Spanish Contacts with the Ais
(Indian River) Country

By Charles D. Higgs


The narratives of the early explorers and the Spanish archives of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are replete with references concerning shipwrecks in the Bahama channel. This passage which gave to Florida its strategic importance, offered a course with more favoring winds and a safer route for the homeward-bound treasure fleets from Mexico, but was in itself distinctly hazardous. Ships and even whole fleets were too often wrecked all along the “Banda del Sur,” or South Coast, from St. Augustine to the lower keys. The majority of these disasters occurred along that bight of the shore, south of Cape Canaveral, where, (as Bishop Calderon wrote in 1675) the reefs extend six leagues out to sea.

In the chronicles of the period this region was referred to as the Ays Coast, or as the Land or Province of Ays, so called from the name of the Indian tribe inhabiting it, hence the name of the estuary running its entire length which we know as the Indian River.

Although the abundance of the precious metals which the first Spanish and French colonists found among the Indians of the coast was to lure the avaricious Spaniard on across a continent in a vain quest for their source, yet the early contemporaneous writers tell us that these shipwrecks were responsible for the gold and silver in the Indians' possession. Says Laudonniere: “...the greatest part of these riches, washed, as they sayd, out of Spanish shippes, which were commonly cast away in this strait” and Fontanedo: “The King of the Ais and the King of the Jeaga are poor Indians as regards the earth, for there are no land of silver or of gold where they are, and to say it at once, they are rich only by the sea from the vessels which have been lost well laden with those metals,” and again, “I desire to speak of the riches found by the Indians of Ais, which perhaps were to be as much as a million of dollars, or over, in bars of silver, in gold and in jewelry made at the hands of Mexican Indians which the passengers were carrying with them.”

John Sparks, the chronicler of Hawkins's voyage tells that: “Golde and siluer they want not, for the Frenchmens first coming thither they had the same offered to them for little or nothing, and how they came of this golde and siluer the Frenchmen knew not as yet, but by gesse, who hauing trauelled to the Southwest of the cape [Canaveral] hauing found the same dangerous by means of sundry banks, as we also haue the same, and there finding masts which were the wrecks of Spaniards coming from Mexico, judged they had gotten treasure from them.”

The murderous wrecking and salvage operations of this tribe (who also were reputed to have been cannibalistic) became such a major racket that, as sorely needed supply ships repeatedly failed to arrive at the Presidio, punitive steps had to be taken. Then, too, the enemies of Spain--at first the French, and later privateering Dutch and English--were wont to deal with these Indians and use their inlets as their bases from which to harass her fleets. Thus a very serious problem was presented to the colonial administration, and initiating with Menendez himself, there were various attempts to cajole, pacify and convert the recalcitrant Ais Indians. The adelantado established a fortified mission among them which languished for some seven years. Down through the ensuing two centuries there were many endeavors to secure the reducion of the Ais by methods ranging from a friendly neighbor policy to capital punishment. As late as 1737 we find that Arredondo, the royal engineer, reporting on a survey of Florida's defense problems, recommended to his King the expediency of establishing a colony of 200 at Ais, to act as a control in maintaining Spain's precarious position in the Channel. Nevertheless the subsequent record bears little evidence of any actual achievement from any of these ventures. So, though the name of Ais is frequently encountered in the archives of the Indies in various connections, ranging from the priestly to the piratical, I have as yet been unable to find the detailed account of accomplishment there. The fact that Governor Ybarra, in 1605, mentions the need of padres from Castile for the Conversion there, and again in letters in 1693-95, mentions are made of the new “missions and conversions at Ais and Carlos,” would certainly indicate that proselyting had been going on there. Also the prominence of Ais, Rio de Ais, and Barra de Ais as place names given on virtually every map of both the Spanish and English periods would denote a place of considerable significance.

Except that the Province of Ais played this relatively prominent part in the history of Spanish Florida--chiefly because it was a perennial headache--its history and ethnics have been almost wholly lost. Even the location of its principal town and the seat of the Spanish endeavors there have been unknown to this day. True, from our present-day point of view, the role played by Ais in our historical concept is of little import that none has bothered to give it location. However, should our late findings prove to be what we surmise, even if they should not indicate a greater significance for it than history has been aware, they should be of some archaeological interest.

