The Gualean Revolt of 1597: Anti-Colonialism in the Old South

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This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. XII No. 6, "Liberating Our Past." Find more from that issue here.

The past decade has brought an important expansion of writing about Indians in the early South. It is no longer necessary, or adequate, for teachers to begin the story with the forced exile of the Southeastern tribes to Oklahoma along the “Trail of Tears” in the 1830s. After all, De Soto’s army of Spaniards and Africans had touched the Cherokee homelands three full centuries before that. At Southern Exposure we have been following what is being said both by and about Native American Southerners, and we plan a special issue next year that will take a closer look at Indians in the South, past and present. 

Some of the most provocative new historical work focuses on the Indians of Florida and the adjoining coasts during the sixteenth and seventeenth century invasions. Among the resources listed at the end of this essay are books by Henry Dobyns, Lewis Larson, Gene Wadell, and a forthcoming book by William Loren Katz, along with articles by Amy Bushnell and Stephen Reilly. A rich selection of original sources concerning Florida and the adjoining areas can be found in David B. Quinn, ed., New American World: A Documentary History of North America to 1612, 5 volumes (New York, 1979). The last volume contains 20pages of primary documents presenting the Spaniards ’ view of the Guale Uprising, translated into English, which made possible the following account.  


Uprisings by Native Americans against European encroachment and domination figured frequently in colonial history. Time and again the pressures of epidemic disease, territorial disputes, and religious conflict gave rise to protests that led to armed resistance. The Pueblo Revolt against the Spanish in New Mexico in 1680 was the largest and most successful; Pontiac’s Rebellion against the British in the “old North- west” in 1763 is perhaps the best known. But there were others, many of them in the South, the location of the earliest known contact with Europeans. 

Anglocentric Southern historians traditionally have paid attention to the uprisings in Viiginia in 1622 and 1644, and to the Tuscarora and Yamasee wars against the English in the Carolinas early in the eighteenth century. Only the historians of Spanish Florida have studied the 1597 uprising of the Guale Indians in the Sea Island region of present-day Georgia, and for the most part they have focused more on the martyrdom of Franciscan missionaries than on the causes of the conflict. Yet the Gualean Revolt, which took place shortly after the failure of the Roanoke colony and 10 years before the founding of Jamestown, is the earliest anti-colonial rebellion in all of North America for which we have substantial documentation. It came at the end of a century of painful and unsettling contact. 

Two decades after Columbus reached the New World, Spanish ships from the West Indies appeared off the coast of Florida. Besides searching for a passage to the Orient, they were looking for slaves to replace indigenous Caribbean islanders, who were rapidly being decimated by ruthless labor practices and new diseases from Europe. The Florida peninsula soon became an entry point for explorations of the Southeastern interior, and ships carrying Mexican gold back to Spain followed the powerful Gulf Stream through the Straits of Florida and up the coast for several hundred miles before setting out across the Atlantic. By 1565 the Spanish had crushed a French effort to colonize Florida’s northeast coast and had established their own outpost at St. Augustine — the first permanent intrusion of a European power onto North American soil. 


We are only just beginning to understand the scope of the demographic and cultural destruction which foreign contact brought to Florida in the sixteenth century. The effects of slaving raids and local wars on the indigeous population were minor compared to those of the new epidemic diseases such as smallpox and measles, which devastated local tribes. A population of well over half a million people plummeted to one-tenth that size within several generations, leaving long-established societies in shambles. Henry Dobyns has recently suggested that the story of the “fountain of youth,” long a central feature of early Florida lore, may in fact relate to the desperate efforts of native people to find healing waters that could cure their strange new maladies. 

During the second half of the sixteenth century the Spanish spread their tenuous dominion northward along the Atlantic coast in an effort to pre-empt their French and English rivals. First Jesuit and then Franciscan missionaries were used to open contacts with coastal tribes. Envoys sent to Chesapeake Bay were killed in the 1580s, but numerous small missions were established on the shores of “Chicora,” the region that would later be called Georgia and South Carolina. By controlling the Sea Islands, the Spanish could reduce foreign piracy, gain protection for their ships from frequent hurricanes, and perhaps even open up an overland route to the new mines of northern Mexico or other riches of the American interior. 

