Friday, August 23, 2019

Looking for Tolomato

The name Tolomato, beautifully wrought in metal over the new gate of Tolomato cemetery, declares the Indian heritage of the site, and one of the first things our visitors hear when they take our Third Saturday tour is the story of the Tolomato Indian mission that was located on that plot of land, long before it became a cemetery.  

This being St Augustine, in the 19th and 20th centuries, visitors heard much more sensational stories, ranging from tales of a 7-foot tall Indian named “Chief Tolomato” who appears at night -  mostly to the ghost tours - to the gruesome tale that a Franciscan friar was slain in the Varela Chapel (built 1853) by Indian raiders in the 16th century.  Not true, of course, although there is another Tolomato, far away and long ago, where this actually did happen.

The name Tolomato is somewhat like Brigadoon, the mythical town that appeared and disappeared, because it seems to keep popping up along the SE coast from Georgia to St Augustine.  Historians and archaeologists know where it started, but even so the details have remained elusive, with the exact locations of some of the sites that bore that name having been lost to things ranging from violence to time and sea water.
Because our TCPA docents start off by telling visitors the history of the name, it occurred to us one day at a meeting that we could make this long and complicated story a little more real for ourselves by taking a field trip to the original Tolomato and seeing where it all began. The area is now known as Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge and is on the Georgia coast, right across from St. Catherine’s Island and about 60 miles south of Savannah. It’s less than a 3 hour drive from St. Augustine, so we picked a date that we hoped was before the mosquitoes would be in full blossom. And then a small band of TCPA members set out, armed with our cameras.  Louise Kennedy took her usual great photos and several others of us did our IPhone best, but I'll have to post those elsewhere and send out a link.

Harris Neck is a little remote and not oversupplied with hotels or even places to eat, so to make life a little easier for ourselves, we stayed on Jekyll Island and made a day trip to Harris Neck.

First we found a fictional Tolomato, of course.  Hwy  17 from Jekyll Island to Harris Neck goes through Darien, a very interesting town that suffered greatly during the Civil War and in fact was burned to the ground. It recovered, became a sleepy Southern town with a Civil War museum, and is now on its way to becoming a modern “cute” B&B town.  But it also boasted, or thought it boasted, a Tolomato site, a ruined tabby chimney and walls that the town hoped was from the chapel.  Once word got out, the name Tolomato began popping up on local roads and historical markers. But alas, it wasn’t true: the site was actually all that was left of a late 18th century sugar mill.  That didn’t stop anybody, however, and a new luxury subdivision named Tolomato Island has already seized the name. 

But what name?  The name of the original Tolomato Mission, founded in 1595, was La Natividad de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe de Tolomato (The Birth of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Tolomato).  To “unpack” the name for those unfamiliar with Spanish church naming customs, it refers to three different things. First is the Catholic feast day on September 8 celebrating the Birth of Our Lady, which was also chosen as the official founding date of St. Augustine in 1565. Thus, the friars chose that name to refer to the founding of missionary efforts in Florida. 

Next is “Guadalupe,” which of course refers to the apparition of the Virgin to the Mexican Indian San Juan Diego in 1531. Guadalupe is a place in Extremadura, Spain, which had an early painting of the Virgin that was somewhat similar what Juan Diego saw and the image that appeared on the inside of his straw cape, and the 16th century Spanish bishop of the area, which is now part of modern Mexico City, was from Extremadura.  But as the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe (the image in the photo below) began to refer more commonly to the 1531 apparition to an indigenous Mexican, the Spanish then often included it in the name of churches directed to missionary activities among the Indians of the Americas.

Finally, we have “Tolomato,” referring to the place where the mission was located. Tolomato is thought to mean is thought to mean “on the river bank” or “between the river banks” in the Guale language. The aboriginal Tolomato population were Guale Indians, which refers to a language group or nation rather than a “tribe.” There were several major language groups along the SE coast, and the languages were not mutually intelligible. There were the Guale of north Georgia, a little further south there were the Mocama and then the Timucua, to name a few. 

