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The Colony of Spanish Florida, 1565-1750

Spanish Florida was primarily a military outpost after the first few great expeditions. The rationale was that the Spaniards needed to protect their fleets bringing goods and wealth from South and Central America back to Spain on the Gulf Stream currents. The Gulf Stream ensured faster movement of ships from Spain to the Caribbean and back, and passed along Florida's coastline.  There was also the faint hope that there were wealthier lands beyond Florida. The Spanish built St. Augustine in 1565 as a base to protect galleons carrying the riches from their colonies home to Spain. St. Augustine was to become the main city of Spanish Florida, built to maintain domination of Florida.

During the late 1500s, Pedro Menendez was one of the first governors of Spanish Florida. His reign as governor was marked with the largest expansion of Spanish Florida, and with great poverty in the colony. The annual stipend from taxes in Mexico, the situado, would always be years late, and was paid by the strength of the garrison. The garrison, chronically understaffed, would have their money taken by their commanders.  Officers would withhold wages for years from colonists in return for buying large amounts of ships for the fleet. The colonists were in virtual slavery, sometimes starving for eight months of the year. The boundaries of Spanish Florida during this time stretched from Chesapeake Bay to Tampa, with few forts to control such a large area. Spanish Florida soon contracted to a narrow strip around St. Augustine and south Georgia, because it was impossible to truly be in control of such a great area with so small a population. There was little population of a non-military nature. There was a chronic shortage of men and food. Thus, the Spanish had to find some way to make up for their lack of men and food. They started forcing the Indians to labor and farm beyond their accustomed capacity, which resulted in unrest and periodic revolt.

The only alleviation of the Spaniards' poverty was the mission system, which started in the 1600s, and the extension of Florida into the heavily populated Apalachee region in north Florida during the mid-1700s. The Franciscans established many missions in Florida, where the Indians would work the land under the supervision of the Franciscan monks. The mission was the principal means for conversion and control of the Indians. It was more benevolent than direct rule, and worked well on the Spanish frontier. The Apalachee region produced a great deal of food, and this made the colony moderately wealthy. From the middle to the end of the 17th century, Spanish Florida was at its most prosperous.  The prosperity of Spanish Florida would not last for long, however, as periodic skirmishing and outright war between the Spanish and the English from 1660 to 1763 caused the colony to decline.

The Spanish were the first "civilizers" of the North American continent. They built the first European city in North America, St. Augustine, and they opened the first churches, schools, and printing presses on the continent. They also introduced the various animals and plants of Western Europe into Florida. The most important contribution the Spaniards gave to Florida was the orange. The first farms of seven acres each were operated by missionaries in 1540. The first school was in St. Augustine. Spanish Floridians learned how to incorporate coquina, a rock made up of shell and sand, in their architecture, which was used in the building of San Marcos, the Spanish fort in St. Augustine, in 1672. Castillo de San Marcos took thirty years to construct.