Pensacola Indian Tribe

Immediately west of the Sawokli, the Spanish “Province of Sabacola,” lived anciently the Pensacola. Their name, properly Paⁿshi okla, “Bread People,” is Choctaw or from a closely related tongue, but we know next to nothing regarding the people themselves. Our earliest information of value concerning any of the people of this coast is contained in the relation of Cabeza de Vaca, who encountered them in 1528 on his way westward from the Apalachee country by sea with the remains of the Narvaez expedition. Although none of the tribes which the explorers met is mentioned by name there is every reason to believe that one of them was the Pensacola. He says:

That bay from which we started is called the Bay of the Horses. We sailed seven days among those inlets, in the water waist deep, without signs of anything like the coast. At the end of this time we reached an island near the shore. My barge went ahead, and from it we saw five Indian canoes coming. The Indians abandoned them and left them in our hands, when they saw that we approached. The other barges went on and saw some lodges on the same island, where we found plenty of ruffs and their eggs, dried, and that was a very great relief in our needy condition. Having taken them, we went further, and two leagues beyond found a strait between the island and the coast, which strait we christened San Miguel, it being the day of that saint. Issuing from it we reached the coast, where by means of the five canoes I had taken from the Indians we mended somewhat the barges, making washboards and adding to them and raising the sides two hands above water.

Then we set out to sea again, coasting towards the River of Palms. Every day our thirst and hunger increased because our supplies were giving out, as well as the water supply, for the pouches we had made from the legs of our horses soon became rotten and useless. From time to time we would enter some inlet or cove that reached very far inland, but we found them all shallow and dangerous, and so we navigated through them for thirty days, meeting sometimes Indians who fished and were poor and wretched people.

At the end of these thirty days, and when we were in extreme need of water and hugging the coast, we heard one night a canoe approaching. When we saw it we stopped and waited, but it would not come to us, and, although we called out, it would neither turn back nor wait. It being night, we did not follow the canoe, but proceeded. At dawn we saw a small island, where we touched to search for water, but in vain, as there was none. While at anchor a great storm overtook us. We remained there six days without venturing to leave, and it being five days since we had drunk anything our thirst was so great as to compel us to drink salt water, and several of us took such an excess of it that we lost suddenly five men.

I tell this briefly, not thinking it necessary to relate in particular all the distress and hardships we bore. Moreover, if one takes into account the place we were in, and the slight chances of relief, he may imagine what we suffered. Seeing that our thirst was increasing and the water was killing us, while the storm did not abate, we agreed to trust to God, our Lord, and rather risk the perils of the sea than wait there for certain death from thirst. So we left in the direction we had seen the canoe going on the night we came here. During this day we found ourselves often on the verge of drowning and so forlorn that there was none in our company who did not expect to die at any moment.

It was our Lord’s pleasure, who many a time shows His favor in the hour of greatest distress, that at sunset we turned a point of land and found there shelter and much improvement. Many canoes came and the Indians in them spoke to us, but turned back without waiting. They were tall and well built, and carried neither bows nor arrows. We followed them to their lodges, which were nearly along the inlet, and landed, and in front of the lodges we saw many jars with water, and great quantities of cooked fish. The chief of that land offered all to the governor and led him to his abode. The dwellings were of matting and seemed to be permanent. When we entered the home of the chief he gave us plenty of fish, while we gave him of our maize, which they ate in our presence, asking for more. So we gave more to them, and the governor presented him with some trinkets. While with the cacique at his lodge, half an hour after sunset, the Indians suddenly fell upon us and upon our sick people on the beach.

They also attacked the house of the cacique, where the governor was, wounding him in the face with a stone. Those who were with him seized the cacique, but as his people were so near he escaped, leaving in our hands a robe of marten-ermine skin, which, I believe, are the finest in the world and give out an odor like amber and musk. A single one can be smelt so far off that it seems as if there were a great many. We saw more of that kind, but none like these.

Those of us who were there, seeing the governor hurt, placed him aboard the barge and provided that most of the men should follow him to the boats. Some fifty of us remained on land to face the Indians, who attacked thrice that night, and so furiously as to drive us back every time further than a stone’s throw.

Not one of us escaped unhurt. I was wounded in the face, and if they had had more arrows (for only a few were found) without any doubt they would have done us great harm. At the last onset the Captains Dorantes, Pefialosa and Tellez, with fifteen men, placed themselves in ambush and attacked them from the rear, causing them to flee and leave us. The next morning I destroyed more than thirty of their canoes, which served to protect us against a northern wind then blowing, on account of which we had to stay there, in the severe cold, not venturing out to sea on account of the heavy storm. After this we again embarked and navigated for three days, having taken along but a small supply of water, the vessels we had for it being few. So we found ourselves in the same plight as before.