It is hoped that, in the light of the material recently uncovered and briefly outlined herein further research into archives hitherto unavailable may disclose, as these findings would seem to indicate, that more was accomplished and more happened at Ais than the archival coverage to the present has revealed.

Gold Doubloon 1715 Salvage Camp

Down the Indian River country, several miles below Cape Canaveral there lies, half buried in the shifting sands a sizable portion of a wrecked ship. This for some years has been ballyhooed as that of a Spanish galleon, although its construction would render such belief very dubious. It is my conviction that this particular hulk has no connection whatsoever with the findings detailed in this report. It may, however, be quite pertinent to these findings that in placid weather other wrecks may be discerned among the adjacent reefs and shallows. Several cannon have been retrieved along the beach, and under favorable conditions of weather and tides beach-combers and treasure hunters have picked up various articles of naval equipment and other relics undoubtedly of the Spanish colonial period. While the writer has been informed that brass culverins, which from the description, might be Spanish, have been removed, all the cannon which he has personally seen are of later period, though the fact that the trunnions are below the mid-line would roughly place them as pre-1800.

With curiosity aroused by the knowledge of these findings, the writer was led to investigate the bluff behind and along the beach and the immediate surroundings for some clue to the historical background. At a distance of 0.4 miles south from the wreck mentioned quantities of bones-animal and some human, were observed in the escarpment of the wind and tidal-eroded bluff backing the beach, which at this point reaches a height of twelve to fourteen feet. (See Topo page.) A little poking around revealed iron spikes, clay-pipes, and a peculiar assortment of pottery sherds. A closer scrutiny of this escarpment showed an unbelievable abundance of such remains for a distance of over 500 feet. Later these findings have proven equally prolific through to the Indian River, a distance of some 800 feet at this point. A correlation of their distribution with the rate of erosion and sea-encroachment would clearly indicate that the site was formerly centered more conspicuously on the river than on the ocean-beach.

In general all this material lies at a depth of from two and one-half to three and one-half feet, in a more or less perceptible stratum of charcoal impregnated beach sand. Owing to the aeolian quality of this sand any attempt at definite stratification proved rather disappointing. A few test holes were sunk at a little distance back from the bluff and were found to be increasingly fertile in European artifacts. A point which seemed to be the center of the station (both geometrically and for concentration of material) was designated as zero, the whole was plotted in a grid, and the items as far as possible inscribed with the locations of their finding. This procedure has proven rather purposeless as there is every evidence that the site has been disturbed and scattered by storms prior to its burial in the drifting sands. It does tend to show, however, that there is a definite classification grouping of the material.

Always working with a hope that a competent archaeological survey might ascertain the historical value of these findings, it has been the aim to disturb the site as little as possible, and our endeavors mainly have been confined to sifting out the detritus left by treasure and souvenir hunters. Since the finding of relics here has now become common knowledge perhaps much of the station's archaeological value has been and is being destroyed, and, inevitably, key findings dispersed.

Along with the usual run of items found at Spanish colonial sites, the prevalence here of several varieties of Chinese porcelain fragments from the same period has proven most enigmatical. These have not shown up, we believe, in the workings of the St. Augustine Restoration.

Bearing in mind the before outlined historical background of this immediate coast, we should naturally ascribe much of this material to wreckage, and at first it seemed that Indian accumulated salvage would entirely account for the group assortment. The elevation above sea level (10 to 12 feet) would preclude the idea of mere flotsam and jetsam. However, when the evidence of some sort of construction and the many bones of European domestic animals were encountered, the notion that there must have been some sort of established settlement becomes more insistent. The building materials found are bricks of red clay, shell mortar and plaster, (some of the later with seeming mural painting) decorative and roofing tile, and wooden stakes.

