Who were the Timucuas?

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Timucua Name
Villages and Huts

The Timucuas are usually referred to as Timucua Speakers today, because they all spoke dialects of the same language. These natives lived in north Florida and South Georgia. Although they shared a language, their cultures, including food gathering methods and political affiliation, varied widely. These Indians were living in Florida when the French and Spanish made first contact in the late 1400’s and 1500’s. This is the beginning of the "historic period."

Timucuas that lived in the panhandle closer to Tallahassee, or up in Georgia, had rich soils to grow crops. They relied much more heavily on cultivation than the Timucuas in Jacksonville. The soil here is very sandy, not particularly good for crops. Historical records left by the French explorers tell us that the east coast Timucuas did grow crops, but they probably gathered wild plants and shellfish more extensively than west Florida Timucuas.

Politically, the Timucuas were never united. Alliances rose and fell throughout their history. During the time the French were in Florida (1564), the three Headchiefs were Saturiwa (east and north of the St. Johns), Outina (West and South of the St. Johns), and Potano (west and northwest of Outina). These three chiefs were generally at war with one or the other. Wars were not fought in the European fashion (i.e. kill everybody and take their land). Rather, battles were ended when one or two men were killed. Land was never captured. After the battle, everyone went back home.

Where did the name "Timucua" come from? Headchief Saturiwa gave a silver ingot to the Frenchman Laudonniere. The soldier asked him where the silver had come from. Saturiwa pointed to the southwest and said with great anger that he had captured it from Thimagona. This word is generally believed to mean "terrible enemy," rather than a specific person or people. He was probably referring to Headchief Outina, his greatest enemy. (Outina, of course, had recovered it from a Spanish shipwreck. There was no native silver.) The French misunderstood the meaning of the silver and the meaning of the word "Thimogona." Eventually, the names Thimogona, Thimogoa, Timoga, Timucua, and Timucua came to stand for all the Timucua speakers in north Florida and South Georgia. They never called themselves by this name, so there is no Timucua way to pronounce it. The Spanish used the name "Timucua." They would have pronounced it Tee-moo-qua.

What was a Timucua village like? A Timucua village could range anywhere from 50 to 300 individuals. European reports vary widely. The homes were made by pounding the thick ends of small tree trunks into the ground in a circle. The tops of the trunks were probably bent together and tied. Then grapevines, thin pines, or some other weaver was woven over and under the poles, encircling the hut. This weaving made a strong wall and roof that did not need nails, and needed very little tying or reinforcement. Into this woven mesh, palm fronds were woven over and under from floor to ceiling, creating a waterproof thatch all the way around the hut. A short door was left on one side and a smoke hole was left in the roof. At this time, there is no hard evidence that mud or clay was used as a daub over the palm fronds. It may have been simple thatching.

Benches lined the inner side of the hut walls. These were for sleeping, perhaps with animal furs as a cushion. A small smudge fire burning dried corn cobs could be lit beneath the benches at night to make smoke and keep the bugs away. Areas were set aside for cooking fire and for storage of food and personal items. Most activities were done outside the hut, since these huts averaged only 25 ft in diameter and possibly housed extended families. Outside you had the sunshine, the breeze, and plenty of workspace. Many of these round huts built together formed a village. There is some evidence that the Timucuas also had summer houses in the same vicinity that were more open and breezier. Storehouses may have been present in the village as well. The most impressive building would have been the Council House, which could seat (on benches) all of the villagers. The black drink ceremony was often held in the Council House, along with meetings, community celebrations, and dances. (Apparently only the women danced.)

Although the very famous French engraving shows a rectangular central house, there is NO evidence for a rectangular structure in this area. It is very possible that this was fabricated. Also, there is NO evidence for a palisade or fence around the village. This was also very likely a fabrication by the French, perhaps copied from the observations of other contemporary Native Americans.

The French and Spanish also write about the Timucuas migrating inland to live in a different place in the winter. This is a bone of contention with archaeologists and historians today. If these people had a village, crop fields, and a burial site to defend, it seems unlikely that they would have abandoned it every year. Their reported movements may have been a response to European encroachment, a reaction to seasonal food availability, or perhaps they did not move at all. Teasing the truth from historical documents is always a challenge.

What were Timucua foods like? The Timucuas had a variety of food gathering techniques, including fishing, hunting, gathering, and planting. The degree to which they depended on each was influenced by where they lived (throughout south Georgia and north Florida). Those that lived in areas with richer soils relied more heavily on farming (although other resources were still very important.) Timucuas that lived in coastal areas focused more on fishing. Fresh-water snails made up a large part of the diets of inland peoples. Along the salt marshes, oysters replaced snails. In some coastal areas, donax replaced the oysters.

