The Timucua: Jacksonville’s First Residents
With nearly 20 million people, Florida ranks as the 4th largest state in population. It falls behind only California, Texas, and New York. Florida is filling up. Five hundred years ago, though, there was plenty of elbowroom. Florida’s native population may have totaled just 350,000 when Ponce de Leon arrived in 1513. That would be less than half the population of Jacksonville today.
According to T. Frederick Davis, whose seminal book, History of Jacksonville, Florida, was published in 1911, this part of Florida was occupied by the Timucua tribe. The Timucuans’ domain reached from the St. Mary’s River to the headwaters of the St. Johns, but principallly along the lower St. Johns. The Timucua Indians numbered only 150,000, enough to fill Everbank Stadium twice. There were at least 20 Timucua villages in the area that is now Duval County. The villages typically were located some two miles apart, and the largest village, Ossachite, was situated in what is now downtown Jacksonville.
The Timucua built all of their villages along riverbanks. Most of the riverside villages sat in maritime hammocks. These are small forests perched atop ancient sand dunes or shell middens. (Middens are large Native American mounds made of shells, broken pottery, and other refuse). The Timucua choose hammocks for their villages because these locations offered easy access to water, as well as abundant plant and animal life. The sites were also well drained, and were not often visited by large, destructive fires.
The Spanish and French who came to Florida–first Ponce de Leon in 1513, and many explorers thereafter–marveled at the size and strength of the Timucua Indians. According to Davis, “They were an agricultural people, raising crops of maize and vegetables, and tilliing their fields with implements of wood and shell.” They were also excellent hunters and fishers, and a lot of their diet came from game they caught. They were very resourceful in feeding their people, making use of enormous granaries that stored their food underground. The French Huguenots who came to Florida with René Goulaine de Laudonnière in 1564 enjoyed a feast of Thanksgiving with the native Timucuans on June 30th, 1534–the true first Thanksgiving celebration in America.
Unfortunately for the Timucua, interaction with the European colonists exposed them to countless diseases against which the Indians had no immunity. By 1595, their population was estimated to have been reduced to 50,000. By 1700, the population of the tribe had been reduced to 1,000. Warfare against them by the English colonists and native allies completed their extinction as a tribe by the mid-1700s.
For additional information, please review the material below, written by former librarian Glenn Emory.