And Now For A History Lesson

A view of the Lagoon as seen from the very top of the oyster shell midden (c) SML

After three years of teaching about the Indian River Lagoon and all its inhabitants a strange new question dawned on me this morning. One that I am surprised, all things considered, a student never asked me. Where did the ‘Indian River’ get its name?

There are many places in Florida that bear Amerind names and name derivations as throwbacks to the tribes that lived in the areas before and during Spanish control starting in the 16th century. The modern city of Tampa takes its name from a village belonging to the Calusa tribe. The Apalachicola River in the panhandle of the state literally comes from the Apalachicola tribe found in the area previously. The Ocala region, known for its gorgeous horse farms, owes its moniker to the Ocale tribe. And the Indian River pulls its name from a rather large group of natives known as the Ais which lived entirely surrounding the area of the great lagoon called by the Spanish the Rio de Ais, as a hallmark of their territory.

I am not sure if Ais is pronouned “Ah-ees”, “Ace”, or “Eyes”. The tribe is referenced numerous times in the Spanish accounts throughout the two hundred year colonial period of Spain in Florida from the founding of St. Augustine in 1565 up until their relative assimilation and cultural death before the American Revolutionary War. The Quaker John Dickinson spent, perhaps, the most amount of time with them after he was shipwrecked on the coast in 1699 and traveled with the tribes from modern day Jupiter Inlet north into the Titusville and New Smyrna areas. Dickinson’s journals provide just a few glimpses into their culture while modern archaeological digs have filled in details.

One of the hallmarks of the culture in the area is the presence of oyster and shell mounds, or middens, one of the largest of which is located within the Canaveral National Seashore system and is a gigantic hill several stories tall that I have previously hiked. Literally the entire ground is nothing but oyster shell. While the midden heap is entirely overgrown with native vegetation these days, it is a lasting reminder that the Indian River Lagoon system has provided food and resources for humans for many hundreds of years as a healthy environment.

Personally I wonder if the Ais people had any cultural significance assigned to the wildlife that lived in the area at the time. Its curious to remember that they lived in the area when sea turtles arrived on shore in enormous numbers, when Florida panthers and red wolves openly roamed the oak hammocks, when smalltooth sawfish still swam with manatees in the lagoon that was broken in many areas by large oyster reefs instead of by spoil islands created when the estuary was dredged for ship’s passage in modern times.

I’m not losing focus. I have no delusions that the Ais lived in a peaceful harmony with all the wildlife. For all we know they probably hunted manatee and ate sea turtle eggs! But I would love, for just a day or two, to be able to see what the IRL system looked like before all the modern alterations and the loss of larger land predators.


3 Comments to “And Now For A History Lesson”

  1. I would think the population densities by themselves would have spelled a more harmonious blending of human and natural settings, and don’t forget that all of Florida’s mega fauna disappeared around same time that natives arrived on the peninsula. Otherwise we’d have saber toothed panthers, … giant sloths, and who knows what. And yes, it’s fun to think about!

  2. I think actually, that the Ais is an outdated reference. The general name for the natives of this area was the Timuncuan and Tequesta.. I believe the reference to the Ais Indians refers to the oldest artifacts that can’t be attributed directly to those that were here when “white” explorers arrived. Don’t quote me on that though! I really like your blog!

  3. This made me very curious. It seems that there were at least four, and perhaps more, main tribes within Florida throughout the pre and post European arrival. Tequesta were situated in Biscayne Bay (Miami), the Tocobago in Tampa Bay, the Calusa on the southwest shore, and the Timucua based in north to north-central Florida. Some of the websites from USF and UF reference books on early Florida history and go on to list chiefdoms and caciques within the overall tribes and particularly lists the Ais for the Indian River lagoon area as a part of the overall Timucua culture. But now I’d really like to get my hands on a few of the reference books and see for myself! 🙂 Thanks for the heads up on the Tequesta: I wondered if the native tribes had any interesting cultural practices surrounding manatees and other wildlife. It looks like the Tequesta did in fact hunt and eat manatees – but they perhaps considered it a delicacy and served it only to the highest ranking social members. Interesting stuff.