This Mayacan owl represents
By Ronald Williamson
Originally published in 2003-04
On a grassy rise of oak and sabal palm, where the river forks to surround Hontoon Island, is a remarkable effigy, a powerful predator from another time. Its feathered body, curved talons and unblinking eyes have been part of this place for centuries.
People call it the owl totem because scholars once thought it represented a clan. But today, those who study these things say it's neither a totem nor clan emblem.
It's something else, they say, something with long-lost primal meanings and potent magic.
Word traveled fast. People started showing up, wanting to see the owl, take snapshots. Two days later, an archaeologist hauled the carving to Gainesville. The owl never returned.
What is standing on the St. Johns River island between Lake Monroe and Lake George west of Daytona Beach is a replica of the largest wooden effigy ever recovered from a North American archaeological site. That's the way archaeologist Barbara Purdy put it in one of her books about Hontoon Island artifacts.
Native American artisans made it with tools of shark's teeth, stone and shell. Its age is estimated at 700-800 years, about the time the Renaissance began to dawn in Europe.
Modern civilization disturbed its long rest on Wednesday, June 27, 1955.
"I found it," said Victor Roepke, 90.
He stopped work at the Habitat for Humanity Bargain Barn in DeLand and sat in the shade with me. Back in the mid-1950s, Roepke owned a mostly wet mile of riverfront on the south end of Hontoon Peninsula, a long stone’s throw from the island. That summer he was turning it into high and dry building lots, using dirt from a canal and the river.
Building land, he called it.
"I had a dragline working down there on the banks, digging out, making higher ground. They pulled it out of the river," he said. “It” was a 12-foot timber thick with black mud.
"After I got it washed off enough so I could see it, I knew what it was," Roepke said. "It had to be a totem pole."
Word traveled fast. People started showing up, wanting to see the owl, take snapshots. Two days later, an archaeologist from the Florida Museum of Natural History drove down and hauled the carving to Gainesville in the back of a truck.
The owl never returned.
A few years later, when Hontoon Island became a state park, the full-sized fiberglass replica was erected. But the real Hontoon owl is a centerpiece at the visitors center at Fort Caroline National Monument, part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve near the mouth of the St. Johns River east of Jacksonville.
The carving is flanked by large colorful murals of what a native village near the river’s mouth may have looked like in 1564 when French settlers sailed into the north-flowing stream to found a settlement.
But the owl isn’t a Timucuan object and Timucuan artisans didn’t create the owl. It’s not a thing of the people who lived near the river’s mouth. It was created by Mayacan tribesmen who lived near the river’s belly, on Hontoon Island.
The first Europeans weren't welcome on the middle St. Johns River. They were met by large numbers of armed men who threatened to kill them if they didn’t leave.
The confrontation occurred south of Lake George near Astor, where State Road 40 crosses the river. And, despite erroneous information that abounds about American Indians here, the warriors were not Timucuans, but Mayacans.
Cautious Timucuans did greet French and Spanish explorers on the St. Johns River near Jacksonville and Palatka and St. Augustine. They were generally friendly, willing to trade and carefully solicitous of the formidable strangers, if only to have them as allies or gain valuable objects.
But feelings were far different when Pedro Menendez and 50 soldiers crossed Lake George in 1566 and entered Mayaca, today's western Volusia County.
Mayacans spoke a different language, were culturally different and allegiant to different chiefdoms than Timucuans. They lived between lakes George and Monroe, and weren't interested in friendly relations with Europeans, no matter how powerful they were or how valuable their goods.
Florida's foremost scholars on tribes at the time of European contact say the culture of Timucua ended at Lake George. Other tribes lived south of Lake George on the river, and south of Ponce de Leon Inlet on the coast.
Nonetheless, the outdated notion that Timucuans lived around Hontoon Island is perpetuated in literature, at state parks and many other places. Even the Web sites for the City of Deltona and the Sanford Historical Society say Timucuans were the native Americans who lived around Lake Monroe.
Hontoon Island State Park is one of the best (or worst) examples of outdated information. A new museum there has numerous references to Timucuans inhabiting the island and credits their artisans with making marvelous animal effigies found there. Signs on the island refer to Timucuans, too.
Mayacan people aren’t mentioned. Not once, not even indirectly. It's as though they never existed.
"The Mayaca and other tribes living in interior Florida are among the state's least known tribes," John Hann told me. He’s a research historian at Tallahassee's San Luis Archaeological and Historic Site and a leading scholar on contact-era tribes.
