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Timucuan Warfare

Timucuan Warfare

Timucua set out for a military expedition

This Timucua group is going to war. In front, two of the three men are heavily tattooed. The body decorations probably denoted high status, as well as immense power and valor. The men carry clubs, spears, and bows and arrows. photo credit: FloridaMemory.com

THE TIMUCUA IN BATTLE — Why would a Timucua group or village sometimes go to war with another? Usually to avenge a wrong, such as when a neighboring village harbored a kidnapper or murderer. The Indians fought over other issues, too. These could have included access to a riverbank with good clay or hunting rights to a deer herd that was roaming through.

Some villages also raided others for food and young women. Unlike today’s people, however, the Timucua usually didn’t fight for territorial gain. And their conflicts normally left only a few dead. A group would inflict just enough causalities to show that it was stronger than its enemy. After achieving this, the victor would go home.

Battle also served as a right of passage for young Timucua men. If they fought bravely, they received a war name, and they entered into adult male society. Tattoos could be won for strength and bravery too.

IMPLEMENTS OF WAR — The Timucua relied on several types of weapons. These included javelins, spears, wood clubs, and stone hatchets—and even fingernails. (Both Timucua men and women wore their fingernails long. The men, though, wielded them as weapons. They would rake their nails across an enemy’s forehead, blinding him with flowing blood.) The most popular weapon for fighting and hunting, though, was probably the bow and arrow. The Timucua Indians crafted their arrowheads from snake teeth, fish bones, flint stones, silver, or hardwood.

HITTING THEIR MARKS — Spanish conquistadors shook their heads in wonder of the Timucua skill in archery. And their weapons proved no less remarkable: The bows could be seven feet long and as thick as an arm!

According to the Spanish, a Timucua arrow could penetrate a horse lengthwise, almost from the chest to the tail. Shot from a distance of 80 feet, an arrow also could also pierce two coats of chain steel (the armor worn by both soldiers and their horses). And an arrow could drive six inches into a hardwood tree. All in all, native archers proved quite effective in battle.

To add to Spanish woes, the braves could accurately shoot an arrow up to 200 paces. They hid behind small trees, wrapping their arms around the trunks so that they could hold the bow and fire their projectiles.

How did the Spanish respond to this threat? Just as police officers today try to bulletproof themselves with special vests, the conquistadors tried to “arrowproof” themselves with special coverings. They added cotton to their armor. The best defense for both the combatants and their horses was quilted cotton fabric. This measured three or four fingers thick, and it lay under the chain mail. This protection was used against Mexico’s native people, too.

The Spanish also changed their tactics in Florida: They started using crossbows, for instance, against the Indians in the Tampa Bay area.

-written by Glenn Emery

Translation of print text: Order of March Observed by Outina on a Military Expedition. Transcriptions are taken from Discovering the New World, Based on the Works of Theodore de Bry (1591), edited by Michael Alexander (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).

When King Satourioua left for war, his soldiers advanced in no particular order, scattered on all sides. On the other hand his enemy Olata Outina, of whom I have already spoken, and who is considered the king of kings, superior to all others in his number of subjects and his riches, marches with his troops in military formation. He goes alone in the middle of his ranks, painted red. The wings of the army, in the order of march, are composed of young men, the fittest of whom, also painted red, are used as runners and scouts to reconnoitre the enemy troops. Like dogs after wild beasts, they hunt the enemy by scent, and when they find traces of them they run back to their army to report. In the same way that our soldiers pass orders by trumpets and drums, they use heralds who have certain cries for when to halt, or to advance, or to attack or make some other manoeuvre. They stop at sunset and never fight at night. When they set up camp, they divide up into squads of ten, the bravest apart. The king chooses a place in the fields or in the forest to pass the night and after he has eaten and gone to rest the masters of the camp place ten squads of the bravest men in a circle around him. About ten yards away some twenty other squads form another circle around the first. Twenty yards further away there is another circle of forty and this formation continues enlarging according to the size of the army.


All transcriptions are taken from Discovering the New World, Based on the Works of Theodore de Bry, edited by Michael Alexander (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).

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