History of Spanish Florida - First Period
By Jerry Wilkinson
        When Columbus landed at "San Salvador, Bajamar" in 1492, this "New World" was opened like the Greek mythological Pandora's box. It should be remembered that this occurred about 13,000 years after the first Amera-Indians are thought to have migrated to northern Florida. Columbus did not discover America; he only discovered it for the Europeans.

       Much occurred here and in our neighboring islands of the Bahamas and Cuba. As in most United States history, there were multifaceted forces of government exploitation, forced religious values, class exploitation, lack of personal freedom and greed. It does appear that greed entered the scene early, but that was nothing new.
       In 1497, Italian navigator, Amerigo Vespucci, sailed the coasts and English John Cabot made two trips in 1497 and 1499. In 1511, Diego Velasquez occupied Cuba and by 1515 had established six settlements, including Havana.
       Fifty-three-year-old Juan Ponce de Leon obtained a patent to explore and possess the legendary island of Bimini and surrounding lands, which would include Florida. Ponce de Leon had some knowledge of the New World as he had sailed with Columbus on his second voyage. Ponce himself was not a navigator, but more of a rich conquistador who had gained Indian experience in controlling the Tainos and Caribs in the West Indies. His pilot was a self-made Spaniard named Anton de Alaminos who had also once sailed with Columbus. Anton later sailed the first Spanish treasure fleet north using the Gulf Stream in 1519.
       It was during the Easter holidays of "Feast of the Flowers"  in 1513 that he landed on the northeast coast of Florida between April 2 to 8. This area is said to have been called "Cautio" by his Lucayan natives and "Bimini" by the Tainos natives - the Fountain of Youth fable is just a unverified myth. He promptly named and claimed possession of "La Florida" for the King of Spain. Some early maps show the entire present-day eastern United States as La Florida. However, Ponce thought Florida was an island. Later England and France also made claims and Florida shrank to its present size in about 1821.
       Sailing south, Ponce came upon a chain of islands that he named "Los Martires" (the Martyrs) and now known as the Florida Keys. The reason for this name is vague, but it does give an early name that distinguishes the Keys from other island groups. The reason that Antonio de Herrera wrote a century after Ponce sailed was because seen at a distance, the rocks that rose seemed like men suffering. Hernando D'Escalane Fonaneda wrote in 1566 the reason was "...that many men have suffered on them, and also because certain rocks rise there from beneath the sea, which, at a distance, look like men in distress...."
        For my two cents, if the ship’s log of Ponce is ever found, he named them after Peter Martyr. Martyr on his a 1511 chart depicted Florida as a large island called Isla de Beimeni. Fontenada's reason could be true if the ocean level at that time had not risen enough to cover pieces of branching corals and/or tree trunks on today's outer reefs were seen. Sea levels were rising then as it continues to do today.
       Ponce named one of the Martyrs (Keys) "Palo." It could have been any of the Keys and is usually the Key that any writer prefers. Douglas Peck in his book Ponce de Leon (1993) believes it was Key Largo. Another island was named "Santa Marta." What is more important, Ponce had found that the Gulf Stream flowed northward, and thus became the principal route for return voyages to Europe. As such, many ships were wrecked on our reefs, their cargos lost and passengers drowned or captured by local Indians. Continuing his voyage, Ponce sailed next to San Carlos Bay on the west coast of Florida. There he named another island "Matanza" for the killing of natives. Ponce then sailed south where he caught many turtles, monk seals and pelicans for food in an area he named "Tortugas" a name we still use today. From there he sailed southwest to Cuba. Ponce's ship's log has never been found and most of Ponce's activities are from a summary done by Spain's official historiographer, Antonio de Herrera, in the early 1600s.
       Francisco de Cordoba after his defeat in Yucatan in 1517 ran aground in Los Matires, but managed to free the ship and make it to Cuba.  Using data from Cordoba, in 1519 Herman Cortez was more successful and probably started the treasure ships route using the Gulfstream to return to Europe. Interesting, the aforementioned pilot for Ponce de Leon, Anton de Alaminos, was also Cordoba's pilot on his first trip back to Europe.
