Mission For A Mission

Many people might give credit to General James Edward Ogelthorpe as the founder of Georgia. In a sense they are right, but three centuries before Ogelthorpe began to plan his mission to establish a colony in North America, Spanish explorers were already venturing along the coast of Georgia in search of fertile and lucrative lands in what we now know as Georgia. Beginning with Lucas Vasquez de Allyon and his visitation of the southeastern coast from St. Catherine's Island to the mouth of the Santee River in North Carolina in 1522, Spanish adventurers and missionaries began to establish coastal missions to bring Christianity to the "New World" and to its native inhabitants.

For the last two years, archaeologists, anthropologists and volunteer novices have been searching through the woods of lower Telfair County, Georgia in search of Santa Isabel de Utinahica, thought to have been one of the earliest missions into east Central Georgia. The quest, under the sponsorship of Fernbank Science Center, is being directed to a bluff near Jacksonville, the ancient capital of Telfair County. Located some twenty-two crow fly miles from "The Forks," where the Oconee and Ocmulgee Rivers converge to form the mighty Altamaha River, the mission was thought to have been a remote outpost during the second and third decades of the 17th Century.

In the summer of 2006, a team of archaeologists under the direction of Dr. Dennis Blanton, curator of Fernbank's Department of Native American Archaeology, began exploring the high bluffs along the Ocmulgee, long suspected to be the sites of Native Americans who inhabited the area for millennia before the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s. At the request of Frankie Snow of Douglas, Georgia, who knows the land of South Georgia more than most of us know our own backyards, Blanton, a native of Alma, Georgia, began his quest to finally establish the location of a permanent mission near "The Forks."

The first known Spaniard to travel to the area was a Franciscan missionary, who traveled north from St. Augustine in 1616. Most experts agree that others may have previously come to the area, or possibly even later. The key goal of the mission is to find the church itself along with other buildings to support its operation.

Of the more exciting finds were a hatchet blade and a glass beads, believed by Dr. Blanton to be made between 1520 and 1560 in Venice, Italy. "If the beads were vintage to the time they were deposited, their presence could suggest that the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, or at least some of his patrolling soldiers, may have come to the area during their exploration of the Georgia interior in 1540. Additionally, Blanton's team found iron tools, Spanish pottery shards and pipe pieces, as well as pieces of marine shells and animal bones. Among the found artifacts are dirt dauber nests, which strongly suggest the presence of some type of structure," he added.

Surprised at what has been found so far, Dr. Blanton commented, "The most exciting result is evidence for much earlier, pre-mission Spanish activity on the lower Ocmulgee. Conventional wisdom has it that the early exploration of our state before 1550 was confined to either the coast or to areas farther west and north. What we are seeing rather serendipitously may be challenging those notions." Most of the Spanish artifacts we are seeing very obviously date to the first half of the sixteenth century. What I'm referring to are glass beads and iron tools. While we have only a small number all told it is fast becoming the largest collection of such things from any archaeological site in Georgia."

Blanton postulates, "The most plausible source for the pre-1550 artifacts would be Hernando de Soto . An earlier generation of scholars was comfortable with proposals that he crossed the Ocmulgee in the general vicinity of our project area. Over the last 25 years, however, there is a new interpretation of the available evidence that puts Soto's crossing of the Ocmulgee at Macon. A second suggestion is that we have material in Telfair County that originated with the failed colony of Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon (1526). Potentially the artifacts we are finding were pilfered and traded to the interior from the abandoned coastal colony, or perhaps they were carried inland by a desperate band of survivors. In any case, we are not yet in a position to be definitive about the source. But, regardless, the results are telling us things we didn't know or they are leading us to ask questions we didn't know to ask before about 18 months ago."

Dr. Blanton excitedly said, "We discovered a buried wetland deposit consisting of peaty soil about 15 feet below the modern flood plain surface. Radiocarbon dates tell us that the wetland was created 38,000 34,000 years ago. What's astounding about the contents of the peaty soil is the state of preservation of plant material like pollen grains, seeds, twigs, leaves, logs, etc. In short, through proper analysis, we'll have an unprecedented window on southeastern Georgia's environment from a time that is very poorly known. Let's call it a geological time capsule!"

"More excavations are planned, but there is no rush. Archaeology is a very tedious and painstaking process. "In general, through archaeology, we are seeking to fill in the many and often vast gaps that traditional historical records leave when it comes to the Spanish colonial story of southeastern Georgia. We set out initially to expand what we know about mission Santa Isabel de Utinahica but, as is often the case, the archaeological path has taken some interesting turns," Blanton said.

"We're in this for the long haul. What that means precisely is anybody's guess. At the very least I want to bring some closure to the early exploration story, and then get back to the mission search. The latter could take years in its own right. But maybe our luck will hold out and we'll close in on it sooner rather than later. We will be back on and off all year but the next formal program will be organized for May-July 2008. The public part of the program is generally limited to June," Dr. Blanton added.

Blanton encourages anyone to enroll in the program, so long as they are of high school age or older. The public program in June consists of four one-week sessions that allow participants a chance to work alongside professional archaeologists. There is a modest fee for participation. A formal announcement will be issued soon, and it should also be on the Fernbank Museum of Natural History web site in a month or so.