For an island that’s nearly uninhabited and can hardly be described as “developed,” St. Catherines sure sees a lot of action. Now that we’re well into summer, boaters have flocked to our northern shore, taking advantage of the public beaches (everything up to the high tide line is fair game). Even though the sunbathers aren't allowed to venture into the interior of the island, there is no shortage of researchers and vacationers coming in from the dock. Friends of the Noble family, families of the staff, foundation members, geologists, ecology students, archaeologists, tortoise interns, turtle interns, oyster interns, ichthyologists, and even a bachelor party have been coming and going in a nearly endless stream of guests. One of the most recent visitors to hop off a boat on St. Catherines, however, is one of my dearest friends and although his visit was rain-soaked and far too brief, we did get to take in some of the sights. I showed him South Beach and the lemur enclosures. We also spent a few moments on North Beach and North Pasture, where he got to see the gopher tortoise burrows. During this whirlwind tour, I took him (after a few wrong turns) to see what is doubtless the most famous point of interest we have here on St. Cats.
In Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum, there is an entire exhibit devoted to artifacts recovered from St. Catherines Island. Most of the beads and pottery shards on display there were discovered due to the efforts of archaeologists from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who come down regularly to dig for more history. They have uncovered over one million artifacts, as well as the remains of over 400 people. The most significant find was discovered in 1981. Well, not “discovered” exactly, but “re-located.” It’s the site of a Spanish mission called Santa Catalina de Guale and it may be the oldest church in the United States. Way back in the early 1590s, the Spanish had set up a series of monasteries in what was then known as La Florida (a.k.a. Spanish Florida). The mission built here was the northernmost of six. It was subsequently burnt down in 1597, rebuilt in 1604, and abandoned in 1680. Today, the only thing left marking the mission site to laypeople like my friend and myself is a series of palm trees planted in 1981 in the building’s old post holes.
New Yorkers weren’t the first visitors to the island who were interested in archaeology. The first person to conduct this type of research here was a man from Philadelphia named Clarence Bloomfield Moore, in 1896. After he left, it would be another sixty years until the next person tried to piece together the history of the mission and the Native Americans on the island. His name was Dr. Lewis Larson, appointed the official State Archaeologist in the mid 60’s. Although both of them uncovered burial mounds and hints of Spanish influence, neither were able to locate the mission itself. It took the museum archaeologists four years before they discovered the actual site. They, unlike their predecessors, had the advantage of ground penetrating radar and electronic resistivity probes to help them narrow their search. What they found was a small compound containing a monastery, a church, and a kitchen. Under the floorboards of the church, they discovered the remains of 431 native Guale people, who were likely converted to Christianity by the Spanish friars. Those bodies, I am told, were reburied on site after the excavation.
Any Steven King fan will tell you that old Native American burial sites are not to be disturbed. The two friars who were stationed at the Santa Catalina de Guale, by all accounts, were murdered under mysterious circumstances and eventually a battle with the English in 1680 left most of the Guale dead as well. So it could be that more of the island’s past lingers beyond just clay pots and bones. My friend remarked, as we wandered through the palm tree square, that he could feel energy there. I don’t think he meant it in any metaphysical sense. It was, rather, a feeling of being in touch with the past; of recognizing the site’s significance as a place where people gathered, ate, played, raised their kids, foraged for food, and thought about their faith. Saint Catherines then, much like it is today, was bustling with activity. I don’t expect any Franciscan friars will be taking up residence in the guest houses soon, but who knows what the researchers here will discover next. All of us here aren’t just living in a place with a rich history, but creating it ourselves. Who knows what we’ll leave behind for the next curious crew of archaeologists.