Via Amy Welborn is this article on archaeological discovery concerning the Georgia Martyrs.
Dr. Paul Camarata of the wonderfully produced SaintCast interviewed Paul Thigpen during the Atlanta Eucharistic Conference and played the interview on his podcast last week.
Previously Fr. Seraphim Beshoner O.F.M. interviewed the he Vice Postulator for the The Five Franciscan Martyrs of Georgia.
Hopefully their cause will make more well known their life and martyrdom, especially since they are another set of martyrs who died concerning the indissolubility of marriage. From John the Baptist, to Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher this has not often been a message that was welcomed by society.
July 7, 2006
Fr. Conrad Harkins, O.F.M.
Vice Postulator, Cause of the Georgia Martyrs
1235 University of Steubonville
Steubonville, Ohio 43952
Dear Father Harkins:
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today had a very interesting article on the efforts to recognize the bravery and sacrifices of the Franciscan missionaries in the Province of Guale – now the coast of Georgia. Earlier this year, I was retained by the Fernbank Museum of Natural History to prepare three dimensional virtual reality computer images of the probable appearance of the Mission Santa Catalina de Guale on Saint Catherines Island, which was just north of the sister mission occupied by the priests you are studying. I did extensive research into archaeological books and old Spanish colonial records to produce the drawings. You may see many of these drawings on the website of an English TV channel – The Architecture Channel. Use this URL to access the drawings:
Double-click the picture of the mission to see other views of the mission and adjacent Wahali village.
The Fernbank Museum of Natural History holds a joint copyright on the images. To reproduce them, you will need their permission. Their contact information is:
Dennis Blanton, Chief Archaeologist
Fernbank Museum of Natural History
767 Clifton Rd. NE
Atlanta, GA 30307
What Really Was Going on Back Then
First of all, perhaps I should tell you that I am a member of Perdido Bay Muskgoee (Creek) tribe and a consultant to the Muskogee (Creek) Nation. A huge model I built of the Creek Mother Town of Ochesee is permanently in a place of honor in the rotunda of the Creek Capitol building in Okmulgee, OK. I also write booklets & textbooks on Southeastern Indigenous culture, architecture and town planning traditions for Native American colleges. I was also born near the Georgia coast. The circumstances of the Franciscan�s murders as portrayed on your website are not really a full description of the historical events that caused the event. I don�t fault you at all because most Americans are not aware of the actual history of the Southeastern Indigenous Peoples, and rely on sketchy descriptions and �Hollywood� stereotypes. It is quite embarrassing to both Roman Catholic and Protestant clergymen to learn that their ancestors participated in the largest holocaust in the history of mankind. The typical high school textbook tells very little of the truth.
From everything I have read, the Franciscan missionaries on the Georgia coast were virtually all sincere, devout followers of Christ. The fact that they were despised by the greedy Spanish nobility and bloodthirsty Spanish Conquistadors says a lot about their faith. They went around bare footed and clothed in crude sack cloth. They accumulated no personal wealth. They sincerely wanted to share the Gospel with their congregations. However, their downfall was the cultural myopia they shared with their Hispanic countrymen during the three centuries following the Reconquesta of Spain from the Moors. They made no effort to understand the religion and cultural traditions of the indigenous peoples in the Southeast. They approached Christianity as being synonymous with Spanish cultural traditions. They assumed that the Muskogeans had a similar culture to the peoples of the Caribbean and likewise considered them to be of lower intelligence and inferior cultural status to European Christians.
A Little Bit About the Indigenous People of Georgia
At the time of European Contact, most of Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, northwestern Florida, western and central North Carolina and eastern Tennessee were occupied by various branches of the Muskogean Cultural Family. These people often are called �the Moundbuilders� today. Their descendants are the modern day Muskogee (Creek), Seminole, Alabama and Koasati tribes. One branch of this culture, the Wahali (Southerners in Mvskoke�) lived on the coast, north of Cumberland Island up to what is now Beaufort, SC. The name was mispronounced as Guale by the first Spanish explorers. To the south of Cumberland Island were the Timucua. They were descendants of Arawak invaders from the Orinoco River basin in South America, who arrived in the Southeast some time between 750 AD and 900 AD. Their cultural traditions and religion were very different from the Wahali. Farther inland from the Georgia coast were the Yamassee (peaceful ones), who were ethnically related to the Wahali.