In the Jacksonville area, oysters were a strong component of the Timucua diet, as indicated by the huge middens (trash piles of oyster shells, broken pottery, animal remains, etc.) left behind by the Timucuas and earlier peoples.

For northeast Florida, (but more so in central/western Florida and southern Georgia) Timucuas planted corn, pumpkins, squash, gourds (for containers, not food), beans, sunflowers, pigweed, and a few others.

Items gathered included blueberries, blackberries, muscadine grapes, cherries, peas, plums, persimmons, peppergrass seeds, cattail roots and pollen, acorns, hickory nuts, onion, clover, greenbriar tendrils, dandelion leaves, sabal palm and palmetto berries, sabal palm heart, ground cherry, maple sap, coontie palm, yaupon holly leaves for the black drink, medicinal plants like willow bark for aspirin, and countless others.

Animals that were hunted and fished included deer, bear, raccoon, opossum, gray squirrel, fox squirrel, rabbit, mink, boar (after European introduction), fox, dolphin, seal, duck, turkey, (a few small birds like dove or quail), frog, tortoise, snake, alligator, turtle, terrapin, fish, shark, crab, shrimp, oyster, mussel, clam, whelk, and many others.

The main hunting tool was the bow and arrow, although spear, atlatl (spear-thrower), sling, bolas, throwing sticks, and snares were probably also used. Fishing tools included hooks and lines (but no poles), trout-lines, nets, harpoons and lassoes, and weirs. Plant gathering tools included a simple digging stick, woven carrying baskets, and hoes or shovels for the fields.

Without refrigeration, the Timucuas had to dry all foods to keep them from rotting. Grapes and plums became raisins and prunes. Venison became jerky. Corn was pounded into grits or corn meal. Squash was cut into strips which would dry into sweet fleshy curls. Gourds were allowed to dry completely. When the seeds were removed through a hole, the gourd became a hollow bowl or jug. Squash, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds were eaten. Spices like peppergrass seeds and onion were added for flavor. Salt was rarely used, unless salt water was used to boil a vegetable like clover. Oysters were eaten raw, roasted over coals, or dried. Food was plentiful in prehistoric Florida, if you knew where to look for it.

What was the agriculture of southeastern Indians like? Fields were burned clear of winter growth before planting. Only large nut or fruit trees were spared because they provided shade, food products, and homes for the birds which ate deleterious insects. The burned remains of last year’s crops were turned into the soil. This served as a fertilizer. Still, after time, the soil became barren and would have to be left fallow for a time. (If the field was directly on the bank of a river, annual floods could replace the soil’s lost nutrients. This is called riverine agriculture.)

After the soil was mixed, shell or scapula hoes were used to break up the soil and remove roots and debris. Then the dirt was hoed into piles. These piles were arranged in lines. Each large pile received several pre-soaked seeds. Gourds may have been used to haul water up to the newly planted seeds. After the corn grew up a few feet, beans would be planted near the stalks. As the bean vines grew, they would twine up around the corn stalks, reaching towards the sunlight. Bean plants also fix nitrogen into a usable form in the soil. So, planting beans tended to fertilize the soil. Squash, gourds, and pumpkins are heavy crawling vines that take up a lot of space. Squashes can cross-pollinate, so these would likely have been planted in separate parts of the garden. Pigweed would have been allowed to come up wherever it could. The tender green leaves of this plant provided food long before the first corn crop was ripe.

Although squashes and sunflowers can take all season to ripen, corn could be harvested at midsummer. Another corn crop was planted as soon as early corn was harvested. This late corn would ripen in the fall. "Early corn" was a faster-growing, smaller-eared variety. It was picked fresh from the stalk. "Late corn," its slow-growing, larger-eared cousin, was allowed to dry on the stalk. Dried corn kernels store well, and the cobs can be used as fire fuel. Corn is believed to have come from Mexico as a plant with few kernels and no cob. Through selective planting, the Indians were able to adapt this corn to more northern climates and higher yields.

The fields had to be defended from a variety of predators. Gourds were hung on nearby trees to provide homes for purple martins. These birds ate the insects that damaged the crops. Tortoises, rabbits, and crows also caused great damage to the crop. Small children made excellent rabbit-chasers and bird-"shooers". The last predators of these fields were rival Timucua groups. The elderly were often stationed as guards on these fields, so they could raise the alert in case of a raid. Although this could prove a dangerous task, it allowed the older, less productive members of society to play an important role in the survival of the village.

Despite the intricacy and effectiveness of these agricultural practices, cultivated plants provided only a part of the Southeastern Indians’ foodstuffs. Hunting, fishing, and gathering were necessary to their survival.

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The Black Drink

The Dent Mound

LeMoyne Pictures

Coloring Pages

Timucua Kid Pages


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