The Spanish Presence in Northwest Florida--1513 to 1705

Recorded explorations of the Gulf coast began in 1513 with the arrival of Juan Ponce de León in Florida. The governor of Puerto Rico, De León arrived on Florida's Atlantic coast at Mosquito Inlet on April 2, 1513 in search of slaves and gold. The Spanish explorer and slaver subsequently sailed south around the tip of Florida, perhaps to Charlotte Harbor, mapping portions of the southern Gulf coast (Milanich, 1996).

Other Spanish explorers and slavers followed Juan Ponce de León to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of La Florida. In 1519, as Ferdinand Magellan was beginning a voyage that circumvented the globe (1519-1522) and Hernán Cortés his conquest of the Aztecs (1519-1521), Alonso Alvárez de Pineda sailed the northern Gulf coast in a futile search for an all water route to the Pacific. However, Pineda's voyage did demonstrate that Florida was a peninsula (Weddle, 1985).

Juan Ponce de León initiated yet another decade of recorded European contact with Florida's Gulf coast when he returned in 1521 to establish a colony. Fatally wounded in a skirmish with Calusa Indians, he returned to Cuba where he died of his wounds. Following Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón's failed Atlantic colony (1526), Pánfilo de Narváez, accompanied by Álvaro Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, arrived on the Gulf coast (1528) near Tampa Bay. After trekking to the "land of the Apalachee," near modern-day Tallahassee, and finding no gold there, the Narváez expedition moved down to the coast, built rafts and drifted in a westerly direction. Subsequently a storm separated Narvaéz and his men, and thus began the famous eight-year odyssey of Alvaro Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and three others, including the Black slave, Estebanico (Howard, 1997).

By the time Cabeza de Vaca and his cohorts arrived in Mexico in 1536, much had changed in the Western world. The Church of England, under Henry VIII (1509-1547), had severed ties with the Roman Catholic Church (1534) and the Frenchman Jacques Cartier had begun his explorations of eastern Canada (1534-1542). Thus, the seeds of future threats to Spanish claims on the northern Gulf coast were planted.

As Jacques Cartier attempted to settle the St. Lawrence (1541-1543) and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado explored the American Southwest (1540-1542), Hernando de Soto trekked across the Southeast (1539-1543). Making landfall at Tampa, Hernando de Soto spent his first winter in Apalachee near modern-day Tallahassee. He sent one of his lieutenants, Francisco Maldonado, to reconnoiter the Gulf coast to the west of Apalachee. Maldonado settled on Pensacola Bay, or "Ochuse," as a rendezvous and re-supply point for the expedition. Soto's lieutenant visited Pensacola Bay between 1540 and 1543 but found no traces of the Spanish conquistador. Before Soto died in 1542, he wandered far from the northern Gulf coast, to what is today Arkansas, within a few hundred miles of the Coronado expedition camped in present-day Kansas (Clayton, et al., 1993).

In the 1550s, interest in the northern Gulf coast revived with the publication of Hernando de Soto's adventures in the Southeast and a new initiative to establish a string of missions along the coast to administer Native Americans in the region and to provide shelter to the occasional shipwreck survivor. In 1558, the year that Elizabeth I (1558-1603) ascended to the English throne, Guido de Lavazares explored the northern Gulf coast. En route to Choctawhatchee Bay from Veracruz, Lavazares inspected Mobile Bay, which he labeled "Bahía Filipina" and recommended it for settlement. Later that same year, Juan de Rentería and Gonzalo Gayón inspected Lavazares' Bahía Filipina but preferred another bay they called "Polonza" (presumably Pensacola Bay). Less than a year later, Tristán de Luna arrived to settle Pensacola Bay, which he knew as "Ochuse" (Weddle, 1985:258-259).

Tristán de Luna's 1559 voyage represented the culmination of early Spanish explorations of the northern Gulf coast. Setting out from Veracruz with 1,500 persons (500 soldiers, 900 civilians, 100 "Aztec warriors" and six Dominican priests), the expedition arrived at Mobile in August but quickly moved on to Pensacola, which Luna named "Santa María Filipina" after the Virgin Mary and Spanish King Philip II (1556-1598). A September hurricane pounded the fledgling settlement, destroying supplies and wrecking Luna's fleet. For more than a year after the September 1559 hurricane, Luna's Santa María Filipina settlement languished. The Spanish Crown ordered Luna to relocate the settlement to Santa Elena on the Atlantic coast, but the troubled and mentally fatigued colonizer could not rally his men to attempt another settlement. With Luna's authority undermined, the Viceroy of New Spain, Luis de Velasco (the elder) (1550-1564), sent out a replacement, Angel de Villafañe, in January 1561. Finding little worth salvaging at Pensacola, Villafañe left a detachment of about 50 men and sailed for Santa Elena via Havana. Encountering a violent storm, Villafañe abandoned his effort to plant a colony at Santa Elena. Within a decade, the Spanish followed up on the idea of an Atlantic settlement with the founding of St. Augustine (1565) (Priestley, 1936).

By the time the northern Gulf coast was finally settled in the seventeenth century, much had changed in the Americas. The English, French and Dutch set their sights on the Atlantic coasts of North America, culminating in the founding of Jamestown (1607), Quebec (1608), Massachusetts (1620) and New York (1624). In the Southwest, Juan de Oñate explored and settled New Mexico (1598), and a successor, Pedro de Peralta, founded Santa Fe (1610), the second permanent Spanish settlement in the present-day United States. A year before Maryland was founded (1634), the Spanish established the first missions in Apalachee Province (1633).

