An inactive interim in local history
Theodor de Bry’s engraving of a Timucua village, supposedly based on a lost painting by Fort Caroline survivor Jacques le Moyne. Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library.
The first person to write about Ossachite was historian T. Frederick Davis, whose frankly blandly-titled 1925 book The History of Jacksonville, Florida and Vicinity was the first comprehensive academic history of the First Coast region. Chapter II begins with a survey of Florida’s first Spanish period, 1565-1763, which Davis calls “a sort of inactive interim in local history,” the type of dark age that makes a fertile field for myths and legends.
The area that would become Jacksonville wasn’t nearly as inactive as Davis thought – more on that in a bit – but it’s true that the future site of Downtown Jacksonville saw little habitation until the British established a ferry crossing there in the 1760s. Even so, Davis notes that the area saw periodic visits and use by the Spanish, British and Native Americans. On page 24, he mentions an especially interesting item cited to the 1870 Jacksonville City Directory:
“At the foot of Liberty Street there was a rather bold spring of clear, good water (an outcropping, perhaps, of the stream that is known at the present day to underlie the surface in that section of the city). Back from the river a short distance stood a small Indian village.”
In a footnote to this passage, Davis adds:
“One of the earliest Spanish maps shows an Indian village here called Ossachite. This liquid Indian name, Os-sa-chi-te is the earliest record of a name applying to the locality of Jacksonville. It was a Timuqua village of probably not more than half a dozen houses thatched in the Timuqua style, as shown by Le Moyne’s drawings.”
Davis’s evocative passages about Jacksonville’s supposed Native American precursor have long captivated Jaxsons eager to know more about the city’s rich but often neglected past. Unsurprisingly, many a book and article on local history have included Ossachite, frequently along with Davis’s claim that this was the first known name for the Downtown Jacksonville area.
The Jacksonville Historical Society’s marker for Ossachite, placed in 1931.
Davis’s reference to Ossachite quickly caught the eye of the Jacksonville Historical Society, which was founded in 1929. In 1931, JHS received funding from City Council to erect a series of markers at the sites of important historical places and events. Along with markers for the Cow Ford, the Union picket lines from the Civil War and others, JHS placed a plaque for Ossachite at the northwest corner of Julia and Monroe Streets.
Though easily missed among the landscaping today, the sign reads: “Site of the ancient Timuquan Indian town of Ossachite from earliest times until about 1700.” It’s not clear from the JHS annual why they chose that specific site, then the location of the main post office (now the Ed Austin State Attorney’s Office), but ever since it has testified to generations of pedestrians about the supposed lost town.
Generally citing Davis, Ossachite is referenced as the native forerunner to Jacksonville in popular works like Edna and Lula Krause’s From Pines to Skyscrapers (1955), Bill Foley and Wayne Wood’s The Great Fire of 1901 (2001) and Donald J. Mabry’s World’s Finest Beach: A Brief History of the Jacksonville Beaches (2010). Earlier editions of Wayne Wood’s landmark work Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage include it too, but the 2022 edition notes that recent researchers have doubted its existence. Other skeptical takes on Ossachite have more recently appeared in Tim Gilmore’s site Jax Psycho Geo and my book Secret Jacksonville.
Glenn Emery and colleague Jan McClung on the phones at the Haydon Burns Main Library in 1997. Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library.
Glenn Emery’s page on Ossachite as maintained by the Jacksonville Historical Society.
One of the most popular versions of the Ossachite legend was written in 2003 by Glenn Emery, creator of the erstwhile website JacksonvilleStory.com. Emery was a senior librarian for the Jacksonville Public Library with master’s degrees in library science and history. His website chronicled some of the forgotten aspects of Jacksonville’s history, and his writings were so admired that after his death in 2006, they were integrated into the website of the Jacksonville Historical Society.
Calling Ossachite the “grand Timucua city,” Emery wrote that it “proved bigger than other communities in the area” and that it “thrived 1000 years ago, but it survived until about 300 years ago.” Emery suggests it may have been centered at the old Courthouse site on Liberty Street. He wrote that Ossachite had a mound and massive council house, and was home to “potters, painters, wood carvers, shell workers, and copper artisans.” When the Historical Society moved the page to its website, additional details were added calling Ossachite “the Timucua metropolis in Jacksonville’s past” and saying its population “at one time numbered over 2,500 people.”
