The Western Invasion: Early Spanish Expeditions to North America, 1513–1562

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The Western Invasion: Early Spanish Expeditions to North America, 15131562


La Florida. Spanish interests in North America during the first half of the sixteenth century centered on La Florida. Conquistadores such as Juan Ponce de León and Panfilo de Narváez launched repeated invasions beginning in 1513 in hopes of finding gold, seizing slaves, and taking control of the strategic peninsula. While their expeditions often included hundreds of soldiers equipped with muskets, horses, and armor, they failed to achieve their objectives because of the opposition of powerful Indian tribes such as the Timucua, Calusa, Aute, and Apalachee. The Native Americans resistance was so effective, in fact, that it helped persuade King Philip II of Spain to decree in 1562 that Florida would no longer be the object of Spanish colonization efforts.

Early Efforts. Juan Ponce de Leon led the first Spanish expedition to Florida in 1513. Seeking gold and slaves, he landed on the east coast of the peninsula just south of present-day St. Augustine. His soldiers could not establish a foothold, however, because of formidable opposition from Timucua Indians already angered by earlier Spanish slave raids. Later, bow-armed Calusa warriors defeated de Leons attempt to land at San Carlos Bay on Floridas west coast. In 1517 a force commanded by Hernández de Córdoba landed at San Carlos Bay in search of fresh water. Despite the advantage of steel weapons and muskets, the Spanish again had to retreat because of intense resistance from Calusa archers. In 1521 de León was among those killed by the Calusa in a third failed effort to land at San Carlos Bay.

Narváez. Violent Indian resistance and the absence of treasure shifted attention away from Florida. Spanish interest rapidly rekindled, however, after Hernando Cortéss conquest of the fabulously rich Aztec Empire raised the possibility of hidden wealth in inland Florida. As a result, the brutal conqueror of Cuba and Jamaica, Pánfilio de Narváez, led an expedition of four hundred men and forty-two horses to the peninsula in 1528 in search of other Mexicos. Faced with such a large and well-armed Spanish force, the Timucuas adopted a passive-resistance strategy designed to move the invaders out of their territory with as little bloodshed as possible. They consequently hid food, avoided contact, and, after discovering what the Spanish wanted, repeatedly told the invaders that their traditional enemies, the Apalachee, possessed large quantities of gold.

Demise. Encouraged by the Timucuans, the Spanish force moved north into Apalachee territory where they attacked the first village they came upon. While the assault produced no goldthe Apalachee possessed noneit provoked the bow-armed Indians to begin a guerrilla campaign of hit-and-run attacks. The absence of treasure and the ferocity of the Apalachees resistance soon spurred Narváez to move westward into Aute territory. After nine days of ambushes and night attacks at the hands of the Apalachee, the Spanish arrived at the Autes village only to discover that the Indians had torched their settlement to keep the invaders from finding

any food. Lack of provisions, the death often soldiers in Aute ambushes, and a malaria epidemic finally persuaded Narváez to build boats and abandon his expedition. Only four survivors made it back to Mexico.

De Soto. While the failure of the Narváez expedition temporarily diminished Spanish interest in southeastern North America, Francisco Pizarros conquest of the wealthy Incan Empire in the early 1530s reignited hopes that La Florida held vast stores of hidden treasures. One of Pizarros lieutenants, Hernando de Soto, consequently landed a powerful expeditionary force of infantry and cavalry at Tampa Bay in 1539. He solved the problems that had plagued the Narváez expedition by brutally extorting food from the Native Americans and by having his men wear lightweight Aztec armor rather than heavy, European-style breastplates. His troops were thus able to spend the next four years roaming about North America bullying Indians and searching for riches. Constant Native American attacks and the failure to discover gold, however, persuaded the Spanish to abandon the expedition and return to New Spain in 1543.

Later Forays. De Sotos failure to find treasure diminished hopes that Florida contained mineral wealth but did not end Spanish interest in the peninsula. In 1549 the Dominican priest Luis Cáncer de Barbastro sought to convert Floridas Indians by establishing a mission among the Timucuas. Still angry at the Spanish because of Narváez and de Sotos depredations, the Timucuans quickly destroyed the mission and killed Cáncer. In the late 1550s Philip II ordered the viceroy of New Spain, Luis de Velasco, to establish a fortified colony on Floridas east coast that could aid shipwrecked sailors and protect the treasure fleet. Commanded by Tristán de Luna y Arellano, this new expedition failed largely because a powerful hurricane sank most of the ships and

killed many of the settlers. Three other efforts to establish a colony in Florida between 1560 and 1563 proved equally unsuccessful, in part because of unremitting Indian hostility. The failure of those expeditions, in turn, led Philip II to stop all efforts to settle Florida. From 1513 to 1562, therefore, the Indians of La Florida had successfully resisted a series of well-organized, large-scale efforts by Europes most powerful state to subjugate them.


Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976);

Ian K. Steele, Warpaths: Invasion of North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

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The Western Invasion: Early Spanish Expeditions to North America, 1513–1562

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