The Franciscan mission that was buried within St. Catherines Island has been a treasure trove of history, and David Hurst Thomas, curator of North American archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has spent much of his career bringing those treasures into the light of day.
The Rotary Club of Richmond Hill welcomed Thomas on Thursday as its special guest during the club’s meeting at the Richmond Hill City Center. There, Thomas shared his findings of archaeological artifacts from 30 years of research on St. Catherines Island on Georgia’s coast
He first visited St. Catherines Island in the 1970s. He said he was apprehensive about going at first, especially because he wasn’t familiar with the territory. However, he found out about the Franciscan mission located on St. Catherines, and, being familiar with Spanish missions from California, he said he became very interested.
“When I researched the history of Georgia, I found a lot about James Oglethorpe and the colonization of Georgia, and the foundation of Savannah,” Thomas said. “I was surprised this was pretty late in the game compared to this mission.”
The mission, known as Mission Santa Catalina de Guale, soon became a favorite of Thomas’. He began doing work there and was impressed when he discovered Native Americans using the island had encountered Franciscan friars from St. Augustine.
“We believe the Franciscans set up relations with the Native Americans around 1566, but certainly by 1590,” Thomas said.
The friars attempted to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. The Native Americans rebelled, and the mission was burned. After some time, it was rebuilt as the Mission Santa Cataline de Guale.
Thomas said the St. Catherines Native Americans were overrun in 1680. One person in 1687 saw that mission and described the ruins, but then people searched for the mission for 300 years.
“A lot of people were successful at finding the garbage, but what we asked was, ‘Can we find the church and where the friars lived?’ and things like that,” Thomas said.
He explained the discoveries made soon after were chronicled in three volumes, including the first discovery of the mission well and the second of the mission kitchen. The third volume detailed how they discovered the mission church. Thomas said it took five years to excavate the church. But it was all there, perfectly preserved, he added.
“There’s been 300 years of searching by lots of scholars, and I was the lucky guy who got to come down on the mission control,” Thomas said.
Thomas said the church discovered is arguably the oldest Christian church in the United States. But more research led Thomas and his team to discover 432 Native American bodies buried beneath the church. He said it took 15 years to excavate all the remains.
“It’s the most completely excavated 16th-17th century cemetery in the country, and the remains were analyzed all over the world,” Thomas said.
The bodies that were found all had their feet toward the altar, which meant they were members of the church. Thomas said they have not found a priest but will know when they do because he would be buried with his head toward the altar.
Thomas also said there should be a second cemetery for those who did not convert to Christianity, but it hasn’t been found yet. This could be because it’s already eroded, he said.
During the dig, they also found close to 70,000 beads, making it the most significant bead collection in the world. The beads originated in countries ranging from India and China all the way to Africa. Thomas said this showed the inhabitants had an extensive trading network.
But with the discovery of all these artifacts, they needed a place of safe keeping, Thomas said.
“We ultimately decided that what was found in Georgia will stay in Georgia,” he said.
A museum could not be created on St. Catherines Island because of the storm surges. The island has been totally under water twice within the last 180 years, so that posed a problem, Thomas said.
After exploring other options, it was decided to keep all artifacts discovered before the year 2000 at Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta.
Although this is a major discovery on St. Catherines Island, Thomas explained that only about 5 percent of the mission has been excavated, and that he believes they’ve found the site where Native Americans encountered the Europeans.
Thomas said his work isn’t the only thing happening on the island. There is research along with education and conservation. The research provides a new way to uncover deep American history previously unknown. The education portion impacts college-level archaeology students all over the country who are able to “learn through the lens of St. Catherines,” Thomas said. Finally, conservation efforts are being made to save endangered and indigenous animals alike.
Thomas and his team are currently on St. Catherines Island and plan to stay for several more weeks.