Artist’s depiction of the Mocama people based on current knowledge. Courtesy of Keith Ashley.
Accounts like these are intriguing, but there’s a problem: there’s no evidence that Ossachite ever existed. Since the later 20th century, we’ve seen an explosion in research about the Timucua people, their language, and native and European sources documenting their lives. Historical sources for the Timucua include French, Spanish and English texts as well as letters and books written in Timucua.
These sources mention dozens of Timucua towns and settlements; known Mocama Timucua towns in the Jacksonville area include Saturiwa, Moloa, Alicamani and Athore. In the late 16th century, the Mocama became part of the Spanish mission system, and a sizable mission, San Juan del Puerto, was established at one of their main towns on Fort George Island. While dozens of towns across Northeast Florida appear in native and European records from across several centuries, none mention Ossachite, or any settlement in Downtown Jacksonville.
A map showing the location of the Mocama people. Locations of other Timucua peoples are in gray. Courtesy of Keith Ashley.
Davis’s footnotes also aren’t helpful: his historical blurb is cited to the 1870 Jacksonville City Directory, which doesn’t mention the name Ossachite. It does mention a small Native American town on the Northbank – but it says its inhabitants were Yamasee, not Timucua. The Yamasee were a native confederation originally from Georgia who settled in Spanish Florida at multiple times starting in the 1660s.
Archaeology is similarly silent; there’s no evidence for a large native settlement or mound in Downtown Jacksonville. The Mocama lived around the St. Johns River mouth and surrounding islands and inlets, but the area of Downtown had little if any settlement – in fact, the whole area between Downtown and roughly Palatka may have been an unoccupied buffer zone between the Mocama and another Timucua chiefdom, the Utina, with whom they were often at war.
If a city named Ossachite once occupied Downtown Jacksonville, it vanished without leaving a single trace of its existence. But where did it come from? Fortunately, the ongoing research on the Timucua leads to a theory – one that involves a guy misreading a map 100 years ago.
A legendary error?
Uzachile, also spelled Ossachile, was a Yustaga Timucua town located in the Florida Panhandle, shown here north of the “Bay of the Horses.” It was abandoned just before Hernando de Soto invaded in 1528. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.
My friend Doug Henning, a Timucua language researcher working on the Timucua database project Hebuano.com, believes that the name may be a corruption of Uzachile, a Timucua town in the Florida Panhandle west of the Suwannee River. Uzachile, also written Ossachile, was the capital of a Timucua chiefdom at the time of the Hernando De Soto expedition in 1528. Having heard of De Soto’s brutality, the citizens of Uzachile abandoned the town before the Spanish arrived.
It’s not known what the name Uzachile or Ossachile might mean. “It’s clear that they were connected to Timucua speakers who later lived in the region the Spanish colonial authorities knew as Yustaga,” says Doug. “The dialect of this area is known from two letters written in the 17th century, and a western dialect is probably also represented by the document translations into Timucua organized by Gregorio de Movilla. Our knowledge of the language will forever remain incomplete but it is also entirely possible that this is not actually a Timucua name but rather a name derived from the neighboring Apalachee people, who spoke a Muskogean language even less well-understood than Timucua, but which was part of a still-living family of languages. We just don’t know.”
Uzachile is not mentioned in documents after the time of De Soto’s attack; in later decades, the capital of Yustaga was Cotocochuni or Potohiriba. This didn’t stop cartographers from including it in later maps, generally under the “Ossachile” spelling. It first appears on a 1684 map by French cartographer Jean B. L. Franquelin. As with many colonial European maps, Franquelin’s geography is warped to a fanciful degree and bears almost no relation to reality. “Orthography and geography were both fairly fluid in those days,” says Doug. “Many early maps were scattered with names drawn from exploration accounts without the usual latitudinal and longitudinal precision we take for granted.” It features such errors as mountains in the Florida Panhandle, a giant inland sea roughly at present-day Atlanta, and even real towns are placed in totally incorrect places. Ossachile is case in point; Franquelin relocates this Panhandle town last documented 150 years earlier far to the north of the Timucua missions of the First Coast.