The Muskogean Peoples first began domesticating plants for agriculture around 5-3000 BC and constructing large earthworks around 3000 BC. By 500 BC they were living in permanent agricultural villages and by 0 AD building large towns and weaving cloth. They probably had standard units of measurement, knowledge of astronomy, and some form of geometry by then. By 900 AD they were making copper weapons and tools. By the time of the first Spanish entradas, approximately a 3/4-1million people lived in Georgia. The chroniclers of the De Soto Expedition in 1540-1542, stated that during the six weeks they were in northwest Georgia, they never lost sight of either houses or cultivated fields. Some towns had as many as 3000 houses and were described as being precisely laid out into streets, squares and plazas.
The European term �chief� was really not accurate. The principal leader (talwa miko) functioned more like a mayor. He could do nothing without the majority of the town council voting in favor. There was also a second legislative body known as the Council of Beloved Men and Women, who had to approve all major decisions like peace treaties, wars, establishing satellite villages, etc. There were several other elected positions that corresponded to department heads in a modern town.
One thing that apparently no Spaniard ever figured out though, was that the Muskogean Peoples were Monotheistic. We had been worshipping Yahweh for at least 2000 years under the name �the Master of Life.� The De Soto chroniclers did mention that they were repeatedly told that the stone, ceramic and wood statues in the public buildings were of famous people in the past, not their god. The Muskogeans considered people who prayed to idols as being pagans. So many of the traditional religious practices of the historical Creeks were similar or identical to the Hebrews before the time of Soloman, that the Mormons put forth the myth that we were the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel. However, in fact, Creeks have absolutely no genetic relation to Semites, and averaged a foot taller than the Spanish…probably even more taller than Jews back then. There are several documented cases in the past of Creek leaders being seven feet tall! The Spanish called them �Los Indios Gigantes.� I noticed that your sketches on the website show the natives being shorter than the Spanish. That is just another sign of cultural myopia continuing.
There may have been a few Jewish or Jewish Christian refugees in the Southeast in the first century AD after the sacking of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is well documented that the Jews made it as far as China and India after the Diaspora. Theoretically, a sea-going Celtic vessel typical of the southern coast of France could have crossed the Atlantic just as easily as Columbus�s even smaller ships. The best evidence is the Bat Creek Stone. It was a stone tablet found in a grave in southeastern Tennessee by the Smithsonian Institute in the 1880s – accompanied by several bracelets on the skeleton. At the time, the inscription on the stone was thought to be an early form of Cherokee writing. The bracelets were assumed to be copper. The artifacts were put away in a box until the last decade.
When an archaeologist Carbon 14-dated the wood fragments found in the grave, they turned out to be from either the first or second century AD. We now know that the Cherokee didn�t even live in Tennessee until the mid-1700s and Sequoyah didn�t introduce his alphabet till the 1820s. The inscription turned out to be 1st century Aramaic, the language of Jesus. It is translated into English as “we came from Judea.” The bracelets turned out to be brass, not copper. They were composed of a type of brass made in the Roman Empire in the first and second century AD!
The Mormons jumped on these findings and declared them to be proof that American Indians were actually the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel. Then the orthodox members of the archaeological profession responded with a knee-jerk reaction and a statement that the stone and the bracelets were hoaxes. The bracelets in particular seem immune to criticism since a hundred years ago, no one would even known what specific chemical makeup characterized 1-2 century Roman brass. The Bat Creek Stone itself remains a controversy.
One of the religious laws of the Muskogeans seems to be straight from the Torah. When a woman was widowed, she would be required to be in mourning and not remarry for one year. If at the time of the next Poskita (the equivalent of the Jewish Succoth) she had not found a suitable husband, a man of the town would be required to take her as a second wife. Just like in the Torah, it was the obligation of a brother-in-law to take his wife�s widowed sister as a second wife. If no brother-in-law was available, it was the obligation of one of the elected leaders or elders to take her as a second or third wife. Few men willingly took second wives because of the enormous additional responsibility of raising and feeding her children.
