Spanish Florida

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Spanish Florida, or la Florida, was a province of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Originally extending over what is now the southeastern United States, but with no defined boundaries, la Florida was a minor component of the Spanish Empire. Wide-ranging expeditions were mounted into the hinterland during the 16th century, but Spain never exercised effective control over la Florida outside of a band across what is now southeastern Georgia and the northern end of the Florida peninsula, and around a few ports on the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Discovery and early exploration

In 1512 Juan Ponce de León, former governor of Puerto Rico, received royal permission to search for land north of Cuba. he equipped three ships at his own expense and sailed from Puerto Rico in 1513. In late March he spotted an island (almost certainly one of the Bahamas) but did not stop. Early in April Ponce de León reached the northeast coast of the Florida peninsula, which he assumed was a large island. He claimed the 'island' for Spain and named it la Florida, either because it was the season of Pascua Florida ("Flowery Festival", i.e., Easter) or because much of the vegetation was in bloom. He then explored south along the coast, around the Florida Keys and north on the west coast of the peninsula, before returning to Puerto Rico.

Popular legend has it that Ponce de León was searching for the Fountain of Youth when he discovered Florida. However, the first mention of Ponce de León searching for water to cure his aging came more than twenty years after his voyage of discovery, and the first that placed the Fountain of Youth in Florida was thirty years after that. It is likely that Ponce de León, like other conquistadors in the Americas, was looking primarily for gold, Indians to enslave, and land to govern under the Spanish crown.

Ponce de León probably was not the first Spaniard to reach Florida, although he was the first to do so with permission from the Spanish crown. It is likely that Spanish ships from the Caribbean were already secretly raiding Florida to capture Indian slaves. Indians of the east coast and the southwest coast of Florida were hostile to Ponce de León at first contact, and he encountered an Indian in Florida who knew some Spanish words.[1]

Other Spanish voyages to la Florida quickly followed. Sometime in the period from 1514 to 1516 Pedro de Salazar enslaved as many as 500 Indians along the Atlantic coast of the present-day southeastern United States. Diego Miruelo visited what was probably Tampa Bay in 1516, Francisco Hernández de Cordova reached southwest Florida in 1517, and Alonzo Alvarez de Pineda sailed and mapped all of the Gulf of Mexico coast in 1519. In 1521 Ponce de León sailed in two ships to establish a colony on the southwest coast of the Florida peninsula. The Calusa Indians drove the colonists away; Ponce de León died of a wound he received in the attack after the expedition returned to Havana.

In 1521 Pedro de Quejo and Francisco Gordillo enslaved 60 Indians at Winyah Bay, South Carolina. Quejo, with the backing of Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón, returned to the region in 1525, stopping at several locations between Amelia Island and the Chesapeake Bay. In 1526 de Ayllón led a colonizing expedition of some 600 people to the South Carolina coast. After scouting possible locations as far south as Ponce de León Inlet in Florida, the colony of San Miguel de Galdape was established in the vicinity of Sapelo Sound, Georgia. Disease, hunger, cold and Indian attacks led to the colony being abandoned after only two months. About 150 survivors returned to Spanish settlements.[2]

Narváez expedition

In 1527 Pánfilo de Narváez left Spain with five ships and 600 people on a mission to explore and the settle the coast of the Gulf of Mexico between the existing Spanish settlements in Mexico and Florida. After storms and delays, the expedition landed near Tampa Bay on April 12, 1528, already short on supplies, with about 400 people. Confused as to the location of Tampa Bay (Milanich notes that a navigation guide used by Spanish pilots at the time placed Tampa Bay some 90 miles too far north), Narváez sent his ships in search of it while most of the expedition marched northward, supposedly to meet the ships at the bay.