At the center of the station there is a considerable area of tabby floor at a depth of three and one-half feet. Beneath the floor is found an occasional sherd of incised or stamped Indian pottery. The choicest of the Spanish remains lie above and scattered around at a higher level; while still higher, about a foot below the surface, there is an abundance of the cruder, undecorated, recent Indian pottery. Scattered over a distance of 320 feet along the bluff there are four other deposits rich in brick and mortar fragments. It is only in the vicinity of the floor in the center of the station that the largest assortment of European articles are found, particularly the finest Spanish pottery and Chinese porcelain fragments. Throughout the whole area in places where the china occurs most abundantly and in general where the brick and mortar are concentrated, Indian pottery and midden refuse does not appear to any noticeable extent. On the other hand, adjoining and fringing this concentration of European material one finds quantities of Indian remains with which there is an occasional admixture of the European, notably iron, glass, trade pipes and the coarser Spanish cooking pottery.

This would, of course, suggest that were there a European settlement at this station the aborigines were clustered about it, as was the usual case in such establishments. To those who have suggested that this site probably could be more easily accounted for on the basis of a later than Spanish occupation, as in the British or even American periods, it is pointed out that excepting the trade pipes of English manufacture and the Chinese porcelains, all the items are definitely Spanish.

As there are extensive shell heaps and middens throughout the vicinity from ocean to river, and found in several strata from two feet below low tide level to twelve feet above, comprising evidences of occupancy dating from the archaic down to the present, the requisites for sustaining life must have been peculiarly favorable at this point. There is also a large conical tumulus one mile north and an extended and very old kitchen midden 0.35 miles south.

The possibility of this being the site of the old Ais capital and “its abortive mission establishment” was subject for speculation. El Pueblo Grande (the big town) of Ais, however, is rather universally described as being near Indian River Inlet. The Indian River Inlet, as designated in colonial times was presumably that old multiple channeled opening opposite St. Lucie, now closed since the dredging of the United States government cut at Ft. Pierce. Although there are wide discrepancies in accounts and general vagueness in map locations, this inlet seems to best approximate that of Ais and its adjacent town. Utilizing Mexia's Derrotero--both narrative and chart, as doubtless the most accurate, it is found that Ais lay 22.5 leagues south of Sorruque (or about 85 miles). It was two leagues or around seven and one-half miles north of the inlet.

Big Town of Ais

Now, at this place meeting these requirements, as measured today in road mileages and on hydrographic charts, there is a vast area of low mounds and middens, with one conspicuously large tumulus. (See Topo page.) I have traced over a hundred acres of this through the jungle growth. The very content and depth of the remains show it to have been a place of considerable habitation, not only in ancient times but also rather recently. This then could have been the seat of a chief, who as Governor Canco said, “had more Indians than any other along the coast,” and a tribe to whom the other coastal Indians were tributary. This site might well be, and in all probability is that of the “Big Town of Ais.”

Although there is a questionable vestige of coquina ruins at one place in this area, no European articles have been found here. A cursory examination of the tumulus and middens, which have been greatly despoiled by bone-hunters and for material for road construction, reveals only items of Indian manufacture. It would appear, then, that this may have been the Ais capital (at least to the discovery period) the archaeologically more fruitful and more strategically located station first described was the seat of the native wrecking operations, and hence, the locus of the colonial administration's castigatory outpost. The former (being 14 miles to the north), encompassed by dangerous shoals with a rocky coast-line and located in the Canaveral bight with its in-sweeping down currents is the more logical place for wrecks to come ashore. The accumulated debris of the beaches today bears this out.

While, as we have mentioned, the records are all too meager to offer any satisfactory explanation for the finding of so much material at the station, we might account for some of the Spanish colonial remains by venturing opinion that this was the location of the Menendez garrison of some 200 men which he left on the Indian River in November 1565, while he with the remainder of his troop and his French prisoners went on to Cuba. Granting that Ais was two leagues north of Indian River Inlet, the following citation from the records would so indicate:

“The Spaniards remained four days at Ays, and Aviles went down the lagoon to look for a suitable place to settle, but failed to find one... Before his departure he encamped 200 of his party under Juan Velez de Medrano at a place on the lagoon and three leagues distant from Ays...” According to the first statement he first went down, i.e. south, so the latter location, where he left his men, must have been north, as is our site from Ais. And again, “Later when the men got into trouble with the Indians, they moved 20 leagues farther down the lagoon to the neighborhood of Gilbert's Bar and the St. Lucie River...and they named the place Sta. Lucia.”