The location of Tolomato was indeed on the bank, as seen above, or possibly between two rivers, since Harris Neck is actually a peninsula in the coastal marshes, with its tip pointing to Santa Catalina, aka, St. Catherine’s Island. There is an important mission site on St. Catherine’s Island that has been the subject of many excavations and even now has a rededicated cemetery and church, but in the 16th century, the Tolomato mission was considered the most important. It was probably the residence of the most important cacique, or chief, among the many groups of Guale Indians who lived in the area.  Below is a map in the visitor center at the park which will show you a little more on this.
However…a word of caution!  There were several missions scattered through the Sea Islands, and the only one that has been definitively identified is Santa Catalina.  There are researchers who think that a mission known as Talapo was the mission located on Harris Neck, and the Tolomato mission was actually located at a place now known as Sutherland Bluff, near Shellman Bluff and across from Sapelo Island in Georgia. However, we decided to go with the Harris Neck site, simply because it is the one that appears most often in the literature.  And we checked with the Federal ranger in charge of SE archaeology, Rick Kwasniewski, who told us that Indian and Spanish artifacts of the right period have been found at two locations on Harris Neck, with the most probable location of the Tolomato village being near the modern day boat ramp.  If some future excavation turns up something new, we’ll just have to make another trip!

In 1595, the Franciscans established a mission church at Tolomato, with a resident friar, Fr. Pedro de Corpa, a Franciscan from Astorga, Spain.  Early Southeast mission buildings were usually simple wooden and thatch constructions, and inventories carried out by Spanish governors and religious authorities revealed that most did not seem to have permanent tabernacles or even baptismal fonts. The missionaries would bring altar vessels and other things as they needed them for fear that they might fall into hostile hands if the mission was attacked.  So we don’t know exactly what the mission looked like, but it was probably fairly simple and not like the much later, more developed California missions.  Below is a recreation at Mission San Luis in Tallahassee of the mission chapel.

Basically, the villages functioned as any other village, ruled by their chiefs. But where the Indians  had originally been more migratory, they now lived a stable, agricultural life (since this was the European ideal), often with some common work to support the mission, such as the production of hides in the California ranching missions. They were also instructed in the Faith, began the day with prayers and hymns, attended Mass and were expected to conform to Catholic moral teachings, particularly in the area of marriage. Sometimes the Franciscan treatment of the Indians was good; at other times, it was harsh, although often the Franciscans stood between the Indians and even harsher treatment by the Spanish or Mexican civil governors.  And of course the missionaries were often caught in midst of the rivalries and animosities between different Indian leaders and groups.

The Franciscans extended this model across the country.  Below you see a painting of two 18th Franciscan friars, one of them from the Provincia de Santa Helena (which included St Augustine and the Florida Georgia missions).   He was killed in a hostile Indian attack in Arizona in the late 18th century, and the painting is in the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, which also had a Franciscan presence.  

For the first two years, everything seems to have gone well for Fr. Corpa, but it changed literally overnight. One morning in late September or early October of 1597 – the exact date is unknown, but the friars’ report arrived in St Augustine on October 7, 1597 - as he recited his prayers, he looked up to see a group of hostile Indians, including the cacique of Tolomato himself, burst into his cell. Still kneeling, he was clubbed to death by one of the warriors at the command of the cacique.
Supposedly, he was then beheaded and his head was mounted on a post near the boat ramp, although the Spanish do not report finding it when they arrived. His body was buried in the woods near the village, and the church, the friar’s residence, and the council house were burned.  Later the Spanish found a statue of St Anthony de Padua (a popular Franciscan saint) and the altar – probably not the altar table as we think of it in modern churches, but the altar stone, ara, in Spanish – hidden in the woods near the ruined town.
Why this happened is still a subject of discussion. To make a long story short, the best book on this confusing subject is probably Murder and Martyrdom in Spanish Florida, by J. Michael Francis and Kathleen M. Kole (American Museum of Natural History, 2011).  

In any case, the attacks put an end to Tolomato and of all of the missions in the area, with most of the resident friars being killed, and one taken captive for a year.  The important mission buildings had been burned by the Indians themselves during the uprising, and in the succeeding months, most of what remained of the villages was destroyed by Spanish reprisals. However, within a few years, the Franciscans returned, and several of the other missions, most notably Santa Catalina, were revived. David Hurst Thomas, from the Museum of Natural History in NYC, did extensive work on the site, and remains interested in it. Click here for a really interesting - if lengthy - video about his work and its sequels on St Catherine's Island. Ignore the lemurs.

