal courthouse. This government building sits at the northwest corner of Julia and Monroe streets, one block east of Hemming Plaza. (This refers to the old federal courthouse, not the new one across the street on Hemming Plaza.)
Ossachite featured a large council house. Each morning, the chief would meet there with his male counselors. They received their salutes from the other residents, and they discussed community business. Like many modern people with their morning coffee, the native men sipped a brew that contained caffeine. By the way, Timucua chiefs sometimes met with female advisors. And the Timucua chiefs were occasionally women.
MORE ABOUT OSSACHITE — The Timucua’s grand city was bordered by two clear streams. These rivulets are certainly not clear today, and they’re now known as Hogans Creek and McCoy’s Creek. Hogan’s Creek splits downtown Jax from Springfield and the Eastside, while McCoy’s Creek flows west to east at the southern edge of LaVilla, next to the Prime Osborn Convention Center. Hundreds of years ago, high-ranking Timucua built their homes along the south bank of Hogans Creek and the north bank of McCoy’s Creek.
Ossachite must have been as busy as a beehive. Living in the city were many craftsmen. These included potters, painters, wood carvers, shell workers, and copper artisans. They traded with other Indians who lived as far away as the Great Lakes.
Ossachite also contained numerous storehouses, as well as dwellings for religious workers and a large burial mound. Topped with buildings, the mound was accessed by an earthen ramp 200 yards long. The city’s most prominent structure was the council house, used for community meetings. So large that it was constructed with whole tree trunks, the oval-shaped structure could seat hundreds.
–written by Glenn Emery