Between 90-95% of the Muskogean People died in the mid-1500s as a directly result of contact with the Spanish Invaders; either from Spanish weapons, murder, torture, enslavement or diseases. A particularly abominable practice was carried out by Jesuit and Franciscan friars assigned as chaplains on the military expeditions. It was believed back then that the cure of malaria was broth made from boiling the bodies of virgins. There are repeated accounts of Spanish troops grabbing adolescent Muskogean girls, chopping them up into pieces, and then boiling them to make this psuedo-medicine. The iron pots of boiling human flesh had to be prepared and blessed by priests or friars in order to be considered effective. In fact, archaeologists working in the Coosa Valley of NW Georgia have actually found deposits of juvenile bones, that had been chopped with steel blades and boiled – mixed in from the detritus of Spanish manufactured items. Also, on several occasions De Soto tied young women to trees and burned them alive because they could not understand his words when he asked for directions to the next town. De Soto did not understand that the Muskogian dialects were not mutually intelligible.
Slavery: Spanish practices that particularly brought the wrath of Georgia�s indigenous people were the slave raids and forced work details. The Pope had forbade the enslavement of Christian Indians, but in fact, they were little more than serfs. The Spanish authorities looked the other way though when troops of soldiers went north to grab Indios Gigantes for shipment to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean Islands. The Natives of the Caribbean had virtually become extinct by the late 1500s. It was theorized that the taller and stronger Muskogeans would make better slaves. Also, theoretically, they could be converted to Christianity while working on the plantations. In fact, most died within a year of tropical diseases, poor nutrition and heartbreak.
The English Protestant and Catholic colonists who settled Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina and North Carolina deserve no claim to moral superiority. As soon as tobacco plantations proved to be profitable, they armed certain friendly tribes in Virginia with muskets and sent them south to capture thousands of town dwelling Muskogeans in Georgia. It has been estimated that a least 600,000 Native Americans were captured by the Spanish or English to be enslaved. When enslaved, few lived very long. Enormous areas of Georgia that had once been densely populated were left totally uninhabited. By 1710, 20% of the population of the Colony of South Carolina were Native American slaves!
Forced Labor: The Spanish who settled La Florida were primarily interested in accumulating wealth by as little work on their part as possible. Very few, if any, grew food in the 1500s and 1600s. The mission Indians were forced to grow large fields of corn to feed the people of Saint Augustine, while still have to provide food for themselves. As demands for free food increased from St. Augustine, there was less time to find food for themselves. The bad nutrition and overwork made them even more vulnerable to waves of plagues that swept the Southeast. For their unending and back-breaking labor, they received only glass beads, cheap religious medals and a promise of salvation. AND…they found their salvation very quickly. The Christianized Indians death rate was even higher than those farther inland. Many missions among the Timucua and Wahali had to close because all their parishioners were dead.
Women�s Domestic and Property Rights: Under Muskogean religion and law, women were fully equal to men in the eyes of Yahweh. Women voted on all issues just like the men. The community could not go to war or sign a peace treaty without a majority of women voting for it. Women owned all houses, barns, guest houses, kitchens and all cultivated fields. Women were forbidden to do domestic work during the time of month they were menstruating. They went to live in a special �hotel� for menstruating women. They were served by elderly women and teenage girls. They also were not allowed to work during religious holy days (just like in the Torah!) If a couple divorced, the man had to leave the house with basically his tools, weapons and the shirt on his back. Women could also be elected queen of a province (hese-miko). Women could also unilaterally ask and receive a divorce from the town council. However, since men and women married for love, rather than in arranged marriages, divorce was extremely rare. Adultery was punished severely by Muskogean town courts. The second offense was usually punished by execution. However, single women were free to be sexually uninhibited as they so desired. In fact, it was common practice for mothers and aunts to encourage their daughters to become sexually active, in that experience had taught them that a woman who had sown some wild oats were less likely to commit adultery.
Here is how the trouble began. First came a powerful show of military might by the Spanish Conquistadors. Then the town leaders agree to become Christian and allow a mission to be built in their midst. They were told that all they had to do was allow a cross to be planted in their plaza, and acknowledge the king of Spain as their overlord. In come the Franciscan missionaries! They immediately ban all sporting events, which totally alienates the men. They scold the women for not being slaves like the women of Castille. Initially, they ordered unmarried women beaten severely if they were caught even holding hands with a man. We Creeks are very touchy-feely like the Polynesians so this especially angered the people. At first the friars threatened execution by burning at the stake if a young girl was caught having sex with her boy friend. They also ordered the women beaten if they went topless in the hot Georgia summers. They soon backed off from both threats when the uncles of the girls threatened to cut their heads off. The Wahali thought the friars to be either homosexual, insane or very ill because they did not take a wife.