Intending to find Tampa Bay, Narváez marched close to the coast, through what turned out to be largely uninhabited territory. The expedition was forced to subsist on the rations they had brought with them, until they reached the Withlacoochee River, where they finally encountered Indians. Seizing hostages, the expedition reached the Indians' village, where they found corn. Further north they were met by a chief who led them to his village on the far side of the Suwannee River. The chief, Dulchanchellin, tried to enlist the Spanish as allies against his enemies, the Apalachee.

Seizing Indians as guides, the Spaniards traveled northwest towards the Apalachee territory. Milanich suggests that the guides led the Spanish on a circuitous route through the roughest country they could find. In any case, the expedition did not find the larger Apalachee towns. By the time the expedition reached Aute, a town near the Gulf coast, it had been under attack by Indian archers for many days. Plagued by illness, short rations, and hostile Indians, Narváez decided to sail to Mexico rather than attempt an overland march. Two hundred and forty two men set sail on five crude rafts. All the rafts were wrecked on the Texas coast. After eight years four survivors, including Alvar Núńez Cabeza de Vaca, reached New Spain (Mexico).

De Soto expedition

Hernando de Soto had been one of Pizarro's chief lieutenants in the Conquest of Peru, and had returned to Spain a very wealthy man. He was appointed adelanto of la Florida and governor of Cuba, and assembled a large expedition to 'conquer' la Florida. On May 30, 1539, de Soto and his companions landed in Tampa Bay, where they found Juan Ortiz, who had been captured by the local Indians a decade earlier when he was sent ashore from a ship searching for Narváez. Ortiz passed on the Indian reports of riches, including gold, to be found in Apalachee, and de Soto set off with 550 soldiers, 200 horses, and a few priests and friars. De Soto's expedition lived off the land as it marched. De Soto followed a route further inland than that of Narváez's expedition, but the Indians remembered the earlier disruptions caused by the Spanish, and were wary when not outright hostile. De Soto seized Indian men to serve as guides and porters, and Indian women to serve as consorts for his men.

The expedition reached Apalachee in October, and settled into the chief Apalachee town of Anhaica for the winter, where they found large quantities of stored food, but little gold or other riches. In the spring de Soto set out to the northeast, crossing what is now Georgia and South Carolina into North Carolina, then turned westward, crossed the Great Smoky mountains into Tennessee, then marched south into Georgia. Turning westward again, the expedition crossed Alabama, where they lost all of their baggage in a fight with Indians near Choctaw Bluff on the Alabama River, and spent the winter in Mississippi. In May 1541 the expedition crossed the Mississippi River and wandered through present-day Arkansas, Missouri and possibly Kansas before spending the winter in Oklahoma. In 1542 the expedition headed back to the Mississippi River, where de Soto died. Three hundred and ten survivors returned from the expedition in 1543.

Although the Spanish had lost hope of finding gold and other riches in Florida, it was seen as vital to the defense of their colonies in Mexico and the Caribbean. In 1559 Tristán de Luna y Arellano left Mexico with 500 soldiers and 1,000 civilians on a mission to establish colonies at Ochuse (Pensacola Bay) and Santa Elena (Port Royal Sound). The plan was to land everybody at Ochuse, with most of the colonists marching overland to Santa Elena. A tropical storm struck Ochuse a month after the fleet's arrival, sinking many ships along with the supplies that had not yet been unloaded. Expeditions into the interior failed to find adequate supplies of food. Most of the colony moved inland to Nanicapana, where some food had been found, but it could not support the colony and the Spanish returned to Pensacola Bay. In response to a royal order to immediately occupy Santa Elena, Luna sent three small ships, but they were damaged in a storm and returned to Mexico. Angel de Villafañe replaced the discredited Luna in 1561, with orders to withdraw most of the colonists from Ochuse and occupy Santa Elena. Villafañe led 75 men to Santa Elena, but a tropical storm damaged his ships before they could land, forcing the expedition to return to Mexico.

French challenge

St. Augustine

Missions to the Indians

English attacks



  1. Milanich 1995. 106-10
  2. Milanich 1995. 111-115


See Bibliography.