Mission San Luis, located in the heart of the beautiful city of Tallahassee, is one of the most intriguing historic sites in Florida. Mission San Luis was one of the earliest missions founded in Florida. What stands today is a reconstruction of the 17th Century Spanish mission. It was occupied for about 50 years and was a place of meeting for the Spanish and Apalachee people, natives of the region for hundreds of years before European settlers came. There are a number of buildings to tour on the 63-acre property—an Apalachee council house, a typical Spanish residential area, a blacksmith shop, a military complex, and the mission church. The idyllic setting is so tranquil with the surrounding trees, it makes it easy to forget you’re in the middle of Tallahassee.
The Mission San Luis Visitors Center is quite impressive. As we entered the lobby, the front door and lobby ceiling quickly grab your attention because of the beautiful detailing. Inside there is the ticket counter, a gift shop, a small exhibit gallery, and a 125-seat theater, where visitors can watch a 12 minute video about the history of the mission and history of the Apalachee. Take time to watch the film — it’s well done and explains what you’ll see outdoors.
Weekdays and Saturdays, guests enjoy live volunteer re-enactments depicting Apalachee and Spanish settler life. During our visit living history interpreters in period dress re-enacted Apalachee and Spanish settler life at the Mission. They knew their history and were eager to share. Some of the things we experienced included a demonstration of a native drink, the building and use of a cook fire and charcoal making, and an archery lesson with an opportunity to try out a bow at a little range. The big finale of the day was the demonstration of musketry and the firing of a cannon.
The various buildings were fascination. The first building that catches your eye is the council house. It’s huge—it’s five stories high, 125 feet in diameter, and held between 2,000 and 3,000 people. The Council House was the equivalent of today’s city hall, town theater and lodge for Apalachee residents in the region. It sits on the same footings as the original. We saw where the chief sat and learned about the different political and ceremonial activities. The chief would hold court here, making judicial decisions about neighborhood spats and other major decisions affecting the tribe. The entire tribe would congregate here for ceremonies that lasted long into the night. All around the outside edge, visitors could stay the night, with sleeping ledges provided. Only men became Apalachee chiefs, but both genders took part in storytelling, artwork and music, and traditional medicine.
Being able to walk around the grounds of Mission San Luis and see what it was like to live here centuries ago was a unique way to learn about the early history of Northern Florida. Apalachee men were hunters and sometimes went to war to protect their families. Apalachee women were farmers and also did most of the child care and cooking. At Mission San Luis, the Spanish friars and Apalachee co-existed peacefully. They shared space, but maintained much of their traditions as well.
Wherever I travel, I like learning about the history of that region. The combination of having the volunteers tell their stories as well as seeing the reconstructed buildings was a great and unique way to learn more about the early history of Northern Florida.
Here are a few additional interesting facts about Mission San Luis:
- Mission San Luis is the only Spanish colonial mission in Florida that has been reconstructed and is open to the public.
- The council house is the largest known historic period Indian building in the Southeast.
- Apalachee is pronounced “APP-uh-LATCH-ee.” It means “people on the other side” in Hitchiti, the language of a neighboring tribe. Sometimes you will see this name spelled Apalachi, Appalachi, Appalachee, or Apalache instead.
- Although the mission existed for only 48 years, its importance to Spanish colonization efforts in Florida were second only to St. Augustine.
- Mission San Luis was abandoned and destroyed by the Spanish colonists to avoid a British takeover. The residents of Mission San Luis evacuated the site only two days before English forces arrived on July 31, 1704.
Have you been to Mission San Luis or any other missions in the US?