Standing at the boat ramp at Cedar Point Preserve, looking east toward the salt marshes and the Intracoastal Waterway, the civilized world seems very far away. It’s a vista marked by vast expanses of pristine waterways, surrounded by upland hammocks inhabited by many species of birds.
Often the only sounds to be heard are avian chatter, and the quiet splashes of jumping mullet.
On the southern tip of Black Hammock Island, the park is a peaceful paradise within the National Park Service’s Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. Its boat ramp provides access to some of the First Coast’s best fishing spots, and its hiking trails, which lead through pine barrens and hammocks of Spanish moss-draped live oaks, are quiet and serene.
But the land wasn’t always so tranquil. Ongoing archaeological excavations show that the 400 acre point was once the home of a village of Timucuan Indians, who migrated there to seek refuge from European and Native American enemies. Known as the Santa Cruz y San Bueneventura de Guadalquini Spanish Mission, about 300 people lived there from 1684 to 1696.
University of North Florida students, under the guidance of archaeology professor Keith Ashley, have been excavating the mission since 2005. In June, they were assisted by volunteers from the Archaeological Institute of America Jacksonville chapter during a two week field school, giving members of the public an opportunity to participate in the research efforts.
The mission’s residents “were living in a very volatile landscape,” Ashley says while overseeing the excavation one day at the edge of the woods. “This would have been the main drag,” he says, pointing toward the Intracoastal Waterway.
Directly across the water lies what is today known as Big Talbot Island, where another Native American mission affiliated with Santa Cruz was located. “It was an incredibly dynamic landscape,” Ashley says. “One hundred plus years after European contact, villages were moving and populations were dying out because of European diseases.”
Under the protection of Spanish Catholic Franciscan priests, the Santa Cruz mission was a haven for Indians hunted down by the British, who wanted them for slaves. French pirates regularly raided their missions to steal whatever they could get, as did Native American tribes to the north.
During the field school dig, students and volunteers uncovered evidence of a large two-room building. In what appeared to be a cooking and storage area, they found pieces of Spanish Majolica pottery, a Spanish olive jar and Native American pottery. They also uncovered peach pits, pig bones, glass beads, gaming discs made of broken pottery, finger rings and crosses.
The area has been covered up again, until another likely dig next summer, while students and volunteers continue to study the artifacts this fall in the UNF laboratory.
Volunteer Mike Napper says he enjoyed participating in the excavation.
“I’ve lived in Florida a long time, and Florida history is interesting,” he says. “It’s fun to come out here and get your hands on it.”