This missionary outreach, never large by Latin American standards, was most intense in northwest Florida (Apalache), northeast Florida (Timucua), and the coastal region below the Savannah River (Guale). The tribes in these areas, like those in New England a generation later, had been ravaged by disease without being entirely destroyed. As a result, they were too weak to offer unified resistance and desperate enough to be receptive to Spanish blandishments of military assistance and religious guidance. 

In the province of Guale, for example, some 20 or 30 thousand people were settled in scores of small villages between St. Andrew Sound and the mouth of the Savannah when missionaries established the presidio of Santa Caterina on the island of Guale, now known as St. Catherine’s Island. Conversions were few, but the Indians tolerated the presence of priests and watched for possible evidence of the power of their diety, such as when a drought ended shortly after the erection of a Christian cross. 

The Guale had accepted the first Spanish offers of peace in the 1560s when they were at war with the stronger Edisto Indians further up the coast. But by 1576 they sought an alliance with the Edisto and the neighboring Escamacu on the basis of “the injury they had received” from the Spanish. When a shipwreck deposited more than 100 anti-Spanish Frenchmen on their shores the following year, the Guale sent emissaries south to St. Augustine in hopes of convincing mission Indians there to join them in driving the Spaniards out of the region “with the help of the French.” The Spanish governor struck back, and in the • three-year Escamacu War he managed to drive the Edisto tribe northward from Port Royal, to turn the Guale against their Escamacu allies, and then to burn 19 villages of the Guale themselves as a reprisal for harboring Frenchmen. 

Military brutality and demands for tribute in the form of provisions and labor for Spanish soldiers did little to ease the missionaries’ task, and they remained constantly at odds with the Spanish authorities whose policies they had been sent to implement. The friars protested when authorities in St. Augustine failed to provide adequate pay and supplies for Spaniards billeted along the coast, who then took to stealing food from the same Indians whom the missionaries hoped to convert to Christianity. 

For different reasons, both the government and the church backed a policy of forced settlement of the semi-nomadic Gualean Indians in permanent agricultural villages. The administrators hoped to gain control over food production, and the priests expected that fixed residence near the missions would enhance conversion efforts and aid in stamping out the local practice of polygamy. Neither group fathomed the fact that the Gualeans, destabilized by sickness and war, were in no position to generate surplus food. Nor did the foreigners understand that the bases of Indian subsistance — game, fish, com, and melon — depended upon seasonal movements and other socio-economic arrangements that they failed to examine or appreciate. 

The Gualeans, when faced with no choice, complied with the friars’ wishes, but from their own perspective Spanish orders were contradictory. The state demanded larger tribute payments over time, while the friars’ attempts to prohibit polygamy resulted in reduced numbers of agricultural workers per family. The Spanish levied a tribute, sometimes as high as one arroba or 25 pounds of com, on each married man. In Gualean society, however, the women were the members responsible for agricultural production. Like most societies, the Gualeans differentiated labor by sex. While men were responsible for hunting, fishing, military matters, and structural work, women maintained the households and produced food and pottery. Polygamous family units therefore controlled more land and produced more food.1 By ignoring women’s role in agricultural production, the Spanish undermined established economic relationships and reduced the subsistence level of Gualean families. 

Spanish desires to impose Christian marital patterns and patriarchal family structures weakened when Gualean practices suited colonial interests. The missionaries, who sanctioned only monogamous marriage, sought to deny women the right to separate from men, a pre-colonial practice which allowed women some measure of economic autonomy and personal freedom through serial monogamy and the establishment of uterine families.2 The prohibition of polygamy also reduced the number of possible political alliances through intertribal marriage, which may have impeded unified resistance to colonial rule. But Spanish motives for these prohibitions seem to have been largely secular rather than religious, since the state did not hesitate to recognize matrilineal descent in political matters when the new ruler supported the colonial regime. 

