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Spanish Colonies: 1492–1763

La Florida

Native American Life in Florida

The indigenous people of Florida farmed, lived in small towns, traded with neighboring tribes, and practiced their beliefs for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived.

Historians have debated the exact number of people living in the Americas prior to European contact. It is estimated the continent had a thriving population of perhaps 60–70 million indigenous people. These people lived in tribal groups, spoke hundreds of different languages, and developed their own social structures and customs.

The first indigenous people in what is now known as the Southeastern United States probably arrived 12,000 years ago. From them descended the Creeks, the Choctaw, the Cherokee, the Seminoles, the Timucua, and other tribes. Because the land was good for farming, most of these groups lived in permanent villages or towns of fewer than 500 to over 1,000 individuals. The members of each community worked collectively. People supplemented the corn, beans, and squash they grew with hunting, gathering, and fishing. The tribes of the Southeast mostly spoke a related language and engaged in trade of valued items, such as salt, furs, and pottery.

Each community was based on kin relationships or connections through bloodlines or marriage. Leadership within a community was inherited from the mother's side. As for religion, the Southeastern Indians believed the world was full of powerful spirits, animals had souls, and natural objects had healing properties. Priests led religious ceremonies and served as healers.

At the beginning of the 16th century the indigenous peoples of Florida and other parts of North America had thrived for thousands of years without the inventions of writing, the wheel, guns, and gunpowder. They had lived isolated from the many diseases that had killed millions of Europeans, including smallpox, typhus, measles, and influenza. The arrival of the Spanish, with their powerful weaponry, their Christian beliefs, and their diseases, would permanently alter the Southeastern Indians' way of life.
French artist Jacques le Moyne's engraving shows the "black drink ceremony" of the Timucua. The French had a less confrontational relationship with Native Americans than did the Spanish.
Credit: Bry, Theodor de, 1528-1598. Proceedings of the Floridians in Deliberating on Important Affairs. 1591. Color digital image, . State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Colonization of Florida

In Florida, the Spanish hoped to find the Fountain of Youth and cities of gold. Instead, they came into violent conflict with indigenous peoples who refused to conform to European culture.

The Spanish explored Florida several times between 1513 and 1565 before building a successful settlement. The explorer Juan Ponce de León claimed the Florida peninsula for Spain in 1513 while searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth. When he landed in Florida, Ponce de León named the peninsula after the beautiful flowers he saw there. Florida comes from the Spanish phrase "Pascua Florida," which means "Season of Flowers." Thirteen years later, Spain sent Pánfilo de Narváez to explore the vast territory separating Florida and Mexico, but he died in a shipwreck. In 1539 Hernando de Soto led an expedition through western Florida in search of gold. The encounters between Spanish explorers and Florida's indigenous people rarely ended well for either party. Most Indians greeted their new visitors with hospitality but retaliated once the Spanish began converting them and forcing them into slavery. The Spanish, with their horses and guns, overpowered the Indians, destroying their villages and killing their inhabitants.

The first Spanish settlement was established near Pensacola Bay, only to be destroyed by a hurricane in 1561. In 1564 the French built a fort near where Ponce de León had landed more than 50 years earlier. On orders from Spain, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés ousted the French and leveled the fort. In its place, he founded the city of St. Augustine in 1565, the first permanent European settlement in the New World.

Routes of Spanish Explorers in Florida, 16th Century

The 16th-century Spanish explorers Juan Ponce de León, Pánfilo de Narváez, and Hernando de Soto explored Florida hoping to find gold. Instead, they encountered native peoples who were initially friendly but who refused to convert to Catholicism or be subjugated. Despite their smaller numbers, the Spanish enslaved the natives thanks to their superior technology.
Franciscan friars then began building missions around St. Augustine. A mission is a religious compound dependent on a larger religious organization for support. A Franciscan is a member of a Roman Catholic order who pledges to live in poverty and to spread the Christian faith. The Franciscans' purpose in the New World was to convert local indigenous people, the Timucua, to Christianity. Under the Franciscans, conversion, or the process of adopting or embracing a new form of religion, was not gentle. Those who resisted were killed. Those who submitted were forced into labor. Thousands died because of epidemics caused by European diseases against which the native people had no immunity. By 1700 it is estimated a population of perhaps 50,000 native people had dwindled to 1,000.