With Spanish dominance of the region ensured for the near future, the lengthy mission era began. It’s rarely mentioned as a key part of U.S. history, but the Spanish missionary presence on the Georgia coast was longer and more comprehensive than its much more widely known counterpart in California.
St. Augustine’s governor Pedro Menendez de Aviles—sharing “biscuits with honey” on the beach at St. Catherine’s Island with a local mico—negotiated for the right to establish a system of Jesuit missions in two coastal chiefdoms: the Mocama on and around Cumberland Island, and the Guale (pronounced “wallie”) to the north.
Those early missions, the first north of Mexico, were largely unsuccessful. But a renewed, organized effort by the Franciscan Order came to fruition during the 1580s. Starting with Santa Catalina de Guale on St. Catherine’s Island, missions were established all along the Georgia coast, from the mainland near St. Simons and Sapelo Islands, on the Altamaha.
The looming invasion threat to St. Augustine from the great English adventurer and privateer Sir Francis Drake was a harbinger of trouble to come, as was a Guale uprising in 1597. The Spanish consolidated their positions near St. Augustine and Santa Elena was abandoned. As Spanish power waned, in 1629 Charles I of England laid formal claim to what’s now the Carolinas, Georgia, and much of Florida, but made no effort to colonize the area.
Largely left to their own devices and facing an indigenous population dying from disease, the missions in the Georgia interior nonetheless carried on. A devastating Indian raid in 1661 on a mission at the mouth of the Altamaha River, possibly aided by the English, persuaded the Spanish to pull the mission effort to the barrier islands. But even as late as 1667, right before the founding of Charles Towne far to the north, there were 70 missions still extant in the old Guale kingdom.
Pirate raids and slave uprisings finished off the Georgia missions for good by 1684. By 1706 the Spanish mission effort in the southeast had fully retreated to St. Augustine. In an interesting postscript, 89 Native Americans—the sole surviving descendants of Spain’s Georgia missions—evacuated to Cuba with the final Spanish exodus from Florida in 1763.