When Don Juan, a mico (a Gualean chief) loyal to the Spanish, died, for example, his sister’s daughter, Dona Maria, assumed control of Cumberland Island through a practice by which hereditary rule passed to the eldest child of the eldest sister of the chief. Micoships, or chiefdoms, had taken on a new significance under Spanish rule since micos could choose to accept or reject colonial authority. 

The Gualean people employed many strategies in resisting colonial rule, some of which can be traced in Spanish documents. Responding to unrealistic tribute demands, cultural interference, and military attacks, the Indians attacked soldiers and civilians throughout the Spanish occupation. They won control of the presidio at Santa Elena several times between 1576 and 1585. When an officer in charge executed two Indians and demanded larger food payments, for example, the Gualeans attacked and captured the fort. They chose other strategies when sorties foiled. On occasion they blocked the supply route, attempting to starve out the soldiers at the presidio. They also attacked the paymasters en route to Santa Elena and targeted individuals, such as Corporal Avias and the interpreter Pedro Masduerme, who deceived them. 

Although by the end of the century the Gualeans had several times taken control of Santa Elena and had killed state representatives, the Spanish grip on their homeland had not weakened. This realization, combined with greater knowledge of colonialism and its weaknesses, led by the mid-1590s to the formulation of a new Gualean strategy. In 1597 the Gualeans decided to strike out against the church, for while state tribute demands altered their economic life, the religious influence disrupted their culture. The friars imposed alien standards to judge morality and status, ordering the Indians to become monogamous and fully clothed, and to live in one place. They prohibited work on 150 Catholic religious holidays and assigned Christian names in addition to or instead of Gualean ones. The Gualeans thus came to see the missions, not the state, as primarily responsible for cultural disruption and deprivation. Religious and civil authorities had argued for years over the amount of tribute Indians should pay to the state. The friars, sensing that decreases in tribute were related to increases in conversion, advocated smaller payments, but the state needed Indian resources to support the Spanish population. In this and other ways the state hindered the missionaries’ conversion efforts. The friars believed that Governor Canzo presented a poor example to the Indians, for while they argued the supremacy of religious authority Canzo refused to kneel before them and kiss their rings. 

A friar’s report to the Council of the Indies asserted that the missionaries were making little progress because “the Indians realize how this Governor despises them and lowers their standing in the Indians’ eyes.” Perception of a power struggle between church and state supported the Gualeans’ decision to focus their resistance efforts on the missions. The Gualeans may well have assumed that the governor would tolerate and perhaps even condone an attack on the missions, since he appeared to hold the missions in such low regard. 

When the friars deposed a Gualean named Juanillo from his rightful role as hereditary leader, the stage for revolt was set. Father Corpa chose Don Francisco, instead of Juanillo, as heir to the micoship on St. Catherine’s Island, charging that Juanillo exhibited “arrogant, quarrelsome, and warlike” behavior. The friars had already chastised Juanillo both privately and publicly for his actions, and clearly saw him as an unsuitable leader. They failed to anticipate, however, that Don Francisco would reject the micoship and ally with Juanillo. 

Juanillo and Don Francisco together triggered an uprising which threatened to drive the Spanish from the region for good. They and their followers gathered in the forest and decided that one act of violence would unify the Gualeans and incite rebellion. The group returned to the village of Tolemato and hid in the church, awaiting the return of Father Corpa. When the friar returned to prepare for mass, they killed him with an ax and proclaimed their deed throughout the town. According to a Spanish report, “although some showed signs of regret,” most Indians supported this drastic action. 

