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Ais Tribe of Florida

Posted By Dennis Partridge On In Florida,Native American | No Comments

Concerning the other east coast peoples of Florida, the Jeaga and Ais, nothing is to be had from Spanish sources, but this gap is in some degree filled by the information contained in a small work entitled Narrative of a Shipwreck in the Gulph of Florida: Showing, God’s Protecting Providence, Man’s Surest Help and Defence in Times of Greatest Difficulty, and Most Imminent Danger. Faithfully Related by One of the Persons Concerned therein, Jonathan Dickenson. This describes the adventures of the passengers and crew of a vessel which sailed from Port Royal, Jamaica, June 23, 1699, and was wrecked on the east coast of Florida on July 23 following. The place where this vessel struck was a few miles northward of an inlet called Hobe, now known as Jupiter Inlet. The Indians stripped them of all of their clothing and other possessions, but spared their lives. They took them first to the town at Hobe, probably identical with Fontaneda’s Jeaga. Later they allowed them to travel northward toward St. Augustine, which they reached September 15, after very great hard-ships, from which a few died. After having been very well enter-tained by the Spanish governor they set out northward again, reached Charleston, S. C., October 26, and arrived at Philadelphia February 1. The work is in the form of a diary, and proved so popular when it first appeared that it went through a number of editions. Internal evidence shows that great reliance may be placed upon it.

In their travels along the Florida coast, after leaving Hobe, this party passed two Indian villages and came to a third called by the Spaniards Santa Lucia, where a mission station was at one time established, though there were no Spaniards there at the time. I have already given reasons for identifying this place with the Guacata of Fontaneda.[1] From this place they were hurried away at midnight of the second day, apparently at the command of the chief of Ais, who lived about 20 miles to the northward, and after passing another village they came to Ais in safety. Dickenson calls this place Jece, but there is practically no doubt of its identity with the Ais of the Spaniards. The chief of this town is said to have been chief of all the towns from Santa Lucia to Ais and northward. He was even in a position to domineer over the chief of Hobe, from whom he secured a part of the plunder the latter had collected. At Ais the fugitives found a party from another English vessel, and they remained one month, when they were rescued by a Spanish coast patrol. Between Ais and Mosquito Inlet they passed six inhabited towns and one that had been abandoned. The two last occupied towns were large and stood near together a little south of the inlet. Possibly they were the towns called Mayarca and Mayajuaca by Fontaneda, which were probably Timucua. Somewhere back of Cape Canaveral they came upon the first Indian plantation and saw some pumpkins growing there. This may have been about on the border between the Timucua Indians and those of southern Florida, for Dickenson asserts that all of those in the towns between Hobe and the place last mentioned raised nothing.

The ethnological information which this work contains applies almost entirely to the Indians of Hobe, Santa Lucia, and Ais – i. e., those called by Fontaneda Jeaga, Guacata, and Ais. It is probable that their culture and language were the same, and very likely close to those of the Calusa, and it is fortunate that from the Ais, who appear to have had the greatest individuality, the largest part of this information comes. On account of the evident likeness of these three peoples I will place the material available together.

We find the following information regarding clothing. At Santa Lucia, Dickenson writes:

In a little time some raw deer skins were brought in, and given to my wife and negro woman, and to us men, such as the Indians wear, being a piece of plaitwork of straws, wrought of divers colours, and of a triangular figure, with a belt of four fingers broad of the same, wrought together, which goes about the waist; and the angle of the other having a thing to it coming between the legs; and strings to the end of the belt, all three meeting together, are fastened behind with a horse tail, or a bunch of silk grass, exactly resembling it, of a flaxen colour; this being all the apparel or covering that the men wear.[2]

This article of male attire is, of course, the breechclout. It is described less at length as worn by the two Hobe Indians who first met our travelers after their shipwreck. Dickenson adds that “they had their hair tied in a roll behind, in which stuck two bones, shaped one like a broad arrow, the other like a spearhead.”[3]

