The meaning of the word Ais is now unknown. It may have been the name of the ruling chiefdomship in that area. Jonathan Dickenson in 1699 referred to them as the Jece, a form of the name Ais. They were also called Indians de la Costa (Indians of the coast) or Costa Indians after 1711.
The Ais lived along the east coast of Florida, from Cape Canaveral in the north to as far south as Fort Pierce (Indian River, Brevard and northern St. Lucie counties). Their lands extended westward to the St. Johns river, and encompassed the Indian River. The Indian River was originally called the River of Ais and the large bay at the river?s north end was called the Bay of Ais.
Little was recorded about the Ais by the early explorers and mission priests, therefore, we have very little knowledge of them. Menendez established a garrison among the Ais, in the Indian River area, in 1565. Shortly after first contact with the Spanish, war broke out with the Ais, but peace was concluded by 1570. However, the warlike Ais were never Christianized by the Spanish.
Shipwrecked Spanish sailors were known to have been taken in by the Ais, who taught them their language. Jonathan Dickenson and his party, ship wrecked off the coast by a hurricane in 1699, encountered the Ais as they traveled up the coast to St. Augustine. Dickenson stayed at the Ais village of Jece, 4 to 5 miles north of Fort Pierce Inslet (on the St. Johns river).
In 1597, the then Spanish governor of Florida, Governor Mendez de Canco, visited the Ais on his journey from the Florida Keys along the east coast to St. Augustine. He noted that the Ais chief had more Indians under him than any other he had visited. The Ais sent warriors to assist the Spanish governor in his campaign against the French in 1605.
After 1675, when the Timucuan rebellions devastated the northern missions, unsuccessful attempts were made to establish missions in Ais territory. In 1660, the corrupt governor, Rebolledo, was accused of trading iron tools and other gifts meant for Christian chiefs to the non-Christian cacique of the Ais in exchange for amber.
The last recorded record of the Ais was in 1703. After that date, they were referred to only as the Costa. In 1759, the last of the Costa were living in St. Augustine, in one of two small Indian villages attached to the mission. Perhaps this remnant of the Costa were among the Indians that accompanied the Spanish to Cuba when they turned Florida over to the English in 1763. In the 1711 censuses, it was recorded that there were 137 Costas, however, their names were not recorded as they were still considered to be heathens.
The Ais had alliances with the Mayaca and Hororo, to the northwest and to the Surruque who lived in along the coast to the north, at Turtle Mound. It is possible that they were related. They paid tribute to the Calusa Chief and shared with him the gold and silver and other riches recovered from wrecked Spanish galleons.
A major Ais chief at the time of Laudonniere (1563) was Oathaqua. The Ais were allies of Chief Saturiwa (the major Timucuan chief on the east coast), perhaps a politically necessity to counter balance the forces of Chief Utina who held the west bank of the St. Johns river from Jacksonville to as far south as Palatka and the lands to the west.
The Ais were primarily foragers, hunting, fishing, and gathering for subsistence. As they were in the region of the headwaters of the St. Johns river, where it is only 10 to 15 miles from the coast, they made use of both the freshwater marshes and swamps and the saltwater coastal lagoons. Because they were able to access and abundance of foodstuffs from their immediate environment, they were able to sustain a large number of warriors and a highly developed cultural system. Turkeys, ducks, deer, raccoons, opossums, rabbits and other small game made up about 15% of their diet. At least 80% of their diet consisted of fish, reptiles and shellfish such as oysters and clams. They left behind large midden mounds of shell as well as dirt burial mounds.
Cape Canaveral?s Spanish name means Cape of Cane. The salt marsh or reed fields were once the most extensive along the east coast, south of St. Augustine.