The following day Juanillo drove home the implications of the slaying to a meeting of Gualeans, arguing that reprisals against the community as a whole were inevitable and that they should join together in resistance. “Although the friar is dead,” argued the rebel leader, “he would not have been if he had not prevented us from living as before we were Christians: let us return to our ancient customs, and let us prepare to defend ourselves against the punishment which the governor of Florida will attempt to inflict upon us.” His speech continued, according to the report: 


let us restore the liberty of which these friars have robbed us, with promises of benefits which we have not seen, in hope of which they wish that those of us who call ourselves Christians experience at once the[se] losses and discomforts:

·      they take from us women, leaving us only one and that in perpetuity, prohibiting us from changing her;

·      they obstruct our dances, banquets, feasts, celebrations, fires, and wars, so that by failing to use them we lose the ancient valor and dexterity inherited from our ancestors;

·      they persecute our old people calling them witches;

·      even our labor disturbs them, since they want to command us to avoid it on some days, and be prepared to execute all that they say, although they are not satisfied; 

·      they always reprimand us, injure us, oppress us, preach to us, call us bad Christians, and deprive us of all happiness, which our ancestors enjoyed, with the hope that they will give us heaven. 

These are deceptions in order to subject us; what can we expect, except to be slaves? If now we kill all of them, we will remove such a heavy yoke immediately, and our valor will make the governor treat us well, if it happens that he does not come out badly. 


According to the Spanish report, “The multitude was convinced by his speech; and as a sign of their victory, they cut off Father Corpa’s head, and they put it in the port on a lance,” hoping no doubt that it would incite and empower the people. 

While Juanillo and Don Francisco inspired these early stages of the revolt, the micos of individual villages attempted to implement decisions to support or oppose the rebellion. Juanillo’s group dispatched messengers throughout the territory to convey his plan for each chief to arrange for the death of the resident friar. The chief of Tupique complied: his villagers found Father Rodriquez in the church, allowed him to say mass, and killed him. 

The mico of Asopa, on St. Catherine’s Island, was the next to receive news of the uprising. But instead of ordering the murder of Fathers Aunon and Badajoz, the mico tried to inform Governor Canzo of the rebellion. When he received no reply from three successive messages sent to the governor, the chief traveled to St. Augustine where he learned that none of his messengers had reached Canzo. His subjects, usurping his authority and siding with Juanillo, killed the two priests in his absence. Widespread discontent among the Gualean people outweighed the decision of the mico. 

The two friars in the villages of Asao and Tulapo nearly escaped the rebelling Indians. The Gualeans waited at the landing for Father Velascola, who was away when news of the insurrection reached Asao, and killed him when he reached shore. Mission Indians warned Father Davilla of his fate, so he hid in the forest outside Tulapo. But the Gualeans located his hiding place and shot him with three arrows. Father Davilla was spared when the mico of Tulapo interceded on his behalf, and the Gualeans instead reversed the roles of ruler and subject, making the friar their slave. He carried water and wood and served as an archery target for the young boys. They tried to convert him to their system of belief with promises of release if “renouncing his own religion, he would Embrace the gods of the Indians and physically espouse the daughter of a savage.” But the friar refused to break his religious vows. 

The Indians may have miscalculated the outcome of their persecution of the Spanish friars. Instead of devaluing the Christian God, the deaths of the friars glorified his representatives in the eyes of the Spaniards. Father Fernandez wrote, ‘‘How they must have felt, . . . those little lambs, on receiving martyrdom all alone as they were!” In a letter to Spain he concluded, “I envy them the crowns of glory which they bear before us; and I await in this desert, by saintly obedience, that which Our Lord, in His mercy may have in store for me.” 

Martyrdom was envied by the clergy and avenged by the state. The Guale uprising proved a great challenge to Governor Canzo who, despite his dislike for the missionaries, attempted to suppress the revolt. Spanish officials had expressed criticism of his leadership in Florida: there had been few conversions, countless attacks by the Indians, and great expenses. The soldiers at St. Augustine and Santa Elena blamed their problems on Canzo’s inexperience and misappropriation of funds. They also believed that by overburdening the Indian people and by foiling to respect the Church, the governor had provoked the revolt. The suppression of the Gualean Indians provided one last test of the abilities of Governor Canzo and of the viability of Spanish control over the Sea Islands. 