The Franciscan friars who arrived in Apalachee in 1633 did so with some reluctance and, thereafter, made slow but steady progress. Initially, they complained about a lack of manpower, the remoteness of the area and the unruliness of the Indians. In time, however, they carved out a mission province that remained the westernmost outpost of Spanish Florida to the end of the seventeenth century. By 1683, the friars counted 18 mission villages founded among the natives of the province (there were more than 40 other settlements in the province). The population of the province was around 8,000. San Luis, the capital of the province, was the largest of the mission villages, with about 1,400 residents, which included a number of Spaniards (Hann, 1988:2).

The Pensacola region was void of Spaniards for more than a half century after Apalachee was settled. The Spanish "jewel," Pensacola Bay, had largely escaped the attention of the Spanish down to 1685, when René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle attempted to plant a French colony on modern-day Texas coast. By that date, the English had captured Jamaica (1655) and the French had gained a foothold on the north coast of Hispañiola (beginning circa 1659). The French explorer and would-be colonizer, La Salle, descended the Mississippi River from Canada to its mouth in 1682. Departing for France in 1683 to promote the idea of settling the mouth of the Mississippi, from which he believed Frenchman could corner the fur trade in the region and launch an invasion of silver-rich northern New Spain; he returned in 1684. In possession of a license from Louis XIV (1638-1715) to establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi, La Salle overshot his destination, traveling far to the west of the river's mouth. La Salle and 280 settlers established a settlement in February 1685 near present-day Matagorda Bay, Texas. By the late summer of that year, Spanish officials became aware of the French intruders. For a time, however, the French explorer and his colony were "lost" to the Spanish (Weddle, 1991).

At the time of La Salle's settlement attempt, the Spanish had little first-hand knowledge of the geography of the northern Gulf coast west of the Apalachicola River (Hann, 1988 44-45). However, the Spanish search for La Salle's "lost colony" greatly expanded that knowledge. By the time the Spanish explorer Alonso de León stumbled upon the remnants of the La Salle colony in 1689, the Spanish had sent out 11 terrestrial and maritime expeditions in search of it. One of these, a maritime expedition headed by Juan Enríquez Barroto and Antonio Romero, visited Pensacola Bay in 1686. With orders to survey virtually the entire northern Gulf coast from San Marcos de Apalachee westward, Barroto and Romero reached Apalachee in mid-January and Pensacola in early February. Much of what is known about the Barroto-Romero expedition comes from the diary of an ensign, Juan Jordán de Reina. Jordán de Reina recorded in his diary that Native Americans in the region around Pensacola Bay called the area "Panzacola," after the Panzacola Indians of the area and judged the bay "the best that I have ever seen in my life" (Leonard, 1936:553). From Pensacola, the expedition moved on to Mobile Bay and to the mouth of the Mississippi River, which Jordán named the "Río de la Palizada" (the palisaded or fenced river), choked as it was by dead trees (Leonard, 1939:16).

Seven years later, in 1693, Mexican Viceroy Gaspar de Sandoval Silva y Mendoza, the Conde de Galve (1688-1696) sent General Andrés de Pez to explore the northern Gulf coast from Pensacola Bay to the mouth of the Mississippi River. The famous Mexican scientist, mathematician and historian, Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, accompanied Pez. The Pez-Sigüenza expedition consisted of two ships, which left Veracruz in late March 1693 and reached Pensacola in early April. The Spanish re-christened the bay "Bahía Santa María de Galve," after the Virgin Mary and the Conde de Galve, Viceroy of Mexico at the time. Arriving back in Mexico, Sigüenza penned a glowing report and enthusiastically endorsed the idea of a settlement on the bay in a letter to the viceroy. One of the expedition's goals was to determine how the flora and fauna of the Pensacola region could benefit the Spanish. Charged with such a task, Siguenza, who was prone to exaggeration, described a virtual paradise, teeming with food resources and abundant in economic opportunity. The Mexican savant also wrote detailed descriptions of the waterways in the area and described the abundant trees on Blackwater and East Rivers as "lofty and stout, suitable for building ships of any draft" (Leonard, 1939:164-169). Overlooking any drawbacks that Sigüenza glossed over in his report (and there were many), the Crown endorsed the settlement of Pensacola Bay on June 13, 1694. A year later, in 1695, Andrés de Arriola inspected both the mouth of the Mississippi River and Pensacola Bay and did not find the latter to be the paradise Sigüenza described (Leonard, 1939:43-66). Preoccupied with King William's War (1689-1697), however, the Spanish did not attempt to settle Pensacola until 1698.

By the time the Spanish finally settled Pensacola Bay in November 1698, the balance of power in the Americas had shifted in favor of the English. With the founding of Charleston in 1670 the English were at the doorstep of the mission provinces of La Florida. The English had carved out an American empire that stretched from New England, through the Greater Antilles to the Lesser Antilles, and in 1696, Daniel Coxe, a physician to the English royal family, acquired a huge land grant in modern Georgia (Coker, et al., 1991:36). The French, rather than the Spanish, however, were the first to react to the threat posed by Coxe.

In 1698, the French Minister of Marine, Louis Phélypaux Pontchartrain, instructed Pierre LeMoyne, Sieur d'Iberville to settle the mouth of the Mississippi River, as La Salle had attempted to do in 1685. When word of Iberville's plans reached Spain that year, officials ordered the immediate settlement of Pensacola Bay, thinking it to be Iberville's destination. Andrés de Arriola, who had visited both Pensacola Bay and the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1695, advised royal officials that French designs most likely centered on the latter (Coker, et al., 1991:36-37). However skeptical Andrés de Arriola was of planting a Spanish settlement on Pensacola Bay, he would become its first governor and its most influential voice for a decade thereafter.