This "Age of Exploration" was fostered by the development of
maritime technology and the belief in an economic philosophy called
mercantilism which decreed that a nation that was not self-sufficient
will be dominated by its neighbors. At first, it was trade with the Middle
East that determined this wealth, but with the discovery in 1492 for another
hemisphere by Christopher Columbus, the need to travel west to the Americas
became the focus.
Others sought glory and fame, now that the wars with the Moors were over. Only in the New World was there the opportunity for quick advancement in the Spanish military and diplomatic careers.
Finally, there were those who came for spiritual reasons. They were
more than just the priests and church leaders. Catholic Spain had a strong
missionary zeal, for they had engaged the Muslim infidels for four centuries.
The eternal blessing of God would be earned by converting the Americas
into Catholic lands.
Meanwhile, Diego Columbus had taken his claim to the courts in Madrid and won his rights. Ponce de Leon was removed from office and felt his good name had been damaged. Not wishing to serve Diego, Ponce de Leon obtained title to explore the Upper Bahamas and areas to the North.
In March of 1513, Ponce de Leon sailed into the Bahamas headed toward Florida, then considered by slave hunters and fishermen to be a large island. He was seeking a spiritual rebirth with new honors , not a physical rebirth with some wonder water.
On Easter Sunday, March 27, 1513, his crew sighted land, probably Abaco Island. Six days later he reached the Florida coast and sailing northward to land near St. Augustine. He named the place "Pescua Florida", "the place of flowers," perhaps in honor of Easter Sunday. On the return voyage he encountered Indians near Jupiter Inlet and charted the important features of the Florida East Coast. He rounded the Dry Tortugas to explore the Gulf of Mexico and entered Charlotte Harbor.
He realized that Florida was more than a large island. He saw the chief
Calusa village near Mound Key and discovered this tribe was unfriendly.
He selected Estero Island to repair his vessel and escaped as bands of
Calusa descended on the intruders.
In the winter of 1521, Ponce de Leon headed for Calusa Territory with
a 500 man force, including Florida's first priests, farmers, and artisans.
They landed on the Gulf beaches between Charlotte Harbor and Estero Bay.
His goal was to establish a permanent colony in South Florida.
The choice of location proved weak. Requiring food and fresh water, Ponce de Leon led some troops into the dense coastal forest for a spring. Suddenly, the conquistadors were ambushed from all sides by Calusa warriors. The European weapons were rendered ineffective by the close combat. Ponce de Leon was pierced in the thigh by a reed arrow.
The soldiers carried their wounded adelantado to the ships. The colonists
agreed to return to Cuba and evacuate the project. Ponce de Leon promised
to return, but his health deteriorated and he never saw his discovery again.
In 1520, another merchant in search of Indian slaves for Caribbean mines,
Vasquez de Ayollon, mapped the Carolina coast. Spain claimed the entire
region as part of Florida.
It was at the Spanish court where Narvaez met a devout nobleman named Cabeza de Vaca, who wished to duplicate the exploits of his grandfather who conquered the Canary Islands. The red-haired conquistador hired de Vaca as a partner and together in 1527, landed north of the mouth of Tampa Bay with an armada of five ships and 400 soldiers.
At a nearby Indian village, the explorers discovered some crude gold
ornaments. Infatuated with the idea of uncovering another Mexico, Narvaez
seized as hostage the regional Indian leader Ucita. When the chief
wouldn't reveal the source of the treasure, undoubtedly the result of long
range trade, Narvaez chopped off the Indian's nose. Ucita made up a story
about the great wealth of the Apalachee.
Against de Vaca's judgment, Narvaez ordered his ships back to Cuba, while the rest of his forces headed northward in search of gold. The Narvaez expedition would ruin Spanish-Indian relations for decades. They left behind a legacy of violence and trickery. In the Tallahassee Hills, Narvaez would find only farming villages.
Narvaez's fleet returned to Tampa Bay, but found no sign of the expedition which was still marching along Apalachee territory. They ended their search and returned to Cuba, where Narvaez's wife hired a group of sailors to find her husband. It was this rescue party that discovered what they believed was a message on a reed on a deserted beach. A young Sevillian Juan Ortiz went to retrieve the message and was captured by the Indian trap.
