Famous Figures in Florida’s Spanish History



Ca. 1500-1539

Originally a black native of Azamor, Morocco, Estevanico endured a transformation when his cultural and social status changed drastically. After his baptism, he was given the Christianized name of Estevanico, for St. Stephen, and then the former Arab was sold into slavery and shipped to Spain.

Capt. Andres Dorantes purchased Estevanico in Seville. Unlike chattel slavery in the Americas, Estevanico was more like a personal assistant, and he often interacted socially with his master. Dorantes elected to join the Conquistador Panfilo de Narváez's final exploration of Florida, and on June 17, 1527, when the adventurers left Sanlucar de Barrameda, Spain, for North America, Estevanico was on board as well. The crew survived hurricanes in the Caribbean and attacks from the natives in western Florida. After months of confusion and physical hardships, Narváez's company finally surrendered the idea of finding wealth and opted to return to the safety of the seas, setting sail for Panuco, Mexico (present-day Tampico).

In 1528, only Estevanico, his owner, and two other survivors of Narváez's final expedition, Cabeza de Vaca and Alfonso Castillo, washed ashore in the eastern part of modern-day Texas. From 1528 to 1534, the castaways survived on a diet of fish, lizards, roots and nuts, and when fortunate, larger mammals like deer.

Although they were sometimes assisted by native tribes, they more commonly suffered intimidation and attack by these peoples. Eventually, the Mariame tribe enslaved them -- a status that only Estevanico had previously known. With a combination of western medicine and indigenous cures, the group soon became known as healers to the Mexican tribes. Defined by his racial identity, Estevanico clearly stood apart from the rest of his group, and often spoke for them when encountering new tribes and kingdoms; however, this new role of diplomat eventually led to his demise. After the refugees escaped from the Mariames, Dorantes retired from the life of an adventurer, but he did not allow his servant the same luxury. Spanish Viceroy (Governor) Antonio de Mendoza purchased Estevanico from Dorantes, and for the third time, he was a captive.

Mendoza viewed his new slave as a valuable asset for future ventures in northern Mexico and sent him on Fray Marcos de Niza's expedition in March of 1539. Despite this arrangement, Estevanico managed to preserve some of his autonomy by defying his new overseer and courageously pushing further ahead of Niza's search party.

Originally separating on Easter Sunday, the slave reported back to Niza of his findings and whereabouts. Despite numerous peaceful encounters with local tribes en route to Tenochtitlan, Estevanico's luck changed when he reached Cibola. After repeated attempts, Estevanico was not only denied access to the pueblo city, but eventually was executed. It is unclear if his death resulted from his own impudence or the villagers' fear, but certainly, the people of Cibola did not want to quarter foreigners, specifically westerners.

Francisco Menendez

Ca. 1700-1765

Born free in Africa, Francisco Menendez endured the Middle Passage to North America after being enslaved by the British. In 1724, he and at least 10 other runaways avoided British patrols in the Carolinas and Georgia and safely reached Florida with the assistance of the Yamassee tribe.

Although on Nov. 7, 1693, King Charles II of Spain had labeled Spanish colonies as a sanctuary for runaway slaves, many colonial Spanish elites did not share the crown's sentiment, and five years later, Gov. Antonio de Benavides sold Menendez to a Spanish colonist. On Oct. 29, 1733, Charles II reissued his proclamation, but this time appeased the colonists by requiring that all slaves serve a term of four years in the Spanish military to earn their emancipation.

Taking advantage of this opportunity, Menendez formally petitioned the new governor of Florida, Manuel de Montiano, who granted his freedom on March 15, 1738, under the condition that Menendez be stationed at Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose ("Fort Mose") in northeast Florida. Fort Mose's stone walls not only protected nearby St. Augustine, but also provided a settlement for recently freed slaves and their families. Governor Montiano allowed Menendez to oversee the inhabitants and day-to-day activities of Fort Mose, which played an important role in the colony's economy and defense.

The runaways and freed slaves living there not only performed military duty, they also possessed valuable skills and vocational knowledge that served the economic interests of the more affluent Spanish colonists. Menendez and the other black residents of Fort Mose were not merely tools of the Spanish, however. They actively participated in the colony's affairs and gladly defended the Spanish borderlands, a task that offered them the opportunity to take revenge on their former British masters. These newly appointed freedmen promised to be "most cruel" to the enemies of Spain and vowed to fight until they spilled their last drop of blood.

Violent episodes occurred when British troops attempted to reclaim slaves by force. In the May 1740, Menendez and his soldiers briefly lost Fort Mose after Georgia's governor, James Oglethorpe, ordered an invasion. By June, however, "Captain" Menendez once again commanded the fort. This battle became synonymous with both the valiant nature of the black militia and tales of atrocities and mutilations that the freedmen unleashed on Oglethorpe's men.

