The Tekesta were an indigenous maritime people, whose primary villages were near the mouths of rivers along the Atlantic Coast of what are now Miami-Dade, Broward and southern Palm Beach Counties. 1 At certain periods in the past, they also occupied the Florida Keys, but Calusa artifacts outnumber those of Tekesta in Florida Key archaeological sites, 4:1. This suggests that most of the time, the Keys were occupied by people related to the Calusa. The Tekesta were closely allied to their immediate neighbors to the north, the Jaega.
Tekesta is also written in its Spanish form of Tequesta. The Castilian alphabet was based on the Roman alphabet and did not use a letter K. 2 Today, contemporary Spanish writers only use a K to spell foreign words.
Little is known about the language of the Tekesta People. Few words survive. The meaning of the word, Tekesta is unknown. Since Spaniards typically changes Southeastern indigenous “te(” sounds to “ta(”, their actual name probably was Tekeste – utilizing the Itza suffix. “te” for “people.”
There is a continuous development of indigenous ceramic styles in southeastern Florida from around 700 BC to 1600 AD. 1 Archaeologists have interpreted this to mean that the Tekesta arrived in the region around 700 BC. That may or may not be true. Pottery was generally made by females. Males from another culture could have conquered the region at some time in the past, killed the indigenous males and taken the indigenous females as wives and concubines.
The Tekesta were not agriculturalists and did not reside in permanent year-round villages. They migrated seasonally to take advantage of available natural food sources and avoid natural threats. During the three months of mosquito season, they moved to lightly constructed fishing camps on the barrier islands and during certain periods, the Florida Keys. During hurricane season and late autumn, some Tekestas would occupy hunting camps in the region east of Lake Okeechobee.
Although there are mounds and ceremonial earthworks in Southeast Florida, the Tekestas apparently not build large ceremonial complexes during the European Contact Period. The large complexes in the interior were probably built by other ethnic groups. However, the Tekesta did share in the Amazonian and Southeastern custom of the Sacred Black Drink, made from the leaves of highly caffeinated holly leaves.
The first recorded contact between Europeans and the Tekesta occurred in 1513. 3 Juan Ponce de Leon’s fleet anchored in a bay that he called Chequesta. This was probably Biscayne Bay.
In 1565, one of the ships of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés anchored in Biscayne Bay to weather out a storm. The principal town of the Tekestas was located there. The Tekestas were hospitable to Menéndez and his fellow Spaniards. The nephew of the chief was taken back to Cuba to receive a Spanish education. The boy’s father accompanied Menéndez back to Spain, where he was converted to Catholicism.
Menéndez returned to the Tekesta in 1567 to establish a small Spanish post on the south bank of the Miami River. 4 It consisted of a small fort with a garrison of 30 men, plus Jesuit friar, Franscisco Villareal, to establish a mission. Prior to departing for Florida, Villareal learned some Tekesta in Cuba from the chief’s nephew.
Initially, Villareal was able to win some converts, but the hospitality of the Tekesta quickly ended when soldiers killed the uncle of the Tekesta chief. The mission was quickly abandoned. When the chief’s brother returned from Spain, the mission was re-opened, but did not remain operational very long. During the 1600s, there was minimal contact between the Spanish and Tekestas. European sailors, who shipwrecked on the Southeast Florida coast were often killed, or sold as slaves to other tribes.
In 1704, during the height of the Queen Anne’s War between Spain and Great Britain, the Spanish government initiated a policy whereby bands of Florida Indians were forcibly relocated to Cuba, so that they could be indoctrinated with Spanish culture and Catholicism. 4 This policy was tantamount to genocide since most forcibly transported Indians quickly died in Cuba. The first victims of this genocide were from Key West, and apparently were related to the Tekesta.
In 1743, the governor of Cuba sent two Jesuit missionaries, Fathers Mónaco and Alaña, along with an escort of soldiers, to Biscayne Bay to establish a military post and mission. 4 The Tekestas were understandably hostile to the Spaniards. The leader of the Tekesta announced that Spain did not have sovereignty in his land. His people refused to work for the Spanish. While attempting to establish a mission there, the Spaniards reported that they were attacked by Uchizas. Florida scholars call the Uchizas, Creek Indians, but this word is actually the Spanish name for the Yuchi Indians.
The two Jesuits planned to build a fort, garrisoned by 25 soldiers and import some Spanish colonists to grow food for the garrison and mission. 4 They speculated that the new settlement would replace the need for Fort Augustine, which was becoming increasingly expensive of Spain to maintain. Father Mónaco was left at the embryonic Tekesta mission along with 12 soldiers and a corporal to protect him, while Farther Alaña journeyed to Havana to present his proposal to the governor.
The governor was not pleased with the situation at the Tekesta mission. He ordered the fort burned and the Spaniards withdrawn from the settlement. When the Council of Indies reviewed the Jesuit’s proposal in Spain, they rejected it as being too costly and impractical. The second attempt at Spanish colonization of Southeast Florida only lasted three months.
During the Seven Years War (1754-1763) British ships captured Havana, while defeating both France and Spain in Europe. 5 Spain was forced to exchange Florida for the return of Havana. Most Tekestas and Key Indians were taken to Cuba when Spanish troops abandoned Florida. Some Tekestas fled to the interior where they merged with Muskogean immigrants. These hybrid villages soon became known as the Seminole Indians.
- Hann, John H. (2003). Indians of Central and South Florida: 1513-1763. University Press of Florida; pp. 139-141.
- “Spanish orthography” Wikipedia.
- Hann, John H. (1991). Missions to the Calusa. Gainesville: University of Florida Press; pp. 1-4.
- Matter, John. “Missions to the Calusa” Book Review. Florida Historical Quarterly Vol. 72, No. 2 (Oct., 1993), pp. 208-210.
- Sanchez-Galarraga, Jorge, “Siege of Havana, 1762”, Seven Years War Association Journal Vol. XII No. 2.