But by then Tolomato seems to have disappeared for good from Georgia, and the name is only found again in the 1620s, this time in Florida, in the reports of the Spanish Governor don Luis de Rojas y Borja. Residing in St Augustine, he speaks of the establishment of a new mission Indian village, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe de Tolomato, on the Guana River not far north of St Augustine.  The Guale Indian residents were to provide labor for ferrying goods across the river, cutting timber, etc. and they had their own village, church and priest at the new “Tholomato,” as it appears in the record.
This, alas, turned out to be just the first step in the long journey of the Indians from Georgia to Cordova St.  But since we're only looking at the beginnings of the journey, that story will have to wait for another post.

As for Harris Neck, its story after the departure of the Indians is also an interesting one.  After the gradual departure of the Spanish from the Georgia area and the destruction of the mission chain by British colonists from Georgia and South Carolina in the early 1700s, British settlers acquired land in the area.  The large hammock got the name Harris Neck in the mid-18th century, when one William Thomas Harris established a large plantation dedicated to cotton and rice growing.  It passed through his family and a large section was bought by Jonathan Thomas, who called it Peru Plantation and raised cotton there. One of his descendants, dying without heirs, left it to a former slave, who in turn sold parcels to other black - and some white - families after the end of the Civil War.  It is considered part of the Gullah-Geechee corridor, since most of the African American residents are descendants of slaves brought from West Africa to work the plantations, who then became landowners after the Civil War.

Things changed later in the 1880s, when some of the land was bought by wealthy people from Savannah and other parts of the South.  One of these was Pierre Lorillard, of the tobacco family, who built a mansion – really, more of a party house - for his mistress and friends who would arrive at his deep-water dock on their yachts. The mansion had fountains and formal gardens and was even used as the Officers’ Club for the Harris Neck airbase during WWII! But it had deteriorated by the time Harris Neck became a wildlife refuge in 1962 and was torn down. Below is the one remaining, algae-filled fountain, and above is the huge stork and marsh bird nesting area that is now the main feature of Harriss Neck.

The famous Georgia archaeologist Lewis H. Larson thought that this might be the location of one of the Tolomato mission village. A shell mound runs through the area, and Larson's excavations in the late 20th century turned up Spanish and native pottery fragments and even aboriginal house floors.  As we moved through the area, carefully and unsuccessfully trying to avoid ticks, we found intriguing traces of shell deposits that certainly predated the mansion.  It is not likely that the Lorillards spent much time shucking wild oysters in the gardens of their mansion.

Some of the later history of the land is not pretty.  When the land was seized by the government for the building of the airfield, the black families were compensated at $26.90 per acre, while white families received $37.31 per acre. In addition, after the war the families were not allowed to move back to their land as promised, but the entire property was turned over to McIntosh County as a park or wildlife area. 
In 1962, the land was taken back by the Federal Government because of mismanagement by the county government and turned into the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge.  It is famous as a breeding and nesting area for wood storks, herons, egrets and other coastal wading birds. In fact, during our stay, the trees were white with egrets, almost to the point where it looked as if snow had fallen. The area is visited mainly by birdwatchers and photographers, as well as occasional bicyclists and walkers, and a stop at the ranger station will give you some insight into the lively bird activity there.

And finally, of course, we found a cemetery.  At the very edge of the park, right next to the boat ramp and in another area considered likely to have been the location of Mission Tolomato, is the Gould Cemetery. It is named after the Gould family, which had owned the property, and it holds the remains of members of many of the longest-standing African American families of the peninsula.  We walked through the cemetery, seeing the old handcrafted concrete headstones and the more modern professionally created marble monuments, and noticing the same family names repeated. One family seems to have had a tradition of church work, with tombstones listing pastors and deacons and evangelists – and on the way out of Harris Neck, we happened to see one of these last names on the sign board of a tiny local church by the narrow road!  

We paid our respects to the residents of the cemetery and then walked over to the edge of the creek near the boat ramp, wondering if perhaps we were walking where the original Tolomato Mission had once stood.  Artifacts have been found at this site, and it certainly looks like a place that would have been ideal for the establishment of a village, since it is right next to a deep creek with access to channels leading to the sea and to St. Catherine’s Island.  The site is wide and bright and, nearly 500 years later, so peaceful that you can almost imagine our Tolomato Indian family poling their boats along the creek – probably laden with the oysters whose shells we would see as a sign of their presence all these many years later.

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