       In 1521, Ponce de Leon returned again to the west coast of Florida, where he and his men were vigorously attacked by Indians. Although wounded, he managed to escape with a handful of his crew, but he died of his wounds in July of 1521 in Cuba. Many more voyages sailed to Florida's west coast meaning that most passed by at least the lower Keys.  Almost all ships returning to Europe sailed a few miles off the shores of the Keys. Not much is written other than short references to these early stops in the Keys. Historian Gail Swanson of Grassy Key believes this began the maritime shipwreck history of North America. 
       Moving on in time, in 1528 Pamfilo de Narvaez with 300 men landed at Bahia de la Cruz (assumed to be Tampa Bay) on Good Friday and once again took possession of Florida for Spain. There was no massacre by the natives this time, but he was sent off on a wild goose chase looking for gold. After wandering for months, all but four (Cabeza de Vaca, two companions and a black man) of his ill starred expedition perished at sea on crude, homemade boats. One of the survivors, Estevanico de Dorantes, to my knowledge, was the first recorded black person to come to America. After walking 3,000 miles, the group finally reached Mexico.
       There was disappointment in every mission. Ten years later in 1539, Hernando de Soto landed near the same spot as Narvaez. With a huge army of 570 men he conquered the Tocabaga Indians in the Tampa area. It almost seems like the same story, as the Indians also sent De Soto off with "the gold is over there" story. It was at the beginning of this quest that De Soto found and rescued the aforementioned captive Juan Ortiz. Ortiz more or less confirmed that riches were to be found inland. De Soto wandered almost two years over most of the southeast United States looking for gold before he died at the mouth of the Arkansas River. Diego Maldonado assumed command and set sail from Havana only to return in July 1542 empty-handed. De Soto was young, rich and famous, and his absolute failure in settling Florida for the Spanish almost ended the early expeditions.
       With the loss of some 2,000 lives, many ships and much property, Phillip II of Spain appeared to have given up on settling Florida. There was one more attempt though. In June 1559, Tristan de Luna set sail with everything necessary to establish a Florida settlement on Ochuse Bay, which is modern day Pensacola Bay. The summer storm season lay ahead and almost immediately forced him into Mobile Bay, Alabama. By August the entire team was at Ochuse, but a tropical storm scattered the ships before all could be unloaded, and took a heavy toll of supplies and personnel. During the winter, they decided to move inland, but this was also unsuccessful.
       After another ill-fated settlement attempt the next year, De Luna was replaced by Angel de Villafane, who also was badly wrecked by a tropical storm and gave up in defeat. Pensacola was abandoned and would lie forgotten for another 125 years. After 50 odd years of trying to permanently settle Florida, Spain more or less gave up. Nothing much happened in the Keys other than shipwrecks and foraging for food and water.
       It has recently been announced that what could be the oldest shipwreck ever found in Florida has been discovered in Pensacola Bay. The ship is thought to have been one of the seven lost in a hurricane. It is thought to be part of De Luna's flotilla of 13 ships that attempted to establish Pensacola in 1559.
       The above were the major expeditions, but there were more: Miruelo (1516), Grijalva (1518), Pineda (1519), Gomez (1525), Ayllon (1526), Verrazzano (1529) and many slaving expeditions by relative unknowns. The taking of Indians as slaves to be used in the gold mines of Hispaniola was undertaken quite early. However, Indians were vulnerable to even simple European diseases, plus they did not work well as slaves. The Spanish shipped the first shipment of blacks to Hispaniola in 1502. These slaves spoke Spanish as they were first enslaved in Spain. In 1517 the Spanish began importing blacks from Africa for work in the Caribbean Islands.
      The Florida Keys simply lay on the route to and from all these voyages. Almost every year there were shipwrecks along the Keys from the Tortugas to Biscayne Bay. Survivors making it to shore received various treatments from the Keys Indians -usually bad. A significant number of letters were written telling of the murder of survivors. The building of forts in the Keys was suggested often. Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1567 suggested setting up a school in Havana, particularly for the families of the chiefs. According to Aviles, the Indian students would make good hostages to deter Indian troubles. 
