Early Settlement of the Southeast by Spain

views updated

Early Settlement of the Southeast by Spain


La Florida. After the conquest of the Aztecs and the Incas, opportunities for fame and fortune in Central and South America were limited. To the north, however, lay what many people thought was an island where they expected to find quantities of gold and silver comparable to what Hernando Cortés and Francisco Pizarro had found. In 1513 Juan Ponce de León sighted a peninsula he named La Florida, and in 1521 he returned to try to build a settlement. The Calusas, however, resisted the invasion and drove Ponce de León and his men back to their ships. León died of his wounds in Cuba, but his death did not diminish interest in the unexplored land. Seven years later the one-eyed, red-haired adventurer Panfilo de Narváez attempted to settle the Gulf Coast of Florida. His expedition set out for the interior to find food and gold, but the local Mississippians attacked the party. The men retreated to the coast only to find that their support ships had not arrived to meet them. Desperate to escape, they built crude boats and set sail for Mexico. After the fleet washed up on the shore of present-day east Texas, only Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and three others survived to reach Mexico on foot in 1536. In 1541 Tristán de Luna y Arellano attempted to build another Spanish settlement in Florida on the Gulf Coast near present-day Pensacola, but a hurricane destroyed his supplies.

Chicora. In June 1521 Pedro de Quejo and Francisco Gordillo were scouring the Bahamas for Indians they could seize as slaves for sale in Havana. Finding none, they ventured northwest and landed at what is today the mouth of the present-day Santee River in Georgia. For several weeks the Spanish crews traded with the local inhabitants for food and small pearls, and then they seized two dozen Indians for presentation to the governor in Havana. One of the patrons of the slave raid, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, was impressed by their find as well as the rumors of silver, gold, and pearls that swirled around the land the slavers called Chicora. Ayllón journeyed to the court of King Charles V to claim the rich province for himself, and to interest a king distracted by wars raging on the European continent, he portrayed the sandy soils and scrubby forests as a sylvan paradise teeming with grapevines, rich fields, stout forests, and untold sources of mineral wealth. Charles granted him permission to undertake a colony, and in 1525 Ayllón set out with six ships carrying several hundred colonists. Because the soils at the first landing site were poor, Ayllón moved south to present-day Sapelo Sound, Georgia, where he established a town he called San Miguel de Gualdape. The delay in establishing the settlement prevented the Spanish from planting their crops before cold weather came, and their demands for food alienated the local Mississippians. Sickness spread among the settlers as well, killing Ayllón and demoralizing the colonists further. After weeks of bickering, the 150 survivors abandoned the colony and fled to Spain. Despite the terrible experience of the Ayllón colony the legend of Chicora as a rich land of agricultural wealth and teeming mines endured in the published reports of adventurers, geographers, and mapmakers.

De Soto. Hernando de Soto had served under Pizarro during the conquests of Panama, Nicaragua, and Peru. Having heard of the legend of Chicora and having seen the fortune Pizarro had made for himself, he asked the king for permission to lead an expedition into the Southeast to search for gold and silver. In 1539 he landed near present-day Tampa Bay with more than 650 men, a few women, 250 horses, a pack of trained war dogs, scores of pigs, and plenty of chains to shackle Indian slaves. Between 1539 and 1543 the party traveled throughout the region and encountered several Mississippian chiefdoms such as the Apalachee, Cofitachequi, and Coosa. De Soto typically seized hostages in each town to inform him where he could find treasure and food and to lead him to the next town. He also seized hundreds of slaves to carry the partys luggage and supplies, which only exacerbated poor relations with the native inhabitants. Frequently his men found themselves trapped in ambushes, and several Spaniards were killed. In pitched battles, however, their armor, steel swords, trained war horses, Irish wolfhounds, and firearms were too much for the bows and arrows of the Indians. When the party reached the banks of the Mississippi River in 1542, de Soto caught a fever and died. The surviving members of his force attempted to find an overland way to Mexico, but finding no such easy route, they holed up in a village and built several boats to sail down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. A powerful chiefdom located on the Mississippi River harassed the bedraggled survivors and killed several before the tiny fleet hit open water and made its way to Mexico. Having seen the lack of wealth to be found and exploited in the interior, the conquistadors focused their efforts back onto the Florida coast.

