Engraving by Jacques le Moyne de Morgueson courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library

Women Hidden in Plain Sight

Alejandra Dubcovsky—

There were women in the Early South, for surely there had to be. I was familiar with the long catalogue of responsibilities and obligations historians use to describe women in the colonial era: women farmed, made pottery, prepared meals, mended clothes, raised children, weaved baskets, and so much more. The “women list,” as I called these enumerated tasks, appear in many books, most often included as a throwaway line, a quick acknowledgement of women’s presence and just as quick a dismissal of their importance. I had never bothered to look for women beyond the “women list,” until I found mentions of women on the front lines of a war.

Their presence first became legible, or I should say audible, when I was reviewing a one-thousand-page legajo (bundle) that discussed the 1702 English siege of San Agustín, the main Spanish colonial hub in Florida. These handwritten materials spoke of a European conflict that had spilled onto the American continent, of military strategy and movements, of diplomacy and fighting, and of a violence that only seemed to be escalating. Women had no part in that story, or so I thought. Until I heard them scream. Their shouts and demands had become so loud during this military confrontation that José de Zúñiga y Cerda, Governor of Florida, complained about them…a lot.

The women were so loud. Their cries disoriented Spanish officials, who wanted to focus on defeating the invading army, but instead were forced by the women to turn their gaze to the struggles inside the garrison. Zúñiga y Cerda depicted the women in the fort as terrified and distraught, but their shouts were not made simply in fright. They wanted to know about the shifting English plans and how Spanish forces planned to counter them. Spanish and Criolla (of European descent born in Florida) women wanted to know if the officers had asked Cuba for aid and how the Spanish officials were planning to avoid the sea blockade. Native women, including Timucua, Guale, and Apalachee women, wanted to know how they were supposed to collect food and water, with the enemy encroaching. And Black women, especially those who had recently escaped English slavery and had come to Spanish Florida seeking refuge, wanted to know what would happen to them if Spanish defenses fell. Would they be re-enslaved? Would they be protected? These women were active, albeit unequal participants in this conversation about war. Governor Zúñiga y Cerda disapproved. He did not want women to be part of battle preparations. He did not want to consider their suggestions or protests. He did not want them to speak at all.

So, he ordered them all silent.

But simply because a colonial man over three-hundred years ago expected these women to be quiet, does not mean we should as well. Women and non-combatants were the majority of those inside San Agustín when the English attacked Florida during Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713). It should not be all that surprising that their cries, complaints, and endurance are recorded in Spanish sources. In one instance, Guale women (from what is now the coast of Georgia) surrounded a Spanish Captain and began shouting at him. Until this point, the mentions of Native women during this conflict are easy to miss since they appear in lists next to items, such as church furnishings and farming equipment, which needed to be removed and relocated as the enemy advanced. But Guale women insisted that they were more than objects that could be pushed aside.

As English forces moved into their town, they rushed Captain Fuentes and began yelling. The captain narrated this incident with disdain, complaining how, during a violent attack, he was without soldiers or military support and surrounded instead by “los clamores de las mujeres,” “the clamors of the women.”1 In the Southeast, many Native peoples understood that women played an integral role in war. “The Chickasaws,” explained English trader Thomas Nairne, “usually carry ten or Twelve Young women with them to the Wars, whose business is to sing a fine Tune, during any action. If their own men succeed, they praise them highly and degrade the Enemy, but if they give Back, the singers alter their praises into reproaches.”2 In spite of Captain Fuentes’s protests, the Guale women were likely demanding action against the English. They were articulating their place in battle.

Women in the early South were not so much “hidden in plain sight,” as they were plainly in sight. Finding or hearing women requires an attentiveness that, on the surface, seems quite simple. After all, how hard is it to say that women were there? That women played a role. That women affected change. It turns out that it is quite hard, because those statements require a careful and continual refusal of an entrenched, even seductive colonial narrative built on the disappearance and dismissal of women, especially Native women. After all, the stories about these women come to us from a governor who issued an order to silence them and from a captain who outright dismissed Guale women’s claims. But what happens if instead of focusing on efforts to silence women, we trust their voices?

Women had power in shaping the world they inhabited. Moreover, their power was expected and accepted—it was, as the 1702 siege shows, also visible and audible. The colonial archive did not (nor could not) silence them completely. We must read these colonial sources but listen to the women.

  1. Captain Francisco Fuentes de Galarza (San Juan del Puerto, Guale) to Zúñiga y Cerda,” November 4, 1702 AGI SD 858 folio 708.
  2. Thomas Nairne, Nairne’s Muskhogean Journals: The 1708 Expedition to the Mississippi River. Edited by Alexander Moore. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988): 43. James Adair, History of the American Indians (1775), Kathryn H. Braund, ed.  (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 197-200. Brooke Bauer, Becoming Catawba (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2022), Chapter 2.

Alejandra Dubcovsky is Professor of history at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of Informed Power: Communication in the Early South and Talking Back: Native Women and the Making of the Early South. She lives in California.

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