ST. LUCIE COUNTY – It’s easy to forget sometimes that the very land we walk upon, make our homes on, belonged to a group of indigenous people long before it ever belonged to us. The Treasure Coast is no exception. This land once belonged to the Ais (Ays) people, who occupied the area from Cape Canaveral to the Indian River beginning around 1000 A.D. The Spanish, present in this area from the early 16th century, referred to the Indian River as the “Rio d’Ays”. To the Ais people, though, it was known as “Aysta-chatta-hatch-ee", meaning “river of the Ais Indians”.
Just as the Navajo refer to themselves as Dine’, meaning ‘the people’, ‘Ais’ means ‘the people’ in Chitimacha, a now extinct language associated with the indigenous people of the southeast.
According to an article in the Titusville, Florida Centennial — 1867-1967, Historical Booklet and Program:
“The Spaniards were not renowned for their charitable inclinations toward the New World and its savages. As a result their ships were often heavy with contributions of gold, silver and assorted treasure. Many of these vessels wrecked along the shores of Florida in general and the Brevard area in particular.
The Ais were quick to grasp the realities of the situation. They killed the shipwrecked Spanish (and) took the treasure. When a ship went ashore anywhere near an Ais village, the Ais would, upon the acknowledged signal, take the ship, kill the survivors and capture the gold and silver. This booty was then carried back to the village and buried under the chief's tent for safekeeping. The Ais therefore became the wealthiest tribe in North America when measured by the white man's standard.”
One fortunate shipwreck survivor, a Quaker named Jonathan Dickinson, was a great observer of the Ais people and culture and his journal, dated 1696, is one of the best sources for the information we have about them now.
‘Remember the Ais’, an event sponsored by the Friends of the Savannas Preserve, a local non-profit, offers an opportunity to learn even more about the original stewards of these lands, and to walk in their footsteps along the Glass Lizard Trail in the Savannas Preserve State Park.
The event takes place Saturday, May 8th, 2021, 10am to 2pm. Admission is $3 per vehicle. A $5 activity bag, recommended for children 6 and up, is available for pre-purchase at friends-of-savannas.square.site. Activities include making ink from berries and weaving a small basket. The bags also include additional educational activities to complete along the self-guided trail.
The Savannas Preserve State Park is located at 2541 SE Walton Road, Port St. Lucie, FL, 34952. For more information on Friends of the Savannas Preserve and their upcoming events, visit their website at - https://www.friendsofsavannas.org/, or check out their Facebook page at - https://www.facebook.com/friendsofsavannas/.