Jean B.L. Franquelin’s 1684 map shows Ossachile north of the First Coast area. It’s located north along a road connecting to a river that’s possibly meant to be the St. Johns.
Pieter van der Aa’s 1706 map with Ossachile along a river in a place that might could be Jacksonville if the whole thing wasn’t so thoroughly wrong.
Many later maps relied on Franquelin’s. One by the Dutch publisher Pieter van der Aa may have been the source of Frederick Davis’s faulty identification. The geography of this 1706 map manages to be even more mistaken than Franquelin’s, showing mountains in the Florida peninsula. It shows Ossachile along a river in an area that an observer could easily identify as Downtown Jacksonville, if any of it bore any relation whatsoever to genuine geography.
The theory proposed by Doug and I is that while writing his book in the 1920s, T. Frederick Davis saw the van der Aa map, or one very much like it (he says it was one of the “earliest Spanish maps”), and reasonably mistook the location of Ossachile for Downtown Jacksonville. “So ‘Ossachile’ ends up right where it looks like Jacksonville is located today and a slight ink blob on the L is probably responsible for turning it into ‘Ossachite,’” says Doug. Davis included “Ossachite” in his brief footnote and inadvertently sparked a legend that’s still going strong today.
The renacimiento timuquano
Detail of the U.S. Capitol’s Timucuan Village mural by EverGreene Painting Studios. This work, painted from 1993-94, is an earlier attempt at a more accurate representation of the Timucua. Courtesy of Wikimedia.
The legend of Ossachite fascinates me in another way. It shows that Jaxsons have long had an urge to know more about their city’s deep past and Native American heritage that greatly exceeds the amount of authentic information available to them. Having little access to the true story of the Timucua, they seized on an attractive myth. Myths can be good things – they can help people feel a sense of connection to their place, and in some cases can encourage them to seek out the truth. That was certainly true for me when I first heard of the mysterious city nearly 20 years ago.
Fortunately, folks today don’t have to rely only on myths. The explosion of research on the Timucua has led to dozens of books trying to bring new life to their culture, language and history. “We’re having something of a renacimiento timuquano, thanks to the work of Dr. George Aaron Broadwell at UF, who has spent the last decade-plus building a corpus of Timucua language texts to help us understand and analyze the language’s grammar,” says Doug. “It’s a titanic task because there are thousands of pages of bilingual documents in Spanish and Timucua. The only early colonial Native North American language corpus of comparable size is Massachusett, the Algonquian language of – as you might expect – eastern Massachusetts.”
Fortunately, Broadwell now has some help. Doug has been studying Timucua for years and eagerly joined the cause. “I originally learned the language primarily through reading the catechisms and grammar published by Fray Pareja on Google Books and then (with some encouragement by you, Bill) getting in touch with Dr. Broadwell, whose corpus then opened up the full Timucua universe to me,” he says. “Then in 2020, Dr. Alejandra Dubcovsky, a scholar of the Native South at the University of California, Riverside, received a grant to learn the Timucua language and reached out to me on Twitter. Led by her and Broadwell, along with Dani Katenkamp from Yale, in the last two years we have built Hebuano, a website where you can learn the grammar of the Timucua language and read historical texts.” You can check out their ongoing work at Hebuano.com.
Additionally, UNF historian Denise Bossy has launched the Indigenous Florida website with a walking tour of Fort Caroline focused on the Mocama, and she and UNF archaeologist Keith Ashley have received a grant to fund new works by indigenous artists replacing wildly inaccurate 16th-century engravings with historically accurate representations. Broadwell is also releasing a new grammar of the Timucua language, and all this builds on years of earlier historical, linguistic and archaeological work on the Timucua. Those interested in learning more have many great sources to choose from, a few of which are included in our list of the best books about Jacksonville. “It’s an exciting time for Timucuan studies,” says Doug.
Ossachite may never have existed, but it continues to leave its mark. “There’s a great hunger for knowledge about early Jacksonville history and an increasing awareness that 95% of our history is Indigenous history,” says Doug. “Before Jacksonville, before Cowford, there wasn’t in fact an Ossachite here but there were Sarabay, Alimacani, Saturiba, Atore, Homaloa, and many other town names lost to time, all sharing a language but also a common history and way of life that are being gradually revealed, word by word and spade by spade.”
Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.