The town of Hobe is described as “being little wigwams made of small poles stuck in the ground, which they bent one to another, making an arch, and covering them with thatch of small palmetto leaves.”[4] The chiefs house was “about a man’s height to the top,” and within was a platform bed “made with sticks, about a foot high, covered with a mat.”[5] The chief’s house in Santa Lucia “was about forty feet long, and twenty-five feet wide, covered with palmetto leaves, both top and sides. There was a range of cabins [beds] on one side and two ends; at the entering on one side of the house, a passage was made of benches on each side, leading to the cabins.”[6]

The chief of Hobe, to make a rude wind break, “got some stakes and stuck them in a row joining to his wigwam, and tied some sticks, whereon were small palmettoes tied, and fastened them to the stakes about three feet high, and laid two or three mats, made of reeds, down for shelter.”[7]

The floors of the houses were the bare earth, covered, however, with filth and vermin.[8]

The beds, as has been noticed, were provided with mats, and Dickenson mentions among certain articles presented to the chief of Santa Lucia “some plaited balls stuffed with moss to lay their heads on instead of pillows.”[9]

Pots, including “a deep round bowl,”[10] and baskets are mentioned, also a “bag made of grass.”[11] Cooked fish was served to the white people on palmetto leaves. Gourds were also used.

Regarding their economic life, the following statement will hold for all of these towns:

These people neither sow nor plant any manner of thing whatsoever, nor care for any thing but what the barren sands produce. Fish they have as plenty as they please.[11]

The castaways thus describe one, and what appears to have been the most common, way of fishing:

The Cassekey [of Hobe] sent his son with his striking staff to strike fish for us, which was performed with great dexterity; for some of us walked down with him, and though we looked very earnestly when he threw his staff from him, we could not see a fish at the time he saw it, and brought it to shore on the end of his staff. Sometimes he would run swiftly pursuing a fish, and seldom missed when he darted at it; in two hours time he got as many fish as would serve twenty men.[12]

The striking staff or spear was the ordinary fishing implement; what purpose the bow and arrow served other than that of war is not apparent. One night, shortly after the fishing performance that has just been described, some Indians were seen fishing from a canoe by means of a torch.[13] The fish brought to the whites are said to have been “boiled with the scales, heads, and gills, and nothing taken from them but the guts.”[14] At one place they were given oysters to eat and at another clams, and they were instructed how to roast them.[15] The vegetable food of the people of Ais consisted principally of “palm berries [species uncertain], coco-plums [Chrysohalanus icaco], and sea grapes [Coccoloba uvifera] … the time of these fruits bearing being over they have no other till the next spring.”[16] The two latter suited the palates of the whites very well, but the palm berries they could not endure, and this is not surprising, since, according to Dickenson’s testimony, they “could compare them to nothing else but rotten cheese steeped in tobacco juice.”[17] They are spoken of in each of the principal towns which they visited, however, and were evidently a staple article of diet with the natives. The Indians provided water for the whites, and very likely for themselves, by scratching holes in the sand.[18]

These Indians occupied a thin strip of shore backed by swamps and dense undergrowth and do not seem to have ventured far inland. Their means of transportation and intercommunication were dugout canoes, used more often in the long narrow lagoons of that coast than on the open ocean, and often poled rather than paddled.[19] Indeed some of these were almost too small for outside work; the castaways were ferried across to Hobe in one just wide enough to sit down in.[20] On certain occasions, especially when large burdens were to be carried, two canoes were lashed side by side but some distance apart, poles were laid across to make a platform, and mats were placed on top of this.[21]

Tobacco was very much valued by these people, but apparently not cultivated by them. “A leaf, or a half a leaf of tobacco, would purchase a yard of linen or woolen, or silk, from the Indians.” Ambergris, found along their coast, was so little esteemed that an Indian of Ais, “having a considerable quantity of ambergris, boasted that when he went for St. Augustine with that he could purchase of the Spaniards a looking glass, an axe, a knife or two, and three or four mannocoes, which is about five or six pounds of tobacco; the quantity of ambergris might be about five pounds weight.”[22]

The little that we learn regarding the private life of these people, their manners and customs, does not set them forth in a very engaging light. That they should plunder the white people of their possessions was to have been expected, and the latter were lucky to have escaped with their lives, but their treatment of them in small matters shows them to have been deceitful, overbearing, unfeeling, and cowardly. They mocked and insulted them in every manner, and upon one occasion an Indian filled the mouth of Dickenson’s infant son with sand. They made fun of two of the English who were seized with fever and ague, and Dickenson goes on to remark that they treated their own unfortunates as badly.