Other encounters with the British include accounts of Menendez's subjects scoffing and ridiculing white men who came to reclaim their slave property. In one account, Capt. Caleb Davis left in shame after his former slaves mocked him and forced him to retreat from their new home empty-handed.

Francisco Menendez's life transcended the stereotypical role of a black man in the North American colonies. He managed not only to endure the horrors of slavery, but also to bring the battle back to the British while personifying the racial pride that slavery attempted to erase.

Hernando de Soto

Ca. 1500-1542

In November 1536, Hernando de Soto, a seasoned conquistador who had taken part in expeditions in Central and South America, was awarded a contract by the Spanish king to colonize La Florida, the land northeast of Mexico. He sailed from Spain in April 1538 bound for Cuba, where he planned to organize the expedition.

Nearly a year later, de Soto and his fleet of nine ships left Cuba for Bahía Honda (Tampa Bay). On board were 725 people, including two women, craftsmen, servants, friars, cavalry, and infantry. The ships also carried 220 horses, war dogs, pigs, food, and an array of weapons and tools. On May 25, 1539, the ships anchored near the mouth of Tampa Bay. The Spaniards went ashore and set up camp in the Indian village of Uzita. Scout parties were sent out to reconnoiter the region, traveling as far as an Indian town in the vicinity of western Orange County.

In mid-July, de Soto and an army of 500 accompanied by hundreds of Indians forced to serve as bearers headed north, intending to reach the territory of the Ocale Indians, where the expedition hoped to spend the winter. The rest of the expedition remained in camp. Following Indian trails that roughly parallel highway U.S. 41, de Soto reached the Inverness area and turned northeast across the Cove of the Withlacoochee wetlands, arriving at Ocale. The town turned out to be poorly provisioned. To secure food an armed party was sent east to the Acuera Indians in eastern Marion County. De Soto and just over 100 men then marched on north through Marion and Alachua counties, leaving the rest of the expedition at Ocale.

After five days of traveling past villages of the Potano Indians, de Soto and his men found themselves in the town of Aguacaleyquen in southern Columbia County. Alarmed by the numbers of Indians, de Soto took the daughter of the town's chief hostage and send horsemen to Ocale to tell the people there to come north to reinforce him. Reunited, the expedition continued north to near Lake City before turning west, marching through the territory of various Northern Utina Indian groups and reaching the Aucilla River, the eastern boundary of the Apalachee Indians. Impressed by the agricultural bounty of the Apalachee, de Soto and his army moved on to the town of Anhaica (the de Soto Site in Tallahassee) and set up their winter camp. It was early October.

Calvary were sent to Tampa Bay carrying orders for the rest of the expedition to come to Anhaica. Some of the people traveled overland, tracing de Soto's earlier route. Others, along with supplies, were loaded aboard ships that sailed to the coast south of Anhaica, where passengers and cargo were off-loaded and taken to Anhaica. In the early spring of 1540, de Soto's army broke camp and headed northeasterly into Georgia. Three years later, after trekking through much of what would become the southeastern U.S., the defeated expedition would reach Mexico, having failed to establish a single settlement.

Hernando de Soto never left the Southeast. He died of fever in 1542 in present-day Arkansas and was buried in the Mississippi River to conceal his death from the natives. With a grant from the Florida Department of Transportation, the De Soto National Memorial, in partnership with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Division of Recreation and Parks, the Office of Greenways and Trails, and the National Park Service Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Office plans to revise the existing Hernando de Soto Trail in Florida based on current research. The new trail and trail markers should be completed by the end of 2011, along with a new website and brochure. More on the new trail sites is found at http://www.nps.gov/deso/historyculture/places.htm.


Juan Poncé de León

Ca. 1460-1521

On Easter Sunday, March 27, 1513, a small fleet of three Spanish ships first sighted land off the Atlantic coast of the peninsula they would name Florida, in honor of the feast day (Pasqua Florida) on which it was discovered. In command of the expedition was Juan Ponce de León, veteran of the second expedition of Christopher Columbus, recently-deposed governor of San Juan del Puerto Rico, and holder of a royal contract issued the previous year to grant him the right to settle and govern the fabled island of Bimini, and any nearby lands he might discover.

Ponce's fleet of three ships had sailed from Puerto Rico just over three weeks earlier, passing northwest through the Bahamas on their way to the as-yet unexplored territory to the west. Though surprised by the unexpected land mass of the North American continent, over the course of the next two and a half months following first landfall, Ponce's fleet scoured the entire southern coast of Florida, rounding the Florida Keys and reaching the west coast in Calusa Indian territory before returning to Puerto Rico via Cuba.