Continuing onward, we entered a firth and there saw a canoe with Indians approaching. As we hailed them they came, and the governor, whose barge they neared first, asked them for water. They offered to get some, provided we gave them something in which to carry it, and a Christian Greek, called Doroteo Teodoro (who has already been mentioned), said he would go with them. The governor and others vainly tried to dissuade him, but he insisted upon going and went, taking along a negro, while the Indians left two of their number as hostages. At night the Indians returned and brought back our vessels, but without water; neither did the Christians return with them. Those that had remained as hostages, when their people spoke to them, attempted to throw themselves into the water. But our men in the barge held them back, and so the other Indians forsook their canoe, leaving us very despondent and sad for the loss of those two Christians.

In the morning many canoes of Indians came, demanding their two companions, who had remained in the barge as hostages. The governor answered that he would give them up, provided they returned the two Christians. With those people there came five or six chiefs, who seemed to us to be of better appearance, greater authority and manner of composure than any we had yet seen, although not as tall as those of whom we have before spoken. They wore the hair loose and very long, and were clothed in robes of marten, of the kind we had obtained previously, some of them done up in a very strange fashion, because they showed patterns of fawn-colored furs that looked very well.

They entreated us to go with them, and said that they would give us the Christians, water and many other things, and more canoes kept coming towards us, trying to block the mouth of that inlet, and for this reason, as well as because the land appeared very dangerous to remain in, we took again to sea, where we stayed with them till noon. And as they would not return the Christians, and for that reason neither would we give up the Indians, they began to throw stones at us with slings, and darts, threatening to shoot arrows, although we did not see more than three or four bows. While thus engaged the wind freshened and they turned about and left us. 1

This contains many interesting points. The Bay of Horses must have been somewhere near the mouth of Apalachicola River, and the place where they met the five Indian canoes in what the Spaniards knew later as the province of Sabacola, though the Indians need not have been of that tribe, as we know from the account of Lamhatty that there were several other peoples in the neighborhood. The poor fisher folk whom they encountered were of the same province. The inlet in which they found the first Indian settlement must have been either East Pass or the entrance to Pensacola Bay, and the second entrance where Doroteo Teodoro and the negro went after water would be either Pensacola entrance or the opening into Mobile Bay. That these points were not west of Mobile Bay at all events is shown by one circumstance. In his narrative of the De Soto expedition Ranjel says:

In this village, Piachi, it was learned that they had killed Don Teodoro and a black, who came from the ships of Pamphilo de Narvaez. 2

Now, from a study of the narratives, we feel sure that Piachi was near the upper course of the Alabama River or between it and the Tombigbee. It thus appears that the Creek and the negro were carried, or traveled, inland, but it is not likely that they deviated much from the direct line inland, not more than the ascent of the Alabama or Tombigbee would make necessary.

We need not suppose that the place where these Indians were met was Pensacola Bay, for there is reason to believe that at least the lower portion of Mobile Bay, perhaps the upper portion also, was in times shortly before the opening of certain history occupied by tribes different from those found in possession by the French. It will be remembered that when Iberville settled at Biloxi and began to explore the coast eastward he touched at an island which he named Massacre Island, “because we found there, at the southwest end, a place where more than 60 men or women had been killed. Having found the heads and the remainder of the bones with much of their household articles, it did not appear that it was more than three or four years ago, nothing being yet rotted.” 3 The journal of the second ship, Le Marin, confirms the statement, and adds:

The savages who are along this coast are wanderers (vagabonds); when they are satiated with meat they come to the sea to eat fish, where there is an abundance of it. 4

Pénicaut, as usual, ”improves upon the truth.” He says:

We were very much frightened, on landing there, to find such a prodigious number of bones of the dead that they formed a mountain, so many there were. We learned afterward that it was a numerous nation, which being pursued and having retired into the country, had almost all died there of sickness, and as it is the custom of savages to collect together all the bones of the dead, they had brought them to this place. This nation is named Movila, of which there still remain a small number. 5

Pénicaut’s conclusion was probably due to his knowledge that it was customary among the Choctaw, and probably some of the neighboring nations as well, to treat the bones of the dead as he describes, but his explanation is not borne out by the descriptions of Iberville and his colleague, who are much more worthy of credence. Of course, there is no certainty to what tribe the bones in question belonged, but I make the suggestion that they were from some band of the ancient coast people of whom I am speaking. It is possible that, instead of being members of the Mobile tribe, the people killed here had been the victims of the Mobile. Perhaps these sinister relics and the mysterious disappearance of the Pensacola may have been due to causes set in motion by De Soto, 20 years after the time of Cabeza de Vaca, when he overthrew the Mobile Indians. At that period it is not improbable that they pushed down toward the coast and were instrumental in destroying the aboriginal inhabitants of the region.