This we well observed, that these people had no compassion on their own aged declining people when they were past labour, nor on others of their own which lay under any declining condition; for the younger is served before the elder, and the older people, both men and women, are slaves to the younger.[23]

This, it is to be observed, is sharply at variance with the treatment of their old men by the Creeks. Nevertheless the English did not want for some defenders and protectors in each town, and when there was more than enough food for the Indians they had plenty. As an example of primitive generosity in supplying at least the essentials of existence to all may be cited one occasion at Ais when a canoe laden with fish came in, “and it was free for those that would, to take as much as they pleased. The Indians put us to go and take, for it was a kind of scramble amongst us and the young Indian men and boys. All of us got fish enough to serve us two or three days.”[24]

Ais Public House
Ais Public House

In spite of the extreme primitiveness and simplicity of their culture the town chief was treated with considerable respect and seems to have exerted very great influence. His house is represented as the largest in the town, and seems to have supplied the place of the public houses of the Timucua and Creeks, with which it may indeed have been identical, since the chief among the Creeks was at the same time guardian of the town house. The house of the Santa Lucia chief has already been described. His own seat is placed “at the upper end of the cabin”;[25] but from the context it is evident that the middle of the side farthest from the door is intended. The wording is in somewhat archaic English and by no means clear, but we must assume one of two arrangements as found in the image attached:

In the first plan it does not seem natural that the head men should sit on either side of the door, where in most tribes the slaves or inferior persons were placed; in the second it does not seem natural to break up the floor space, yet a similar order is met with in a Cusabo town (see p. 64), and was probably the correct one. Daily meetings were held here, in which the black drink was brewed and imbibed in quantities, the custom resembling closely in its observances that found among the Creeks. Dickenson describes it thus:

The Indians were seated as aforesaid, the cassekey at the upper end of them, and the range of cabins was filled with men, women, and children, beholding us. At length we heard a woman or two cry, according to their manner, and that very sorrowfully, one of which I took to be the cassekey’s wife; which occasioned some of us to think that something extraordinary was to be done to us; we also heard a strange sort of a noise, which was not like the noise made by a man, but we could not understand what, nor where it was; for sometimes it sounded to be in one part of the house, and sometimes in another, to which we had an ear. And indeed our ears and eyes could perceive or hear nothing but what was strange and dismal, and death seemed to surround us; but time discovered this noise to us. The occrasion of it was thus:

In one part of this house, where a fire was kept, was an Indian man, having a pot on the fire wherein he was making a drink of a shrub, which we understood afterwards by the Spaniards is called Casseena, boiling the said leaves, after they had parched them in a pot; then with a gourd, having a long neck, and at the top of it a small hole, which the top of one’s finger could cover, and at the side of it a round hole of two inches diameter. They take the liquor out [of] the pot, and put it into a deep round bowl, which being almost filled, contains nigh three gallons; with this gourd they brew the liquor and make it froth very much; it looks of a deep brown colour. In the brewing of this liquor was this noise made, which we thought strange; for the pressing of the gourd gently down into the liquor, and the air it contained being forced out of a little hole at the top, occasioned a sound, and according to the time and motion given, would be various. The drink when made cool to sup, was in a shell first carried to the cassekey, who threw part of it on the ground and the rest he drank up, and then made a loud hem; and afterwards the cup passed to the rest of the cassekey’s associates as aforesaid; but no other person must touch or taste of this sort of drink; of which they sat sipping, chattering, and smoking tobacco, or some other herb instead thereof, for the most part of the day.[26]

The evening festivities which followed were much after the same style.