In addition to making several landfalls during which the Spanish skirmished with the native inhabitants of this new land, Ponce is also credited with discovering the currents of the Gulf Stream, which would ultimately shape Spanish maritime fortunes through the Florida Straits for centuries to come. In the aftermath of his accidental discovery of the "Island" of Florida, Ponce quickly moved to consolidate and reinforce his claim to the new land, obtaining the title of Adelantado of both Florida and Bimini, and a revised contract with the Spanish crown, in the fall of 1514.

At the same time, however, the new Adelantado of Florida was also named captain of an armada commissioned to search out and destroy the Carib Indians in the lower Caribbean, a task which ultimately occupied the next six years, delaying his return to Florida. During this period, however, other Spaniards began to encroach on Ponce's newly-discovered territories. Exploratory slaving expeditions to the mainland were increasingly common during these years, including at least two that apparently reached the northern coast of what would become greater Spanish Florida by 1516.

At least two formal complaints against such activities were lodged by Juan Ponce de León by 1517, including a lawsuit against Diego Velazquez, lieutenant governor of Cuba, who was accused of having brought back 300 Indian slaves from the islands of Bimini and Florida, at that time under Ponce's jurisdiction. It was only in February of 1521 that Juan Ponce de León finally launched his second expedition to Florida, this time with two ships and colonists planning to settle along the coast as originally instructed. Still not entirely sure that Florida was a separate land mass from Cuba (despite Alonso de Pineda's 1519 circumnavigation of the Gulf of Mexico), Ponce de León led his ships back to the site of earlier skirmishes along the southwest Florida coast.

While primary accounts of this expedition are unavailable, secondary sources agree that the nearby Indians once again attacked the Spanish not long after their arrival, wounding Ponce himself and forcing a retreat to the nearby Spanish town of Havana, where the expedition's leader soon perished from his wound.

His remains were later transferred to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where they lie today.


Panfilo de Narváez

Ca. 1478-1528

Panfilo de Narváez's infamy as a conquistador began, in part, with the assistance of the Spanish aristocrat and Cuban official Diego Velazquez. Hailing from the same region of Spain, the two relied on each other to grow rich from their adventures in the Caribbean. Narváez's military cunning and physical stature complemented the official's political and social connections. Together, they managed to quickly exploit and conquer Cuba's native population, and by 1515, the island was theirs.

In 1520, after a failed economic partnership between Velazquez and Hernan Cortes, the aristocrat called on his enforcer, Narváez, to arrest Cortes. This would become a very costly mission for Narváez, who lost three years of his life as Cortes' prisoner, as well as one eye. The Spanish crown rewarded his sacrifice by granting Narváez the right to explore the southeastern Spanish borderlands, specifically Florida. This final, and ultimately fatal, expedition began on June 17, 1527, when he left Sanlucar de Barrameda, Spain, for North America. After arriving at the island of Santo Domingo (present-day Haiti), more than 100 of his men abandoned his company in favor of the promising lifestyle and benefits of the Caribbean island.

This was a great blow to the conquistador's pride, as earlier successes usually required Narváez to turn away volunteers. In addition, he had recently lost more than 60 of his best men to a deadly Caribbean hurricane. After Narváez secured supplies in Xagua (present-day Cienfeugos), he traveled toward Havana only to succumb to terrible storms and high winds that blew his vessel into the Gulf of Mexico and the western coast of Florida.

Despite this misfortune, Narváez and his men believed that providence had finally arrived, for the indigenous people spoke proudly of the riches of nearby Apalachee. For over half a year, the company confused geographical locations, remained constantly lost, and endured wounds from native arrows before finally arriving at modern day Apalachee Bay. Opting to return to the safety of the seas, Narváez's company set sail for Panuco, Mexico (present-day Tampico) on crudely constructed rafts. Narváez decided to separate his flotilla and let each individual raft's crew dictate its own fate. Additionally, he believed that it would be safer and more efficient to travel across the Gulf rather than negotiate the treacherous Florida coast line. This would prove to be a fateful choice, as his personal craft was swept out to sea and his body never recovered.

The few men who did survive this failed expedition and make it to Mexico – Cabeza de Vaca, Andres Dornate, Alfonso Castillo, and the slave Estevanico – later chronicled the conquistador's final days. Their histories also tell the story of their own perils and hardships, which had only just begun. Additionally, Juan Ortíz, left stranded by Narváez on the west coast of Florida near Tampa, was eventually rescued by Hernando de Soto. Ortíz helped de Soto communicate with the native population and provided chronicles of Florida's native populations and the de Soto expedition.


