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. Augustineto 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.
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.”
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
Except that the
Provinceof 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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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 “BigTown 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:
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.”
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.
FloridaHistorical Quarterly, 1942, vol. 21, # 1, pp. 25-39.
LIST OF TYPICAL
ITEMS FOUND IN THE ORDER OF THEIR FREQUENCY
everywhere in quantities, but with the exception of spikes and drift
pins, is oxidized past identification.
bottle: many with lead screw-top. Sheet or pane glass, art glass,
and many pieces of unidentifiable usage.
Crockery--Consisting of coarse cooking ware, grain, oil and water
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.
Pottery--Glazed inside and out, with polychrome conventionalized
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.
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)
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.
varying calibers: many with the risers still on.
ferrules, fragments and sheets. Some of the later are quite large
and, with dove-tailed and beaten joints, have been fashioned from
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
Clipped Coins--Gold and silver “Pieces of eight” of the 1543-1723
scarce except for the ever present charcoal. The unburned wood is
mostly pine and spruce. A few driven stakes BELOW the
blue grass, very small. One metal filigree.
Murals--Very fragmentary and conjectural.
roofing and glazed ornamental fragments.
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.
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.
AYS AND THE AYS COAST
1513: Ponce de
Leon, second landing at Ays(?)
1553: Wreck of the
Flota (1000 persons) on Ays Coast.
Description of Ays and salvage of wrecks.
Menendez' expedition to Ays, and establishment of garrison there.
Return of the ships from Cubawith supplies, and christening of the
settlement “PUERTO DELSOCORRO.”
“Casa Fuerte” at Ays.
of shipwrecks on the Ays Coastand treatment of castaways...to
beginning of 17th century.
1570: Treaty of
peace made with Ays.
1571: Testimony of
Sanch Pardo Osorio regarding Ais.
Lopez Velasco's Geography and 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.)
treatment of Ays Indians who are enslaved.
1604: Enemy war
ships at Ays with settlers.
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.
operations of the Ays Indians.
1608: War between
Ays and Jeaga, Gov. makes the peace.
Grande of Ays at St. Augustine.
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.
ships in the Channel.
Calderon cruises Ays Coast.
1676: All the
coast of the Bahama Channel inhabited by infidel Indians.
pirates in the Bahama Channel.
1682: French and
English pirates harass the coast--raid Mosquitos. Loss of the 1682
Supply Ships to them.
sending priests to “new conversions” at Ays & Carlos.
1695: Cacique of
Ays and Carlos still asking for priests. Mention of “new
conversions” at Ays.
Dickenson through Ays (Jece then).
recommends and orders Gov. to establish fort and garrison with two
Franciscans at Ays, for “reduction” of the natives.
1715: Plate Fleet
wrecked off Sebastian River.
hang-out at “Palmar of Ays.”
1738: Expedient to
establish a colony at Ays.
1803: Grant to
McIntosh at Ays River Narrows.