       Many of the ships carried treasure to Spain from as far south as Peru. One of the Spanish ships in the mid-1500s carried 13-year-old Hernando d'Escalante Fontaneda, mentioned in the last chapter, to Spain to attend school. He was tardy for his school classes by some 17 years, which was the time he lived with the Florida Indians after being shipwrecked on the Florida coast. Fontaneda was eventually rescued at age 30.
       When about thirty-years-old Fontaneda finally reached Spain and wrote his memoirs in 1575. His writings provide early descriptions of living with the Indians, but there seem to be many apparent contradictions. Usually when one writes much later, as did Herrera about Ponce de Leon, one injects items learned since. This distorts the time base and tends to appear as contradictions to later readers. To be history, we prefer that the writing be very near to the time that the incident occurred. To read a translation of his memoirs, Click HERE.
       There were specific missions to the Keys, but not to settle. An example was the search for Sir. Francis Drake. Drake departed England in 1585 with a sizable force and was especially a threat to the Spanish treasure shipments. In 1586 he wreaked havoc on Santo Domingo and Cartagena and sailed on to Cuba. Drake anchored near Havana, but reportedly due to illness among his crew never attacked. On June 4, 1886 Drake pulled anchor and disappeared. Knowing that Drake was a serious threat, Havana sent two search missions to the Keys seeking his whereabouts. 
       Failing to locate Drake, Alonso Suarez of one of the search parties recorded various encounters with the Keys Indians. Part of his report is as follows:
 “Monday: On the 9th of the said month [June, 1586] I arrived at the town of Mateconbe [sic] an spoke with an Indian who came aboard, and he told us that five days before we arrived, they had found some planks…. Tuesday, the tenth, I arrived at some Keys further on from Mateconbe and spoke with some Indians…. Wednesday, the 11th day of the said month, sailing for the town of Tequesta [Miami], a canoe with Indians came along side….” The search was for naught as Drake had sailed north for Virginia. In route he spotted St. Augustine, landed on June 7 and burned the town.
       The name Matecumbe with various spellings appear in many Spanish writings. One of the early writings was about the 1622 shipwrecks of the Atocha and the Margarita. They were described of having been sunk in Los Cayos de Matecumbe. Naturally when the modern day salvors began searching for these ships they searched off of Lower and Upper Matecumbe. Dr. Eugene Lyon found data in Spain indicating the described Cayos de Matecumbe were between Key West and the Tortugas. Dr. Lyon sent this data to the late Mel Fisher who soon found the ship wrecks in the Marquesas, just where the Spanish said they were. 
 Since gold and silver were not found in Florida it was of no importance to Spain. Later some attempts to establish Catholic missions were made, but these too were short lived. An example is in 1675, Spanish Bishop Calderon inspected the Florida Catholic missions located in north Florida. Although he writes of Keys Indian groups such as the Matecumbes, Bayahondos and Cuchiagaros, records indicate that he did not actually visit the Keys. 
      Another Keys' visit by the Spanish was recorded in 1697. Spain had sent priests to Florida's west coast to Christianize the native inhabitants. Havana sent Francisco Romero as pilot to check on five priests. The priests had not been welcomed and were sent off in canoes. Romero found the priests in the Keys and returned with them to Havana. Spain's insistence on good sailing records is largely responsible for this early knowledge. 
       The wreck of the Spanish Plate Fleet in 1733 and its recovery operations provided us with the earliest detailed map of the Florida Keys. Since the wrecked ships were strung along the reefs of the Middle and Upper Keys, most of the principal Keys were named and located. 
       We leave early Florida under Spanish ownership as it remained until 1763. With the close proximity of the Keys to Havana and the Gulf Stream, I fail to understand why the Keys were not considered not just important, but very important. Yet until the 1800s the history of the Keys were sporadic events similar to the above. There were thousands of transitory events such as stopping for water, reconnoitering, lumbering, fishing, salvaging and the occasional shipwreck with survivors reaching land. The Florida Keys shipwrecks of 1622 and 1733, where almost entire Spanish fleets were lost, occurred in this period. What we are missing, and will probably never get, is the accounts made by the Native Americans. 
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