In November, 1539, while De Soto was in the Province of Apalachee, Maldonado was dispatched westward in the brigantines. He returned reporting that he had discovered an excellent harbor. He “brought an Indian from the province adjacent to this coast, which was called Achuse, and he brought a good blanket of sable fur. They had seen others in Apalache, but none like that.” This is from Ranjel’s account. 6 The Fidalgo of Elvas says that this province, which he calls “Ochus,” was “sixty leagues from Apalache” and that Maldonado had “found a sheltered port with a good depth of water.” 7 Biedma states that Maldonado “coasted along the country, and entered all the coves, creeks, and rivers he discovered, until he arrived at a river having a good entrance and harbour, with an Indian town on the seaboard. Some inhabitants approaching to traffic, he took one of them, and directly turned back with him to join us.” He adds that he was absent on this voyage two months. 8 Later the bay in which the De Luna colonists established themselves is called the “Bay of Ichuse,” or ” Ychuse,” but it is uncertain whether this was Mobile or Pensacola. 9 Nevertheless, what Biedma says of the river and his later statement, when the army reached what must have been the Alabama, or a stream between it and the Tombigbee, that they considered it to be “that which empties into the Bay of Chuse,” 10 along with the further fact that they there heard of the brigantines, 11 would seem to indicate Mobile. An interesting point in connection with this expedition of Maldonado is the mention of the ”good blanket of sable fur” superior to anything they had seen in Apalachee, because it will be recalled that Cabeza de Vaca noticed in the very same region ”a robe of marten-ermine skin” which he believed to be ” the finest in the worid.” 12 The blankets seen by Cabeza de Vaca and the companions of De Soto were probably of the same sort, and it is likely that the Indians of that particular region had peculiar skill in making them. The names Achuse, Ochus, Ichuse, Ychuse recall the Hitchiti word Otdsiy “people of a different speech,” and it is not improbable that the term occurred likewise in Apalachee and was applied to this province because the Pensacola and Mobile languages were distinct from those spoken east of them.

In letters written in 1677 this tribe and the Chatot are mentioned as peoples living between the Chiska Indians and the Gulf of Mexico, 13 and from a letter dated May 19, 1686, and sent by Antonio Matheos, lieutenant among the Apalachee, to the governor of Florida, it appears that the “Panzacola” were then at war with the Mobile Indians, 14 a circumstance which would tend to bear out my theory above expressed. Shortly afterwards, however, when a Spanish post was established in their country the tribe itself had disappeared. Barcia says:

They say that the province was called Pancacola because anciently a nation of Indians inhabited it named Pancocolos, which the neighboring nations destroyed in wars, leaving only the name in the province. 15

Nevertheless, Barcia himself records encounters with Indians in the surrounding country by the Spaniards sent to make a reconnaissance of the harbor in 1693. His account is as follows:

On the 11th [of September] starting from the “Punta de Gijon” and navigating in a depth of from one to two fathoms, they went along the coast, going northeast with easterly wind, and at a distance of about two leagues and a half, it looked as if the water had changed its colour. They tasted it and found it sweet, and one-quarter of a league further on it was very sweet and they were then sure it was the mouth of a river which ran east-southeast, about three-quarters of a league and its width was one fourth [of a league], being lost at the distance mentioned. On the north side there is a canal, which extends about a pistol shot. They entered the first inlet for about a quarter of a league and seeing some smoke rise on the south shore, they discovered three bulks which looked like tree trunks, but when these began to move towards the forest, they recognised them to be Indians. They jumped on land and although they tried to catch up with them they could not find them any more, not even their traces, for the soil was covered with dry leaves.

They found the lighted fire, and on it a badly shaped earthen pan, with lungs 16 of bison, very tastelessly prepared, stewing in it, and some pieces of meat toasting on wooden roasters. On one of them some fish was transfixed, which looked like “Chuchos.” In baskets made of reed, and which the Indians call “Uzate” (Uçate) there was some com, calabash-seeds, bison-wool and hair of other animals, put in deerskin bags, a lot of mussels (shell-fish), shells, bones and similar things. They found several feather plumes of fine turkeys, 17 cardinal birds or redbirds, and other birds and many small crosses, the sight of which delighted them, although they recognised soon that those were spindles on which the Indian women span the wool of the bison. The Spaniards put into one of the baskets cakes, into the other knives and scissors, and, after erecting a cross, they returned to their boat. They navigated half a league when they saw to starboard four or five Indians, who, in order to escape more swiftly threw away all they carried. They [the Spaniards] landed and found several skins of marten, fox, otter, and bison and a lot of meat pulverised and putrid, in wooden troughs. 18 In one of the baskets which were strewn about, they found some roots looking like iris or ginger, very sweet in taste, bison-wool done up in balls, spindles and beaver-wool or hair in bags, very soft white feathers and pulverised clay or earth apparently for painting, combs, not so badly made, leather shoes shaped more like boots, claws of birds and other animals, roots of dittany, 19 several pieces of brazil, a very much worn, large hoe and an iron adze. The Indian huts, which they saw here, were made of tree-bark and in the sea were two canoes or boats, one with bows and arrows made of very strong wood and points of bone; the other was badly used [in bad condition]. These boats showed that those Indians had probably come here by water . . .