"The Mayaca have often been considered to have been Timucua, despite evidence otherwise," he said.
Coastal tribes and their languages and cultures were far better known because they had more contact with early Europeans. Interior tribes weren't encountered until much later.
American Indians disappeared at an alarming rate in the first centuries after contact with Europeans, primarily from disease.
There are no numbers for Mayacans, but another leading scholar, Jerald Milanch, archaeological curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, says Timucuan population dropped from an estimated 200,000 in the year 1500, to 1,000 in 1700. When Spain lost Florida in 1763, he said, only one Timucuan was listed among refugees.
Mayacans suffered the same fate, despite the lack of documentation. Hann said some interior Florida tribes may have become extinct before Europeans encountered them, or before they even knew their names.
Perhaps the most remarkable Mayaccan creation on Earth stands in a museum of Timucuan culture at Fort Caroline.
But in 1566, the Mayacans were alive and well and had a decidedly different attitude about Menendez' boats coming into the “land of Macoya,’’ according to Bartolome Barrientos, using one of several variations of the name. He wrote a 1567 biography of the bold man who in one bloody month in 1565 captured the French Fort Caroline, killed hundreds of Huguenots at Matanzas Inlet, and founded St. Augustine.
Barrientos described the first attempt to explore south of Lake George. Not far past the lake, Spaniards found a large village.
Scholars suggest it was near today's Volusia and Astor. It could have been on either side of the river, or both sides. Large shell mounds once flanked the stream there.
The villagers fled, but the chief, Mocoya, sent word through an interpreter that the Spaniards had entered his land without permission and must leave or die.
Menendez ignored the warning and cautiously continued upriver, says Barrientos.
Quickly, the riverbanks filled with "large bands of agitated Indians armed with bows and arrows. On arriving at a narrow place in the river, he found the way blocked by a row of stakes." When he broke through, even more Mayacans appeared and said they would kill him if he continued.
At first Menendez seemed determined to pass, but after spending a dangerous night on the river, he reconsidered his precarious situation and retreated. The exact place of that decisive confrontation is not known, but it is likely a little south of the S.R. 40 bridge, perhaps a mile or two, or less.
"No one really even heard of the Mayaca before the 1990s," Milanch told me. "Until recent years, the prevailing academic view was that Timucua-speaking Indians lived all through north and central peninsula Florida. But now, thanks largely to new research and reinterpretation of old documents, we've fine-tuned our interpretations."
Archaeologist Barbara Purdy, who conducted excavations on Hontoon Island in the 1980s, said it's important for present-day residents to take pride in past cultures of the places we live -- especially because there are no Mayacans to keep their traditions alive.
"Who we Floridians are today and what Florida is today, are based in part on our shared heritage," Milanch said. "The good news is that we're learning more all the time. The bad thing is that agencies hate to change signs."
Hann is more critical of incorrect signs and exhibits like those on Hontoon Island. "If they're not correct, they're wasting people's time," he told me. "They should not go on perpetuating earlier errors."
Certainly the signs should be changed. Current scholarship ought to be reflected on Hontoon Island and other interpretative sites in what was once the land of Mayaca. As Purdy says, there are no Mayacans to speak of their life and culture, so we must speak for them.
It's a shame, and a disservice to our own culture, to ignore their existence.
And yet, perhaps the most remarkable Mayacan creation on Earth stands in a museum of Timucuan culture at Fort Caroline.
"It's probably the most talked about piece in the visitors center," said Craig Morris, a veteran ranger at Fort Caroline. The mural incorporates the carving into a charnel house scene because, he said, it's believed to have been a supernatural creature watching over generations of ancestral bones at Hontoon Island.
"This is not a totem. It has human eyes, as well as round bird eyes. It has five claws; owls have four. It's a symbol of a human turning itself into an owl," he said. Or an owl turning into a human.
Owls are prominent figures in the myths and religion of pre-Columbian Florida natives. The predator bird is the night spirit's messenger and protector of shaman priests. A disturbed owl is a sign of trouble in the natural world. That's what they say at the Museum of Natural History.
The primitive image of a supernatural owl helps visitors grasp one aspect of the deep, profound relationship the Hontoon people had with the natural world, Morris said. Some visitors are awed.
"I think it's a sense of wonder," Morris said slowly, grasping for words. "... that this isn't just an owl. No. It's an owl that represents ..." He stopped grasping.
"We'll never know what its real function was. Never. It's the only thing in the museum that cannot be explained."
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Volusia County's West Side: Steamboats and Sandhills
Volusia County's West Side: Steamboats and Sandhills