St. Augustine. The French wanted to settle Florida because their privateers could use the sheltered inlets of the Atlantic coast as bases for raids on the Spanish treasure fleets. In order to block French expansion into the area, King Philip II dispatched a Spanish force under the command of Pedro Menéndez de Aviles to explore the coast, capture any Frenchmen they might find, and build a permanent outpost. In 1565 Aviléss force located and destroyed a French settlement called Fort Caroline near present-day Jacksonville, Florida, and his men built a fort they called Santa Elena. Turning south, the Spanish carved a permanent settlement out of the sawgrass and mangrove swamps of the coast, which they named St. Augustine. The city, like all others in Spanish America, was built in a grid pattern centered on a civic plaza where the church, public buildings, and governors home were located. Poised to check French and English intrusions into Chicora and to help defend the treasure fleets as they lumbered up the Bahama Channel back to Spain, the city was a minor but nevertheless important outpost.

Luis de Velasco and the Jesuits

Early European explorers typically seized members of the native groups they encountered to take back to Europe where the Indians could learn Spanish, French, or English and serve as interpreters on later voyages. Usually the kidnapped Indians died of disease, starvation, and homesickness, but the few who survived played interesting roles in the colonization of the New World. In the sixteenth century the most famous kidnapped Indian was Don Luis de Velasco, who had been taken by the Spanish from his home among the Algonquians of the Virginia Tidewater in 1561. He was baptized in Mexico City and named after his patron Luis de Velasco. In 1566 he participated in an ill-fated attempt by the Spanish to explore Chesapeake Bay, and in 1570 he persuaded the Jesuit priest Father Segura to undertake a second attempt to missionize the region. Led by Don Luis, the Jesuits set out for Velascos homeland, where they built a mission they called Ajacán. In addition to converting the Indians who lived in the vicinity they hoped to map a route to China. In the meantime Don Luis had rejoined his people, taken several wives, and lived, in the eyes of his Jesuit companions, in sin. Tiring of the priests criticism of his indigenous lifestyle, in 1571 Don Luis led a party of warriors that destroyed the mission and killed the priests. When word of the attack reached Pedro Ménen-dez de Aviles in St. Augustine, he dispatched a punitive expedition that killed forty of Don Luiss fellow tribesmen.

Sources: Frederic W. Gleach, Powhatans World of Colonial Virginia; A Conflict of Culture (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997);

Helen Rountree, ed., Powhatan Foreign Relations, 15001722 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993).

Contact with the Indians. Unlike other conquistadors, Avilés endeavored to win the favor of local inhabitants rather than try to intimidate and conquer them. He was particularly solicitous of the Calusas who had driven Ponce de León back into the sea half a century earlier. The Spanish leader met with the chief whom he called Carlos in the Calusas capital located near present-day Fort Myers. Carlos, hoping to enlist Avilés as a subordinate chief, urged the Spaniard to marry his sister. With a wife back in Spain, Avilés was uncomfortable with the arrangement, but he needed the Calusas if his endeavor was to succeed, so he agreed to take the sisters hand in marriage. The soldiers and settlers who had come with Avilés, however, shared none of their commanders spirit of cooperation. Tired of being insulted, threatened, and victimized by the abusive colonists, local Indians revolted with French assistance in 1568 and destroyed a Spanish outpost. Shocked by the attack, Avilés denounced the infamous people, Sodomites, sacrificers to the devil and pressed the Crown for permission to wage a war of extermination on the Indians of Florida. He died before the orders came through, and over the next few decades Indian raids, pirate attacks, and periodic English assaults forced the abandonment of Santa Elena in 1587 and the contraction of the colony to within the walls of St. Augustine.

Mission Indians. The Jesuits who had accompanied Aviles to Florida opened several missions along the southeastern coast and in the interior of Florida, but their attempts to end polygamy and other indigenous traditions doomed their mission. Troubles with a Muskhogean-speaking chiefdom known as Guale near Santa Elena and hostilities with the other Indians of Florida forced the Jesuits to abandon their project in 1572, but the Franciscans came the following year to resume the missionary effort. Empowered by the Royal Orders of 1573 that encouraged missionaries to persuade rather than to force Indians to convert, the Franciscans built several doctrinas and settled native populations around them. The priests sought to Hispanicize the Indians, but the native population resented criticism of their marriage patterns, rules of inheritance, economic life, and religious beliefs. In 1597 the Guales revolted and drove the Franciscans southward. Not until the mid 1600s did the Spanish return to the Georgia coast, but even then, in spite of the near collapse of native populations, they faced rebellions and native intransigence and enjoyed little success in enforcing the doctrine of stratification.


Paul E. Hoffman, A New Andalucia and a Way to the Orient: The American Southeast during the Sixteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990);

Bonnie G. McEwan, ed., The Spanish Missions of La Florida (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993).

About this article

Early Settlement of the Southeast by Spain

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Early Settlement of the Southeast by Spain