"Nuestra Herencia" Mural at Chamizal National Memorial; Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park.
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American Latino Heritage

The National Park Service and American Latino Heritage

The Spanish Claim to Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas, 1513-1821

Divers exploring the Populo shipwreck in the waters of the Biscayne National Park

Divers exploring the Populo shipwreck, Biscayne National Park
Courtesy of the Florida’s Division of
Historical Resources Bureau of Archaeological Research

Engrossed in home affairs, European rivals were not immediately prepared to embark on colonial enterprises to contest Spain's right of first priority. Spain's effective claim to Florida began with Juan Ponce de León's discovery and naming of the flowery peninsula in 1513. Ponce de León led the first European expedition to the Dry Tortugas, today commemorated at Fort Jefferson National Monument.

In the centuries that followed, much shipping passed the Tortugas and a number of Spanish vessels foundered or wrecked in the area. The significant discovery of the Atlantic Gulf Stream by Antonio de Alaminos, who had piloted Columbus' ships on his fourth voyage to Veragua (1502-1504) and later served as pilot major of the fleet under Ponce de León, made Havana a major port of assembly and Florida a strategic stopping place. The current runs through the Florida Strait into the Bahama Channel past the Carolina coast, eastward to the high seas, where it forks in two directions on its way to the Azores and Norway. Once in the Azores, Spanish ships refitted and returned to Spain. Corsairs of Spain's rivals quickly became aware of Spain's richly laden galleons passing through the Florida Strait and moved to occupy the many hideouts in the Bahama Islands. From there they attacked Spanish ships as they toiled through the narrows to pick up the current. Spain was unable to eliminate the pirate menace in the area, and eventually resorted to using the convoy system to guide the galleons through safely.

As in other parts of the Florida peninsula, Spanish explorers were active along the coast north and south of Cape Canaveral and Biscayne. In the early 16th century, Spanish explorers near Biscayne were unable to dominate the Tequesta tribe. Biscayne National Park interprets Spanish-Tequesta relations, demonstrating that the European presence may have led to political consolidation among them and that Spanish goods, acquired through trade or from coastal shipwrecks or raids against Spanish settlers, were a valuable contribution to their material culture. The Spanish attempt to establish a mission north of the present-day Biscayne in the late 16th century failed because the Tequesta were hostile to it. By the mid-17th century, the Tequesta were experiencing a decline caused by Creek raids and European diseases.

Spain's claim to Florida was long-standing and costly, because the Indians of Florida destroyed nearly every expedition (entrada) between 1513 and 1568. Of approximately 80 men who went with Juan Ponce de León to conquer Florida, nearly all died in battle or from wounds, including the entrada's leader. The 1526 Carolina expedition of Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, who likewise died at the hands of the Floridians, lost all 220 men to warfare, starvation, and drowning at sea as they sought to escape from Florida. Pánfilo de Narváez lost his life and all but five of his 400 men in the 1528 expedition that spent most of its time escaping from Florida.

Hernando de Soto

Hernando de Soto
Public Domain

In 1539, Hernando de Soto led 1000 men to Florida; fewer than 300 men survived.  Soto himself, nearly beaten to death by an Indian chieftain who had feigned friendship, later died from an unknown sickness, and his men laid him to rest in a watery grave in the Mississippi River. De Soto National Memorial marks the generally accepted landing place of the expedition into what is now the southern United States. This expedition was the first to make contact with many Indian groups and to measure the invaluable resources of the area extending from Florida to the Mississippi River and beyond to eastern Texas. Nearly every missionary who went to Florida during that period achieved martyrdom.  Although meeting with disaster, the first European attempts to expand onto North America represented the first steps leading to the eventual European settlement of the continent.

In 1562 and 1564, the French attempt to establish a colony on the Florida coast likewise failed. Commemorated at Fort Caroline National Memorial in Florida, the French story had a similar ending to that of the many Spanish efforts. When the French constructed their fort among the Timucua Indians, trouble developed between them dooming the French enterprise. Meanwhile, to combat the French threat, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sailed from Cuba in 1565 and founded the settlement and fort of San Agustín, the oldest colonial city within the limits of the United States. In 1565, Spanish troops from the newly established Castillo de San Marcos marched against Fort Caroline and took it and the surrounding settlements.

The Spanish hold on Florida increased in the next century to such an extent that in the early 1740s, it magnified the strategic importance of San Agustín in the Spanish-English struggle to control the area. At the site of the fort the Spanish constructed that year south of San Agustín, Fort Matanzas National Monument commemorates the English attempt to overpower the hard fought Spanish control of Florida. Spanish efforts to consolidate their power also resulted in the sporadic Spanish occupation of Cumberland Island by the middle of the 16th century. Cumberland Island National Seashore interprets the story of Spanish interest in the area, for the island played a role in the contest between the Spanish and English for possession of Georgia before James Oglethorpe established his Georgian "buffer colony" in 1732.

In 1736, Englishmen established themselves along the Georgia coast at Fort Frederica to block Spanish occupation of the region. The English sought to ally themselves with various Indian tribes against the Spanish, who viewed such alliances as a threat. In early 1740, Oglethorpe attempted to capture Florida and unsuccessfully laid siege to San Agustín. In June 1742, the Spanish retaliatory attack on Fort Frederica by sea floundered. At Bloody Marsh, the English forced the Spanish to retreat. Fort Frederica was known as “Gualquini” in Spanish documents. Today, Fort Frederica National Monument tells the story of the Spanish-English struggle for control over North America.


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