Peter Ferdinando’s research into the Ais people of Florida has complicated the story of the encounter between early colonizers and indigenous people in Florida. He explains to Brian how the Ais managed to grow their sphere of influence in the face of European arrivals.
Beaches were often the site of the first contact between indigenous people and European colonizers. When I was at the Organization of American Historians Conference, I interviewed Peter Ferdinando, who has studied a group who called themselves the Ais, spelled A-I-S. He says the Ais used the arrival of colonizers to grow their own sphere of control and, as he discovered, they weren’t the only group waiting when the Europeans arrived.
Peter F.: The founder of Saint Augustine, Pedro Menendez, when he was wrecked on the Florida coast in 1571, it was at dawn that the [u-li-may 00:31:53], an Ais-aligned group, came upon the shipwreck. Jonathan Dickinson, a Philadelphia merchant, he records at about 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning that the Jobe, another Ais-aligned group, came onto the wreck. They were well aware that, on one of the frequent thunderstorm days in Florida, there’d been ships driven ashore and you’d have to get there bright and early to control the scene, the early bird gets the worm sort of situation.
Brian Balogh: Now, did they do some of that wrecking intentionally?
Peter F.: That would be an interesting question that is not covered so much in the historical record but, when you get into the 1800s, with the presence of Anglo-Americans in places like Key West, there were always these stories about how they, shall we say, encouraged ships to come onto the reefs and then assisted them by lightening the load. That material never seemed to get back to the ship once they were off the reef.
Brian Balogh: In their daily checks of the shore, they must have come across some survivors, no?
Peter F.: Absolutely.
Brian Balogh: How did that go?
Peter F.: With any of these groups that are practicing, again, this indigenous wrecking process, one of the key things is controlling the scene. This meant that they would, either through actual violence or implied violence, stop the castaways from continuing to claim their own goods. The Native Americans were very concerned about what nation you were from. They asked the Dickinson castaways, “Are you English or Spanish?” They asked the French castaways, “Are you English?” When the French castaways said, “Oh, no, no. We’re French and we’re good friends with the Spaniards,” the Native Americans are fine. They could never figure out what these issues were with the English.
Well, English buccaneers based in the Bahamas are coming down to recover silver from a sunken ship in the Bahamas, and they are raiding the Florida coast to capture aquatically skilled Native Americans as captives to then force them to dive in the sunken Spanish treasure ship.
Brian Balogh: [crosstalk 00:34:01].
Peter F.: Then, a couple of years later, people who are aligned with the English in the Carolina colony are also raiding down to capture Native American slaves for the Carolina slave market, and so you end up with a clear dislike of the English. Even then, Dickinson survives his trip. Many of the other castaways from the wreck do, so their ferocious reputation as these man-eaters, as these cannibals, is very much just that. It’s the way they are able to control the scene.
There’s a whole … There’s an aspect in Dickinson where they surround the castaways. The Native Americans raise their, as Dickinson says, their large Spanish knives, and then they lower their large Spanish knives and say, “Can you please unlock all your containers and give us all your belongings?” Essentially, it’s a display to make sure that the castaways are going to be complaint. They do, they unlock their containers, they give over clothing and their money, and there we go.
Brian Balogh: What are some of the source you use to tell these truly fascinating stories?
Peter F.: I actually use a number of sources because my interest in the Ais crosses over the contact boundary. For Florida, it would be 1513 with Ponce de Leon, but the Ais’ story starts significantly earlier, and so aspects of the work use archeological artifacts. Essentially, I know more about shores and fish bones than you ever want to know.
Then, in the contact era, I continue to use archeology because I look at the distribution of those metal goods, especially.
Brian Balogh: You probably didn’t guess that I went to Ponce de Leon Junior High School in Coral Gables.
Peter F.: I [inaudible 00:35:49]. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brian Balogh: We were required to take Florida history, and I learned something about the Seminole Indians, but I never heard a word about the Ais. Why is that?
Peter F.: This work has kind of lain dormant because you have to look at the Spanish sources, the English sources, other Europeans, because you have to incorporate the archeology, and ultimately because you need an Atlantic focus to truly bring this into a story that shows us, again, how Native Americans were not just people of the landscape, not just people who were going to vanish. My work on the Ais in “Rich from the Sea” connects with a wider scope of what’s called Red Atlantic, the study of native peoples in that wider Atlantic world. This is something which has only been seen as something to study for historians in the last decade or two.
Brian Balogh: I confess that most of what I know about this topic comes from movies. What you’re describing to me sounds much, much more complex.
Peter F.: Oh, yes. The Ais domain of influence includes negotiation with your other native peoples in Florida, with the Spaniards in Saint Augustine, and with passing European ships. This is a great example of the maritime indigenous agency, a chance for Native Americans to be active within what has, in the past, been viewed as the European colonial world. Spanish Florida remained 80% indigenous Florida, whether it was Timucua missions along the north or the Calusa domain, especially in the southwest to the Florida Keys, or the Ais domain on the central east coast, where the Spaniards were off to the periphery. It’s a chance to reorientate our stories beyond ones of mere colonization, of conquest, of disappearance, of vanish, and rather focus on people who remained, who were active, and, ultimately, tell a far more interesting and engaging story.
Brian Balogh: Peter, thanks so much for joining us on BackStory.
Peter F.: Oh, thank you, Brian. I really appreciate it.
Brian Balogh: Peter Ferdinando is visiting lecturer at the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.