When Lars Andersen paddles near St. Augustine, he tries to picture what it looked like, smelled like and perhaps most of all, felt like on a day in 1763.
He wants others to picture that day and know the story — or what little we know — of Juan Alsonso Cabale.
Cabale is believed to be The Last Timucuan.
When he died four years after leaving St. Augustine, it was the end of a timeline stretching back more than 10,000 years.
The 250th anniversary of Cabale’s death — Nov. 14, 1767 in Guanabacoa, Cuba — came and went a couple of weeks ago.
Even in the middle of National Native American Heritage Month, there was little fanfare.
But when Andersen, a 61-year-old river guide, paddled some of our waterways he thought about the anniversary and the man he sometimes refers to simply as “Alonso,” as if they’ve become close. Which in a way, they have.
Andersen and his wife own Adventure Outpost in High Springs. For 20 years, he’s been leading tours on more than 50 North Florida waterways, writing a blog, publishing one book (“Paynes Prairie: A History and Guide”) and working on another.
Through the years, as he’s paddled Florida’s rivers and researched our history, he’s started to view the story of The Last Timucuan as a story of loss and disconnect.
“My tours have started to feel like a personal crusade to help re-forge the connection that was lost,” he said.
Four years ago, when the state sponsored events titled “Viva Florida” to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon arriving on our shores, Andersen decided to do a series of paddling tours that he called “Viva Timucua.”
He was struck by the almost too perfect symmetry of something tragically imperfect. The 500th anniversary of that 1513 beginning also was the 250th anniversary of an end — that day in 1763 in St. Augustine.
The Spaniards had lost Florida to Great Britain. They were sailing to Cuba. With them were the last 89 full-blooded Timucuan men, women and children.
Historians estimate that when Europeans first arrived in North Florida and South Georgia, there were maybe 200,000 Timucua Indians living here. That population, which had survived all manners of challenges for centuries, quickly dwindled through sickness and sword.
As the Spanish created a system of missions, the Timucua often were given the choice between conversion to Catholicism or death. Even those who choose to convert often ended up dying. A series of epidemics in the 1600s wiped out half the natives in missions.
One of the final blows was a series of gruesome raids from the north, with Yamasee and Chichimeco tribesmen doing the bidding of the British, burning missions and dragging off the surviving Timucua to be sold in Charleston slave markets.
By the time a boy named Juan Alonso Cabale was born in 1709, there were likely a few hundred Timucua in a handful of villages in the St. Augustine area.
In his “Viva Timucua” series, Andersen led one paddle that he called “Mission Santa Fe.” It went to the remote upper reaches of the Santa Fe River, past the site of the mission village Santa Fe de Toloca where Cabale’s parents and ancestors lived.
Another was titled “The Dunes” and explored St. Augustine — the site of Ponce de Leon’s arrival and, 250 years later, Cabale’s departure at age 54.
When he paddles there, Andersen sometimes pictures Alonso leaning against the wooden railing of a ship and scanning the marshes around the Castillo. He pictures him squinting toward the north, far up the broad channel of the Tolomato River for a final glimpse of the hazy tree line of the Guana Peninsula and, somewhere beyond, the place where he grew up.
“As he watched Florida growing small on the horizon, I wonder if Alonso had a sense of that moment’s gravity,” Andersen wrote in a blog post. “When he died in Cuba a few years later, I wonder if Alonso realized that his final heartbeat would be the last in an unbroken thread of beating hearts that stretched back 14,000 years.”
I was reading a book earlier this year that made a brief reference to a group of Timucuans sailing to Cuba and surviving only a few years there, the last one dying in 1767. I noticed the year and realized this was the 250th anniversary. When I searched online and in books, I came up with a few references to Cabale — even a song by Florida musician Emmett Carlisle titled “The Last Timucuan” — but not a lot of details.
Andersen said that’s partly because we’re going back 250 years, but largely because an already tenuous link to thousands of years of Timucua history snapped when Cabale died.
“I honestly think in the big picture of things it’s one of the most important anniversaries symbolically in our Florida story,” Andersen said. “It’s not only like a new chapter. It’s like the beginning of a new book.”
Even if Cabale wasn’t the last Timucuan — it’s unclear if some hiding in the Florida woods might have outlived him — it was an ending. And in many ways, Andersen said, that has ripple effects in today’s Florida. He points to the springs in North Florida that are drying up — “world-class natural wonders” — and the lack of outrage.
“I don’t think that would have happened if we all were raised hearing stories about the rivers,” he said.
So when he guides river trips, he tries to tell some of the stories he knows.
He doesn’t make the trips all about history. If people just want to get out on the water and enjoy a relaxing few hours, that’s great. But he believes to truly enjoy the present in these places, it helps to imagine the past.
“If people are interested in that, they stick close to me and I’ll tell some stories,” he said, laughing. “If they’re real interested, they’ll get an earful.”
The 250th anniversary of the death of the Last Timucuan has passed. Native American Heritage Month is over. We’ve moved into a month with another anniversary and more ripples.
This week will include the anniversary of Andrew Jackson delivering a speech to Congress in 1830 advocating for the forced expulsion of Southern Indians to land in the West. There also reportedly will be a major public lands announcement Monday — dramatic changes to two national parks in Utah (the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments).
Five tribes supported the creation of the parks and oppose the changes, fearing it will open the door to mining and drilling on land they consider sacred. So would America cap off a celebration of Native American Heritage Month by promptly ignoring the voices of Native Americans? History says that of course we would.
When it comes to our own backyard and its history, Andersen wants us to remember the English, French and Spaniards. But he doesn’t want us to forget who and what came before them. That, he wrote in a blog post he titled “Alonso Sails,” would be like taking pictures of a grand landscape with one lens pointed in one direction.
“You get home with a lot of great pictures of mountains,” he said. “But it’s not until some beautiful yellow petals fall from your boots that you realize you had been standing in a field of foxgloves.”