Ortiz claimed he was brought to Chief Ucita to be executed, but rescued by the daughter's chief in a scene which preceded the famous Pocahontas story. In fact, many believe John Smith "stole" the Ortiz story to tell of his great dealings with the Indians in Virginia, since the Pocahontas legend was written four years after the Indian woman's death. While Ortiz was fighting to survive, Narvaez was wandering Panhandle Florida in search of treasure. Narvaez finally returned to the Gulf at St. Marks and, assuming Mexico to only be a few days journey to the west, constructed five long canoes. They sailed as far as the Texas coast where a storm capsized the boats.
Narvaez drowned. Cabeza de Vaca and four other survivors reached
an Indian village where they resided for two years. In was not until July
of 1536 and six thousand miles that de Vaca reached Mexico City to report
the fate of Narvaez' 280 man mission into Florida.
In the spring of 1539, he sailed for Tampa Bay, leaving his wife as Governor of Cuba. With seven vessels, six hundred soldiers, three Jesuit friars, and several dozen civilians, he fully intended to start a settlement. On May 25, he landed near Tampa Bay, probably in the mouth of the Manatee River. He sent out his cavalry to contact the neighboring Indian tribes.
At a village called Hirrihigua, the Spanish met Ucita, the noseless
victim of earlier Spanish cruelty. The cacique led DeSoto to a nearby village
where he found Juan Ortiz, alive after twelve years with the Indians. DeSoto
recruited Ortiz as an interpreter and guide.
Historians have debated the route of DeSoto along Florida's Gulf Coast for years. While many state DeSoto landed in Manatee County, where the National DeSoto Memorial is located, others like Donald E. Sheppard, believe DeSoto landed in Charlotte Harbor.
Like Narvaez before him, DeSoto was so attracted to the tales of rich
Indian villages to the North, he deserted all plans to establish a real
colony. He sent the fleet back to Cuba and left only a base camp on the
Manatee River. With an army of Indian prisoners as guides and a herd of
hogs for food, DeSoto's army marched inland from the marshy coastline.
Still, it was summer and the mosquitos and heat penetrated the armored
woolen uniforms. At Ocali, they found a Timucuan village notable only for
The Timucuan convinced DeSoto to visit the Apalachee in the Tallhassee Hills. By capturing local leaders, the Spanish reached the Apalachee where corn and shelter were common. By now, the greed for wealth was the major motive for the conquistador.
In the spring of 1540, DeSoto's forces with their herd of hogs headed
northwestward into Georgia, never to enter Florida again. For the next
three years, DeSoto would explore the frontiers of Georgia, South Carolina,
Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi. At Guachoya (Ferriday) in
Arkansas, the great soldier died of the fever. Juan Ortiz would later drown.
Only a few of DeSoto's troops survived the long journey.
Cancer left two men and Magdalene on the beach while he searched for
safe harbor inside the bay. When he returned he spotted only the Indian
girl on the beach. Despite warnings by the crew, Father Cancer elected
to go ashore. He was quickly surrounded by Indians who clubbed him to death.
The survivors of the party returned to Mexico to quell any future missionary
proposals for Florida.
MAP OF TRISTAN DE LUNA'S MISSION
With an enormous force of thirteen ships and 1500 soldiers, de Luna
landed at Pensacola Bay. Velasco's choice of leader proved unworthy. Leaving
the ships in the Bay for two months while he explored the region. He sent
his aide Villafane to the Atlantic Coast to erect a colony rather
than consolidating his efforts. A storm destroyed five of his ships.
With water-logged supplies, de Luna turned to the nearby Nanipacna Indians
along the Alabama River for food. The local Indians, remembering DeSoto
stayed away. The colonizing effort was replaced with a desperate need to
stay alive. After a winter of near starvation, the settlers tried to plant
crops on the sandy coastal soil and gave up. The expedition was canceled.
In 1992 a team from the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research found the remains of a Colonial Spanish ship in Pensacola Bay. The ship may have been one of de Luna's 1559 ships destroyed in a storm.
Between 1513 and 1560, the Spanish had failed to construct a single town in La Florida despite numerous expenditures. Experienced soldiers like Narvaez and DeSoto had chosen treasure for settlement.
On September 23, 1561, the monarch reluctantly announced that Spain
was no longer interested in promoting colonial expeditions into Florida.
For all practical considerations, the Spanish seemed willing to let Florida
to fall into obscurity.
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