This distance would further indicate that he was above Ais Inlet. The given distances approximate the true distances between the hypothetical sites. And in the Barrientos account: “...and seeing that those Indians were warlike and fearless he removed his men to a site three leagues from there which the Indians showed him, and which was very favorable, and where were coco-plums....palmettos, prickly-pears and fish. It was on the river and two days sufficed to remove the men there by sea.” And, again, Garcilaso de la Vega: “...he went by boat to reconnoiter a site which the chief told him was a good one for settlement, but it did not suit the Adelantado. Then he sailed as far as a small harbor 3 leagues from there...He carried his men by boat to a place which the Indians said was very favorable for fishing, palmettos, and coco-plums...”

It might be pointed out that even today the conditions mentioned regarding the availability of a food supply at this site still hold good, and adjacent to a small harbor which fulfills the description. This Menendez on his return named “Puerto del Socorro” and to this day the fishermen along this coast call this “old Spanish Harbor,” although it has been impossible to unearth any legendary source for the persistence of this association.

It is also quite possible that this too may be the site of Ponce de Leon's second landing, for according to surviving extracts from his log he sailed north a little way from his first anchorage in 30º 8', just missing the mouth of the St. Johns and thence turned south along the coast. He saw no Indians, or signs of habitation. He worked his way southward around Cape Canaveral, where the Gulf Stream was encountered. Somewhere below Canaveral he saw Indians, and made his second recorded landing, taking possession and erecting a cross. It was here then that he saw the first evidence of Florida's inhabitants. Now I have covered the coast-line and beaches from Cape Canaveral to Ft. Pierce Inlet, and our site is the only one, (so far as I have been able to discover) wherein there is any vestige of Indians or other occupation which might be visible from the sea. All the others along this stretch of the coast are situated on wider strips of island, and located on the Indian River side, or at some distance from the ocean.

Note: Florida Historical Quarterly, 1942, vol. 21, # 1, pp. 25-39.


LIST OF TYPICAL ITEMS FOUND IN THE ORDER OF THEIR FREQUENCY


Iron--Occurs everywhere in quantities, but with the exception of spikes and drift pins, is oxidized past identification.

Glass--Mostly bottle: many with lead screw-top. Sheet or pane glass, art glass, and many pieces of unidentifiable usage.

Indian Pottery--Sherds.

Spanish Crockery--Consisting of coarse cooking ware, grain, oil and water jars.

Spanish Pottery--Mostly glazed in bluish, green and brown wares.

Moorish or Moorish Influenced Spanish Pottery--Inside glazed: top part outside glazed and decorated with blue or green splotches and ears.

Spanish-Mexican Pottery--Glazed inside and out, with polychrome conventionalized decoration.

Clay Trade Pipes--Many of which bear the trade mark “R. Tippet” in cartouche or lettering “R.T” or “E.R.” The former was an English pipe-maker of presumably early 18th century.

Brick, Tabby, & Plaster--In large batches, as apparently the debris of fallen walls or fireplace of brick set in shell mortar. A tabby floor.

Chinese Porcelain--Blue and white. Ming period type (late 16th and early 17th centuries.) K'ang Hsi period types (1662-1772) Multi-colored ware, probably K'ang Hsi. Powder-blue and black wares characterized by underglaze in fish designs. (Japanese)

Chinese Pottery--Ming period, green and blue-green glaze.

Lead--Is found in all shapes and artifications. There is much of it in foil or thin sheets resembling that in which tea was formerly packed for export.

Pistol Balls--Of varying calibers: many with the risers still on.

Copper--Found in ferrules, fragments and sheets. Some of the later are quite large and, with dove-tailed and beaten joints, have been fashioned from smaller sheets.

Bones--Human, cow, horse, deer and hog. All the native small animals. Boar's tusks. The entire human skeleton has not been found except in the beach sands, where its association with the other material is probably accidental.

Spanish-Mexican Clipped Coins--Gold and silver “Pieces of eight” of the 1543-1723 period.

Wood--Is rather scarce except for the ever present charcoal. The unburned wood is mostly pine and spruce. A few driven stakes BELOW the artifact-bearing stratum.