While Canzo prepared to investigate the murders, the Indians developed and broadened their strategy. The Gualeans planned a series of attacks to destroy the missions, the villages of Christian Indians, and the presidios. They launched an assault on Cumberland Island where the resident mico, Don Juan, had allied with the Spanish and had foiled to kill the friars. Don Juan stopped the Indians from landing and thwarted their attack. He notified Governor Canzo and demanded supplies and reinforcements. Now the governor was forced to contemplate the defense of Indian allies, as well as the protection of Spanish missions and presidios. 

Canzo dispatched soldiers to the island to protect the mission and intensified his efforts to learn the causes of the rebellion. When interrogating prisoners taken during the attack on Cumberland Island proved unsuccessful, he forced the prisoners to guide him to the resisting tribes. The Indians frustrated his plans by misdirecting the search parties. Canzo then perched interpreters in trees to call to the Indians, promising safety to those who would come forward. None did. The governor remained unenlightened. 

Church officials, incensed over the governor’s failure, started their own investigation and petitioned for the right to hear prisoners’ testimony. Governor Canzo denied the request, charging that they apparently “wished to usurp the royal jurisdiction.” The friars’ authority included only the collection of altar furnishings, according to Canzo, and he resisted all their attempts to involve themselves in the controversy. Canzo especially feared that news of his failure to quell the rebellion would reach Spain and he ordered that the notary refuse to prepare legal documents for the fathers. The friars, in turn, declined to testify in Canzo’s investigation, insisting that their priestly vows forbade words and actions which might lead to the mutilation or death of others. 

With his power and authority threatened by the Church and by his Indian allies, Governor Canzo implemented a plan to annihilate the Gualean Indians. He ordered his soldiers to burn dwellings and public buildings, to cut down crops, to break apart canoes, and to take all Indians prisoner. Canzo dismissed considerations of guilt and innocence because “the crime committed by the said Indians was so grave, and deserving of an equally heavy penalty and punishment.” He therefore enslaved all captives. Though most escaped being taken by hiding while their villages were destroyed, they returned to face starvation. 

These reprisals resulted in the breakdown of the mission system since the friars left the villages, fearing for their lives. In response to this crisis, Governor Canzo lamely reaffirmed Spanish love for the Indians. He told Don Juan and his people: 

they must not believe, nor think it a fact, as they did, that his Majesty did not love them; the said natives must understand, from the interest he took in them, that he did love them, and longed for nothing more than to have them come into acceptance of the holy Catholic faith and the law of the Gospel, and hold him for their King and Master. 


Canzo asked the Indians to move closer to St. Augustine to prove their faith and friendship. There they would receive religious education, Spanish protection, and a reduction in tribute payments. Indians loyal to the Spanish — like Don Juan, who moved his people — were rewarded with money, trinkets, and reductions in tribute. 

Governor Canzo, however, soon confronted what one historian has called a “deluge of acquiescence.” Starving Indians claimed ignorance of recent actions, a wise tactic in keeping with the Spanish perception of them as children. They pledged loyalty and promised peace in return for a restoration to Spanish favor. Canzo accepted their petitions on the understanding that they would promise to keep the Catholic faith, to live in peace, to bring complaints to the governor, and to beg for mercy whenever he chose to visit them. By these measures he further subjugated the Indians and bolstered his authority, but he could do little to alter the effects of his earlier destructive policies. When supplies failed to arrive from Spain, Canzo’s decision to destroy Indian crops meant that the Spanish now faced widespread starvation along with their captives. 

Despite almost total deprivation, Juanillo and some of his followers continued to resist the Spanish at Tolemato and at the interior village of Yfusinique. Utilizing intertribal rivalries, Canzo persuaded the chief of Asao to lead an expedition against Juanillo’s group. Canzo promised the chief that if he succeeded Asao would receive head town status. The chief lost many warriors in the attack, but returned with 24 prisoners and the scalps of Juanillo and Don Francisco. The Gualean rebellion was quelled, and peace was restored to a land now desolate and barren. □