The Lost Tribe of Indian River
The artifacts, history and disappearance of the Ais people
Dean Quigley created this image, on display in the House of Refuge, for the Florida Archaeological Preservation Association.
The Indian River. The name sounds as if it could appear on a map of any region in the United States — a generalized reference to a vast array of peoples and cultures. However, when European explorers and settlers first charted this Florida river, they gave it a name with a much more specific meaning. The oldest maps to show what we know as the Indian River were made by Spanish cartographers, and they gave it the name “Rio d’Ais.”
The Spanish were naming the river not for Native American peoples in general but for a distinct tribe that lived in this area: the Ais. At their peak, the Ais people fished and hunted, made pottery and tools, and even salvaged treasure — all in what is today the Vero Beach area. And while the Ais are a lost tribe, the artifacts they left behind, along with the sometimes mysterious references in historical chronicles, allow us a glimpse of their vanished culture.
In Stuart, the Elliott Museum and the nearby House of Refuge Museum have intriguing collections of Ais artifacts, many of which were discovered because of the disastrous hurricane season of 2004. Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne washed away massive amounts of sand, revealing lost artifacts. Linda Geary, curator of the Historical Society of Martin County, which runs both museums, recalls, “A lot of sand dunes were cut in half, and we found they weren’t just sand dunes — they were middens.”
Shell middens, which are large mounds formed by vast numbers of discarded oyster shells and other items, are important archaeological sites in the study of many Native American cultures, including the Ais.