Beheading was the standard punishment in Muskogean law for the second offense of man who had dishonored, mutilated or raped a woman . Muskogean women wore a red circle on one cheek to show that they were looking for a boy friend or wanted more attention from their husband. They wore red circles of rouge on both cheeks when they were interested in sex. To assault a single woman who did not have two red circles on her cheeks was defined as felony rape. The man would have his ears or nose cut off for the first offense.
Beginning of the End
Around 1565 AD, the pitiful remnants of a once great culture migrated westward and northward to put further distance between themselves and the Spanish. Fortified towns were left near the edge of the frontier between permanent Spanish occupation and Muskogean lands. Some time between 1585 and 1600, all the different branches of the Muskogeans, plus the Yuchi and some Shawnee, met at Ochesee near Macon, GA and formed a confederacy, whose name means �People of One Fire.� Upon joining the People of One Fire, the individual towns made an oath to the Master of Breath (aka Yahweh – God) to obey the laws of the Supreme Council, be at peace with other towns in the confederacy, and wage eternal war of the Spanish Infidels who had desecrated the Master of Breath�s creation. The Creeks learned better weapons and tactics for fighting the Spanish. They continued their war against the Spanish until the mid- 1700s when the last Spanish were pushed behind the walls of Castillo San Marco in St. Augustine. Some Creeks occupied the areas of Florida once occupied by the Apalachee Franciscan missions, and became known as the Seminole. So you can thank the Creek People, for the fact that we live in an English speaking democracy rather than a degenerate South American style dictatorship.
By this time many mission Indians from Guale were escaping to the interior, with tales of Spanish brutality and forced labor in the fields of Spanish missions. The council of the People of One Fire essentially declared Christian Indians to be excommunicated. In Creek theology, it meant that their spirits would not dwell in heaven with the Master of Breath and their ancestors. The extreme hostility of Alabama and Muskogee Creek priests and leaders toward Christianity really continued until the middle 1800s in Oklahoma. Until that time, any Creek who had contact with a Christian minister or owned a Bible would be whipped. After the second offense, they would be excommunicated and be considered dead by their relatives. However, my branch of the Creeks became Christians in the middle 1700s after hearing the sermons of John Wesley on the Savannah River. Most of them did not go to Oklahoma.
What I think triggered the murders of the priests was a combination of political pressure from the cousins of the Wahali in the People of One Fire combined with the incessant demands by the Spanish officials for more and more and more free labor without compensation. There were plenty of records where the Franciscans attempted to reduce the demands on their parishioners to feed Saint Augustine, but to little avail. I know that when the Mission Santa Catalina de Guale was started, it had far more communicants than any California mission ever did. However, by the time it was abandoned, there were only 52 men, women and children, who essentially functioned as house servants for the Franciscan friars.
The symbolism of the beheading is very clear. The Spanish friars had publicly denounced the miko�s (what you call a chief) new wife. She was most likely the beloved sister of his first wife. By publicly denouncing her in a sermon, even perhaps calling her a whore, he invoked the traditional Muskogean law for twice or thrice dishonoring an honorable lady. The surviving men at the village probably had been driven into a rage by the over work, massive deaths, and the disempowerment brought on by Spanish colonial expansion….they just snapped!
Yes, I think the Franciscan friars were martyrs for their faith. Their simple, trusting Christian faith put their lives in a crushing, fatal vice created by the opposing forces of an abomination known as Imperial Spain, and a starving, wounded, angry mountain lion known as the People of One Fire.
Remember that Confession must precede Forgiveness.
Richard L. Thornton, AIA
Mr. Thornton, I’m trying to learn all I can about the Georgia missions and the Wahali culture, and I was amazed that you could discuss them in such cultural and historical detail. As an historian of American religious history (Ph.D., Emory), I am quite eager to examine your primary and secondary sources for the material you presented; they are unfamiliar to me. Do you have a complete list of sources for the material in the letter you sent Fr. Harkins that you could offer? I found an email address for you online, but my message bounced back as undeliverable. Please be so kind as to email the list of sources to firstname.lastname@example.org, or perhaps to post them here. Thanks.
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