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  • “That Demonic Game”: The Campaign to Stop Indian Pelota Playing in Spanish Florida, 1675–1684
  • Amy Bushnell

IN the last quarter of the seventeenth century the Spanish officials of Florida, both religious and civil, became convinced that a certain game of ball played by the Christian Indians was detrimental to their bodies, their souls, and the peace of the provinces of Apalache and Ustaqua. During a ten-year campaign this time-honored custom was investigated, argued over and finally outlawed. The story of this crusade against a ballgame is valuable for both the ethnologist and the Spanish colonial historian. For the ethnologist it is important because among the documents is a lengthy description of the game and its associated myths and magic: “Origin and beginnings of the game of pelota which the Apalache and Ustaqua Indians have played since pagan times up to the year 1676, brought to light by the Reverend Father Fray Juan de Paiva, Father of the mission of San Luis de Talimali. September 23, 1676.”1 For the colonial historian, the campaign demonstrates the identification of conversion with sovereignty long past contact and conquest, as well as the interwoven relationships among civil and religious authorities, unofficial Spanish residents, and native nobility.

In Florida, as elsewhere in the Indies, conversion was a concomitant of conquest. To be a vassal of the Crown was to be a Catholic living within reach of the sacraments and under one’s natural lords in a settled community. The shifting agriculturalists of la florida did not adjust to Christianity and its fixed ways readily, as the Jesuits discovered between 1565 and 1573 in Carlos (Southern Florida), Tama (inland Georgia), and the Axacán (the Chesapeake). The Franciscans who replaced them found their own early efforts nullified by twenty-five years more of “pacification”—the contemporary term for piecemeal conquest. Meanwhile, the French continued to trade along the coast as if St. Augustine and Santa Elena had never been founded. Florida [End Page 1] did not settle down under the Spanish until the beginnings of the seventeenth century, a hundred years after it first appeared as a peninsula on the Cantino map.2

For a while in the early seventeenth century conversion was rapid: first the Timucuans near St. Augustine and on the St. Johns, and the Guales of the inland waterway and sea islands; then the Indians of Timucua Alta (Utina and Ustaqua) on the west coast above the swamp line;3 and then, starting in 1633, the Apalaches of the present Florida panhandle and lower Alabama.4 There expansion halted. Unlike Chile, with its one warlike frontier, Florida was left with two: the Carlos confederacy and assorted wreck-salvagers to the south, and the barbarous Chiscas and Chichimecos of “no fixed habitation” to the north—both so dangerous that in 1675 visiting Bishop Calderón, making the round of the provinces, hired three companies of local soldiers to protect his retinue.5 From time to time the natives reduced to permanent villages called doctrinas became restless under Hispanization, running off to the woods again, menacing friars who interfered with polygamous arrangements, and rising up against the requirements of labor and tribute which made them serviceable to Europeans. The Apalaches had to be reduced again in 1647; the Timucuans in 1656.6

Although such uprisings were punished with cropburning, sentences [End Page 2] of forced labor and hangings, the legitimacy of native succession was not destroyed. As vassals of the King of Spain, chiefs were the indispensable link between Spanish authority and Indian converts. Known to the Spanish as caciques and principales, and in Indian languages as holatas, inijas, usinulos and micos, the caciques presided ceremonially, regulated land distribution and hunting rights, and organized the tribute of forest and field products and the labor levies of human bearers, farmworkers, oarsmen, and construction or maintenance crews for the roads, ferries, and forts. In return, the Governor gave the chiefs honors and gifts, personal exemption from tribute, and the privilege of continuing exactions of their own.7

The Spanish were present in the provinces in the capacities of friars, soldiers, and traders or ranchers.8 Except for alms from the Crown for vestments, candles...


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