In the evening we being laid on the place aforesaid [on mats on the floor], the Indians made a drum of a skin, covering therewith the deep bowl, in which they brewed their drink, beating thereon with a stick; and having a couple of rattles made of a small gourd, put on a stick with small stones in it, shaking it, they began to set up a most hideous howling, very irksome to us; and some time after came many of their young women, some singing, some dancing. This continued till midnight, after which they went to sleep.[27]

All this was at the town of Santa Lucia, and there also the Pennsylvanians had an opportunity to observe the ceremony with which an ambassador from another chief was received. In this case the emissary was from the chief of Ais, who, as has been said, seems to have been considered the superior of the chief of Santa Lucia and all other chiefs in that region. Says Dickenson:

About the tenth hour we observed the Indians to be in a sudden motion, and the principal part of them betook themselves to their houses; the cassekey went to dressing his head and painting himself, and so did all the rest; after they had done, they came into the cassekey’s house and seated themselves in order. In a small time after came an Indian with some small attendance into the house making a ceremonious motion, and seated himself by the cassekey, and the persons that came with him seated themselves amongst the others; after a small pause the cassekey began a discourse which held him nigh an hour, after which, the strange Indian and his companions went forth to the water side to their canoe, lying in the sound, and returned presently with such presents as they had brought, delivering them to the cassekey and those sitting by, giving an applause. The presents were a few bunches of the herb they had made their drink of and another herb they use instead of tobacco, and some plaited balls stuffed with moss to lay their heads on instead of pillows; the ceremony being ended, they all seated themselves again and went to drinking casseena, smoking, and talking during the stranger’s stay.”[28]

Soon after several of the white people were themselves asked to take seats in the cabin, beside the chief – an evident mark of honor.[29]

The chief of Ais was treated with still more respect by his own people. Dickenson thus describes his return from Hobe, whither he had gone in the hope of obtaining some of the things out of the wrecked vessel:

We perceived he came in state, having his two canoes lashed together, with poles across from one to the other, making a platform, which being covered with a mat, on it stood a chest, which belonged to us, and my negro boy Cesar, that the cassekey of Hoe-bay took from me, whom he had got from the Indians; upon this chest he sat cross legged, being newly painted red, and his men with poles setting the canoe along to the shore. On seeing us, he cried “Wough,” and looked very stern at us.

He was received by his people with great homage, holding out his hands, as their custom is, to be kissed, having his chest carried before him to his house, whither he went, and the house was filled with Indians: the old cassekey began, and held a discourse for some hours, giving an account, as we suppose, what he heard and saw, in which discourse he would often mention Nickaleer, which caused us to fear, that all things were not well. After he had told his story, and some of the elder Indians had expressed their sentiments thereon, they drank casseena, and smoked till evening.[30]

Some of these social customs, such, for instance, as the brewing of the black drink, contain religious elements, but, beyond these, two ceremonies are described which seem to have been primarily religious. The first took place the night after the arrival of our travelers at Hobe. It is detailed thus:

Night being come and the moon being up, an Indian, who performed their ceremonies, stood out, looking full at the moon, making a hideous noise, and crying out, acting like a mad man for the space of half an hour, all the Indians being silent till he had done; after which they made a fearful noise, some like the barking of a dog, wolf, and other strange sounds; after this, one got a log and set himself down, holding the stick or log upright on the ground, and several others got about him, making a hideous noise, singing to our amazement; at length their women joined the concert, and made the noise more terrible, which they continued till midnight.[31]

The first part was probably a shamanistic performance; the latter may have been merely a social dance, the upright log being really an extemporized drum. The second ceremonial took place at Ais between the 18th and 25th of August and the account we have of it is the only narrative in any way complete of an Ais ceremonial. From the first sentence it might be thought that this was a monthly ceremony, but there is no certainty. It strongly suggests the Creek busk and probably belonged in the same class, though these people did not raise corn and the date of celebrating it was a month or two too late for a new-corn ceremony. The account follows:

