Mission San Luis.

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A living history of the early Apalachees and Spanish

By Bobbie Whitehead -- Today correspondent

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - After several centuries, the story of the Apalachee Indians' trail from their Florida homelands to Louisiana stands out as part of the living history being told to visitors at the Mission San Luis.

Located in Tallahassee, Mission San Luis features the recreation of five buildings of what was the principal village of the Apalachee Indians and the Spanish military and religious headquarters. The recreation of the mission buildings shows the converging lives of the Spanish friars, explorers and civilians and the Apalachee Indians.

Hundreds of Apalachee Indians converted to Catholicism centuries ago at the 60-plus-acre site and continued to practice their tribal traditions there until the early 18th century.

A staff of researchers works to preserve the site, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and open to the public year-round.

One of the more recent reconstructions is that of the Apalachee council house, which sat in the middle of the Spanish colonial plaza. The 125-foot-diameter building stood five stories high and is considered one of the largest Native buildings found to have existed in the Southeast, according to researchers.

''It's a phenomenal building,'' said Bonnie McEwan, Mission San Luis executive director. ''It's so impressive, especially on the inside.''

In ancient times, after the Spanish and Indians constructed the mission, the Apa-lachees' paramount chief lived adjacent to the council house in a 70-foot-diameter house, McEwan said. Though not a part of the existing historical site, Mission San Luis plans to reconstruct the house in the future.

The Apalachee Indians no longer live in Tallahassee, but live in the Alexandria, La., area.

Before leaving the mission

Initially, the Apalachee Indians left the mission July 31, 1704, two days before British forces moved in to drive out both the Apalachee and the Spanish, McEwan said.

''This area was visited by early Spanish explorers in the 16th century,'' she said. ''The Apalachee were known as the wealthiest Indians in the area.''

In fact, McEwan said the Appalachian Mountains were named for the Apalachee Indians because early mapmakers assumed the Apalachees' territory extended that far.

''When the early Spanish landed in Tampa Bay, they were all told to go north to see the Apalachee,'' she said, explaining that they were searching for gold and wealth.

When the Spanish first arrived, Anhaica was the capital of the Apalachee nation.

''That's where the paramount chief lived, and Hernando de Soto on one of his visits stayed in Anhaica.''

In 1656, the Spanish established Mission San Luis, and leaders decided that the paramount chief would stay there along with the Spanish deputy governor.

''Different missions had different Indians under them, and the census taken in 1675 documented that there were 1,400 Apalachee Indians living at the mission,'' McEwan said. ''The Spanish were meticulous record keepers.''

According to those records, the Apalachees were governed by the Spanish, and the research indicates the Apalachees requested the friars and accepted Christianity voluntarily.

''But social and political traditions remained largely intact. I think the lesson we're learning here is how the Apalachee and Spanish coexisted for three generations. They certainly had their disagreements.''

What is unique about Mission San Luis, however, is the existence of a Native building. McEwan said she doesn't know of any other Spanish colonial community where a Native building existed on the Spanish central plaza.

''I think there was a level of accommodation and adaptation on the part of both cultures as they learned to live together.''

The lives of the two cultures changed, though, when the British pushed to own Florida. In 1704, both the Spanish and Apalachee abandoned Mission San Luis, and the British destroyed most of the Apalachee missions two days later, McEwan said.

''The Spanish and Apalachee burned the mission, rather than have it fall into enemy hands.''

At that point, some of the Apalachee went north with the British, and some went with the Spanish to St. Augustine. But the Apalachee at Mission San Luis went west to Mobile Bay at the invitation of the French.

Apalachee trail from Mission San Luis

The Apalachee Indians stood out as the wealthiest nation of Muskogee-speaking tribes in Florida at the time of de Soto's arrival.

But after 50 years under Spanish rule, the Apalachee left the mission and Florida once the English succeeded at driving out both groups. From there, their trail to find a new home spanned more than a century and included dealings with at least three different nations.

When the Apalachee moved from Florida, the 800 that were left moved to Mobile, Ala., area under the French until 1763, said Gilmer Bennett, Apalachee Indian Tribe chief.

''Our genealogy follows in the family Bibles and parish records,'' Bennett said. He attributes the documents proving the Apalachees' movements and family history to the good recordkeeping by the Spanish.

''The Talimali Band of the Apalachee Indians traces itself back to Mobile Bay in Alabama,'' said Pete Gregory, a Northwestern State University anthropology professor who has researched the Apalachees for their federal and state recognition. ''They then left for west of the Mississippi River to the Spanish territory. Spain granted them land in the Red River area in 1763.''

The Apalachee were Catholics and spoke Spanish, he said, and they stayed in the Red River area until the early 1800s. Various Americans who settled in the area after the Louisiana Purchase wanted the Apalachees' land for plantations. So once again, the Apalachees were driven off their land.

But Gregory, who has written a chapter in the ''Handbook of North American Indians'' on the Apalachee, said the first U.S. Indian agents in that area were sent in 1803 or 1805 to Fort Claiborne. One such agent, Dr. John West, tried to protect the Apalachees' land.

''People did try to talk up their cause, but it did no good,'' he said.

From there, some Apalachees went to Texas, but others stayed north of Alexandria, La., and south of Natchitoches, La., he said.

The Apalachees today

The Apalachee Indians have had their struggles but are still here, said Bennett, who lives in Louisiana.

Bennett, now in his 80s, has visited Mission San Luis many times and said the reconstruction of the various buildings and findings of Apalachee artifacts on the site have become important to the tribe.

''It brought us back to life,'' Bennett said. ''For many, many years, they killed us on paper.''

Bennett said when the Apalachee were driven from their Red River lands, they began living in remote areas in Louisiana; and in 1939, a priest building a mission followed a path in one of the parishes and found 12 huts where the Apalachee families lived.

''That's where we had stayed since 1834,'' Bennett said. ''We had become Christianized in 1608. We were intelligent and educated people.''

Now, when the Apalachees return to the mission, Jeanette Bennett said they experience many different thoughts.

''It's a strange feeling to go back there and know that that's where your ancestors were,'' said Jeanette, Gilmer Bennett's wife. ''Our children said it's like going back home, and my husband gets emotional sometimes going there.''

The Bennetts also talked with researchers at the mission when archaeologists found a quartz cross in 1989 in one of the graves of the mission church floor, she said.

Close to 800 Indians were buried in the church. The higher the person was in rank, the closer he or she would have been buried to the altar, Jeanette Bennett said.

Researchers believed the cross to have been one the Spanish brought over from Europe, she said. But after a closer examination, researchers now say the cross and its engravings were designed by an Apalachee craftsman.

Visitors to Mission San Luis can see the cross on exhibit.

Mission San Luis in Tallahassee is free and open to the public year-round 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. The site is closed Mondays, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. For more information, visit www.missionsanluis.org.