The Franciscan missionaries encountered many new peoples north of the Spanish colonial capital of St. Augustine. First, they met the Mocama people (a tribe of the Timucuans), and thereafter, they encountered the Guale. The Spanish sometimes called this area the Lingue de Guale, meaning it was the place where the language of the Guale was spoken, which was different from the language of the Timucuans. The coastal territory of the Guale stretched north of the Altamaha River and south of the Ogeechee River.
This map attempts to chart the approximate locations of the four mission churches that are pertinent to our story of the Five Georgia Martyrs. The exact location of the Mission of Santa Catalina is known, but as it is an ongoing archeological dig, the site is not open to the public. The exact locations of the other missions are not, to our knowledge, known.
The land of the Guale was almost not land at all. The Jesuit fathers who had abandoned the missionary work for the Franciscans had characterized La Florida as the most miserable land ever discovered by man, as one long pile of sand filled with marshes and swamps. The Jesuits thus withdrew, having little success in converts. So, the Franciscans took up the challenge. The Span-iards were there for missions, not for gold or silver or gems, which this part of the new world lacked. These coastal regions were notorious for sickness, and the Guale were also seen as not being overly receptive to the Faith. So, we should not characterize this as a colony of exploitation, and we need to see the Franciscan mission-aries for who they really were – heroic for just volunteering for the task in the first place.
So the Guale were a people who lived in the low country wetlands, where the sea and the land brush together through countless golden marshes – an amazingly beautiful area that is constantly changing and difficult to map. As wild as these islands were (and are), people had lived upon them for thousands of years before the Spanish missionaries explored their many sounds and estuaries. While the archaeologists can find evidence of those ancient peoples, their pre-Columbian stories belong to prehistoric times, but with the coming of the Spanish, we begin to have a written account of their descendants, the Guale. Given that official reports of epidemics were routinely made, it is noteworthy that the Guale seemed never to have such a report given, so they may well have been a very hearty and healthy people, especially given their life near the low country with its flies and mosquitoes.
Lastly, we need to keep in mind the nature of a mission. Often the indigenous peoples the missionaries encountered might have lived in tribes that lived in migratory villages (if you will) in that they lived in quasi-permanent settlements, and moved with the seasons, or after some years. The native Americans might move around seasonally to let fields lay fallow, or to be closer to game. It was frustrating to both the missionaries and the native peoples to some extent that the missionaries were asking the native peoples to be more stable, rooted, or settled than they might have been inclined to be. We see this all over (not just here on the Georgia coast). So a quasi-migratory people are being drawn into a religion that sets aside holy ground, and that wants to develop villages in a more permanent way around a stationary mission church. There were many advantages to this, but it could also be quite a cultural change for the indigenous people. This may explain why some of these missions seem difficult for us to pinpoint on any modern map today.