It now being the time of the moon’s entering the first quarter the Indians had a ceremonious dance, which they began about 8 o’clock in the morning. In the first place came in an old man, and took a staff about 8 feet long, having a broad arrow on the head thereof, and thence halfway painted red and white, like a barber’s pole. In the middle of this staff was fixed a piece of wood, shaped like unto a thigh, leg, and foot of a man, and the lower part of it was painted black. This staff, being carried out of the cassekey’s house, was set fast in the ground standing upright, which being done he brought out a basket containing six rattles, which were taken out thereof and placed at the foot of the staff. Another old man came in and set up a howling like unto a mighty dog, but beyond him for length of breath, withal making a proclamation. This being done and most of them having painted themselves, some red, some black, some with black and red, with their bellies girt up as tight as well they could girt themselves with ropes, having their sheaths of arrows at their backs and their bows in their hands, being gathered together about the staff, six of the chiefest men in esteem amongst them, especially one who is their doctor, took up the rattles and began an hideous noise, standing round the staff with their rattles and bowing to it without ceasing for about half an hour. Whilst these six were thus employed all the rest were staring and scratching, pointing upwards and downwards on this and the other side, every way looking like men frightened, or more like furies. Thus they behaved until the six had done shaking their rattles; then they all began to dance, violently stamping on the ground for the space of an hour or more without ceasing, in which time they sweat in a most excessive manner, so that by the time the dance waa over, by their sweat and the violent stamping of their feet, the ground was trodden into furrows, and by morning the place where they danced was covered with maggots; thus, often repeating the manner, they continued till about 3 or 4 o’clock in the after-noon, by which time many were sick and fsjnU Being gathered into the cassekey’s house they sat down, having some hot casseena ready, which they drank plentifully of, and gave greater quantities thereof to the sick and faint than to others; then they eat berries. On these days they eat not any food till night.

The next day, about the same time, they began their dance as the day before; also the third day they began at the usual time, when many Indians came from other towns and fell to dancing, without taking any notice one of another. This day they were stricter than the other two days, for no woman must look upon them, but if any of their women went out of their houses they went veiled with a mat.[32]

The fact that the castaways had an abundance of fish and berries to eat on the 25th probably had something to do with the ceremony, feasting being a constant preliminary accompaniment of fasting. The day after (i. e., the 26th) Dickenson says:

We observed that great baskets of dried berries were brought in from divers towns and delivered to the king or young cassekey, which we supposed to be a tribute to the king of this town, who is chief of all the towns from St. a Lucia to the northward of this town of Jece.[33]

These presents were probably rather to discharge social obligations or secure the good will of the chief than actual tribute, and it is to be suspected that they had some connection with the ceremony just concluded.

Altogether the culture of the people of Ais and the east Florida coast generally seems to have belonged with that of Calos. Its simplicity was partly due, without doubt, to the poverty of the country; in fact, in later times the economic condition was considerably advanced by frequent wrecks along the coast, though at the same time native industry must have been proportionately discouraged. The rather high position of the chief is probably attributable in some degree to the influence of their neighbors on the north and west.


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  1. 1 See p. 333.
  2. Dickenson, Narrative, pp. 33-34.
  3. Dickenson, Narrative, p. 9-10.
  4. Dickenson, Narrative, p. 17.
  5. Dickenson, Narrative, p. 17.
  6. Dickenson, Narrative, p. 33.
  7. Dickenson, Narrative, p. 18.
  8. Dickenson, Narrative, p. 34.
  9. Dickenson, Narrative, p. 37.
  10. Dickenson, Narrative, p. 35.
  11. Dickenson, Narrative, p. 54.
  12. Dickerson, Narrative, p. 51.
  13. Dickerson, Narrative, p. 19.
  14. Dickerson, Narrative, p. 29.
  15. Dickerson, Narrative, p. 36.
  16. Dickerson, Narrative, pp. 23, 36.
  17. Dickerson, Narrative, p. 51. For the identifications I am indebted to Lieut. W. E. Safford, of the Bureau of Plant Industry, U. S. Department of Agriculture.
  18. Dickerson, Narrative, pp. 37-38.
  19. Dickerson, Narrative, p. 17.
  20. Dickerson, Narrative, p. 48.
  21. Dickenson, Narrative, p. 17.
  22. Dickenson, Narrative, p. 48.
  23. Dickenson, Narrative, p. 60.
  24. Dickenson, Narrative, p. 55.
  25. Dickenson, Narrative, p. 56.
  26. Dickenson, Narrative, pp. 33-34.
  27. Dickenson, Narrative, pp. 33-36.
  28. Dickenson, Narrative, p. 36.
  29. Dickenson, Narrative, pp. 36-37.
  30. Dickenson, Narrative, p. 36.
  31. Dickinson, Narrative, p. 48.
  32. Dickinson, Narrative, p. 19.
  33. Dickenson, Narrative, pp. 52-54.
  34. Dickenson, Narrative, p. 54.

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