. . . Toward the south-southeast went Don Carlos de Siguenza with captain Juan Jordan, Antonio Fernandez, carpenter, and an artillery man, and they found a hut, built on four posts and covered with palm leaves. Inside they found a deerskin, a sash made of bison wool, a piece of blue cloth of Spain, about a yard and a half long and thrown over the poles, many mother-of-pearl shells, fish-spines, animal-bones and several large locks of [human hair]. A little further on at the foot of a tall pine tree they saw in a hamper 20 a decayed body, to all appearances that of a woman; but, leaving all this as it was, they went to the spot where they had seen the two Indians and they found one, who fled, leaving in the place where he had been a gourd filled with water and a bit of roasted meat; which provisions, however, made them suppose him to be a sentinel, the more so as they soon found traces of children’s and women’s feet, but could find nobody. 21

There are also three specific references to the Pensacola by French writers. Pénicaut states that in 1699 the chiefs of ”five different nations, named the Pascagouias, the Capinans, the Chicachas, the Passacolas, and the Biloxis, came with ceremony to our fort, singing, to present the calumet to M. d’lberville.” 22 La Harpe in his Journal Historique says that on October 1, 1702, at Mobile, “other savages were received who sang the calumet, and promised to live in peace with the Chicachas, the Pensacolas, and the Apalaches. 23 These “other savages” were probably Alabama Indians. And finally, Bienville in an unpublished account of the native tribes of Louisiana dating from about 1725 says that the villages of the Pensacola and Biloxi lay near each other on Pearl River, the two containing but 40 warriors. 24 In a letter on Indian affairs, dated Pensacola, December 1, 1764, is an estimate of the Indian population in the Gulf region, and among the entries, we read, “Beloxies, Chactoes, Capinas, Panchaculas [Pensacolas], Washaws, Chawasaws, Pascagulas, 251.” 25 It is therefore probable that a remnant of the tribe continued a precarious existence, probably in close alliance with some larger one, for a long time after it was supposed to be extinct. This would be quite in line with what we find in the case of so many other small tribes.Citations:

  1. Bandeller, The Journey of Alvar Nunoz Cabeza de Vaca, pp. 41-49.[]
  2. Bourne, Narr. of De Soto, II, p. 123[]
  3. Ibervllle in Margry, IV, p. 147.[]
  4. Margry, Déc., IV, p 232.[]
  5. Margry, Déc., v, p. 383.[]
  6. Bourne, Narr. of De Soto, II, p. 81.[]
  7. Bourne, Narr. of De Soto, p. 50.[]
  8. Bourne, Narr. of De Soto, pp. 8-9.[]
  9. See p. 159.[]
  10. Bourne, Narr. of De Soto, u, p. 17.[]
  11. Bourne, Narr. of De Soto, p. 21.[]
  12. See p. 145.[]
  13. Serrano y Sanz, Doc. Hist., p. 197; Lowery, MSS.[]
  14. Serrano y Sanz, Doc. Hist., p. 210.[]
  15. Barcia, La Florida, p. 316.[]
  16. Probably the whole lights, or haslet, i, e., lungs, heart, and liver.[]
  17. Plumeras de plumas de pavos fines.[]
  18. Pilones, probably wooden mortars.[]
  19. Which might have been flaxinella or marjoram.[]
  20. Petaca means really a leather trunk fashioned after the style of a hamper.[]
  21. Barcia, La Florida, pp. 309-310. Translated by Mrs. F. Bandelier.[]
  22. Margry, Déc., v, p. 378.[]
  23. La Harpe, Jour. Hist., pp. 73-74.[]
  24. French transcription, Lib. Cong.[]
  25. Amer. Hist. Rev., xx, No. 4, p. 825.[]

History, Pensacola,

Swanton, John Reed. Early History of the Creek Indians and Their Neighbors. US Government Printing Office. 1902.

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