Spanish Missions

The primary mechanism by which Georgia's indigenous chiefdoms were assimilated along the colonial frontier of greater Spanish Florida was the mission system. Following the early and unsuccessful conversion efforts of Jesuit priests between 1566 and 1570 , friars of the Franciscan Order later spearheaded the establishment of missions among Indian groups neighboring Florida's only remaining Spanish colonial city, St. Augustine. Beginning with the early ministry of Fray Diego Moreno among the coastal Guale in 1574-1575, the Franciscan mission era shifted into full gear after the 1587 arrival of a larger number of friars from Spain. The first successful mission established in Georgia was that of San Pedro, founded in the capital town of the Mocama chiefdom on the southern end of present-day Cumberland Island, and attended by Fray Baltasár López. By the end of 1595, missions had been established in no fewer than five principal towns of the Guale chiefdom on the northern Georgia coast, and while the Guale rebellion of 1597 resulted in the murders of all but one friar and the abandonment of these northern missions until 1605, additional missions in the state's interior were established during the first quarter of the 17th century, extending from the forks of the Altamaha River across the Okefenokee Swamp to the upper watersheds of the Alapaha and Withlacoochee Rivers.

Though Spanish missions were explicitly established for the purpose of religious conversion and instruction in the Catholic faith, the mission system actually served as the primary mechanism through which indigenous societies were integrated into the political and economic structure of Florida's colonial system. Missions were normally established at the political center of each local chiefdom, in the village where the chief resided and where the chiefdom's council house was located. Each "mission" actually comprised only a small compound within a much larger Indian community, typically including only a church structure (where Mass was delivered and where Indian converts were buried) and a convent, or friary, where a single friar lived alone. Since each chiefdom was actually composed of a number of outlying satellite villages and hamlets, each friar normally served a much larger group of Indians within his visitation round, and some subordinate communities had uninhabited secondary church structures as well.

Although Franciscan friars were clearly in charge of religious affairs, they were politically subordinate to governing Indian chieftains, whose authority in secular matters was rarely contested (the Guale rebellion of 1597 was a tragic example of such interference). Chiefs ruled with the assistance of hereditary counselors (their noble male relatives) and subordinate village headmen, and decision-making was carried out in the council house. All direct interaction with Spanish military authorities in St. Augustine was carried out with the intermediation of these hereditary chiefs, although the resident friars, who acted as subordinate religous practicioners on a day-to-day level, frequently acted as agents for the chiefs in disputes with the Spanish governor or military officers. Ultimately, the chiefs normally maintained considerable autonomy over their own local societies, gaining considerable prestige and legitimacy in the eyes of their subordinates through the acquisition of ornate Spanish clothing and trade goods (beads, iron tools, etc.). Despite subordination beneath the Spanish crown and church, Indian leaders found considerable benefits in becoming part of the mission system, for which reason it was normally the chiefs who requested the dispatch of friars and the construction of missions, and not the other way around.

One important consequence of allegiance to the Spanish crown and incorporation into the Florida mission system was the repartimiento, a system of obligatory wage labor in which a specified number of unmarried male Indians were sent to St. Augustine each year to work in the Spanish cornfields or to build and maintain Spanish fortifications. Chiefs were allowed to select which of their subordinates were drafted each year, and were paid in inexpensive trade goods at an exchange rate of one real (an eighth of a Spanish peso, or "piece of eight") per day of labor. Up to 300 mission Indians were drafted yearly for work between March and June, resulting in considerable transformations to aboriginal societies. Not only did workers often catch and spread epidemic diseases during their terms of service, but they also sometimes died as an indirect result of overwork and exhaustion. The absence of available male marriage partners sometimes also resulted in a demographic imbalance in the mission villages, especially when some workers chose or were forced to remain permanently in St. Augustine. Ultimately, however, there were few complaints voiced by chiefs and village headmen as long as they acted as intermediaries in this tributary labor arrangement.

Over time, rapidly declining population levels, combined with forced resettlements dating to 1656-1657 (including the 1656 Spanish destruction of the Ocone and Ibihica missions, and the subsequent aftermath of the widespread Timucuan rebellion that same year), resulted in the abandonment of all of Georgia's interior missions, and repeated slave-raids by English-allied Indians after 1659 finally resulted in the retreat of all coastal missions to the barrier islands by 1680. Subsequent pirate raids in 1683 and 1684 left Georgia's coastal missions in ruins, ending the mission period in this state.

Though many formal missions (with both churches and convents) were established in Georgia, the precise locations of only a few have been positively identified through archaeological investigation. The map to the left shows the known or projected locations of the Georgia missions listed in the table below (click image for a detail view of the mission locations, also showing the four major mission provinces). The table lists in alphabetical order all major missions known to have been established in Georgia (not including surrounding satellite towns, some of which also contained churches), along with their dates of occupation and approximate geographic location. The date of abandonment for missions known to have been burned or otherwise destroyed by hostile action are marked in red. Occupational dates for missions destroyed during the 1597 Guale rebellion but re-established in 1605 are noted with an asterisk*. Please note that this list only includes distinct mission locations, and does not make note of the aggregation of some mission towns to others during the southward retreat of Guale and Mocama, and furthermore does not include immigrant Yamassee towns which were established primarily on St. Simons and Cumberland Islands during this period (these were not formal missions with resident friars, despite the name San Simón attached to a town of immigrant Colon Indians located on St. Simons Island, from which the island's English name was later derived).






Cumberland Island
San Buenaventura de Guadalquini


St. Simons Island
San Diego de Satuache

ca. 1610-ca. 1663

mouth of Ogeechee River
San Joseph de Sapala

ca. 1605-1684

Sapelo Island
San Lorenzo de Ibihica

ca. 1620-1656

near Folkston
San Pedro de Mocama

1587-ca. 1660

Cumberland Island
San Phelipe de Alave

ca. 1610-ca. 1670

North Newport River
San Phelipe II

ca. 1670-1684

Cumberland Island
Santa Catalina de Guale


St. Catherines Island
Santa Clara de Tupiqui/Espogache

1595*-ca. 1670

Sapelo River
Santa Cruz de Cachipile

ca. 1625-1657

near Valdosta
Santa Isabel de Utinahica

ca. 1610-ca. 1640

forks of Altamaha River
Santa María de los Angeles de Arapaja

ca. 1625-1657

Alapaha River
Santiago de Oconi

ca. 1620-1656

Okefenokee Swamp
Santo Domingo de Asao/Talaje


mouth of Altamaha River
Santo Domingo de Asao/Talaje II


St. Simons Island


mainland near Sapelo I.


mainland near St. Cath. I.


© 1998-2001 John Worth