A Native group in Florida, the Apalachee encountered several of the early Spanish entradas into southeastern North America, and they eventually participated in the Spanish mission system established in Spanish La Florida.
The Apalachee inhabited the area between the Ochlockonee River and the Aucilla River in northwest Florida. They subsisted on a wide range of horticultural products, primarily corn, and lived in organized villages headed by chiefs. These individual villages were incorporated into one large paramount chiefdom. The Apalachee often produced significant agricultural surpluses, and this economic vitality provided the basis for their military prowess through the development of a large population to supply ample numbers of warriors. As a result, their reputation extended far beyond their territory. The Apalachee fulfilled a significant role in the southeastern trade network that connected many of the paramount chiefdoms in the region. Most important, the Apalachee facilitated the trade of shells from the Gulf coast into the interior, where they were used for prestige display and in religious ceremonies. Controlling the shell trade gave the Apalachee access to exotic and sometimes sacred status symbols from the interior southeast that aided in the elite’s control of the Apalachee paramount chiefdom.
The Apalachee first encountered the Spanish in 1528, when the expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez and Hernando de Soto encamped for the winter of 1539-40 among them. For the most part through their military capabilities, the Apalachee successfully protected their territory from these Spanish incursions, but eventually internal disruptions provided the Spanish with an opportunity to bring the Apalachee within the Spanish sphere of influence. In the early 17th century one of two rival factions invited the Spanish to develop missions within Apalachee territory in an effort to gain a political edge through an alliance with the Spanish and the unique items they could trade with the Natives. Franciscans began to establish missions among the Apalachee in 1633. Eventually many Apalachee succumbed to epidemic diseases, and some later became slaves in the English colony of South Carolina.
Further reading: Mark F. Boyd, Hale G. Smith, and John W. Griffin, Here They Once Stood: The Tragic End of the Apalachee Missions (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1951); John H. Hann, Apalachee: The Land Between the Rivers (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1988);
John F. Scarry, “The Apalachee Chiefdom: A Mississippian Society on the Fringe of the Mississippian World,” in The Forgotten Centuries: Indians and Europeans in the American South, 1521-1704, eds. Charles Hudson and Carmen Chaves Tesser (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994), 154-178.
—Dixie Ray Haggard