Beads--Green and blue grass, very small. One metal filigree.

Plaster Murals--Very fragmentary and conjectural.

Tile--A few roofing and glazed ornamental fragments.

Figurines--These are identical. Although the hair and head-dress is Amerind, the features are delicately Caucasian. They are hand-molded as the finger prints of the maker are evident.

Brass-Scissors, chest-corner, stanchion-flange, belt-buckle, hinge fragment, evidently from a navigation instrument.

Other items found: Cannon. Onyx & Alabaster Fragments. Ivory and Bone Dice. Gilded Finial. Doll's Legs. Gold Ear-Ring.

Archaeologist's grid of 1715 Salvage Camp excavations from 1940-42.


CHRONOLOGY OF AYS AND THE AYS COAST

1513: Ponce de Leon, second landing at Ays(?)

1553: Wreck of the Flota (1000 persons) on Ays Coast.

1555-62: Description of Ays and salvage of wrecks.

1565-66: Pedro Menendez' expedition to Ays, and establishment of garrison there. Return of the ships from Cuba with supplies, and christening of the settlement “PUERTO DEL SOCORRO.”

1567: Menendez' “Casa Fuerte” at Ays.

1566-73: Accounts of shipwrecks on the Ays Coast and treatment of castaways...to beginning of 17th century.

1570: Treaty of peace made with Ays.

1571: Testimony of Sanch Pardo Osorio regarding Ais.

1571-74: Juan Lopez Velasco's Geography and Description.

1575: Description of coast of America, (including mention of Ais).

1595: An outside derrotero, with mention of Ais (7/6/95).

1597: Gov. Canco at Ays. Juan de Contreras sent to the Ais Indians with gifts and is murdered by them. The pilot of the expedition says that “Ais is an island.” Gov. Canco says that Ays Indian prisoners may be enslaved. (The crown would not sanction this.)

1599: Bad treatment of Ays Indians who are enslaved.

1604: Enemy war ships at Ays with settlers.

1605: Runaway Negro Slaves at Ays; Rodriguez sent there. Capt. Fernandez and infantry sent out from Ays to locate Lake Mayami. Full account of Ays Indians, and all the dealings with them--Capt. Grande of Ays the head of all these provinces; Ays Indians ask for a missionary; Mexia's Derrotero; Mexia to remain at Ais until the treasure fleet has passed. Capt. Grande of Ays at St. Augustine; platica at Convent there; Hoping for Padres of Castille for these conversions; meantime will send a priest; Ays Indians warned against the English and French; Ays cooperating with the Spanish.

1606: Salvage operations of the Ays Indians.

1608: War between Ays and Jeaga, Gov. makes the peace.

1609: Captain Grande of Ays at St. Augustine.

1620: Examination of English and French held as prisoners at Ays.

1621: Gov. Salinas reports on above and says ths prisoners were Flemish.

1622: Gov. Salinas sends an expedition to Ays. Salinas himself at Jega & Sta. Lucia (must have called at Ays); Finds relic of wrecks along the coast.

1626: 13 Dutch ships at Ays; 3 wrecked and crews living in Indians houses; enemy usually anchors off Ays and Jega; Mosquitoes are the curse of Ays; Fort should be erected there.

1667: Matter of salvaging silver along coast.

1670: English ships in the Channel.

1675: Bishop Calderon cruises Ays Coast.

1676: All the coast of the Bahama Channel inhabited by infidel Indians.

1677: English pirates in the Bahama Channel.

1682: French and English pirates harass the coast--raid Mosquitos. Loss of the 1682 Supply Ships to them.

1693: Recommending sending priests to “new conversions” at Ays & Carlos.

1695: Cacique of Ays and Carlos still asking for priests. Mention of “new conversions” at Ays.

1696: Jonathan Dickenson through Ays (Jece then).

1703: King recommends and orders Gov. to establish fort and garrison with two Franciscans at Ays, for “reducion” of the natives.

1715: Plate Fleet wrecked off Sebastian River.

1716: Pirates hang-out at “Palmar of Ays.”

1738: Expedient to establish a colony at Ays.

1803: Grant to McIntosh at Ays River Narrows.












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