Early Stages of Conquest and Exploration, 1513-1565
From 1513 to 1566, 32 explorers led 146 ships and 10,000 soldiers to explore La Florida in the name of Spain. The explorers, governors and conquistadors were given charters guaranteeing their rights of conquest in Florida by the crown in order to expand the empire. Upon first arriving in La Florida, the Spanish explorers were surprised by the ferocity and hostility of the Indians. What was not widely known at the time was that for many years during the exploration of Florida, Spaniards from the West Indies regularly sought slaves from the Floridian tribes, contributing to the Indians' enmity.
Ponce de Leon was the first Spanish explorer to reach Florida in 1513. He explored from the East Coast to Estero Bay on the West Coast, and returned to Cuba. The myth surrounding Ponce de Leon claimed that he was seeking the mysterious Jordan River--a tale widely known in the West Indies and Florida by the Indians, who attributed magical healing and restorative properties to it. Perhaps there is some truth to this, but mainly Ponce was hoping to colonize Florida and find riches in the interior. His second colonizing expedition to Estero Bay failed, as he was mortally wounded and many of his soldiers died when they fought hostile Indians. He was taken to Havana with his ships and a few survivors, and died there.
In April 1528, Panfilo de Narvaez led another expedition, landing near Tampa bay with 300-400 men, where he encountered peaceful Indians. On May 1, Narvaez foolishly split his army and navy, marching overland with his soldiers while the navy had orders to meet them somewhere up the unexplored coast. Narvaez never saw his ships again. He embroiled himself in a war with the fierce Timucuan Indians and faced starvation by the time he reached Apalachee late in June. In a desperate attempt to travel to Mexico, the Spaniards ate their horses and built makeshift boats. Narvaez disappeared in a hurricane and a handful of survivors washed up near present-day Galveston Texas. One of Narvaez's captains, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, became one of only four survivors to find Mexico. One of the others, a Moor slave named Esteban, represents the first African to visit Florida. After a harrowing journey in which de Vaca became a slave, a trader, and a spiritual healer, de Vaca returned to Mexico and sailed for Europe in 1537. He later returned to South America leading another expedition, but de Vaca's most important achievement was the writing of his recollections from the Narvaez campaign.
The Indians of Florida were adept at resisting the invading Spanish, because the high abundance of food gave them the ability to concentrate in great numbers. An estimated 10,000 Indians lived throughout Florida, and only a few hundred faced the conquistadors at any one time. What enabled the Indians to counter the explorers so handily was their method of warfare and tactics. Instead of engaging the Spaniards on open ground, the Indians constantly harassed the Spaniards when they were preoccupied doing every day chores, or on the move in bad terrain. They would quickly shoot many accurate arrows at the Spaniards and then slip away. The Indians could fire three to four arrows in the time it took to reload an arquebus or crossbow, and they were faster than the soldiers who would give chase. Their cane arrows also splintered and caused damage to the Spaniards with armor, because the splinters would go through weak parts of their armor.
Hernando De Soto also sought to colonize and conquer Florida in 1539. He poured all of the wealth from his previous conquests in the New World into Florida, giving him the most lavishly equipped expedition to date, 600 men strong. De Soto came across a shipwrecked Spanish sailor named Juan Ortiz, however, who told him there was no gold to be found anywhere in Florida. Because he had spent all his money on the expedition, De Soto had no choice but to look for wealth on the continent's interior. De Soto resolved to gain glory, fame, and riches, or return home with nothing at all. In his search for gold, he deceived his men about finding wealth and provisions, destroyed many Indian towns and villages, and eventually met his death among the North American Indians.
Spanish culture and civilization had much more in common with the Aztec and the Inca than the Floridian Indians. Unlike the Spaniards, the majority of Floridian Indian tribes had no agriculture, lived off game, fish and wild plants, and had no greater social structure than a tribal grouping. The Mesoamerican and South American civilizations had advanced societal structures, making it easier for the Spanish to simply eliminate or intermarry with the native elites in order to control the population.
The southern part of Florida, in actuality, was never conquered by the Spaniards. Various military defeats, the primitive culture of the tribes, and their hostility contributed to a desultory attempt by the Spaniards to conquer the Caloosa Federation. Instead, the Spaniards worked to establish relationships with the more settled Apalachee tribes, who engaged in permanent agriculture in large towns. The Spaniards mainly ruled over the Indians in the central and northern parts of Florida. The true downfall of the Indians would occur much later, when the English arrived in the Americas.