Prior to their retreat to Florida in 1684, Muskogean-speaking Guale Indians inhabited much of what is now the Georgia coast. The arrival of Spanish missionaries in Florida and Georgia in the mid-1500s began what is known archaeologically as the mission period (1568-1684), a time of sustained interaction between the Spanish and the Guale people. Over time, population loss due to European-introduced diseases and conflict with English-backed Native American slave raiders resulted in a drastic reconfiguration of Guale society and the abandonment of the Guale's ancestral homeland (Worth 2007).

Sapelo Island (Figure 6.1) is the site of at least one Spanish mission, the Mission San Joseph de Sapala (Worth 2007:194). Ethnohistoric data indicate that this mission played a critical role in the story of Guale culture change, serving as an aggregation point for other Guale towns that were forced to relocate after attacks by slave raiders and pirates. Of particular interest is the period from ca. 1660 to 1684, when extensive demographic shuffling and relocation led to the mixing of many formerly separate Native American social entities and the emergence of the Yamassee, a newly formed but culturally distinct sociopolitical group made up of individuals from several collapsed chiefdoms (Saunders 2001; Worth 2004a, 2004b).