Excavating the Florida Wilderness
Paynes Prairie Yields Clues to Seminole Life
When Jane Anne Blakney-Bailey was in fourth grade and had to come to school dressed as a historic character, she chose to be a Spanish monk traveling throughout the American frontier and serving as a missionary to the American Indians. While others chose to be Betsy Ross or Daniel Boone, the Arkansas youngster was deeply interested in the culture and lifestyle of Native Americans. Now 28, the anthropology PhD student is continuing this fascination by excavating Paynes Town, a Seminole site on the outer edge of Paynes Prairie long thought to have been destroyed by a sandmining operation.
"Despite the historical significance of Paynes Town, no in-depth archaeological research has been conducted at the site," Blakney-Bailey says. "This is probably due to the incredibly destructive sandmining operations of the 1960s and 1970s, which likely dissuaded many archaeologists from pursuing fieldwork there."
Situated on Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Micanopy, the Paynes Town site was home to a Seminole town from the 1790s until 1812, when American soldiers burned it to the ground. UF anthropologists and park rangers have known the general location of Paynes Town since the early 1960s, but Blakney-Bailey has rediscovered the remnants of the ancient village and is conducting an intensive archaeological dig at the site in hopes of mapping out its exact location and arrangement.
"Before that area of Paynes Prairie was purchased by the state and placed under the preserve's control, the Department of Transportation dug out a quarry which they used as fill dirt to create pavement for roadways," says David Jowers, park manager of Paynes Prairie Preserve. "It was all done in innocence, and I don't believe they realized what they were destroying."
Blakney-Bailey first heard the story of Paynes Town when she came to UF in 2000 from New Mexico State University, and she knew something did not sound right. "When I came out to look and see what was out here, I just knew that there was no way it could have all been destroyed," she says. "There's just too much acreage, so I didn't quite believe it. I just had this gut feeling that it was still here, and I set out to determine once and for all if the site existed."
Armed with a band of volunteers from the community and university, she conducted a shovel test of the area, digging more than 350 holes, 10 meters apart, covering the entire 14-acre wooded lot. The preliminary results were very promising, indicating that a substantial portion of the site remained intact under the ground. With more than $30,000 in grants, including a National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant and a Florida Department of State Historic Preservation Grant, Blakney-Bailey is now excavating portions of the site and opening up the holes dug in her shovel test survey. She has found the location of the town and discovered some interesting artifacts.
She has unearthed a charred pit filled with animal bones, aboriginal pottery, European ceramics and nails. Blakney-Bailey says that the structure could possibly be a well that was later used as a trash pit.
Just a few feet away from this great find, another exciting feature was uncovered -- what appears to have been a small cooking hearth. Large pieces of fire-cracked rock were found, surrounded by a ring of dark dirt that included charcoal, charred corn and animal bones. The hearth was sunken down slightly, in the shape of a basin, and additional charcoal-stained soil and artifacts appeared to spill out of the feature, scattering three feet or so across the unit.
And yet another dig produced silver jewelry, the most interesting piece being a heart-shaped pin almost identical to ones found at two other Seminole sites dating to the mid to late 18th century. "Many times these items were given as symbols of good will at meetings and treaties between the English or Americans and the Seminoles," Blakney-Bailey says. "It's interesting to imagine in what manner these items were obtained by Paynes Town inhabitants."
The Paynes Town Seminole tribe was made up of descendants of Oconee Indians, one of 12 Lower Creek towns indigenous to the Chattahoochee River Valley of southern Alabama and Georgia. The Oconee band of Creeks relocated to Alachua County in the mid-18th century and found their livelihood gathering free-range cattle abandoned by Spanish settlers 100 years earlier. The leader of the group, Chief Cowkeeper, died in the 1780s and his eldest nephew, Payne, succeeded him.
Chief Payne moved the town a few miles away to what is now called Paynes Prairie. It remained occupied until 1812, when American troops led by Daniel Newnan attacked the village. Payne, then in his 80s, was shot during a seven-day battle between the tribe and Newnan's men and died a few months later. American soldiers retreated from the battle but returned in December 1812 to find the town abandoned by the Seminoles, who had apparently been warned of their approach. After camping at the site for several days, the soldiers burned the town and took many of the provisions left behind by the tribe, including cattle.
Blakney-Bailey has found artifacts at the Paynes Town site that can be attributed to both the Seminoles and, possibly, the attacking American troops. She is wrapping up her research this summer, and park officials, who gave her a permit to work in the area, are excited about Blakney-Bailey's work and are anxiously awaiting her results. "We are very supportive of what she is doing," says Jowers. "She is doing what our staff doesn't have the time or expertise to do, and we are very happy to have her here."