Pedro Menendez de Aviles


Born in 1519 in the Asturias region of Spain, Pedro Menendez soon distinguished himself as a sea captain and privateer of the greatest skill. In 1561 he was entrusted by King Philip II to deliver the treasure fleet safely from Mexico and was rewarded by an appointment as adelantado of Florida. By this government-licensed and personally-funded arrangement, Menendez contracted to explore and establish settlements in the new land, with promise of great profits.

Florida was becoming increasingly important for protecting the annual flotas carrying treasure along her Atlantic coast. When word reached the king in 1565 that French Protestants had established a threatening colony, Fort Caroline, at the mouth of the St. Johns River, and that 2,000 French reinforcements would soon sail, the purpose of the Menendez expedition changed dramatically. Menendez was efficient in his destruction of the struggling French outpost and his execution of its Huguenot soldiers, as much on religious as political grounds.

His original charge, to explore and settle, was taken up with equal diligence, first at St. Augustine, then to the Keys and southwest Gulf Coast where he met the powerful chief Carlos, establishing an uneasy alliance cemented by marriage to Carlos' sister. He was able to rescue Hernando D’Escalante Fontaneda and other shipwreck survivors who had been held captive among the Calusa for as long as 20 years.

Menendez returned along the Atlantic coast of the peninsula, stopping in St. Augustine to find the garrison near rebellion. Reinforcements from Havana allowed Menendez to sail northward to Parris Island (South Carolina), where he established another settlement, Santa Elena. By 1567, when he left Florida, Pedro Menendez de Aviles had done more to settle thousands of miles of Florida frontier than a half dozen prior expeditions over half a century. However, growing a colony is as difficult as establishing one, and Spain would struggle to maintain its Florida enterprise long after Menendez's death in 1574.


Tristan de Luna y Arellano


In mid-August 1559, a Spanish fleet sailed into modern Pensacola Bay, carrying 1,500 colonists destined for an ambitious new colonial effort. Leading the expedition was Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano, Spanish-born veteran of the exploration and early settlement of New Spain, whose fame and fortune rested on the outcome of this most recent Spanish attempt to settle Florida. Just five weeks later, on the night of Sept. 19, 1559, a violent hurricane descended on the fleet, devastating seven of the remaining 10 Spanish sailing vessels anchored there, and ultimately dooming the expedition to failure.

Luna’s colonial venture had been a carefully planned expedition, substantially financed by the Spanish crown, organized in New Spain (present-day Mexico), and intended to become the first successful Spanish colony in what is now the present-day Southeastern United States. It would have been a launching point for overland expeditions to the Atlantic coast of modern-day South Carolina, and would have established a firm foothold for Spain in North America.

When the colonial fleet sailed from Veracruz on June 11, 1559, the 500 soldiers and 1,000 civilian colonists were supplied not just with the equipment, supplies and armament they would need to establish a new settlement on Pensacola Bay, but also with more than a year’s worth of food packed into the many large merchant vessels that formed part of the fleet. During the course of the storm, most of the largest ships broke loose from their anchors and floated free, ultimately grounding or sinking with considerable loss of life. The contents of the vessels, many of which shattered and broke apart, were inundated and scattered in the storm waters. After the storm, only three ships remained afloat.

Though Luna’s colonists scavenged whatever they could from the remnants of the fleet, the damage was done; the food stores were ruined, the survivors were stranded, and the Luna expedition was instantly transformed from a bold colonial venture into a rescue operation. Over the course of the next months, all subsequent ship traffic between Veracruz and Pensacola focused on sending food and other supplies to the hapless colonists. The members of the expedition ultimately became so hungry that they moved inland to the nearest large Indian town along the Alabama River, and were ultimately forced to send a detachment of soldiers hundreds of miles upriver to the edge of the Appalachian summit in northwest Georgia, trading whatever they owned in exchange for corn and other food supplies. When the remnants of the expedition were finally withdrawn in 1561, Luna’s colony joined the ranks of all previous failures by Spanish adventurers in the Southeastern United States.

Despite formal petitions to the Spanish crown, Tristán de Luna never recovered financially from the expedition’s failure, and was unable even to pay for his own burial expenses when he died in Mexico City in 1573. Over the course of the next decades and centuries, the wrecks of Luna’s seven ships dissolved quietly into the sand and mud of Pensacola Bay, hidden from the modern world until the 1992 and 2006 discoveries of two of the vessels, which together represent Florida’s earliest known wrecks.


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