Early Examples of
Spanish Colonial Architecture
Architect Richard Thornton is a member of an alliance of Creek, Choctaw and
Seminole scholars, who over the past seven years have been intensely studying
the heritage of the Muskogean peoples. Much of their activities have involved
re-examination of the archives of the early Spanish, English and French
exploration of the Southeastern United States. We have asked Richard to provide
AccessGenealogy with some of his work. As we add to these articles we will
also be providing a question and answer section for the reader to ask questions
It is one of the earliest known
examples of Spanish Colonial architecture
There were three attempts to establish missions on the
island beginning in 1567. Guale is the Castilian
spelling of the Wahale People. The Spanish would have
pronounced Guale as "Wally." Wahale means "Southerners"
in a the Hitchiti-Creek language.
To fully understand the era in which the Spanish were
establishing many missions in the South Atlantic States,
one must also appreciate the catastrophic impact of
European pathogens and weapons on the Native Peoples. It
has been estimated that the population of the Timucua
People of northeast Florida and the southeastern tip of
Georgia dropped from 750,000 to 175,000 in the 15 years
from 1715 to 1730. These catastrophic death rates were
due to the spread of European diseases via intermittent
visits by European ships. Imagine what the United States
and Canada would be like if 250 million people died in a
15 year period?
Jesuit missionaries constructed a mission on St.
Catherines Island in 1567. It was abandoned the next
year. After the Jesuits evacuated the islands, it became
a dangerous place for Spaniards. It is suspected that
Frenchmen seeking revenge for the Fort Caroline massacre
in 1565, were inciting the Wahale’s. In 1573 a Spanish
officer named Aguilar and fourteen or fifteen soldiers
were killed in the province of Guale. In 1578 a Captain
Otalona and other officials were killed in the Guale
town of Ospogue..
The front of the church had much heavier structures than was typical of
Spanish missions in the Southeast. This is one alternative
interpretation of the archaeologists' findings.
Credit: VR images by Richard Thornton, Architect
According to some Spanish archives, Franciscan missions were
opened in Guale in 1594, but In 1597 there were definitely five missionaries in
this region, when a rebellion broke out against the new Spanish missions. Four
out five of the missionaries were killed. The fifth was tortured, but survived.
This tragedy will be discussed in Part Three.
There was a third attempt to establish a mission on the island in 1602. By 1604
a mission complex had been constructed. This mission church was a simple
rectangular structure only 32 feet by 52 feet in size. There was no evidence of
a narthex or even a raised altar. The 32 feet span of the roof was most likely
supported by wood trusses. The foundation and frame were post-ditch construction
with waddle & daub walls. They were constructed just like nearby Native American
buildings. The spacing of large posts on the side suggested that the side wall
contained large openings that functioned as screened windows. In Muskogean and
Mesoamerican buildings, river cane slats would have functioned as screens.
Perhaps at some time in the history of the church, wood louvers were installed,
but this is not certain.
Wahale villages were required to place a cross and a Spanish flag near the
entrance to their villages to show their allegiance to Spain.
Photo: VR Image by Richard Thornton
At the rear of the main sanctuary was a 13 feet wide wood
frame addition. It has been speculated by archaeologists that this space was
used as a storage shed for items used in the Mass.
Unlike the early mission churches that have been studied by archaeologists in
northern Florida, this building had a very thick front wall that contained
unusually large internal wood columns, plus pilasters that flanked the front
door. The rear wall was wood frame. These stout structural supports suggested to
the author that the front of the church looked more like the early Franciscan
churches in Cuba and Yucatan. Those had three bells above the door in a parapet.
This facade was a simplified version of the architectural logo of Franciscan
churches in Europe. However, the archaeologist for the museum that hired this
architect to interpret the site, insisted that the church must look like church
in Florida excavated by a prominent archaeologist even though that church did
not have the same floor plan or structural details. The general public rarely is
aware of the behind the scenes reasons for the interpretation of history.
Archaeologists made a macabre discovery when excavating the interior of the
church. The soil was filled with human bones! In fact, so many burials had been
placed one atop another that it was often extremely difficult to determine which
bones belonged together. The oldest bones had deteriorated in the acid soil, but
it is estimated that at least 431 persons were buried underneath the dirt floor
of the church.
Burial under the floors of Franciscan missions seems to have been primarily a
custom in the Southeast. It most likely originated from the Muskogean tradition
during the period between 900 AD and 1500 AD of commoners being buried under the
floors of their houses, while members of elite families were buried in mounds.
Burial of all parishioners in good standing inside the church, symbolized that
as Christians, they all were equal before God. Ironically, though, while in this
world, most Wahale were NOT equal with Spanish Christians. The chiefs wore
Spanish clothes and had special privileges. Others, were at best, were serfs of
the Church. When carrying out their mandatory labor for the Spanish Crown, they
were essentially treated as slave laborers, sometimes compensated by beads and
The house of the priest, called a convento in Spanish, was virtually identical
to the house of the leader of the village. It had three small rooms and a single
door, plus a covered porch. The walls were waddle and daub (adobe) but plaster
with a crude white lime stucco. The roof was thatched.
There was also a small kitchen, called a cocina in Spanish. The structure was
almost identical to a communal kitchen in a Wahale village. However, instead of
a circular hearth in the floor, the Spanish constructed a large beehive shaped
oven inside the concina that was capable of cooking meals for both the priest
and visiting Spanish officials.
Near the end of the lifespan of Mission Santa Catalina de Guale, a stone fort
was built to protect the village from pirates and slave-raiders. However, the
fort was captured by a large party of Virginia Indians on a slave raid sponsored
by the English in 1680. The mission was quickly abandoned and the survivors
moved closer to Saint Augustine. At the present time, the location of the stone
fort at St. Catherines Island is not known.
We know that the priests grew flowers and vegetables around his house.
Peaches were introduced to North America here.
Credit: VR images by Richard Thornton, Architect
Part 1 |
Notes About this Material
Source: Richard Thornton, an alliance of Muskogean scholars, professors and
professionals. Copyright Richard Thornton, Blairsville, GA, 2010. Used here with