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Apalachee Surface in Louisiana July 29, 1997
by Jessica E. Saraceni

[image]An early twentieth-century photograph records members of the Talimali Band of the Apalachee Indians living in Louisiana. Their current chief, Gilmer Bennett, is the son of Francis Vallery, standing far right. (Courtesy Talimali Band, The Apalachee Indians of Louisiana) [LARGER IMAGE]

Descendants of Florida's Apalachee Indians, living in Louisiana since 1835, are seeking state and federal recognition as an Indian tribe. Residents of the Florida panhandle at the time of European contact, the Apalachee were Christianized when a series of missions were established in thier homeland beginning in 1633. The capital of the Apalachee missions, San Luis de Talimali, was establihsed in 1656 and was located in present day Tallahassee. When the mission system collapsed in 1704, some of the surviving members of the tribe moved to French-held Mobile and then to Louisiana. Anthropologists had believed that when the United States acquired Louisiana, the Apalachee moved to Texas, where they were last recorded in the 1830s. Catholic baptismal and marriage records, however, document the continued survival of an Apalachee community in Louisiana.

"We are in the process of applying for federal recognition," says Jeanette Bennet, wife of Gilmer Bennet, chief of the Talimali Band of the Apalachee Indians of Louisiana, Inc. An early twentieth-century photograph shows Gilmer Bennet's mother as a child among the great, great grandchildren of John Baptiste Vallery, identified as Apalachee Indian in Catholic baptismal records found in Natchitoches, Louisiana, once a French military and trading post established ca. 1714 to protect the Red River area from the Spanish. The Apalachee and other Indian tribes lost title to their lands through theft and questionable sales after the Louisiana Purchase. The Apalachee disputed the sales and clung to the land until 1834, at which time Vallery petitioned the federal government for help. "He didn't get any," Chief Bennet notes. In 1835, the Talimali Band retreated into hiding and held tribal meetings in seclusion until the 1980s.

Archaeological evidence shows that before European contact, the Apalachee in northern Florida grew maize, beans, and squash; built ceremonial centers with platform mounds, plazas, and villages; and were part of an extensive trade network involving other Mississippian cultures in the interior southeast. The largest prehistoric Apalachee settlement at Lake Jackson north of Tallahasee originally consisted of seven large earthen mounds. Rescue excavations of Mound 3 in the 1970s by Calvin Jones of the Bureau of Historic Sites and Properties revealed that chiefs were buried here between A.D. 1250 and 1500 with trade items such as copper breastplates, engraved shells, and copper and stone celts indicating their status. At the time of European contact, the Apalachee had moved away from their mound centers and were living in large villages. De Soto wintered in 1539-1540 at an Apalachee village called Anhaica, described by Garcilaso de la Vega, who accompanied de Soto and wrote a book entitled La Florida, as having "200 large and good houses." He also wrote of many more villages scattered throughout the region. Anhaica was identified by the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research in 1987 within the city of Tallahassee. Potsherds show that in the early sixteenth century the Apalachee had fewer trade contacts with Mississippian peoples to the north and were influenced by other cultures in Florida and Georgia.

The Apalachee had a reputation among Spanish explorers as fierce warriors who zealously defended their lands, bounded by the Aucilla River to the east and the Ochochonee River to the west, and from what is now the Georgia state line to the Gulf of Mexico. By the early seventeenth century, however, they were overwhelmed by disease and the superior weapons of the Spaniards, prompting them to cooperate with the invaders and convert to Catholicism. In 1656 the residents of Anhaica relocated to the newly built Mission San Luis de Talimali nearby, where they lived until the Spanish mission system collapsed under the weight of British attacks. Many of the Apalachee who survived moved northwest to French-held Mobile, an area encompassing what are now southeastern Mississippi and southwestern Alabama, where they continued to practise Catholicism. The first baptism of a young Apalachee child at the French fort was recorded on September 6, 1704, following a yellow fever epidemic that killed many of the tribe. When France ceded its properties east of the Mississippi to Britain in 1763 at the close of the French and Indian War, the Apalachee community in Mobile moved to Louisiana's Rapides Parish on the Red River to avoid living under British rule. Here the Apalachee were considered by the French to be important allies against the British, and good hunters and farmers who could provide food for the growing city of New Orleans. As the last surviving Apalachee, the Talimali Band incorporated in 1995 as the first step in obtaining federal recognition.

* The home page of Mission San Luis, from the Florida Department of State

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America