Juan Lorenzo Hubell; Canaveral National Seashore.
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Canaveral National Seashore


Spanish soldiers forced French colonists to give up their fort on Cape Canaveral in 1565.

Spanish soldiers forced French colonists to give up
their fort on Cape Canaveral in 1565.
Courtesy of NASA

The Cape Canaveral barrier island, perhaps best known today as a National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) base for space exploration, was once the edge of the European frontier in North America. In 1502, Canaveral became one of the first places on the North American continent identified by Europeans when it appeared on a map for the first time and Cape Canaveral is one of the oldest European-named places in the United States. In English, “cañaveral” roughly translates as the “place of reeds or cane.” Though it was not a significant site of permanent Spanish settlement, for approximately 300 years Spanish colonists sailed the waters in and around it as they traded, warred, explored, and settled in Florida. Canaveral National Seashore is located between the Indian River and the Atlantic Ocean on the northern slope of Cape Canaveral and on Merritt Island, north of the Kennedy Space Center.

When Ponce de León, Spanish explorer and governor of Puerto Rico, reached the coast of North America to claim all known land north of Mexico for Spain, he may have landed within the bounds of Cape Canaveral National Seashore. Historians disagree on where exactly he landed. Their theories range from Cape Canaveral, to present-day St. Augustine, to the coast of southern Georgia. One theory puts Ponce de Leon at Cape Canaveral in 1513, at a place he called the Cape of Currents. Florida was not resource-rich, but it offered Spain a strategic location to protect the colonies’ valuable exports from pirates and competitors as Spain’s ships sailed through the Florida Current. The Florida peninsula creates a fast-moving current in the Florida Straits that runs east from its southern tip in the Gulf of Mexico and then flows north parallel to Florida’s Atlantic coast, where it becomes the Gulf Stream. The Florida Current was an important shipping route between the Spanish colonies and Europe, and Spain’s enemies waited in the Straits to raid ships carrying silver from Mexico and Peru. To protect its ships, Spain invested resources in colonizing the eastern Florida coast. Ponce de Leon was the first of many Spaniards who tried to establish a Florida colony.

Permanent European settlement did not happen in Florida until Pedro Menéndez de Aviles founded St. Augustine in 1565. The king of Spain gave Menéndez the power to colonize and run Florida, in the hopes that Menéndez could keep the French away from the southeastern coast of North America and the Caribbean. Menéndez’s rival in Florida was Jean Ribault, a French Huguenot, who tried to found his own colony in North America between 1562 and 1565, to escape religious persecution in France. In 1565, Menéndez drove Ribault’s men from their fort. Once they were at sea, a hurricane destroyed four French ships along the Canaveral coast. Several of the ships went down near Ponce Inlet, which is in Cape Canaveral north of the National Seashore area. Ribault survived the storm, because his ship ran aground on the shores south of Canaveral. He and approximately 350 surviving French settlers were able to escape to dry land. Ribault headed north to challenge the Spanish with a small group of men, while the remaining group of French settlers went to Cape Canaveral to build a fort and a new ship. When Ribault met up with the Spanish, Menéndez executed Ribault and his men after they refused to convert to Catholicism, and then he marched his soldiers south to Canaveral to drive out the remaining French settlers who did not surrender.

Ponce de León, depicted in this 1858 illustration, claimed Florida for Spain in 1513.

Ponce de León, depicted in this 1858 illustration, claimed Florida for Spain in 1513.
Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-3106

Canaveral continued to be an important place for Spanish colonists until Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1819. As maritime traffic increased in the Florida Current, so did shipwrecks, and Ribault was not the last European to wash ashore at the Cape. Today, wrecked Spanish and French ships from the colonial period lie sunken under waters off the coast of Canaveral and throughout the Florida Current where travelers were vulnerable to hurricanes.

Spain tried to create diplomatic ties with the American Indians along the Canaveral coast to encourage the return of survivors and goods that washed ashore after shipwrecks. However, there is no evidence that Spain ever built a mission on Cape Canaveral, as it did in other places throughout its empire as part of efforts to convert indigenous people to Christianity and extend its authority. Canaveral was also important for Spanish shipping because it juts out into the ocean and travelers in the straits used it as a navigational marker. One important landmark for navigators was Turtle Mound, a massive pile of oyster shells Timucua or Ais Indians created that is visible from the open ocean. Turtle Mound is about 30 feet high at present and covers approximately two acres.

Canaveral National Seashore today is a wildlife refuge and recreation area. Its natural landscape offers visitors spaces to enjoy the barrier island for swimming, fishing, camping, hiking, hunting, and boating. There is some archeological work done there to study the Spanish and precontact periods, especially at the site that is perhaps where the French settled for a short time in 1565 and at known American Indian sites like Turtle Mound. Rangers at the National Seashore offer guided tours of the park and facilitate learning for visiting school groups. Visitors can learn more about Cape Canaveral ecology and history at the Apollo Beach Visitor Information Center in the National Seashore.

Plan your visit

Canaveral National Seashore, a unit of the National Park System, is located on a barrier island east of Titusville, FL. Canaveral National Seashore is open year-round from 6:00am to 6:00pm in winter and from 6:00am to 8:00pm in summer. For more information, visit the National Park Service Canaveral National Seashore website or call 386-428-3384.

Canaveral National Seashore is featured in the National Park Service Golden Crescent. The Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral is the subject of an online lesson plan, America’s Space Program: Exploring a New Frontier. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places home page. Cape Canaveral Air Station has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Engineering Record.

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