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Thomas brings artifacts of St. Catherines to surface
David Thomas Hurst
David Hurst Thomas, Ph.D., speaks to the Rotary Club of Richmond Hill on Thursday about l archaeological findings on St. Catherines Island. (Crissie Elrick)

The Franciscan mission that was buried within St. Catherines Island has been a treasure trove of history, and David Hurst Thomas, curator of North American archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has spent much of his career bringing those treasures into the light of day.

The Rotary Club of Richmond Hill welcomed Thomas on Thursday as its special guest during the club’s meeting at the Richmond Hill City Center. There, Thomas shared his findings of archaeological artifacts from 30 years of research on St. Catherines Island on Georgia’s coast

He first visited St. Catherines Island in the 1970s. He said he was apprehensive about going at first, especially because he wasn’t familiar with the territory. However, he found out about the Franciscan mission located on St. Catherines, and, being familiar with Spanish missions from California, he said he became very interested.

“When I researched the history of Georgia, I found a lot about James Oglethorpe and the colonization of Georgia, and the foundation of Savannah,” Thomas said. “I was surprised this was pretty late in the game compared to this mission.”

The mission, known as Mission Santa Catalina de Guale, soon became a favorite of Thomas’. He began doing work there and was impressed when he discovered Native Americans using the island had encountered Franciscan friars from St. Augustine.

“We believe the Franciscans set up relations with the Native Americans around 1566, but certainly by 1590,” Thomas said.

The friars attempted to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. The Native Americans rebelled, and the mission was burned. After some time, it was rebuilt as the Mission Santa Cataline de Guale.

Thomas said the St. Catherines Native Americans were overrun in 1680. One person in 1687 saw that mission and described the ruins, but then people searched for the mission for 300 years.

“A lot of people were successful at finding the garbage, but what we asked was, ‘Can we find the church and where the friars lived?’ and things like that,” Thomas said.

He explained the discoveries made soon after were chronicled in three volumes, including the first discovery of the mission well and the second of the mission kitchen. The third volume detailed how they discovered the mission church. Thomas said it took five years to excavate the church. But it was all there, perfectly preserved, he added.

“There’s been 300 years of searching by lots of scholars, and I was the lucky guy who got to come down on the mission control,” Thomas said.

For more, pick up a copy of the May 14 edition of the News.

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