Early Spanish explorers kept returning to La Florida
Next year will mark the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de León's voyage to Florida. While there is some question about whether or not he and his crew were the first Europeans to land in Florida, he is credited with naming the peninsula. The name La Florida once covered the entire North American continent, but over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries it was narrowed down and eventually applied to what we now know as Florida. Some historians believe that Ponce de León first landed as far north as St. Augustine. He then sailed around the peninsula and northward as far as Charlotte Harbor, or possibly Tampa Bay. While repairing ships and laying in supplies, his party was attacked by Calusa Indians and forced to return to Puerto Rico. These native people may well have remembered or perhaps had been told of Spanish slavers who reached the west coast of Florida long before Ponce de León and abducted Indians into slavery. In 1521, Ponce de León returned to Florida with a charter from the Spanish king to establish a colony. Historians estimate he landed near Sanibel Island in Charlotte Harbor, but was again driven off by the Calusa. In the battle, he received a leg wound that became infected, leading to his death in Havana in July 1521.Following closely on the heels of Ponce de León came the red-bearded, one-eyed fleet commander Pánfilo de Narváez. Narváez led the first known exploration of Tampa Bay. In 1527, he received permission from Emperor Charles V to conquer and colonize the lands between the Cape of Florida and the Río de Las Palmas in Mexico. Launching his expedition from Cuba in 1528, he landed on the Pinellas peninsula, marched overland to Old Tampa Bay and gave it the name Bahía de la Cruz (Bay of the Cross, later changed to Bahía de Espíritu Santo or Bay of the Holy Spirit.) The meeting between Narváez and the local Tocobaga was unpleasant to say the least. To rid themselves of the Spanish, the Tocobaga told Narváez that gold could be found to the north, in the land of Apalachee. Narváez started overland with 400 Spaniards and ordered his ships north in search of a good harbor. The ships did not find a harbor north of Tampa Bay and returned to Cuba. The marchers were not so fortunate. Only four survivors reached Mexico after an eight-year ordeal. One of the survivors, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, wrote an account of the expedition. Another survivor, Morocco-born Estéban or Estevanico, was probably the first person of African decent to travel across North America. Eleven years after the ill-fated Narváez expedition landed in the Tampa Bay area, Hernando de Soto embarked on his own journey through Florida and the southeastern United States. He was inspired by the writings of Cabeza de Vaca and obtained a royal patent to explore Florida. In April 1538, the armada set sail from Spain to the New World. After a stay in Cuba, de Soto set sail for Florida on May 18, 1539. Historians disagree about where de Soto first landed. In 1939, a congressional committee chose Shaw's Point in Bradenton; others now favor the area between the Manatee and Little Manatee River, or further south in the area around Charlotte Harbor. The Uzita chief refused to meet with the conquistadors, saying he would rather receive their severed heads. Captured Indians, when asked where gold could be found, continually directed the Spanish explorers north, toward a land where the shine of gold was said to rival the sun's glow. De Soto and his men found more than just unhappy American Indians when they arrived on the shore just south of Tampa Bay. The also encountered Juan Ortiz, a crew member on one of Narváez's ships that went back to Cuba, he had returned to Tampa Bay in 1529 looking for any trace of the lost expedition. Captured almost immediately, he lived as a captive among Florida's native people for 11 years. Freed upon de Soto's arrival in 1539, Ortiz served as translator for the expedition. Don Pedro Menendez de Avils, who drove the French settlers from Florida and settled the first Spanish colonists at St. Augustine, sailed to the west coast of Florida in February 1566. His goal was to discover an inland water passage connecting the bays of Espíritu Santo (Tampa Bay) or San Antonio (Charlotte Harbor) with the east coast of Florida. Carlos, chief of the Calusa, greeted the Spaniards with respect and friendship. He asked that Menendez ally himself with the Calusa and destroy the Tocobaga on Tampa Bay. Menendez refused, but he did agree to arrange a meeting between the rival tribes. Fifteen hundred natives assembled for one of their last great conferences. On March 7, 1567, Menendez's ships sailed into Old Tampa Bay and landed near today's Safety Harbor. To promote Christianity and to defend the territorial integrity of the tribes, Menendez left behind a contingent of troops under the command of Captain García Martínez de Cos. The garrison met a tragic end after political instability and European diseases tore apart the Tocobaga Indian culture. The Indians refused to supply the garrison with food, and missionary Juan Rogel was forced to sail to Havana in December 1567 to secure provisions. One month later, he returned to a grisly discovery. Captain Martínez and his men had been killed by the Tocobaga. Three prisoners had been kept alive in anticipation of Rogel's return. The Indians tortured and killed them on the beach while their would-be rescuers looked on helplessly from their ships.
Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your comments and questions and can be reached by phone, (813) 228-0097 or email, [email protected]