The St. Johns River provided a virtual cornucopia to its inhabitants for millennia. The rich bounty of the coastal riverine environment spawned a unique St. Johns culture. Before 500 BCE, residents had already established a basic lifeway from which the culture developed over the next thousand years. Fishing and shellfish-collecting supplied the bulk of their diet, supplemented by hunting and gathering. So reliable was the river’s reward that it supported permanent settlements long before the introduction of corn-based agriculture in the region. When St. Johns villages grew too large for adjacent resources to support, breakaway villages formed elsewhere along the river.
Around 900 CE, the northern St. Johns basin was settled by people from upriver, probably absorbing the Colorinda people who had lived in the area for some 2,000 years. The new residents centered their settlements on Mount Royal, near present day Welaka, Florida, and the Mill Cove complex, now located in Jacksonville’s Arlington neighborhood. Around Mill Cove were at least twelve separate settlements, six on the south bank and six on the north bank. Material remains show that like their predecessors, the new inhabitants practiced a fishing and shellfish-collecting economy.
The St. Johns people existed on the periphery of a vast Mississippian culture that stretched from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Atlantic ocean to the Midwest. In the Mississippi valley and beyond, corn-based agriculture supported dense populations and sprawling trade networks. The largest Mississippian site was a city of 38,000 people called Cahokia, larger than Paris or Rome at the time, located across the river from present-day St. Louis. St. Johns people were among the first and most successful to participate in the Mississippian network, acquiring exotic goods and materials and supplying marine shells gathered in the course of daily life.
Dr. Keith Ashley, a north Florida native and an anthropologist at the University of North Florida, argues that the St. Johns culture remained distinct from the Mississppian culture throughout this period of interaction. While the Mississippian economy was marked by institutionalized inequality and a strict social hierarchy, the St. Johns people practiced a communal economy. Mississippian chiefdoms acquired marine shells and other exotic materials for use as prestige goods that were hoarded by chiefs to demonstrate their power and authority. The St. Johns people, on the other hand, buried all of their exotic goods in communal burial mounds that were central to village life. Because the river provided such a bounty, it was impossible for an elite to dominate the food supply. The result was a communal economy of autonomous villages.
Change came with the decline of Cahokia and the abandonment of the Macon Plateau, the closest Mississippian chiefdom to the St. Johns. Between 1250 and 1300 CE, the St. Johns people depopulated the Jacksonville area and moved upriver. As long-distance trade networks broke down, territorial raiding became commonplace. Corn-farming was also introduced to the region. Growing corn required authority to command disciplined labor, at least during the cultivating season. Corn fields also required a different sort of military posture to protect territory with more resolve. When Spanish and French meddlers arrived in the 1500s, institutionalized inequality was becoming a feature of Timucua life.
St. Augustine celebrates its 450th anniversary this year, but it was not the first attempt by Europeans to colonize the land that is now called the United States of America. Spanish sailors laid claim to La Florida in 1513, but after fifty years of exploration and several failed attempts to establish a colony on the peninsula, the Spanish crown was ready to give up its ambitions north of Mexico. Sensing an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, King Charles IX of France dispatched a group of politically undesirable Huguenots (French protestants) to plant a French colony where Spain had failed. Jean Ribault led a reconnaissance expedition that made landfall in Florida on April 30, 1562. The next day, he discovered the St. Johns, calling it the River of May. Sailing into the mouth of the river, the French were greeted warmly by local Timucua inhabitants. The party erected a stone monument to claim the territory for France before sailing north in search of other potential settlement sites.
Rene Laudonniere, Ribault’s second-in-command, led a second voyage in 1564 that established a settlement called Fort Caroline near the site of the monument. The French settlers proved unable to exploit the river ‘s abundant resources, and quickly found themselves falling short of food supplies. At first, they were supplied by the Saturiwa confederacy, the group of Timucua people living around the mouth of the river. After the French exhausted the Saturiwa people’s willingness to feed them, Laudonniere hatched a plan to sail upriver and kidnap the head of the Utina people, another Timucua group.
By way of deceit, Laudonniere convinced the Utina chief and his son to accompany him to his barque, where they were both restrained. Laudonniere intended to ransom Utina back to his people, thinking that they could not survive without the person Laudonniere understood to be their king. However, the chief was not a king in the European sense. His people quickly replaced him and began negotiating his release. Unable or unwilling to satisfy French demands, Utina’s people decided on a strategy of delay and resistance. They eventually lured Laudonniere’s men into an ambush, exacting a heavy toll for the kidnap of their chief. Life on the St. Johns had taught the Timucua a certain independence and resilience that was not easily crushed.
In 1565, the Spanish crown dispatched Pedro Menendez to eradicate the French settlement. After destroying the lightly garrisoned Fort Caroline and slaughtering its inhabitants, Menendez established his own fort there, calling it San Mateo. From his capital in St. Augustine, Menendez set out to turn the region’s resources to Spanish profit. Unable to acquire enough corn from the eastern Timucua (in what was a marginal agricultural area to begin with), the Spanish authorities first tasked the Guale province to the north with supplying sustenance. The Guale resisted the brutal Spanish labor requirements, declaring war in 1576. Quickly pacified by Spanish arms, the Guale suffered both disease and labor casualties. By the 1630s, the province could no longer provide St. Augustine with the required corn. Spanish officials looked west to Apalachee for sustenance.
The eastern Timucua never supplied much corn to the Spanish, probably because their territory was not as fit for corn cultivation as was that of the Guale and the Apalachee. Thus, it seems that the Timucua might have delayed the demands visited upon the Guale in the 16th century. However, the Timucua did not escape the brutality of the Spanish system for long. In 1656, Governor Rebolledo ordered raids above and beyond the usual Indian labor draft to supply St. Augustine with laborers in an effort to forestall a predicted shortage of corn. The Timucua rebelled and then fled west from a punishment expedition ordered by the governor. The last remnants of a traditional St. Johns culture were thus eradicated.
Today the St. Johns River continues to supply sustenance to hungry people living on its banks, but not enough to satisfy the millions now living in its once-lush basin. State-sanctioned pollution and ever-deepening dredging projects threaten the river’s ability to provide sustenance in the future. Considering the river as an industrial dumping ground or a parking place for trans-oceanic cargo ships is certainly a new development in the history of the people who have lived by it. How long the river continues to support human habitation is anyone’s guess.