Play Ball!

In the community of every Guale village singular importance was accorded the native game of ball.

Resembling somewhat vaguely the American game of football – or even more truly the British game of soccer – the sport was not confined to the Guales, or even to the Florida natives exclusively. We are particularly fortunate, however, in having a contemporary description of the sport as played among the natives of La Florida, including the Guales, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

That primary source of information about the game is a section of a poem – truly heroic in its concept and its contents – titled La Florida. The work, written in the early 1600's, consisting of well over 400 folios, has never been published in its entirety. It is preserved in a vellum manuscript in the Madrid Biblioteca Nacional. Through the years various selected stanzas of the original have been published, and in 1963 a partial translation into English was issued.6

The author of this contemporaneous source of information about the native Americans of La Florida was a Spanish Franciscan, Fray Alonso Gregorio de Escobedo. Both from the poem itself and from documents preserved in the Archivo General de las Indias, we know that he came to the New World in 1587, landing at San Agustín in October of that year. We do not know all the places where he lived and served in Florida, nor is it certain how long he remained in the Florida mission. It is certain, however, that for some time he was in charge of the Mission Nombre de Dios near San Agustín.

It seems quite possible that he spent a good deal of time in traveling to the other missions then in existence, and possibly also in visiting other areas of the Spanish colony in the Southeast. Though it is not certain how long Escobedo remained in Florida, internal evidence from the poem is the basis for speculation that he was back in Spain at least by July of 1595.

Our chief interest in the poem is in what pertains to the martyrdom of 1597. This is found in cantos 137 to 164. But the author's commentary on the Indian sport which so clearly resembled our modern-day football (cantos 346 to 349) is fascinating.

For a setting he tells us that goalposts, made from pine trees, about seven feet high, were erected at each end of the field. The objective of the game was to hit the goalpost directly, thereby scoring a point. From various sources it is known that the players, forty in all, painted their bodies with vibrant colors, probably red for the members of one of the two teams, and blue for the other. Each side of the contest consisted of twenty players, who all rushed on the playing field at a given signal. Each player had his designated adversary; it was the task of each one to keep his adversary from scoring. The player appointed to carry the ball would be met by his designated adversary. The other players, on both sides, meanwhile, would be engaging in a melee to prevent one another from getting into the center to influence the struggle between the two principal contenders. If one principal of the thirty-eight auxiliaries should dislocate himself from the lateral mayhem and go to the aid of his principal player, he would be disqualified, and his side would have to continue to play with one man less. "In Castile the hands are used in playing ball," the poet says, "but these Indians play ball with their feet. They propel the ball with their feet directly at the goal."

The game afforded a prime opportunity for displaying speed and dexterity – but particularly stout-hearted perseverance. The poet affirms:

"It is a continuous war until time is called. The one holding the ball with his foot will kick the ball straight at the goal. If he makes the mark, his friends go wild because the reward is worth the struggle…The prize they play for in lieu of money is some small fishbones worth in Castile about one copper coin. For such a small prize the victorious Indian dashes about at full speed, for he who wins is given a place of honor."

Any tribal celebration might call for a game of ball. The favored season for these games, however, was a month at the time of the Green Corn ceremony. Coinciding with the ripening of the new corn, among the Guales this would be in May or June. It was a time for ritual purification before the Great Spirit. Though with a lessened sense of jubilation, the game also was played at any other time of the year. In the very hot summer months, from May through August, there was a diminished observance of the ritual associated with the annual Green Corn Festival.7

Escobedo, fols. 346v-349v.

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Credits/External Links
The First Georgia Missions: Our Southern Catholic Heritage, Dr. Paul Thigpen and Katherine Ragan. Illustrations by Pamela Gardner, based on the retablo by Dan Nichols. This retablo is part of the parish patrimony of Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church in Jasper, Georgia

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